Some thoughts (a rant)

Home / Education / ARChives / Foundational Discussions

Some thoughts (a rant)

From Bill Hodgson

Published before 2005


Martin,

You've kicked a hornets' nest. Telling the GOODART folks that there is something enlightening to be found in modernism and modern art is somewhat like telling an American Indian about the virtues of westward expansion.

In the war-of-angels screenplay project I'm currently working on, one of the points I want to get across is that no matter how terrible the plight of Satan, the average angel/person could not afford compassion or sympathy. The opposite extreme remained the only "safe" course. We had a similar discussion recently here in GOODART. I mentioned that I had compassion for mediocre artists, just as I felt compassion for many of those duped into "believing" in modernism. I know many of the former and at least several of the latter, with indications of many, many more. That did not mean I would recommend a mediocre artist to a gallery owner, any more than I would wish to subject myself or my work to the willful appraisal of a modernist. Many of us find it extremely difficult and perhaps ideologically dangerous to feel compassion for modernism, to be tolerant of it, or even to dare take too much interest in modern art.

Most of us have studied it, to one extent or another. I have seen interesting compositional elements. Considering it a form of artistic shorthand might almost lend legitimacy to it. Ditto for considering it study of color theory, emotional response, etc. Personally, I think anyone with a halfway decent eye could get all the composition and color theory they could handle with good, traditional art training. Why wade through the great swamp of modern art in search of the occasional tiny pool of good water?

There are those on this list who want to get in the face of the modern-art establishment and "logic" them right out of their modernist convictions. "Go to it," I say. More power to them. Personally, I want to do good, relevant art that people want to look at and live with, and provide for my family as I go. I suppose my goal includes eroding modern art's financial base. I can do that as much by being successful as with more-direct assaults. I'm serving both ends with a series of articles aimed at various big-market magazines. Eight of nine approached magazines have either expressed interest or bought based on the initial proposal. Wriggling into the establishment's own gallery/market system in order to change and exploit from within seems extremely problematic, inefficient in terms of our short lifespan.

As an illustrator with hundreds of published credits under several names/styles, I am moderately conversant in the "visual language of contemporary culture." Modern art has been a visual language, but not of culture, as a whole. It has been a language belonging to a relatively elitist art establishment and a bizarre, brutally effective merchandising system, passed on to a large portion of a wealthy buying public I call "the ballet crowd" (having watched them in action in and around the ballet community). My experience with the gallery system is less extensive. I have sold a few-dozen pieces - mostly originals from illustration assignments - but have avoided high-brow markets, such as the New York art scene, having heard too many grim tales. It did not seem an honorable market or system, and most of my bad career experiences have come from trusting when I should not have. As for those realistic and figurative artists I know, who have infiltrated at least the fringes of those markets, they have been successful without exception. They report shock from buyers, who are amazed at being able to buy quality work for less than they were spending for glorified wallpaper. Of course, they also report much resistance and many peripheral frustrations.

I understand where you are coming from. However, every time I have taken a serious look at modern/abstract art, I have walked away, either bored, disgusted, or angry, depending on whether I considered the art itself, the merchandising system and what one must do to take advantage of it, or what modernism did to a rich art tradition. I could not find a good, traditional art education, and the more I learn about why that training is so hard to find, the angrier I become. Fortunately, I found many skilled painters among the ranks of illustrators, and a good system of communication within the ranks of fantasy/s-f artists. I learned from other artists and from direct observation of realistic art in shows, museums, etc. I found serious study of modern art extremely ineffecient, in terms of benefits gained. Worse, I thought more than once of the angels in my story (the original story from which the commissioned screenplay is being distilled dates back to college, over fifteen years ago), who learned the truth of the saying that if one gazes into the abyss too long, one finds the abyss in oneself: garbage in; garbage out.

I know all about how seductive the financial art establishment can be. Trying to break from illustration and low-prestige/dollar avenues of direct marketing, I feel the forces all too well. It is a sore point with me, and even a hint of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em and hope to change 'em" is not endearing. Many, many lives and careers would get swallowed before any real change could be made in the system.

Personally, I never liked the belly play: too many bruises, and I'm too small and easily broken. Give me the end-around or a deep pattern every time, where my success depends largely on my own will, finesse, and resources. (Yes, I loved playing football, all the moreso when my teammates looked at me askance for laughingly calling it "human bumper-chess.") Most painters of traditional realism are finding their own way, outside the established system.

For instance, the limited-edition print market has made a difference, empowering artists to pursue their own artistic and marketing approaches. I know many artists with mailing lists in the tens of thousands, enabling them to sell out fairly large print runs before the print is produced. Large distributers provide huge markets. Signing with one like Greenwich Workshop virtually guarantees a good living and a fair amount of artistic freedom. For instance, one of their recent "timed-release" editions by Bev Doolittle sold 70,000 copies before printing. (I'd like to know how she managed to sign all those. . .) I have my own opinions about the ethics of print runs like that, etc., but that's another debate.

Most of the serious art collectors with whom I've established relationships have been found through arts festivals, local shows, and genre shows. They definitely do not have the price-point buying power of collectors at good big-city galleries, such as in the New York scene. They are, however, loyal, friendly, and good for the soul. They expect quality and usually won't buy something just because it has my name on it. There are many realistic artists making very impressive livings, selling every original they can produce despite strong five- and six-figure prices. I could go on and on, listing ways artists skirt "the system" to reach markets which allow them to pursue their vision and a living at the same time. People, on the whole, have much the same reaction to modern art as I do. At most levels, the "brainwashing" did not "take" well. It captured the segment of the population the art marketers most wanted. There is enormous buying power and resulting artistic power to be found outside the art establishment. It just takes a different kind of foot-work to reach, requires the wearing of more hats by the artist or the assistance of people skilled in tools the art establishment uses. If you can't beat 'em, learn from what really makes them successful. It isn't the art. Though good art training might be hard to find, there are myriad methods for reaching a public and finding financial and artistic success.

I recently spoke of the "turning" of a talented local artist/teacher from traditional realism to modern art, under the pressure of university doctrine and gallery/market pressure. It seems quite Orwellian to me, with implications far beyond the spoiling of potentially great artists and all they would have brought to the table. Watching her reaction to a carefully chosen set of samples, a few weeks ago, I felt sorry for her (and those she teaches), and I could see that she truly had come to love Big Brother.

I won't go quietly, and I won't hug the rats and tell them I'm happy, so that they'll suffer my existence. It would be far too easy to sit on that fence until finding oneself old and spent with nothing to show for it.

Thanks, Martin, for stirring up the hornets. I enjoy your posts.

Bill Hodgson