June 2008

What About the Other Face
of Contemporary Art?

by Michelle Marder Kamhi & Louis Torres

This article was originally published, with endnotes and bibliography, in the March 2008 issue of Art Education, the journal of the National Art Education Association. In the present version the endnotes have been incorporated into the body of the article, and many of the bibliographic references have been replaced with links. A brief bibliography follows.

It is unfortunate that in current artworld usage contemporary does not simply mean "of the same time as the speaker or writer," as ordinary usage would lead one to expect. Instead it refers specifically to anti-modernist work--that is, to the unconventional forms typical of postmodernism. Such usage is clearly reflected in museums of "contemporary art." For example, MASS MoCA [more] (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art)--the largest of its kind in the United States--has characterized itself as dedicated to "the creation and presentation of provocative visual and performing arts pieces, and of works that blur conventional distinctions between artistic disciplines," while also "function[ing] as a laboratory for the contemporary arts, fostering experimentation by artists." (That statement, from "About MASS MoCA" on the museum's website last year, has since been revised, but "innovation and experimentation" are still emphasized--see "History.")

A similar conception governs museums of contemporary art in Los Angeles [more], Miami, Chicago [more], and elsewhere, as well as the Department of Contemporary Art of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, as is evident from their respective websites. Though such collections often include abstract work created after 1940 or so, their emphasis is on postmodernist genres such as "installation art," "conceptual art," and "video art."

The call for papers for the issue of Art Education in which this article originally appeared--a Special Issue devoted to contemporary art--reflected the same bias. Referring to "interactive art installations," "sound art," "ephemeral performances," and "monumental digital dialogues" as "exploding, expanding, and re-imagining that which is at the center of what we do in art education--Art," it implied that the age-old art forms of painting and sculpture are now irrelevant and that the concept of art has no boundaries (links are to web pages cited in the call for papers).

Surely teachers of the visual arts might question how and why such things as "sound art," "performance art," and "monumental digital dialogues" entered that realm to begin with, and whether they logically belong there. They might also question how and why such forms have largely eclipsed traditional art forms in the contemporary artworld. At the very least, art teachers ought to inform their students of alternative viewpoints regarding these questions.

It is an ironic fact that the unconventional forms regarded as "contemporary art" owe their origin to the anti-art impulses of both the 1960s and the preceding Dada movement. The Dadaists (who inspired the early postmodernists--whose work is often referred to as Neo-Dada) aimed to dispense with art altogether. Contrary to an assumption generally shared by arts professionals and scholars today, the "readymades" of the Dadaists' fellow traveler Marcel Duchamp should not be regarded as precursors for a new approach to "art," for he plainly stated that he never intended them to be art. According to the entry on Duchamp in the Grove Dictionary of Art, "his conception of the ready-made decisively altered our understanding of what constitutes an object of art." Yet when Duchamp was asked, in an interview two years before his death, how he had come "to choose a mass-produced object, a 'readymade,' to make a work of art," he responded:

Please note that I didn't want to make a work of art out of it. . . . [W]hen I put a bicycle wheel on a stool, the fork down, there was no idea of a "readymade," or anything else. It was just a distraction. I didn't have any special reason to do it, or any intention of showing it, or describing anything. No, nothing like all that. . . .

Postmodernist inventions such as "conceptual art" and "performance art" originated expressly as anti-art gestures. As noted by Thomas McEvilley in The Triumph of Anti-Art and by us in What Art Is, they were reactions against Abstract Expressionism, then dominant in the artworld. A reaction against the arbitrary formalism and meaninglessness of abstract painting (which were trenchantly satirized by Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word) was surely warranted if one believes that art should be meaningful. But what that reaction produced was often equally arbitrary and baffling--an endless proliferation of alleged new art forms that are, we have argued, the deliberate antithesis of all prior art. Hence, the term anti-art. As noted by McEvilley, countless works of "Conceptual Art," in particular, have been intended to "resist . . . interpretation." He further observes: "These [unprecedented] objects, one feels somewhat eerily, might be meaningful to some unknown aesthetic from some unheard of species or culture."

By definition, however, "anti-art" is not art (the prefix anti- means "against, opposite, or opposed to"). Indeed, early postmodernist theorists such as Allan Kaprow and Henry Flynt openly declared that the new forms they were advocating had nothing in common with what had previously been termed art and therefore should probably be called something else. Soon, however, the postmodernists were willingly co-opted by the very economic and cultural forces they were reacting against, so that their anti-art has, in McEvilley's words, "attained . . . more or less complete dominance in the art world" (on this point, see Louis Torres's "The Interminable Monopoly of the Avant Garde," forthcoming).

Just as contemporary works of painting and sculpture, especially those in a traditional "academic" or "classical realist" style, were by implication excluded from consideration for this special issue, so too they are absent from public museums of so-called contemporary art. Yet they are, after all, of our time. Such work--indeed the very existence of the artists who create it--is largely ignored by scholars and teachers, as well as (most tellingly) by critics, whose bias is discernible from a survey conducted a few years ago by the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University. None of the top 25 individuals ranked by the critics--nor any of the 84 named in the survey--are traditional realist painters or sculptors. And so estimable an artist as Andrew Wyeth [more], whom we consider the greatest living American painter, is not even mentioned.

Only rarely have public exhibitions of the work of such artists been organized, and even then they have generally been relegated by default to out-of-the-way venues. One exhibition, organized in 1982 and pointedly entitled Classical Realism: The Other Twentieth Century, was first shown at the Springville Museum in Utah, for example, before traveling to other relatively obscure locations. More recently, the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art in Atlanta mounted Slow Painting: A Deliberate Renaissance [more], devoted to an "art movement focused on highly skilled figure painting [harking] back to the Old Masters of Europe."

Much-needed light was shed on this other face of contemporary art by a series of three panel discussions held at the Dahesh Museum of Art in New York City in 2005, featuring traditional painters and sculptors. On the whole, the panelists offered a somber assessment of the generally inhospitable nature of today's art establishment toward work such as theirs. Since we have elsewhere reported in detail on those discussions ("The Other Face of 'Contemporary Art'," Aristos, January 2006), we will merely comment here on a few of the salient concerns voiced by this neglected group of contemporary artists.

An overarching theme of the Dahesh discussions was the destructive influence exerted by the tendency to view art history as a linear progression from one new movement to another. Nearly a century ago the painter-critic Kenyon Cox warned, in a lecture before the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts in 1912 (reprinted in Artist and Public), that the notion of linear progress in the arts, unlike that in science, was an unfortunate illusion--one that was prompting an ever-madder stampede for novelty. Yet to find a place in today's artworld, would-be artists are led to believe that they must, at all costs, be innovative. In its grant-making in the Visual Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, for example, places a high premium on "experimentation," as indicated on the relevant NEA web page. So, too, the chief art critic at the New York Times writes that "about the best, and the rarest, compliment you can give to any artist" is that his work is "new."

The prevailing emphasis on novelty has not only marginalized traditional painters and sculptors, it has also impeded public recognition of many excellent artists of the past hundred years or so whose work is deemed retrograde. Ask any culturally literate adult "Who sculpted the seated figure of Lincoln [more] at the memorial in the nation's capital?" for example, and the likely answer will be "I don't know." Yet the same person, if asked who made images of Campbell's Soup cans in the 1960s, would no doubt readily supply the correct answer. We recently posed these questions to a dozen senior-level art educators, one of whom teaches American art history. None of them could name the sculptor of the Lincoln figure--Daniel Chester French. All knew that the paintings of Campbell's Soup cans were by Andy Warhol.

The assumption that truly contemporary artists must now embrace postmodernism (on the heels of the prior assumption that truly modern artists had to embrace abstraction--as the foremost modernist critic, Clement Greenberg, had proclaimed in 1939 in his seminal essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch") has led to a major irony of today's artworld. Although drawing has for centuries been considered the foundational skill of visual artists, art training on the college and university level--especially in MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programs--has in recent decades deemphasized such basic skills. When Gregory Hedberg, formerly curator of paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, became chief curator of the Wadsworth Atheneum and a trustee of the Hartford Art School, for example, he discovered that the school's life-drawing class, offered only once each week, consisted merely of the presence of a nude model whom the students were allowed to draw, "unencumbered by any instruction." In his view, this practice "was typical of most art schools at the time [the 1980s] and was akin to teaching music by allowing students to look at a piano once a week." Three decades ago, the sculptor Elisabeth Gordon Chandler was moved to found the school that has become the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts [more], because she, too, saw that art departments in colleges and universities were no longer offering adequate training in the fundamentals of art. As she stated: "There were fewer and fewer artists still alive who had studied the basic fundamentals . . . that every generation of artists from the Renaissance to Picasso had been taught."

Nonetheless, the MFA is regarded as attesting to one's professional qualification as an artist. According to the College Art Association's MFA standards, in fact, the degree serves as "a guarantee of a high level of professional competence in the visual arts" (emphasis in original).

That claim is surely debatable, however. Visit the websites of the art departments of diverse American colleges and universities and you will find little evidence of the disciplines of drawing, painting, and sculpture as practiced from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century--disciplines that have long been associated with competence in the visual arts. The vast majority of faculty and student work is either in postmodernist genres or in "abstract art," neither of which requires a sound foundation in drawing or in figurative painting or sculpture. In Ohio State University's Department of Art, for example, aside from one painter who works competently in a stylized figurative manner (Pheoris West), the faculty tend to focus on such things as conceptual and installation art, interactive multimedia installations, interactive robotic sculpture, video art, abstraction, and mixed media. One need only view the examples of work displayed on the department's home page to discern its lack of concern for the traditional disciplines. Even at the Maryland Institute College of Art, an institution reputed for its emphasis on drawing, work showcased by faculty members does not feature classically realistic work--a fact likely to exert at least a subtle influence on students' ideas of what sort of direction to follow (or not follow) in their own work.

Not surprisingly, exhibitions of work by MFA students are also devoid of painting and sculpture in a traditional vein. An indicative work--from "PathoLogical," the 2007 MFA exhibition at Mills College in California--is Red Wheat (by Steven Baudonnet), a "lightjet print" of a bit of sod in a glass container. It is accompanied by the obligatory "artist's statement," which declares, in part, that "the human condition cannot be adequately compared with a planting of grain in a crude container; it can however resonate within the viewer" (Mills College, 2007). Other examples, by four MFA students at the University of Maryland (2007), consist of abstract paintings, minimalist sculpture, and indescribable pieces made of such things as vinyl siding, straw bales, plastic wrap, burlap sacks, tobacco leaves, and wood, all accompanied by pretentious statements purporting to shed light on their meaning. On similar work by MFA students at Columbia University, see "The Future of the Art World" (Aristos, 2003).

For an idea of what passes for "drawing" among some recent MFA students, consider two works from the 2007 "Selections" exhibition at The Drawing Center in New York City--an exhibition devoted to "innovative work of emerging artists who are contributing to new interpretations of drawing." One day exposure [click on 2nd thumbnail in right-hand column], by Bill Gerhard (MFA, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2001), consisted of "sun-faded black paper." Cinder-block-drag [click on 4th thumbnail in left-hand column], by Kate Joranson (MFA in Drawing and Painting, Ohio State University, 2003), was made by dragging a cinder block--which was included in the piece--over powdered concrete, powdered graphite, and "miscellaneous dusts and powders."

In stark contrast to the countless institutions that nurture such work is Hillsdale College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan. Its art department aims, in part, to "instill in students an understanding and appreciation of the greatest traditions in the visual arts and how they contribute to a richer understanding of life," as well as to "build on the honored examples of representational art as found in the established traditions of western European and American art" and to "foster respect for craftsmanship in the traditional media of painting, sculpture and drawing" (see Mission Statement). Such values are reflected not only in the work of the three faculty members who teach studio courses in sculpture, drawing, and painting (Anthony P. Frudakis, Tad McKillop, and Samuel Knecht) but also in the works of sculpture pictured on the college's student gallery page. In sculpture, emphasis is laid on the acquisition of "skills necessary to competently sculpt the head and figure." To further that end, "students are taught anatomy, proportion and the principles of organic design." That those lessons are well learned is indicated by the fact that four of the ten finalists in a Young Sculptors' competition sponsored by the venerable National Sculpture Society in 2002 were Hillsdale graduates. One of them, Carolyn Manto '01, won first prize; another, Kayb Carpenter [Joseph] '97, third. Also among the finalists were Allison Streett '02 and Sarah Hempel Irani '00. All four are now professional sculptors.

Hillsdale is a rare exception to the anti-traditionalist bias that has for decades prevailed in art education in American colleges and universities, and is increasingly being urged upon teachers in grades K-12, to judge from articles in this journal and sessions at NAEA conferences (see "Where's the Art in Today's Art Education?"). Such bias has completely alienated painters and sculptors like the Dahesh panelists, who repeatedly lamented the lack of training and encouragement in their youth. Over the years, we have learned of similar complaints by other artists, who not only had difficulty obtaining the necessary formal instruction but were actively discouraged by teachers from doing work that was deemed "passé" (see, for example, accounts by artists cited in "The New Dawn of Painting"). One of the Dahesh panelists, Meredith Bergmann--who created the Boston Women's Memorial (2003), a rare instance of contemporary public sculpture in a traditional realist style--noted that she had gone abroad to find the training she desired in modeling from life. She also reported that only one of the four other finalists in the competition to create the memorial actually knew how to sculpt the human form.

By default, the gap in formal academic training has been partly filled in recent decades by a growing number of private ateliers and academies here and abroad (see "The Legacy of Richard Lack"). They remain outside the educational mainstream, however. For example, Minneapolis has been an important center for such tradition-minded ateliers and artists since the late 1960s [see "Rejects d'Art"]. Nevertheless, they were overlooked in the programming for the 2003 National Art Education Association convention held in that city, despite a suggestion made by Kamhi to the organizers. Yet audience members expressed interest in a work [click on "back" link for other works] by one of the Minneapolis painters, Stephen Gjertson, when she showed it during her presentation "Rescuing Art from 'Visual Culture'" at the 2003 convention.

Remarkably, a promising approach to remedying the lack of training at the elementary and secondary level was offered in a sparsely attended session at the 2007 NAEA convention. The presenter, a painter named Kathryn Manzo, studied privately with Ted Seth Jacobs and Michael Aviano, whose ateliers are among those we just alluded to. Convinced that the key to true artistic freedom is technical mastery, Manzo has developed The Michelangelo Project, a classical atelier program for students in grades 6 through 12. Her goal is not to have her students create works of art but to help them acquire the skills needed to do so, through systematic instruction (see Manzo and student). Begun in 2002, the program is the first of its kind in the United States. Although it is now offered only at one private school--the Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, Tennessee--Manzo aims to replicate it elsewhere.

We have thus far focused on the issue of technical training. But an important point emphasized by virtually all the Dahesh panelists was that technical mastery alone is insufficient. As one painter-teacher suggested, art should be concerned with "the big issues of human existence, made intelligible through representational form." The best work, she insisted, comes from those who think (and feel) deeply about human life. Also revealing in this regard were the candid remarks of the painter Jacob Collins, who characterizes himself as a "classical realist" and who founded and heads the Water Street Atelier in New York City. Collins told of spending years, from adolescence on, learning how to draw and paint in the manner of the Old Masters. Now that he has attained a high level of technical proficiency, he said, he has realized "that's not enough." For him, as for his fellow traditionalists, technique is ideally placed at the service of meaning and values.

Though the panelists did not specify what those values should be, they repeatedly implied that art should deal with significant themes in a manner intelligible to the viewer. Bergmann, for example, spoke of striving to create "a simulation of life in an undying form" that would move, teach, and delight the viewer. Her figures of Lucy Stone, Abigail Adams, and Phillis Wheatley for the Boston Women's Memorial were as much inspired by her own feminist ideals as by the historical reality of these three women, whom she admires for "[having] committed themselves completely to their life's work" (Bergmann, 2003/2004). For the accomplished poet Wheatley (c. 1753-1784)--a slave who nonetheless found, Bergmann says, "the inner freedom that enabled her to write"--the sculptor aptly chose a contemplative pose and expression, and turned the figure's would-be pedestal into a writing desk. No "artist's statement" accompanies the memorial, however. None is needed, since the work is accessible on its own terms, through the facial and bodily expressions of the figures.

In the interest of balance, teachers owe it to their students to inform them of such work, and to convey to them that it surely qualifies as "contemporary art." So, too, the work of important painters and sculptors of the modernist era who chose not to pursue abstraction--from sculptors such as Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), Sally James Farnham (1869-1943), and Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973) [Joan of Arc, New York City / San Francisco] [Brookgreen Gardens, Diana of the Chase] [more: Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown, Md.], to the painters Henry Ossawa Tanner [more] (1859-1937), Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) [more], and Andrew Wyeth (b. 1917) [more], among others--should be included in the curriculum. Works by major American artists of earlier decades, such as the painter Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) [more] [see also Louis Torres's "Thomas Eakins: Painting Pure Thought"] and the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) [more] [more], should also be studied.

In presenting such work, the focus should be first on eliciting students' personal responses to the work, and then on helping them to identify the often subtle features of form, gesture, expression, and atmosphere that convey the spirit and meaning to which they have responded. After those key elements have been discussed, the lesson should be enriched with historical and biographical information. (As noted in What Art Is, such an approach to teaching art appreciation was developed and employed by Louis Torres in various public and private high schools in the 1970s.) Finally, contrary to the recommendations of some art educators, there should be a renewed emphasis in the studio on the traditional skills of drawing and sculpture, to hone students' powers both of observation and of two- and three-dimensional representation, which are the essential foundation of all art-making of lasting value.

See Notes & Comments about "Contemporary Art" and "Photo Sculpture" in Art Education.


See also references linked to in text.

Barnett, H. "Elisabeth Gordon Chandler: Sculptor, Educator, Arts College Founder." Sculpture Review, Spring 2006, pp. 16-19.

Cabanne, Pierre. Interview with Marcel Duchamp (1966). In Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett. New York: Viking, 1971.

Duchamp, Marcel. See Cabanne, Pierre.

Flynt, Henry. "Concept Art" (1961). In Richard Kostelanetz, ed., Esthetics Contemporary, rev. ed. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1989, pp. 429-31.

Gammell, R. H. Ives. The Twilight of Painting (1946). Orleans, MA: Parnassus Imprints, 1990.

Gjertson, Stephen. "Classical Realism: A Living Artistic Tradition" (2000). Reprinted from Classical Realism Journal.

Greenberg, Clement. "Avant-Garde and Kitsch." Partisan Review, Fall 1939. Reprinted in John O'Brian, ed., Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 1 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1986), pp. 5-22.

Hedberg, Gregory. "A New Direction in Art Education." In Slow Painting: A Deliberate Renaissance (exhibition catalogue), pp. 11-15. Atlanta, GA: Oglethorpe University Museum of Art, 2006.

Kamhi, Michelle Marder. "Modernism, Postmodernism, or Neither? A Fresh Look at 'Fine Art.'" Aristos, August 2005; reprinted in Arts Education Policy Review, May/June 2006: 107(5), 31-38.

Kaprow, Allan. "Happenings in the New York Scene." Art News, May 1961. Reprinted in Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), pp. 15-26.

Lack, Richard, ed. Realism in Revolution: The Art of the Boston School. Dallas, TX: Taylor, 1985.

----. On the Training of Painters: With Notes on the Atelier Program (1969). Minneapolis, MN: Atelier Lack. Reissued (7th ed.) Minneapolis, MN: American Society of Classical Realism, 2000.

McEvilley, Thomas. The Triumph of Anti-Art: Conceptual and Performance Art in the Formation of Post-Modernism. Kingston, NY: McPherson, 2005.

Spalding, Julian. The Eclipse of Art: Tackling the Crisis in Art Today. Munich: Prestel, 2003.

Torres, Louis. "The Interminable Monopoly of the Avant-Garde." Aristos, forthcoming.

----. "Artworld Maverick" (review of Spalding, The Eclipse of Art). Aristos, October 2007.

----. "The Legacy of Richard Lack." Aristos, December 2006.

----. "The Future of the Art World" (review of MFA Exhibition, Columbia University). Aristos, May 2003.