Death by Character Assassination by Fred Ross

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Death by Character Assassination

by Fred Ross

Published Saturday, January 1, 2000

How Modernist Lies Discredited Academic Art

During most of the 20th Century, the type of propaganda that has been hurled at academic artists is so insidious that people have been literally trained to discredit, out-of-hand, any work containing well-crafted figures or elements, or any other evidence of technical mastery. All the beauty and subtlety of emotions, — interplay of composition, design and theme, — the interlacing of color, tone and mood, — are never seen. The viewer has been taught that academic painting on a prima facie basis is bad by definition — bad by virtue of its resorting to the use of human figures, themes or stories and objects from the real world.

Prestige suggestion causes them to automatically assume that a work must be great if it's by any of the "big names" of modern art, so they at once start looking for reasons why it must be proclaimed great. Any failing to find greatness is not considered a failing in the art but in the intelligence and sensibilities of the viewer. Students operating under that kind of intimidating pressure, you can be sure, will find greatness — no matter what they are looking at.

The reverse of this has been trained into them when they view academic paintings. They have been taught that works exhibiting realistic rendering are "bad art" and therefore any good that is seen is not due to qualities inherent in the artistic accomplishment, but are rather due to a lack of intelligence and taste in the viewer. The same intimidating pressure works in reverse to ensure that a work by Bouguereau , Lord Leighton , Frederick Hart or Jeffrey Mims , will not be seen as anything other than bad by definition.

No student in a school with this kind of dictatorial brain-washing will ever risk exploring or even listening to opposing views, for fear of being stigmatized from that point on with some undesirable label universally despised — a very effective deterrent to independent thought. Thus the visual experience of well-drawn representational elements is perceived as a negative, ad hominem, that proves with knee-jerk automaticity the presumed "badness" of the art and its creator.

It is especially ironic that these are the same people who trumpet the virtues and inalienable right to freedom of speech, while they surreptitiously and steadfastly conspire to remove that freedom from those with whom they disagree.


Equally ironic is the charge that academic painting is "uninspired," a proclamation issued by critics who are unable to see beyond the technical virtuosity for which they condemn it, to see what is being said. This rich visual language is wasted on eyes that will not see. It would be no different than dismissing out-of-hand, a piece of music as soon as it was determined that notes, chords and keys were used, or dismissing any work of literature upon noticing words arranged in grammatically correct sentences.

That is not to say that all academic art is great, or above criticism — certainly, it is not. It would be no less fallacious to issue blanket praise to an entire category than to condemn it. Academic painting ranges from brilliantly conceived and deeply inspired, to flat and silly, depending on the subject and the artist.

That being said, I find even the worst of it more meaningful than art based on the ridiculous notion that it is somehow important to prove the canvas is flat, and/or that one needs no skill or technique to be an artist — views generally embraced by those who condemn the entire category of academic art. Their point seems to be to elevate to legitimacy that which has removed all standards and prior defining characteristics of art. In other words, by defining non-art as art, the logical conclusion is that art is non-art.

Founder and Chairman of the Art Renewal Center, Ross is the leading authority on William Bouguereau and co author of the recently published Catalogue Raisonné William Bouguereau: His Life and Works.