The Academy of the Avant Garde

Originally published on July 2022 in The Muse Commands #1

Among the innovations which must be tolerated in today’s world none is so burlesque, deformed and perverse as that which passes for ‘art’. Once a pillar under the fronton of Western society, now a rainbow whirligig lurching erratically in a troubled sky, a flying circus of bobo mountebanks flitting through a fog of celebrity and lucre.

Voices of authority tell us that cultures evolve, and while they might admit that aspects of the situation are less than ideal, quickly insist that, 1) it was always thus and, 2) offering vague examples, explain that there is much which is ‘interesting’, ‘valuable’ and ‘amusing’ in ‘contemporary art. This language is reserved for the uninitiated. Among themselves the corresponding vocabulary is ‘insane’, ‘wild’ and ‘fucked’. Like Heidegger becoming and remaining a Nazi because that was the dynamic of his ‘culture’, these double talking beautiful people, these priests of our brave new world, would have us believe that their way is a cosmic given, a golden moment in the unfolding arc of Time and that we, peasants and proletarians, must love, admire and obey. Failing that — miserable historical failure akin to nonbeing — we must, in shame and degradation, shut up and/or go away. For us: cancellation.

How did we get here? What should we think? Can anything be done?

Cultural developments since the French Revolution have culminated in what a nietzschean critique might call the death of Art. This death began with attacks by ideology upon Art with a view to its instrumentalization. This, I say, first damaged and finally destroyed it. The bitter end came in the 1960s. The few and feeble protests were of no avail. Grouchy reactionaries who raised their querulous voices failed to see how their ineffectual lamentations were spit in the wind of a dynamic thrust to the future. They were blind to the shiny object of progressive desire which lured us onward. Today, over half a century later, we stand among the ruins of this progressive dream, blinking stupidly.

Yes, I know! Here and there, hidden in caves and corners, far from the citadels and crowded capitals of culture, a few irreductibles struggle to practice Art. But these, cast upon their own resources, are left to wonder: what is behind and under, what gives eternal splendor to those rare and glorious trophies still worshipped in the temples we call museums, concert halls, libraries, theaters? For these lonely souls, among whom I count myself, the effort not, perhaps, to rival the glories of the past, but merely to crawl respectfully in their general direction, seems almost doomed. Is Time itself not against us, that alleged arbiter of an eternally Relative Truth, that god of absolute power who is said to decree that all things must change? Meanwhile more ‘art’ is piled up in a pullulating plethora of galleries and museums of ‘contemporary art’, and more folk style themselves ‘artist or ‘painter’, than ever existed in all previous history.

When we contemplate this vast ‘economy’, this ‘art world and the mighty heap of works, pieces, performances, publications, events, festivals, conferences, exhibitions, critiques, investments and ever longer lines of zeros on checks written in auction houses and galleries, we may be confounded. What is the meaning of this frantic, not to say hysterical bustle? How is it, for example, that so called ‘serious music’ has evaporated, leaving only an ill smelling fume encircling an ivory tower whose conquerors gaze disdainfully down at the knuckle dragging unwashed creeping below, smugly pleased how they fail to appreciate the odor, meanwhile enjoying a high position financed by the spoliation of these very serfs! How is it that painting, once the domain of masters whose celebrity continues to echo in our collective imagination, is now the province of a vague yet shrill set of what I am tempted to call charlatans who tumble quickly, one upon the other, eager to enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame? But I do not call them charlatans; I doubt neither their sincerity nor their work ethic. They are the thorns and bitter fruit of what art has become; it is only natural they should be as they are.

Such a plant, sickly and stunted, can produce only such shriveled and bitter fruit. It does not nourish us; we must nourish it. This so-called ‘contemporary art’ would not exist without sucking at the prestige of the name it has abrogated to itself, for who would produce uninteresting, solipsistic trash for private pleasure? It could not exist if it failed to parlay its ill-gotten prestige into public funding or tainted coin from the globalist oligarchs. These denizens of Davos, LARPing the princes of the past, will have their flute girls and fools to flatter them in song and story. Strange flattery; the ‘contemporary artists neither carve their likeness in stone, nor vaunt their virtues in verse. They produce, rather, solemn obscurities, flamboyant geegaws, outrageous obscenities for which | our masters proudly pay. But, most importantly, these talismans of prestige perplex those outside the charmed circle; better yet, they intimidate and offend, and the ethereal flux of this social contrast is most flattering to their precious superiority.

Where is the place of Art in any of this? But, first of all, what is Art? A reply to this question, whether it concerns drawing, music, dance or poetry, could fill a book. Here I can only hint at what was once so obvious it wanted no words but has become so obscure and entangled one is led to wonder if only force might return us to understanding. We can begin by pointing to three things which characterized Art until its recent collapse, things which distinguish it sharply from its usurper.

1 Universal appeal

Composers like Haydn, Brahms or Stravinsky, in their time were popular both in the salons and on the streets. The paintings of Titian and Corot, one patronized by princes the other by the humble bourgeoisie, were and are accessible to, and loved by all — all who love painting, from high to low. True Art has wide appeal.

2 The artisanal aspect

In whatever domain, artists of any and every type were recognized as masters of a craft. But, from drawing to dance, in the contemporary dispensation training or accomplishment is often seen as unnecessary or even harmful. Training persists in areas like classical ballet or violin to serve still profitable performance arts. Such training prepares a place in a movable museum of ‘dead’ but still bankable ‘products’, or to hawk soap and video games. This activity is fundamentally antiquarian and commercial so that, should antiquarian interest flag or commerce fail, support for these remnants of training will falter as well. In fact more and more dancers and musicians are without serious training. As for ‘art’ training, it is widely understood as interference with creative flow. Genuine education is concerned with living interests. Without them it fades, mutates, disappears.

3 High purpose

Most famous works of Art, prior to recent times, celebrate high, deep or at least respectable aspects life. Art was generally understood to be a healthy social influence; its cultivation and influence was recommended. Of course, side by side with the exalted and idealistic, there was also the satirical and bawdy Art, Art expressive of the low, sad or grotesque. The whole range of human experience came within its purview. This was understood as wise and humanizing; recognition of the dark and tragic as well as the splendid, noble and joyful. There was a balanced, responsible and nourishing attitude.

Such values are now reversed. What is celebrated is the irreverent and repellent. Piety, nobility, aspiration, are not merely mocked but banished. Such a negative attitude might sustain the attack of an outsider upon a corrupt institution, but when it itself becomes the institution, when it itself is the academy, how can it be said to prolong its illustrious predecessor? It is a usurper, illegitimate and fake, nourishing itself on alien stuffs, parading in borrowed finery, producing abortions.

But that against which these fake academicians pretend to be in eternal revolt is long gone. As valets of a nefarious elite and their corrupted minions, their productions function as symbols of recognition, signs of superiority. Their work separates, and their cardinal mission is exactly to separate. To that end this fake academy has abolished the universal in gestures of arrogance. It excludes in the name of power, the power of the pseudo supermen who pretend to generate a new morality, a new reality. The high must be banished that the low may rule. The new ‘art’ is a thick dark line between cloud-dwelling sophisticats and cultural lepers; the children of light and belching, rapey phobes. It supports evil because it is evil. Yet it feeds on a besieged beauty which it pollutes with its proximity.

But it is not enough to recognize the evil of ‘contemporary art, its parasitical nature, its sophistic justifications, its paltry, silly or unappealing results. The only way to rid ourselves of it is to grow a healthy plant. Since the 1960s few such efforts have been made and they have been failures. They take three forms.

1 Accommodation

In ‘contemporary art’ everything is allowed, everything is possible. There are interesting aspects; it is heterogeneous. We can share the interesting aspects and introduce others which, in the context of post-modern relativism, should find legitimacy and be allowed to flourish.

This approach is plausible; ‘contemporary art’ is indeed diverse and since the advent of postmodernism if it has not embraced what it persists in seeing as the past, at least its hostility is less open. But hope of accommodation ignores the two pillars on which ‘contemporary art’ perches: the idea of progress (relentless, inevitable, directionless) and a desperate if silent grasp on the prestige attached to true Art. If Raphael, Rembrandt and Renoir could somehow be eradicated from our minds ‘contemporary art’ would evaporate because its life is borrowed prestige. For this reason it can never allow legitimization of the real thing. If the so called Past were allowed to barge in on the utopian Present, if, in other words, the Real were ever allowed to confront the Fake, progress would be revealed as a theoretical farce. When this evil usurper is measured against the real thing, the effect will be like sunlight on a vampire.

Accomodation would be the death of ‘contemporary art’ and will not be allowed.

2 Scapegoating

According to many opponents of ‘contemporary art, the latter is a conspiracy. An important current in Europe blames it on the CIA, citing an obscure CIA sponsored exdhibition which toured Europe after the war, featuring Jackson Pollock. Other scapegoaters cite Jews and Freemasons.

But there would have been nothing for the alleged plotters to promote if certain artists had not made certain works. The origins of abstraction, for example, are diverse and known; they include religious, political and philosophical elements but also matters related to painting itself as they developed during the complex history of Modernism. No outside plotters bent on destruction of the painting tradition had any part in the advent of, say, Abstract Expressionism, or any other ism of the 20th century. The notion is laughable. What possibly could have motivated them? What do Jews and Freemasons, or CIA agents, care for Art? They might wish to use it for ideological ends but in that case they need it to be functional and popular. The Social Realism of the 1930s was encouraged by Stalin but if its influence on society was intended to be subversive, its influence on painting was neutral because the paintings in question were supposed to send an effective and popular message. To wreck Art was no part of Stalin’s plan. If by urging artists to illustrate his program they tended to become illustrators — and this in turn weakened painting — it was an unintended consequence.

The collapse of painting is the fault of the painters. It is a consequence of their ideas and choices. If there is now a nefarious nexus of fake artists, dealers, critics, curators, donors, patrons, collectors, culture bureaucrats and money launderers, it is only another natural history of parasitism which has nothing artistic about it. Painters made this mess. Only painters can clean it up. When the beast dies, the parasites will die with it.

3 Fake traditionalism

Exasperated with abstraction and its abortive offspring, certain lovers of tradition insist that convincing representation is what painting is about. Reviving this, they believe, is equivalent to reviving painting.

When Classical Realism, now called Neo-Realism began, I hoped, despite its problematic aspects, to find among it allies in the battle for true painting. The problematic aspects, however, prevailed. Illusion, even trompe l’oeil, is indeed an aspect of painting but it is only the most obvious one, and for all its complication it is in fact the least difficult aspect of painting to master, assuming one already has the basics in hand.

But Classical Realism has gained strength over the last three decades. There are now numerous schools and, while dealers are helping a few of these well-trained technicians to sell paintings, most profit from teaching others the trick of this umpteenth form of ‘contemporary art. It is the photo- or hyper-realism of the 1960s and 70s with a glaze of traditionalism, an aura of antiquity. These painters are incapable of invention or composition as the term was understood for hundreds of years. Commercial illustrators and cartoonists are closer to the tradition! The New Realists practice a narrow procedure of optical transcription with results fundamentally no more traditional than the revolting concatenations of a Jeff Koons as realized by wage slave journeymen in his factory.

How can painting be saved? I say painting rather than ‘Art’ to emphasize how, in the traditional sense, this word always meant specific crafts. What passes for ‘Art’ today is but a nebulous glow thrown around anything at all, notoriously including tinned feces, framed urine and decaying flesh. The polymorphic gallimaufry which is ‘contemporary art, consists of ‘works’ which are consistently dull, offensive, screaming for attention, incompetent and abstruse. This ‘art’ survives only thanks to a life support system based on pretense. Painting has been absorbed by this viscous blob. It must be extracted, washed in very hot water with strong soap, dried in the sun and carefully nursed back to health.

Colorful metaphors aside, what does revival mean in practice? It means, first of all, restoring genuine training in drawing. A mother of a young would-be painter came to Rembrandt asking if he would teach her son. Rembrandt replied: “Show me his drawings, I’ll tell you if he can be a painter”.

But drawing, true drawing, is a lost art. Thanks to the advent of artistic postmodernism in 1990, the radical abstractionist and surrealist condemnation of artistic training has been weakened, allowing limited but stunted teaching to arise in recent decades. Aspirants who follow these impoverished teachings cannot be helped towards the creation of anything that might hope for admission into the artistic Parnassus of the Old Masters. The reasons for this are technical. One might grasp the idea of the piston engine, which converts linear motion into rotation, and the basic concepts of aerodynamics, but would that be enough to allow the fabrication of something, say, like a World War 2 fighter plane? Obviously not. But my analogy is poor: what these teachings offer are not even naked basics, not even theoretical fundamentals. It is all peripheral and largely irrelevant, despite results which may seem impressive. Correct practice is founded upon correct theory but the theoretical basis of painting, which is a purely visual matter, is difficult to express in words alone. In the ‘old days’, which lasted for centuries and centuries, in fact right into the beginning of the 20th, mastery of painting was considered to require 10 years. The method of teaching was studio apprenticeship in the context of a flourishing market, led by persons of taste.

This situation, which might one day return, is now absent. Its absence is a great handicap but we need not despair. To the extent to which we are free, we may do as we like, and nothing prevents us from seeking the secrets of True Painting.

‘True Painting’? There is, indeed, something called True painting. The term was invented in the 19th century by those painters later called Modernists. More properly they should be called ‘reactionaries’, because Modernism, a movement initiated by such 19th century French painters as Puvis and Manet, begins in fact with a return. Puvis returned to Poussin. Manet returned to Velasquez. From what were they returning? What motivated or necessitated this return; what decadence or degradation of painting? A new understanding of the story of Modernism is a first step in a 21st century revival of Art.

Statue in a Garden, oil on canvas, 39.5x30c, 2022, Paul Rhoads

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