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Recently I have been thinking a lot about art and have been impressed by some interesting developments that I think some of my more artistically inclined readers will find fascinating. They have to do with a recovery of classical realism or representationalism in art. (If you know one of the hundreds of students who entered artworks in the NYC Competition, consider forwarding this to them; it might pique their interest.)

I have been amazed to see how much interest there is among younger artists in traditional notions of beauty, art, and artistic techniques that are influenced by classical, Renaissance, and neoclassical approaches to painting, sculpture, and architecture.

Architecture is the field in which this movement has gained the most traction. That is because of the new urban movement associated with architects like Andres Martin Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Steve Mouzon. The new urban movement is responsible for some of the most popular housing developments in recent times.

This vision is catching on more in architecture than in painting and sculpture. This is no doubt because everyday middle-class people are buying homes and townhomes in these new-urban planned communities, while many of the leading representational artists’ paintings and sculptures are out of the price range of most middle-class people. This architectural approach has much in common with the British architect Quinlan Terry (though Terry’s projects are much more expensive than the average new-urban townhouse) and organizations such as the Institute for Classical Architecture and Art.

This same vision is seen in the recent TRAC2014 conference, which brought together artists from all different backgrounds and worldviews who agree on one thing: modern and postmodern art has gone as far as it can go, and it’s time to experiment with older forms and techniques to breathe new life into the theory and practice of art.

This trend dovetails with a century-old New York Times interview I recently read with the New York art critic and painter Kenyon Cox (1856-1919) [1]. Reacting to the modern art at the famous Armory Show in 1913, Cox compared the Cubists and Futurists to the French Symbolists in literature, who wrote in irrational combinations of letters and words. What if a poet, he asked, were to write in such a way “and then tell you that combination of letters gives the sentiment of dawn, how are you going to prove that it doesn’t?” (19-20). “Expression,” Cox says, “must be in a language that has been learned, or it is a pure assumption on the artist’s part that he has expressed anything at all.”

Cox believed the avant garde [2] movement in art would die out, like the Symbolist movement in literature had. How wrong he was. But he may have been more right than we first might think. This new movement of present-day artists that is reacting against the excesses of modernist and postmodernist art believes those movements have seen their better days and that we are witnessing a return to realism in art that we haven’t seen in seventy years.

Peter Trippi and the magazine he runs, Fine Art Connoisseur, are testimonies to this trend toward more traditional aesthetic approaches. At TRAC2014, he told a gathering of painters, “We live in a world that is witnessing a golden age of art making not seen since the 1930s. Thank you for what you do. It’s kind of exciting to be alive right now.”

These artists are reacting against the multi-million-dollar avant garde artworks by world-famous contemporary artists like Jeff Koons and Tracey Emins and extolling a return to traditional painting techniques. They lament how it took painters like Winslow Homer one to two months to paint a typical easel painting, but it took painters like Pablo Picasso one or two days.

One big difference between these artists and the avant garde is that these artists seem to want to communicate truths about the created order and the nature of things more than they want to express themselves. They want to reassert that art has a meaning. And they want that meaning to be discernible to the public. They seem to want to give art once again a social role rather than its being the province of an elite few.

This is the same thrust we see in Kenyon Cox and others like him who were skeptical of the avant garde art of their time. Cox explained that his views on art were “founded on a lifetime given to the study of art and criticism, in the belief that painting means something” (22, italics mine).

This mood stands in stark contrast to those modern artists who seem more intent on simply expressing their own (subjective) individuality rather than communicating (objective) truth or virtue. Thus Cox lamented “the men who would make art merely expressive of their personal whim,” making it “speak in a special language only understood by themselves.” The tendency of modern art, he said, was “to exalt the individual at the expense of law” (22).

But in this interview, Cox went on to say what was needed, and it appears that the artists in this new gaggle of artists, yea these many decades later, are heeding his call: “Either there will be a reaction toward the classic and traditional or art will cease to exist. Naturally, I prefer to believe in the reaction, to think that some of us who are now considered belated classicists may turn out to be the real precursors” (23).

Indeed, in this new movement represented by organizations like TRAC2014 and the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art are artists, art critics, collectors, historians, and philosophers who hope to make sure Cox and his comrades are “the real precursors” to a vibrant new movement in the visual arts that can flourish, not just among the artistic elite, but among the general public, with what they see as the denouement of the dominance of the avant garde.

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[1] Documents of the 1913 Armory Show.

[2] The Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary (2010) defines avant garde as “the advance group in a field, esp. in the arts, whose works are unorthodox and experimental.”

Artwork: Leah Lopez, “Delft Creamer and Cherries”

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