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The Coming Collapse of the Avant-Garde By: Robert Locke
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, April 20, 2001

WHO, IN THE FIRST PLACE, even cares about painting? Some conservatives still don't care about culture at all beyond the degree to which it raises other issues, like obscenity.

But others have noticed that the Left has gotten an awful lot of mileage out of its dominance of the cultural elite, suggesting that these things matter. They have noticed that the artistic avant-garde of the early 20th Century played a significant role in softening up our minds to accept assaults on tradition, normality and order as not just normal but downright fashionable.

The relationship between politics and the superficially apolitical arts like painting is complex, but the general direction of the effect of changes in art on our culture as a whole cannot be mistaken. Plato was notoriously hostile to art because he thought it could make anything look good, even social evils, and he seems to have been right. But the good news is that, despite the dismal lack of effort on the part of the cultural Right in this country, (can we even speak of such a thing with respect to the fine arts?) there are signs the long ascendancy of a left-leaning avant-garde is coming to an end. And it will probably be replaced not by a vacuum but by art of real, and traditional, quality: Photorealism.

The old artistic avant-garde, the heirs of Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky and others from the early 20th century, is now the institutionalized establishment, and conservatives (more honestly, reactionaries) are now the outsiders and the revolutionaries baying at the gate. Almost all positions of power in the art world these days, the people who determine who gets paid, exhibited, written about and promoted, are in the hands of this establishment. These art-school professors, deans, curators, gallery owners, and magazine editors never dreamed that one day they would be the stuffy establishment. But they are. Their avant-garde tradition -- and it most certainly is a tradition, odd though this may seem -- is getting old and ossifying into a canned vocabulary of gestures that were once revolutionary but now have nothing left to rebel against.

People forget how old the avant-garde is; it goes back to about 1905 in Europe. The steam engine was high technology when it started. And yet its value-system is predicated on its being the new and innovative thing. This is a recipe for eventual obsolescence. Eventually is now. QED.

The reactionary trend in painting is complicated, with many crosscurrents and exceptions, but it is unmistakable. Perhaps the clearest sign of it is the rehabilitation of Norman Rockwell. For most of the postwar era, he has been the epitome of the kind of art the sophisticated love to hate. The Guggenheim Museum in New York, a citadel of the avant-garde establishment with impeccable credentials, is holding the first major show of his work at an institution of its caliber in November of this year. Cynics may gripe that Rockwell is only being rehabilitated because the world he celebrated has finally been destroyed, or because baby boomers are sentimental nostalgics. I think it goes deeper than that. I think the avant-garde is on its last legs and is about to come crashing down as an intellectually believable way of going about art. The brighter of its devotees know it, so they understand that they simply don't have any standing to tell someone like Rockwell that it is better than he is.

The avant-garde, born of the ideology of endless progress, has reached its natural limit and run out of places to go. It is predicated on endless innovation, but has run out of innovations to make. There is nothing inherently illegitimate about abstract art, which actually predates realist art. But in the hands of postwar Americans, it was largely an excuse for flight from the discipline of the external world into meditations about the self of the artist or the nature of art itself. As such, it pretty much reached its dead end in the mid-1960's, as recognized by the great philosopher and critic (and credentialed member of the avant-garde establishment) Arthur Danto in his book The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art. He wrote that in the end, modern art was about nothing but art itself, and therefore merged with the philosophy of art and ceased to exist. But of course people didn't draw the logical conclusion from this and stop painting it. Therefore it degenerated into abstract intellectual games played out in the code of a tired and outdated aesthetic radicalism. It became an increasingly esoteric cult centered on the gentrifying streets of Lower Manhattan. It got to the point where outsiders couldn't appreciate a painting without reading a written explanation of what it was about, a fact pilloried by Tom Wolfe in his magnificently nasty little book The Painted Word. Some artists eventually tried to bring back the old excitement by pouring on political statements like a child putting too much ketchup on his French fries. Others hunted down ever-darker and ever-weirder corners of the self to express in hope of regaining shock value, an avant-garde tic that became jaded and finally boring. But fundamentally, the gig was up. The avant-garde era was a singular moment in the history of art, but it deluded itself into thinking it was identical with new insight into art as such and could therefore go on forever. But just as the Gothic, the Baroque, or the Rococo passed away, so too must it pass. It is yesterday's history.

So what comes next? How about a painting of an ordinary city street so pitch-perfect you can tell what day it is by the way people walk? There are a number of schools of painting out there that represent the future of worthwhile art, but the one I am betting on is Photorealism. Photorealism is not new (it goes back to the late 1960's, just after the mid-decade point that Danto said marked the end) but it is, I believe, the real wave of the future in American art. And it is culturally conservative in its implications, though not overtly political. It is not totally unrecognized by the art world, but does not enjoy the centrality it deserves and has been subjected to some comically vicious attacks on its legitimacy.

Photorealists paint ordinary things, and find beauty in them. They paint streets. They paint motorcycles, cars and trucks. One, Charles Bell, paints mainly pinball machines, and does it brilliantly. They paint neon. They paint farm machinery and the floor of the Chicago Commodities Exchange. The key to understanding Photorealism is that it is not photography, though the best Photorealist paintings can be mistaken for photographs. These paintings are systematically different from what one would see if one took a photograph of the same scene. Some of these changes are prosaic: streetscapes without cars or shadows and so on. Others are more subtle.

Richard Estes is not the only Photorealist painter out there, but he happens to be my favorite, partly because he paints New York City, my hometown. Photorealist streetscapes rely upon a familiarity with the place depicted that is an antidote to the mercilessly inhuman placelessness, abstraction and solipsism of modern art. If you don't know New York, you may enjoy his pictures, but you will never quite appreciate how true they are. Or more importantly, how slyly false, as one of the fascinations of his work is not just how perfectly he captures the shifting moods of the streetscape, but how he can subtly distort the way things really are to achieve one effect or another. If you are lucky, there are other painters out there who paint the place where you live in a way someone who doesn't live there will never really appreciate. Happy the town that has its own photorealist. Some very ordinary places do, like the grimy rustbelt city of Troy, NY. Thus one good thing about Photorealism is that it valorizes our rootedness against placeless, faceless globalism. It also helps restore the legitimacy of regional culture in places that have been dancing to the alien tunes of the East and West coasts for far too long.

The first thing to admire about Photorealism is that it takes seriously the real physical world of contemporary America. Photorealism submits to the facticity of the prosaic things it captures so completely as to invest them with an odd feeling of being more real in the picture than they are in real life, hence its other name, hyper-realism. Richard Estes' work has a kind of sensuous coolness to it, a self-consciously objective eye that disciplines itself to submit to the visual truth. Unlike a photograph, his paintings show the entire image, foreground and background, in sharp focus, without a particular emphasis on any one object that might reveal a focus of attention by the artist and thus his own subjective mind. Photorealism thus rebukes the endless navel-gazing subjectivism of modern art. It pretends to make the artist disappear, taking us away from the artist-as-hero mythology of Romanticism and back towards something more like the unnamed cathedral-builders of the Middle Ages. It is almost a kind of aesthetic stoicism. But of course this self-discipline could not possibly be a mechanical act, but is one of which only a very refined talent is capable, and thus there is hidden behind this machine-like pose an immensely complex creative act on the part of the artist. Thus these paintings do express the person who painted them, but by pretending not to. This is of course the exact opposite of the anything-goes Jackson Pollock ethos.

It is also an act of irony (which is big in modern and especially postmodern art) that puts the cheap tricks of the avant-garde to shame. It is as intellectually subtle as any hyperconceptualized abstract art. It takes the modern (Marxist, Freudian, Einsteinian) suspiciousness about claims to represent reality directly, which modern painters cannot escape, and makes the avant-garde's ploddingly literal response to this suspiciousness ("don't paint things") look childish. Therefore it beats the avant-garde at its own game. And it beats it on the canvas, too, not just in theoretical argument. Therefore in the long run, the sophisticates will have to accept it.

Richard Estes is also the quintessential painter to capture the curious mood of the early 70's, the sense of laxness and exhaustion after the frenzied 1960's. He has a kind of matter-of-factness about physical things that predates the 1980's techno-eroticism about machinery and hyper-materialist fetish for whole grains and Egyptian cotton. He is thus a social history painter like the Dutch masters, in the micro-scale sense that we have come to care about for better or for worse. I personally feel that I never really understood the 1970's until I came to know his paintings. Like many photorealists, he frequently finds himself depicting the abandonment of our public spaces, one of the central facts of our contemporary communal existence. Other photorealists precisely capture the luridness and banality of our consumerism, giving an admonitory moral dimension to their work. Still others capture the deeply saturated affluence of suburbia, with all the moral ambiguities this implies. But none stoop to the vulgar ideological hectoring common in politically correct art, and none of their pictures would make particularly good propaganda. They just show the way things objectively are and respect the moral autonomy of the viewer. If you don't want to see the pictures this way, there is nothing to force you. This combination of tough-minded objectivity, a nagging sense of the press of moral questions, and diffidence about passing judgment may be precisely where we really are as a culture. These guys tell the truth.


There is a curious way in which one doesn't really perceive the nature of things until one sees them imitated by someone else. One reads a novel or sees a movie that depicts something one has known all one's life and then one reacts, "how true." To see a painting, to see that someone else has assimilated the visual facts to the point that they can reproduce them, is to confront the fact that another human consciousness has experienced these facts. It thus contributes to our recognition of our common humanity. It is humanism in the old sense, before this concept was mangled into the "secular humanism" we rightly despise. Our culture needs Photorealism simply in order to re-learn how to see itself clearly. Our lack of realist painting since WWII caused a dangerous visual unthinkingness in our culture, a lack of attention, a lack of concrete grasp of where we are and how we live now. It made us too susceptible to abstractions of all kinds, not just in the arts but in our thinking about ourselves and our society. It made strangeness, change for the sake of change, ugliness and shock seem normal and even goods in their own right. Worse, it enabled sophisticates to tar as rubes anyone who didn't want to go along. It made it a habit, validated by the supposedly highest achievements of culture, to overweight the dangerous charms of abstraction and underweight the common-sense intuitions of ordinary experience. Hopefully, Photorealism will be one cultural pilot-boat that will slowly drag our culture back to sanity.

Call me malicious, but I also think it will also be a lot of fun to watch the avant-garde be overthrown. They've had it coming for a long, long time.

Note: The best web site covering the return to traditional standards in art is that of the Art Renewal Center, at www.artrenewal.org.  For samples of various photorealists, see www.meiselgallery.com/contents.htm, but be warned that this art is intrinsically more impressive in real life than in reproduction. If you want to see Richard Estes' actual paintings, one of the collections below may be near you:

  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
  • Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC
  • Museum of Modern Art, NYC
  • Guggenheim Museum, NYC
  • Louis K. Meisel Gallery, NYC
  • Acquavella Galleries, NYC
  • Art Institute of Chicago
  • Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
  • Hirschorn Museum, Washington
  • Smithsonian Institution, Washington
  • Detroit Institute of Arts
  • High Museum of Art, Atlanta
  • Morgan Gallery, Kansas City
  • Nelson Gallery - Atkins Museum, Kansas City
  • Toledo Museum of Art
  • Indianapolis Museum of Art, IN
  • Des Moines Art Center, IA
  • San Antonio Museum
  • Byer Museum of the Arts, Evanston, IL
  • Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH

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