My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Tue, 13 Apr, 2004

Is this art bad, or what

I often wander through the Web looking for art and have returned again and again to the Art Renewal Center site. Just recently they have held their first "Salon Competition" (just as one did in the nineteenth century in Europe) and the results are displayed here. The winning piece is by Daniel Gerhartz, a Wisconsin-based artist whose paintings recall the style of John Singer Sargent or even some of the French Impressionists. The winning Salon picture is inspired by a mystical, ultra-sentimental twentieth-century religious allegorical tale, "Hind's Feet on High Places" by Hannah Hurnard, a book I detested. However, I am quite fond of the painting, especially for its depiction of evening light and the graceful figures of the angelic ladies.

It seems that while us "serious" artists were sleeping in the comfortable darkness of abstract modernism, a whole new movement has sprung up in the arts, both in visual art and in music. The visual artists who paint work like that which is depicted in the Salon site are unabashedly realistic and retro. Some of them, like Gerhartz, actually advertise that they are religious and they dedicate their work to God. These "realistic art" sites (there are many others, for instance the gorgeous site of former Disney artist Christophe Vacher) often venture into surrealism, but all of these artists paint with a nineteenth-century precision and "classicism."

Similarly, you may hear, if you are one of the few people paying attention to contemporary "classical" music, pieces which are no longer written in the jagged, harsh, atonal style popular in the middle to late twentieth century. An example of this newer (or older?) style of music is Christopher Theophanidis' "Rainbow Body" which won the 2003 "Masterprize," a new award for modern classical work. "Rainbow Body" is outright tonal, using conventional harmonies, and has melodies based on the medieval chants composed by the visionary abbess Hildegard of Bingen whose work has been rediscovered by artists and trendy religious types in the last twenty years or so. Tonal harmonies, realistic art — what's going on here?

If you are used to the modernism that has ironically become "conventional" (!) you may think that these works of art and music are, well, kitsch. The visual pieces are tepid re-makes of Sargent or Monet or Ingres or Albert Bierstadt, who were all fine for the nineteenth century but are irretrievable as style in the twenty-first. The music sounds like movie and TV music, easy listening for a crowd weaned on the commercial mass banalities of the big and little screen. Does this art pass the "seriousness" test? To recap this test, from an earlier posting of mine on this Weblog: "Some of the criteria I would propose for something being "good" art would be seriousness, that the art addresses universal human or natural concerns especially tragic ones, difficulty, that the art is not easily appreciated by just anyone, but takes some thinking and reflection to enjoy, and technical superiority, that it's done really well."

A few of these pieces fit part 1, universal and tragic concerns; if you look through the Salon collection you will find a 9/11/01 memorial, or an image of love and loss, done in a surrealistic or allegorical style. But most of these pieces seem unconnected with specific themes. All of the pieces fit part 2: they appeal to just about everyone, there's nothing baffling or difficult about them. And part 3: most of them are done with amazingly good technique, in front of which I grumble with envy.

So why do I, and many other artists inevitably raised with twentieth-century standards, feel so ambivalent about this art? Would I do this kind of art if I had the freedom to do so? Would I buy this art? I am amazed (and even more envious) when I see that pieces by these artists and others like them are being sold in galleries around the country for big bucks!

More grumbling. Of course they sell for big bucks, 'cause they've sold out to the tacky, commercialized, media-sloppy mainstream. Their main subject matter seems to be lovely ladies, gracefully posed in swirling garments (or no garments at all). Pretty women always sell! Damn, I've never been able to paint images of lovely women, no matter how many times I've tried. Cows sell, too. Should I paint images of cows? Moooooo, oh, so boring.

But wait a minute. Is this really bad art? Is this selling out to the media-numbed public rather than elevating the aesthetically inferior masses to the difficult abstraction and erudition of "high" art? Honestly, I'm not quite sure. The artists who paint this "middlebrow" art write manifestos (try the ARC Philosophy section on the main art site) about how they reject the sterility, harshness, hateful irony, elitism, and just plain meanness of the "contemporary art" scene. Well, there's a lot of that out there, you can't deny it. And these retro artists also stand against the current trend of "soulless" mechanization of art in digital images, "installations," and other forms of gimmickry. These artists actually learn to paint the old-fashioned way, with paint and brushes on real canvas and boards.

So I am left with an unsettling mixture of snobbish contempt and artistic envy. It's kitsch, and I'd do it if I could.

Meanwhile, I'm contemplating other visual images: sine curves in all their undulating glory. I think I'll put a sine curve into my next painting. It passes the "seriousness test" on all three counts. It's universal, it's difficult, and it contains within its mathematical purity, technical perfection.

Posted at 2:57 am | link

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