Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Scott Burdick Beauty Lecture & text

I am posting Scott Burdick's web page on Beauty which is incredibly important for all of us to read & understand. I have also included the You Tube link so you can play the 4 part video. Enjoy:

Here's some more links to videos on this subject.
"Why Beauty Matters" by Roger Scruton (1 of 6) BBC

Creature Comforts ART 1 - hilarious video where animals discuss what art is.

Here's a "profound description" generator from artist John Kilroy, for those of you who'd like to join the ever-growing BSism art movement.

The Art Renewal Center - an awesome website with tons of realist masters and articles.

Here's a link to an article on the Orange County Museum of Art's disgraceful selling 18 of its 20 historic California Impressionist paintings, many of which had been originally donated by the artists or their families nearly a hundred years ago. Here's the reason the Museum director gave for selling these masterpieces to a private collector. quote - "With the $963,000, he said, OCMA can acquire modern and contemporary pieces..." This is not an isolated case.

Here's a few interesting discussions on the video where you can post comments and read the thoughts of both sides of this argument.

Here's the full text of the lecture.

The Banishment of Beauty

by Scott Burdick

We’ve all heard of the great clash between abstract and representational art. How museums have become bastions of the abstract and realism has fallen out of favor. Here we have several paintings hanging right next to each other at the North Carolina Museum of Art that seem to illustrate this monumental conflict perfectly. On the left are three works from 19th Century artists, Robert Blum, Henry Mowbray, and Thomas Dewing, contrasted with four abstract paintings by Joseph Albers from the middle of the twentieth century.

Dewing’s paintings especially are full of emotion, exquisite craftsmanship, and firmly tethered to the aesthetic tradition of realism going back in time to the beginning of art itself. Dewing epitomized the height of what realism had attained in the 19th century art world, along with artists such as Sargent, Zorn, Sorrolla, Thayer, Gerome, and the long list of greats we are all familiar with.

Joseph Albers, on the other hand, is the epitome of the “modern,” twentieth-century artist’s rejection of the representational form and all that can be called traditional in art. He famously said, “Abstraction is real, probably more real than nature.” A student, then teacher, at Germany ’s Bauhaus School, he was one of the leaders in the abstract revolution that was to transform the modern art world.

Albers’ work can be summed up with one word, Squares. I don’t know if any of you have seen the John Malcovich film, “Art School Confidential,” but Joseph Albers reminds me a lot of the artist/teacher Malcovich played, except all his paintings were triangles, instead of squares – you can see one of his works in the background. One of my favorite lines in the film was when John Malcovich brags to a student that he was, quote, “one of the first to paint triangles, you know.”

So there you have it. Out-of-date realism, versus cutting-edge abstraction. One half-expects the paintings to jump off the walls and start fighting right there in the museum. Squares versus Angels! Certainly to judge by the vitriol on both sides of this artistic divide, one would expect no less.

Continuing on through the Museum, this all-out battle seems confirmed by one abstract work after another in the 20th Century section of the museum. Most include pretentious and, to my mind at least, ridiculous explanations to go with them. Here’s one example among many.

Titled “Blue Panel” painted in 1980. Quote, “Ellsworth Kelly reduces art to an essential geometric form to create an object that queries the definition of art and art making. His panel paintings are never just simple forms – the geometry is always skewed or irregular – and the shapes are inspired by chance encounters with the everyday world: an open door or window, a shadow cast by a tree, the spaces between things. In Kelly’s hands a painting becomes a sculptural form with volume and substance, and the architectural space around it becomes part of the work. As he explains, “By removing the content from my work, I shifted the visual reality to include the space around it.” His shaped, monochromatic canvases distill painting to pure abstraction, immersing the viewer in a visceral and voluptuous field of color.”

Wow….! Well, I don’t buy it, but one has to admit that he put a lot more effort into crafting the explanation of the painting, than in creating the painting itself. And the proof of his genius is that he’s hanging in a world-class museum, run by experts with impressive degrees in Art History, Art Theory, and far more qualified than me to say what is a masterpiece worthy of spending public funds to acquire and display.

But if that’s all there is to it – either you are an out-of-date realist who just can’t understand the “shifting of visual reality to include the space beyond the bounds of the canvas”, or a modern abstractionist who has progressed beyond realism in the same way the bronze age supplanted the stone age, then there really isn’t much to talk about. How can one really argue that one is better than the other when they are so completely different? Surely all of it just comes down to a matter of opinion and taste. Some people like angels and some squares, simple as that. Unfortunately this has turned out to be a very short slide show. Well, I guess we can all go now…

Except that…. As I continue on through the North Carolina Museum of Art’s modern wing, I must point out a few problems with this oft-repeated truism of abstract versus realism.

What about this painting on the right, by Susan Rothenberg, for example? Surely those are arms and hands, and maybe even an eye. And what about this painting by David Park? Or this one by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff?

In every major museum’s modern section, one can see numerous examples of paintings that are recognizable as something in the real world and thus, in a strict sense, representational. How can this be? Have we been lied to about the divide between realism and modern abstraction? What is going on here?

In comparing the representational works in the modern section to the realist works in earlier centuries of art history, one is struck by how poorly executed the modern works seem in contrast. The drawing is all off, the technique utterly amateurish, and even the abstract sense of design and color are way below the level of all but the earliest works of the past. The same is true of the sculpture in the museum’s collection. Compare these works by Rodin with the twentieth-century works in the museum’s collection.

Obviously there is a difference, but what? I’m tempted to say that modern work is just not as well executed technically, which is mostly true. Their disregard for the craft of art seems no accident. Let’s revisit the painting, “Orange Outline,” by Franz Klein, for example. Skipping all the syllogistic BS, here’s the description of Klein’s actual working method. Quote, “Klein’s painting gains a gritty honesty by the blatant roughness of its execution and the poverty of materials: cheap, commercial house paint slathered on a flimsy sheet of paperboard.”

So excellence of both materials, as well as training and execution, is dishonest? Maybe this is the essential difference, then. To be a modern masterpiece, either representational or abstract, the work can’t be done too well with high quality materials? Certainly most of the works in the modern section of the country’s major Museums would qualify.

But then I think of the work of Salvadore Dali and others that show a high degree of technical skill, even thought they are certainly in the minority. Take this work by Deborah Sperber at the North Carolina Museum for example. Created in 2005, using a computer program to map out a photo of the Mona Lisa, Sperber then placed 5,184spools of thread in the appropriate gridded positions the computer mapped out to recreate DaVinci’s masterpiece – upside down (I’ve noticed modern artists love things to be upside down – it’s just so “radical!”). While I don’t think this required much creativity, one has to admit that it did necessitate some technical skill, effort, and patience.

But I sense there is a difference on a more fundamental level that all the modern works share in common, be they abstract, representational, poorly or well executed, that distinctly separates them from the work I so admire in the pre-20th century sections of the museum and by many living artists whose works aren’t represented in the modern collections of major museums. It is obvious that works by Sargent, Sorrolla, or Zorn, would never make the cut at modern museums if they were painted now.

But if it’s not because they are representational, then what common element of traditional realist paintings so disqualifies them from inclusion in major art museums, or even the notice of contemporary art critics and media? Some are more muted and refined, some loose and colorful. Landscapes, figures, portraits, animals – some even containing areas that could be considered entirely abstract if reframed. Despite this variety, some quality unifies them for exclusion just as something else unifies the diverse modern works so acclaimed by critics and museums alike.

In his book, “The Painted Word,” Thomas Wolfe pointed out way back in the seventies that, quote, “Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.” Wolf quotes the New York Times art critic, Hilton Kramer when he writes, “…given the nature of our intellectual commerce with works of art, to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial…”

According to the modern art establishment, it’s all about concepts, theories and isms. Fauvism, Futurism, Cubism, Surrealism, Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism, Orphism, Supermatism, Dadaism, Vorticism, and on and on! Never repeat an ism or you are old and outdated.

Maybe that’s what we’re missing, then – a theory and an ism! Well, I was a master at making things up to get through high-school essays and, with a thesaurus; I should be able to come up with lots of obscure and impressively long words to go with one of my paintings. Why not take the Bull by the horns and call my new art movement and theory B.S.ism!

But this explanation still seems incomplete. Even with zero knowledge of the theories behind the modern paintings, it’s obvious that there is something different on a purely visual level from the masterpieces of the past. But if it isn’t realism, craftsmanship, or even theory, then what?

Walking to the 19th century wing of the North Carolina Museum and standing before Beagerau’s masterpiece, the contrast with the works in the Modern wing is stark. What has so changed in the art world that paintings like this are no longer considered great?

As I stood there, a group of teenagers came to a stop in front of the painting and stared at it with awe. “It’s, like, beautiful,” one of them said in a whisper. The others nodded, actually speechless. I found this reaction extraordinary coming from a generation that is so bombarded by far more technologically flashy and risqué displays, that one might expect a nude painting from a hundred years ago to seem dull in comparison. But something had bridged the gap of time, language, and culture to strike a chord in these teens.

“It’s, like, beautiful.” Were there ever more profound words spoken about a work of art? Here is our answer to the one element that separates modern, theory-based art from that of the past. Almost without exception, the one element missing in the modern collections of twentieth and twenty-first century art, be they abstract or representational, is something so universally pervasive in all the rest of the history of art, that its absence is rather astonishing when you step back and finally notice it.

That one element is beauty.

Aesthetically pleasing, uplifting, awe-inspiring, beauty. Those teenagers recognized it in the Beugereau painting in an instant. They didn’t need a masters degree in art history, didn’t need to read the “explanation” of the painting to feel its emotional power. Aesthetic beauty, while rare, is self evident. Throughout history many people have tried, and failed, to define what makes a work of art beautiful, to boil it down to a formula. The philosopher, Spinoza, put it best in 1674 when he said, “Beauty, my dear Sir, is not so much a quality of the object beheld, as an effect in him who beholds it…”

Contrast this to one’s first reactions to Picasso. A brilliant friend of mine who runs a biotech company near me went to a show of Picasso and told me that when he first saw the paintings he thought they were ridiculously amateur looking. He thought any child could do better. He certainly felt no awe or reverence for this universally regarded “master.”

But then he put on the headphones for the one-hour audio tour. “After hearing all the profound issues and meanings behind the paintings,” he told me, “I realized my first impressions had been wrong. I had been only looking at the paintings, which are rather silly, by themselves.” After the one-hour “explanation,” my friend told me he agreed that Picasso must be a genius and the paintings masterpieces.

I’m sorry, but if you don’t feel anything when looking at a painting, it is a failure as a visual work of art, period. No amount of talk or theory will change that, although it certainly does take a kind-of genius to brain-wash people into ignoring the evidence of their own eyes!

Here’s a simple thought-experiment that helps separate truly visual works of great art from the modern nonsense. Imagine walking through a junkyard and finding some work of art without its frame, signature, or any explanation. The average person would instinctively rescue the Michaelangelo, Schmid, Edgar Payne, Lyon , etc., from the scrap-heap. Its innate value would be obvious without anyone to tell them it didn’t belong alongside garbage, while even the trained art critic would have no way of identifying the modern art works from junk. Beauty is rare. It forces us to stop and take notice, to preserve it when stumbled upon.

A teacher at the Art Institute once told me that there was no way to determine if a painting was good or bad without knowing the theory and historical context behind it, but the value of beauty is unmistakable and universal. If you have to be told that a piece of junk is art, it is just a piece of junk.

It is not hard to make something ugly. Transcendent beauty, on the other hand, is a sparse commodity, something that helps make life bearable and spurs us on to heroic efforts to rise above the horrors of life. This is why beauty has been valued for all but the last century of the history of mankind.

Dostoyevsky said that “Beauty will save the world.” While this may, at first, seem an overblown claim, I think it is the most profound truth one can contemplate. The beauty of love, of the sacrifice of a mother for their child, of the natural world and all its wonders of earth, sea, mountains, and wildlife, these are the things that inspire and remind us of what is worth fighting to preserve, be it another culture or our own humanity.

I notice that the leaders of so many environmental efforts come from artists like Clyde Aspevig, Robert Batemen, and countless other aesthetic painters of the natural world whose life is spent documenting the beauty that is so worth preserving. Conveying the inspirational beauty of such things through artwork seems a far more powerful argument than ugly and depressing renditions of polluted streams, smokestacks, and the “statement” paintings one sees in the museums. Beauty is its own argument for preservation, a deep thing that pulls us all toward it, while ugliness, war, violence, pollution, merely pushes away.

The negative psychological effect of the sort of ugliness one encounters in utilitarian housing projects has been well documented by scientists. A world without beauty is one without hope.

By aesthetic beauty, I don’t mean only nudes, though the human form is undoubtedly beautiful; or baby animals, or children, or children holding baby animals; or mountains, pretty girls, flowers, or pretty girls with flowers – if someone would just paint a pretty, nude girl, with a baby animal, laying in a field of flowers with mountains in the background – and then hang it in the Metropolitan Museum’s modern wing, there very possibly might be an explosion on the magnitude of matter and anti-matter colliding.

Though these are certainly beautiful subjects that will instantly disqualify you from major art museums, no matter how carefully crafted a theory you add to it, there is no limit to the subjects and forms of aesthetic beauty. It can be seen in old faces, industry, and the most unexpected subjects imaginable – sometimes it is merely the play of light itself on a simple object. Tragedy, and even death, can be painfully beautiful subjects in the right hands.

There is no doubt that beauty exists even in the purely abstract, though it is m personal opinion that the impact of abstract forms and textures are far more powerful when combined with the emotions present in representational subject, just as the beauty of great poetry is both the pure lyricism in the words, combined with the representational meaning behind them.

Some may argue that my definition of beauty is too limited, that the works in the museum’s modern section are beautiful in their own way, that beauty itself is just an abstract term and is in the “eye of the beholder.” Well, don’t take my word for it, but let’s listen to the descriptions of the artists and curators themselves. Here’s one example from the North Carolina Museum of Georg Baselitz’s painting, “Male Nude,” that is very typical.

Quote, “Baselitz employs a self-consciously “primitive” style of art making. The image seems almost hacked into being: paint is brushed, scratched, scraped, and smeared with the fingers. What results is not a pretty picture but a haunting, even poignant, image of a human being alone and naked—and disoriented—in the late twentieth century.”

Whatever else modern art is, I think we can set aside the argument that it is aiming at aesthetic beauty. Over and over modern artists say their work is, quote, “not meant to be beautiful.” Is there any doubt they have succeeded? To consciously avoid creating something beautiful must, in itself, be an admission that such a thing exists and can be recognized generally. The very pride such artists take in their anti-aesthetics is key to understanding why beauty has been so thoroughly expunged from the major public institutions of art, universities, and art criticism.

One need only read the standard textbook titled the “History of Modern Art” that is used in nearly every university art department across the country to see how successful the anti-aesthetic movement has been. For a book that is 830 pages long, what is most telling is what it doesn’t contain. Once you pass into the twentieth century, one gets the impression from this book that there simply is no aesthetically beautiful art even being created. There are both abstract and representations works, but the title of the book might just as easily be called the “History of Art’s Regression to Ugliness.”

In the very beginning of the book there is a single reproduction of Sargent, Whister, and some of the impressionists, but it is made clear that their work is significant only in the controversial nature of paintings like Madame X and Whistler’s “Nocturne in Black and Gold” and the role they played in laying the groundwork for the much more “advanced” work of the modernists to follow.

Monet and the Impressionists are seen as a first step toward our “modern” art in his rejection of the tightly controlled Salon system, the rigidity of which is true enough, but it must be pointed out that Monet and the other impressionists were not abandoning the pursuit of aesthetic beauty, merely showing us a new, and in many cases, more accurate way of portraying the stunning effects of light and color of the natural world. Yes, their works were called ugly by others in the Salon establishment, but is there any doubt that one of the goals of such works is a portrayal of beauty? The Impressionists were genius’ in showing the world a new form of aesthetic beauty, in both subject matter and technique. But this doesn’t mean that ever work that shocks will someday be called a masterpiece. Unfortunately, the lesson was the rebellion itself and soon the pattern of rejecting the past in ever shocking ways to make headlines would soon become the crucial goal. Eventually all that was left to rebel against was beauty itself, and modern art was truly born.

For the most part, art students aren’t aware that an entire alternate history of art, a sort of Aesthetic Underground, has kept alive the principles of beauty and technical excellence during the past century of artistic madness. For each of the paintings reproduced in this book, one could show a masterpiece done the same year by an artist working under the public radar; selling their work, pursuing the age-old craft of aesthetic excellence, but essentially ignored by the Artistic Establishment, critics, and invisible to the larger society. I’ve had dozens of people with masters degrees from prestigious universities complain that they’d never even heard of artists such as Fechin, Blumenshine, Payne, Dixon, Steinke, or the countess other greats and even living artists of the modern era.

Here’s a quote from this Bible of Modern Art History that defines what is meant by modern art. Quote, “Modern Art (is) understood here to include progressive trends in the visual arts from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present day…”

Notice the word, progressive, meaning to improve, advance, surpass what has come before. According to such books, we have progressed far beyond the idea of aesthetically beautiful art for over a hundred years. Therefore, anyone persisting in such a pursuit is regressive, which certainly disqualifies them from inclusion in the book by definition.

The lonely exception in the 830 page book is two paragraphs on “Traditional Realism,” featuring Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World.” Here is what the author says about such regressive art. Quote, “In the United States, a pragmatic preoccupation with material reality, with the ‘old’ realism, so to speak, had been too deeply ingrained to die out…” One can almost see the expression of disgust on the author’s face at the stubbornness of the American public and such artists to dump their outdated notions of what good art should be. The author goes on to say that this painting is the most popular painting in The Museum of Modern Art in New York . Of course it is! It is the only painting of traditional aesthetic beauty there!

Wyeth is a lonely exception to the rule mainly because his name was already famous due to his father’s fame in that bastion of traditional beauty, Illustration, where many of the backward sorts of artists who refused to tow the modern line found refuge. Not being able to tar Andrew with the illustration putdown it used on artists such as Pyle, Rockwell, his father, NC., and the other popular greats, it was hard for the art establishment to maintain the same media and museum blackout it does with the rest of the Aesthetic Underground.

One artist whose work you will never see mentioned in the pages of such histories, or on the wall of the major museums like the MET or LACMA, or even discussed by art critics, is Richard Schmid, despite his fame within the Aesthetic Underground. One need only see the popularity of his books and instructional videotapes to understand the resurgence that is taking place outside the “modern” art world. On a recent visit to Richard’s studio, he spoke of first encountering the art scene in New York in the sixties and how the catchphrase of the contemporary establishment even then was, “If it’s beautiful, it isn’t Art.” I’ve run into this sentiment over and over throughout my own career as a painter. Beauty is not merely disdained, but actively oppressed, suppressed, and literally banned from the halls of our most esteemed temples of Art and culture.

So you see, it isn’t an argument as to what beauty is, since the art establishment goes out of their way in proclaiming that their anointed champions, with very few exceptions, are consciously and purposefully avoiding beauty, which they deem utterly superficial and beneath depiction in true works of great art. Modern art has been aptly termed “the cult of ugliness.” The basic conflict, then, is the validity of beauty itself.

Let me be clear, however, least you think I’m arguing from the other extreme. I’m not saying that all great art must be beautiful, just as I wouldn’t argue that all movies should be comedies. There are ugly and disturbing works that I find powerfully moving. But I am saying that aesthetic beauty has its own power, that it deserves its place before the public, and is vital to a healthy society.

Why do I bother speaking out about this? Why criticize anyone’s work at all? The reason was best answered in a BBC Documentary Jeremy Lipking sent me recently, titled “Why Beauty Matters,” by Philospher Roger Scruton. Here’s a quote from the program that I think sums it up nicely. “Beauty is a value as important as truth and goodness. I think we are loosing beauty, and there is a danger that, with it, we will loose the meaning of life.”

Viewing a beautiful painting, cathedral, or piece of music, we feel a tremendous uplift of spirit, a hope at the possibility of life and its potential. This is what I try and convey through my own paintings. In a world of ugliness, violence, and despair, we all need to be reminded of the real purpose and point of it all. Who of us has not sought consolation in a time of sorrow from beauty and art? Modernists say they are portraying truth and that beauty is but a superficial lie. When humans are surrounded by ugliness, by utilitarian buildings devoid of beauty, or artwork who’s stated purpose is to remind us of the worst of human nature, such art and architecture becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I’m often asked how this has happened. How could such an anti-beauty establishment so completely have taken over museums, almost every university art program, major newspaper art columns, and the vast majority of high-dollar collectors? To put it simply, how did we go from this, to this?

In answering the question of how, it is most important to understand the why. What is the appeal of such work to both the artists and, even more importantly, the curators, critics, and art dealers?

The appeal to aspiring artists is simple. If one can become rich and famous for simply painting a canvas blue, or displaying a urinal, or even one’s own excrement as seen here in Piero Manzoni’s celebrated 1961 work, titled, “Artist’s Shit,” then the goal is certainly achievable by anyone. With the problem of years of training to acquire the skills necessary in other artistic disciplines like music, dance, or writing dispensed with, all one really needs is a publicists, the seal of approval from critics, or a show at a major museum.

This certainly hands a great deal of power to critics and curators, which explains their stake in such a system. The final cog in the machine is the money side of art. To understand why a dealer would favor “anything as art” in a world where the name and fame of the artist is all that really matters, let’s hypothetically say that you had a choice of representing Picasso or Sargent.

From a business perspective it is no contest. Picasso and the modern artist beats the Sargents of the world every time. After all, if you invest the time and money to make them both famous, Sargent can still only paint so many great paintings a year, handicapped as he is by the need to make them of a sufficiently high quality, both aesthetically and technically, while Picasso can crank out as many monstrosities in a week as you have demand for in a year. This is evident when you compare the vast number of works created by a Picasso in his lifetime to those of Sargent, prolific as he was.

Sargent also has the drawback of subject matter, which may or may not appeal to the collector, while Picasso’s subjects really are rather secondary to the collector’s desire to simply have something with his signature on it. Picasso famously said that he could sell anything as long as it contained his signature, and he was absolutely correct.

This process of creating a famous modern artist can been seen in the movie, “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” While filming a documentary of some of the new stars of the modern graffiti art scene, like Banksy and Shephard Fairy, the filmmaker, Thierry Guetta decides to use the promotional tricks he’s learned from these icons and make himself a famous artist. The fact that he can’t paint is no problem, since he just hires some graphic artists with scanners and Photoshop to make slight changes to other artist’s photographs and paintings to crank out the usual garbage that passes as art these days.

Creating the apropos name, “Mr. Brainwash,” Guetta stages a huge art show titled, “Life is Beautiful,” which he promotes with all the well-honed graffiti marketing tactics of his friends (which used to be called vandalism) and earns himself a major cover story in LA Weekly and coverage by the art critics. Seven thousand people attend the show and Mr. Brainwash earns over a million dollars in one weekend at his first-ever show of work he didn’t even create himself.

Some say that the film and Mr. Brainwash are an elaborate hoax, but isn’t that what the modern art world is already?

I often hear stories of how these modern masters of ugliness turned away from the “easy” money of painting “pretty pictures” to follow their rebellious heart and seek “truth” rather than financial reward. They profess surprise at their success and the fortunes paid for their artworks. But this is a sham. If you look at the prices such nonsense receives, even compared to the most famous painters of aesthetic beauty, the lesson for any aspiring artist is clear.

If you are a young artist deciding what direction to take, given all the money, fame, and lack of practice required to become a modern artist, which would you choose? The very fact that there are artists pursuing the traditional path at all in such a climate is rather amazing, except that the pursuit of beauty and truth has its own rewards, beyond monetary success or the shallow sort of fame that Mr. Brainwash and the others like him have achieved.

Even with a good understanding of how that system works, I would never trade what I have for such empty success. Sure, Susan and my paintings sell for a fraction of the sales tax that the top modern artists do and it might take me a decade to make what Mr. Brainwash does in a single show, but there is great satisfaction to be gained by creating something of real worth and beauty. I’m just lucky that in the twenty-five years since I started pursuing art as a profession, there have been enough collectors who feel the same way and have allowed me to continue in the great tradition that has been all but discarded by the Art Establishment. If I die penniless, I will still feel pride at what I’ve created, not because it was new, shocking, critically acclaimed, or even up to the level of the great artists of history, but because it was an honest attempt to add something of truth and value to humanity.

But if people are so stupid as to buy a canvas painted orange, or be brainwashed so easily by the likes of Mr. Brainwash, maybe this is the art our modern society deserves. Why even bother fighting it? Those seven thousand people are no doubt gullible, but what of the millions of others who stayed home despite the media blitz? Not everyone is fooled.

60 Minutes’ commentator, Andy Rooney, is one of the few in the mass media to point out how threadbare the emperor’s outfit has become. In speaking of this sculpture, he said, “This is called ‘Two Indeterminate Lines,” and, while I don’t understand art, I do understand the English language and that’s called pretentious nonsense.” But for the most part, such silliness goes unchallenged. Story after story features nonsensical modern artists and I’ve yet to hear a single person in the media dare to say Picasso was a media-hyped fraud. Most ordinary people know this, but are afraid to say so, for fear of looking stupid.

The fact that Andrew Wyeth’s painting is the most popular at the Museum of Modern Art makes me suspect that if the artwork of the Aesthetic Underground were ever to make it into the public square, it would sweep away the pretenders in short order.

This is what really frightens the heads of the Art Establishment the most. The only shows of aesthetic beauty allowed at the major museums are ones such as Sargent, Degas, Monet, DaVinci, etc. from the pre-modern era, and it is no coincidence that they are the most popular. Even here in Laguna Beach , I observed the massive crowds that attended the Laguna Beach Plein Air painting events – far more than attend the quote, “contemporary” artist shows at the museum. My favorite part was the quick draw where kids from fifty schools throughout LA were given art supplies and a lesson from the professional artists and volunteers in the show.

And despite this popularity, or maybe because of it, the museum never acquired works from any of these artists for their permanent collection, despite a decade of successful shows. Worse still, one of the museum staff thanked me for helping raise money which they used to acquire more junk from some very “important” contemporary artists. The long list of amazing artists who’ve painted in the Laguna Plein air shows is astonishing. Matt Smith, Kevin Macpherson, Camille Przewodek, John Cosby, Ray Roberts, Peggi Kroll-Roberts, Ken Auster (heck, his palette and brushes are an abstract work of art alone!)

The list is far too long to complete here, but just think if the museum had acquired two of the best pieces each year from the show. They’d now have a contemporary plein air collection that people would travel across the country to see. I’m certainly grateful that museums like Laguna’s are at least allowing such shows as this, though I suspect it is more out of a need to raise money than an actual reassessment of the anti-aesthetic tenants of modern art dogma that holds such works in contempt. What do you think the founders of the museum, artists such as William Wendt and Edgar Payne, would think of their museum’s contemporary collection?

One curator I mentioned this to seemed actually surprised that I would be offended or think traditional paintings worthy of museum acquisition, saying in so many words that traditionally beautiful work is merely commercial, while the museum’s permanent collection is meant for art with deeper significance. He admitted that beautiful paintings were more popular but said it was the duty of the museum to educate the public to the superiority of modern paintings with their “deeper” messages.

This reminded me of the painting, “Love and Springtime,” by Francesco Michetti. Thanks to Clayton Beck for sending me some photos of it for this slide show, though there is no way a photograph can reproduce the technical mastery and utter joy this large painting conveys in person. I fist saw this painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, when I was a student at the American Academy of Art. When I mentioned how moved I was by it, my teacher, Bill Parks laughed and told me that, when he was a student after WWII, the Art Institute had done a survey of museum-goers to find out what was the general public’s favorite painting in the collection.

Despite being by a virtually unknown artist, “Love and Springtime” won this popular vote! So what did the museum do with this affirmation of Michetti’s obscure masterpiece? They took the painting off the wall and put it in storage, for years. Just like a parent with a stubborn child, the modern curator must protect the public from their own naïve and uneducated tastes. Even now, if you want to see this painting, it is hung in the Library that is only open to member of the Art Institute, in a cramped alcove above some computer terminals with horrible lighting. But I guess that’s still progress.

By contrast, here’s the exhibition by Monica Bonvincini that prestigiously highlighted the opening of the multi-million dollar modern wing’s new addition to the museum last year. Yes, those are just a bunch of florescent light bulbs hanging in the middle of the room, and, yes, those holes in the floor are on purpose and part of the work. You often hear people say they suspect that artists like this are making fun of people by telling them such things are great art. I wonder what Monica Bonvincini thinks of the general public, who’s tax dollars paid for the huge new modern wing of the Art Institute, but doesn’t seem all that interested in her installation?

That’s pretty much what I thought…

I’ve heard many painters tell me that they’re afraid of painting anything “too beautiful” for fear of not being seen as a serious artist. Their fears are completely rational if they ever want to be included in a major museum collection, or have their work reviewed by a national art critic. The two essential things are to have some “deep” message or artist’s statement to go with your work and to avoid “pretty pictures” or anything emotionally uplifting. It’s ok to paint nudes or any other subject, as long as they are ugly, depressing, or, if you really want to be a superstar, the more offensive the better.

I cannot count the times I’ve been asked in an interview, what “message” I was trying to convey with my paintings. I’m sure every artist on the faculty here has gotten this question. When I honestly say that there is no message in the sense they are seeking, that painting is above all a visual language, and to translate the positive emotion that beauty can convey into words is impossible, I find these words used against me over and over. “Traditional Realist painters admit it themselves – their paintings are meaningless, superficial depictions of beauty!”

This is the great philosophical dividing line between the aesthetic painters and the establishment painters. We aesthetics think that you should be able to simply look at a painting and be moved, to feel the emotion of the painter for their subject, just as you would be moved by a piece of music without a written explanation.

Each of these paintings are communicating in an instant a vast number of truths that could never be put into words. How could you possibly explain this painting to someone over the phone? You could try describing the subject, the colors, the thickness of the paint, but it would not suffice. You would soon be forced into explaining how it made you feel. Even given an hour, you would never succeed in transmitting these emotions to the listener on the other end of the phone.

Beauty and visual truth needs no explanation, no interpreter, no cultural guardian deciding what is good and what is bad for you. Is it any surprise, then, that those who control the art establishment have banned a visual language that makes much of what they do obsolete? Beauty is the most serious threat to the power of the establishment, and it is treated as such, not by the use of force, but by a far more subtle means – by ignoring it. When you control the art museums, college art programs, media and art critics, and even the purse strings of the NEA, it is relatively easy to advance the agenda.

In a talk at LA’s MOMA museum that Jeremy and Alexey recorded for me, art critic, Bennett Simpson observed, quote, “No doubt about it, positive reviews in the LA Times drive attendance. Negative reviews drive attendance, as well.” Reinforcing this point, Sharon Mizota, in the same discussion, said, quote, “If we don’t like it, we just don’t write.”

This sums up the art critic and museum curator’s power nicely. They know that their power lies in their total domination of what will be seen and heard by the wider culture. They do not stifle expression in the sense of having someone arrested, but merely by their lack of notice, they banish an entire artistic movement to invisible irrelevance - literally written out of books like the "History of Modern Art.” How many times have we all complained that none of the art we, and the general public, love is never covered by any of the major newspapers like the LA Times, the New Yorker, or any of the other leaders of cultural awareness. The power to ignore is their weapon and it has been wielded with devastating effect.

The individual critic or curator will object that no one tells them what to write or like, but the system itself is self-selecting. From the time you enter a university art history program, your grades, then your employment, depends on your endorsement of modern art theory. Those who object are weeded out early as anyone who has attended such art programs can attest. I have no doubt most critics and curators honestly believe the nonsense they proclaim. Self-interest is a powerful motivation to believe, especially when you’ve been convinced that the age-old definitions of what art is no longer apply. And isn’t it gratifying being among a select group that understands the deep, intellectual mysteries that are beyond the less-educated masses?

Everyone should read Tom Wolf’s description of how Alfred Barr and Dorothy Miller from New York’s Museum of Modern Art would set out each spring in the 60s to choose who would be featured in that year’s show schedule and anointed the next genius’ of the Avant-Garde. The artists job was to shock and otherwise do battle against the Bourgeoisie middle class (from which they usually came) to be showered with money and fame from the upper class (many of whom were also recent émigrés from the middle class and eager to prove their bona fidas as elites).

With a show at the museums a sure ticket to fame and skyrocketing prices, many a curator and critic made fortunes from their insider knowledge of who would be the next star. In the stock market there are laws against insider trading, but in the modern art market it is assumed that it is merely the superior ability of the experts to determine who is great before everyone else. There are no cattle in New York City , but this explanation is suspiciously familiar to something I’ve smelled on some Texas ranches and even in Africa among the Himba and Massai herders.

Modern art can be summed up thus. The rise of the art critic and currator, with the subjugation of the artist. The distress that was obvious in the MOMA talk revolved around the fact that their domination of the "means of production" is ending. The artist is once again banging at the door and demanding admittance, thanks to new mediums of mass communication like the internet. I laugh out loud every time on of these “experts” bemoan the fact that reviews are being done on the internet by people who don’t have the proper education necessary to “understand” art.

Beauty is universal to all cultures and religions, even those, like myself, without a belief in religion at all. My friend, Alexey, called beauty itself his religion.

The modern artist seeks to destroy the very ideas that elevate us above the materialistic world about us. Love and beauty become sick jokes in their hands, commercialized and mocked in the most distasteful manner. Is it any wonder that the general public ignores what most of the art museums vomit forth?

Beauty is not useful in any material sense at all. Beauty is simply truth. The message of beauty is beauty. It is the ultimate circular argument, which is why you cannot argue it in words. It is a thing beyond us, a thing that hints at the divine. Indeed, many religions see beauty as proof of the existence of their particular god, while others have banned its representation altogether out of fear of such powerful competition.

Listen to this quote from the Iconoclastic Council of 754 in Byzantium . Quote, “Supported by the Holy Scriptures and the Fathers, we declare unanimously, in the name of the Holy Trinity, that there shall be rejected and removed and cursed … every likeness which is made out of any material and colour whatever by the evil art of painters. Whoever in future dares to make such a thing, or to venerate it, or set it up in a church, or in a private house, or possesses it in secret, shall… be anathematised, and become liable to be tried by the secular laws as an adversary of God…” Now how’s that for the ultimate in art criticism!

Bernard Madoff, Enron, maybe AGI? What was the greatest financial scam of the past century? Which did the most damage to our civilization? Surely the modern art establishment must rank near the top.

Such art has become no different than a Ponzi scheme, or any other investment bubble, where the commodity itself means little, be it a flower, as in Holland ’s Tulip bubble, a tech stock, or thousands of mortgages bundled together and purposely meant to fail. When you see Damien Hirst’s shark in a vat of formaldehyde sell for 300 million dollars, then the next work sell for 500 million dollars, it becomes obvious that people are buying and selling these things as investments, rather than for any artistic merit they may have. Bubbles are easy to spot by their unsustainably sharp price elevations out of all proportion to the thing itself. Such doubling of vast amounts of money so quickly is irresistible to the speculative investor, but it cannot be sustained forever.

The speculative bubble surrounding these worthless objects and ideas will eventually collapse like all financial bubbles, and, when it does, it will be spectacular. I don’t know when it will happen, but it will, mark my words. The sooner, the better! Those left holding the bag of this junk will probably try suing, blaming those who told them a can of shit or a blank canvas was worth millions, but they will only have themselves to blame. Trillions of dollars will evaporate overnight like so much smoke. The greatest scandal will be the public dollars that were squandered by museums and which helped fuel and perpetuate the farce.

What will historians say when they look at such a vast conspiracy of fraud and mass delusion? How could so many be fooled for so long? This will be the real legacy of twentieth century art.

I could continue for a long time on the money aspect of art and the strangeness of determining a paintings value based upon the fact that a single person might be willing to pay a million dollars for something. After years of careful observation, I’ve noticed that paintings don’t change if the sell, win an award, or suffer that worst of all diseases, red-dotlessness.

Certainly there are superficial cultural differences between various countries and societies, but there are also definite universals that cause some buildings, sculptures, and paintings to achieve near universal awe at their beauty.

Mastering these rules of nature to create beauty is difficult, but not magic. The progression of art throughout history is a record of the slow unlocking of the secrets of creating beauty. Symmetry, balance, focus of interest, the various tools of seeing that allows the artist to analyze their subject and actually see the truth of what makes it what it is and select the parts to emphasize and those to minimize to accentuate the inspirational beauty contained within it. Throughout history, each artistic advance has led to the next and the slow progression of art is clearly seen as a result. These are the skills you are here to learn. These are the things that the Modern Art Establishment has attempted to destroy.

Above all else, beauty is truth. It cannot be faked, and that is why what masquerades as artistic truth in the Museums and auction blocks of our time will eventually fall. It can be no other way. You can only carry a lie, conspiracy, joke – call it what you will – so far and for so long.

Beauty and truth have been driven out of the temple. But despite the most ardent efforts of the Art Establishment, the flame of beauty has been kept alive by the members of an unofficial Aesthetic Underground who simply refused to fall for the nonsensical theories of art that seeks to degrade, rather than elevate, the human spirit. But the charade has worn thin for far too long. A revolution in art is coming. The Aesthetic Underground is slowing rising to public consciousness once again.

Sometimes they can be seen in plain sight, other times keeping to the shadows, night, or even far from they eyes of civilization altogether. Groups of them occasionally rendezvous secretly in foreign countries to plot revolution, for art and beauty knows no boundaries. They are a motley, sometimes dangerous bunch, so I’d approach those you see with extreme caution.

The evidence of the Aesthetic Revolution can be seen in the rising popularity of Plein Air shows across the country, in the proliferation of Classical Ateliers like Jacob Colins’ Grand Central Academy, at websites like Fred Ross’ inspirational “Art Renewal Center,” Alexey Steele’s “Classical Underground” and Novo Realism movement in LA, and at gatherings like this that American Artist Magazine has put together. Though the major museums and newspapers have held firmly to their cult of shock and ugliness, some of the smaller museums are starting to open up to contemporary beauty once more.

Modern art prides itself on being the anti-establishment rebel, but can one be seen as a rebel after a hundred years of domination? Probably the most rebellious thing a museum curator can do these days is to have a show of contemporary traditional painter’s works.

But I don’t really see the change coming from the top down. The almost cult-like brainwashing of the modern art establishment is just too firmly entrenched. Just think of all the people who own these monstrosities and their stake in propping up the system. No, I believe that the change will come from the ground up, like all revolutions, with the general public demanding control back of the hijacked institutions their tax dollars support.

But there have been predictions of the fall of the modern art establishment almost since its inception, so I’m cautious in predicting its imminent fall now. But hope and beauty springs eternal, so I feel confident it will happen someday, be it years, decades, or even centuries in the future.

We all owe a dept of thanks to those artists who have kept the classical skills of painting and aesthetic expression alive during the dark years of the anti-beauty movement that’s so dominated our century. Most of them will not see the promised land, but it is their clear vision of the truth that has kept art from dying out.

In the meantime, let me say, long live Beauty and Truth!

Beauty is not object bound;
But a gift internal found.

Lost of favor this fickle hour;
Trickling sand will restore the flower.

For none, say Truth, is immune;
From eternal aesthete commune.

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