Letter to ARC

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Letter to ARC


Published before 2005

To Art Renewal Center

Dear Sirs/Madams:

I have recently had a conversation about Modern art and some of its chief defenders of the past century, such as Clement Greenberg. The discussion was sparked by my friend’s out-and-out dismissal of the 19th century academic painters; so many of whom are well-represented on ARC (Art Renewal Center). The point arose that Greenberg, like many other arch “Modernists”, truly admired classical and Renaissance art, but not the work of the 19th century academicians. This is worth examining because it is so, sadly, pervasive among art “thinkers” raised in the 20th century.

In fact, it seems that nearly all the himuckamucks of Modernism claimed to admire classical and Renaissance art. And, what they all seemed to hate with an almost febrile intensity is 19th century academic art, or even worse, anything contemporary that smacks of it. Read any book on art history written in the last 50 years and every time—every time—a 19th century academic painter is mentioned, there is always a modifier in the sentence such as “saccharine”, “bourgeois”, “officially sanctioned”, “conservative”, “safe” and so on, used to describe the work of that artist. If you start looking for these in even the most reputable art history tomes, you’d be surprised at how often they show up. It starts to appear kind of creepy.

The problem with this view of theirs is that it is so completely contradictory and scarily narrow-minded. The 19th century academicians were the direct descendants, so-to-speak, of exactly the traditions and philosophies underpinning classical and Renaissance art. They placed an emphasis on drawing and on the overall design of elements in a picture to further its aesthetic purposes. Plus, they tried to tell a story—from the simple to the grand (from still life to history painting, for example). This was all done by the earlier groups, too. If you like the one, you should, more-or-less, like the other. At the very least, the latter-day academics should be admired, whether or not you like any particular subject matter they may have depicted (which seems to be one of the chief sticking points). In a sense, you cannot properly admire Raphael and at the same time dislike Bouguereau or Cabanal, for instance. Yet, this kind of contradiction occurs all the time.

I realise that it has been a rather consistent occurrence historically that the most reviled art is the one that immediately precedes one’s own time. However, you might have thought that the proliferation of social and behavioural sciences in the 20th century would have long ago made art historians aware of what they were doing and thereby have mitigated their vitriol toward the 19th century. But it hasn’t.

As Fred Ross (Chairman of ARC) and others have pointed out repeatedly, it’s not that the 19th century academicians are the be-all and end-all (although many people are mistakenly left with that impression after going through some of the ARC archives). It is just that they have been so woefully overlooked and dismissed, that some—such as ARC—now are going to extra lengths to represent them in a more enlightened manner.

Of course, people are allowed to like or dislike whatever they please. However, I am here trying to point out that some of these opinions are merely prejudices and that they are based upon contradictory premises. A thorough re-examination is in order for many a modern art thinker to enable him or her to encompass a broader scope of knowledge and interest than is currently displayed. The 19th century academics would be a good starting point. They are a necessary and vital component in the history of art and in modern art education.

Juan C. Martinez
Toronto, Canada