Artist's Death Rekindles Culture War

Artist Andrew Wyeth died January 16 at age 91. And as happens when any known artist passes away – as did Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg last Spring – a controversy ensues that is part of the Culture War that America is enmeshed in.


Wyeth was an image painter who was controversial both for what he achieved, and for what his critics say he did not achieve. They say his barns, landscapes and portraits were unchallenging, too conventional, too romantic and too sentimental, and that he was merely an illustrator. This is the current judgment on all traditional artists outside the radical edge – people like Norman Rockwell and Thomas Hart Benton, for instance. But when a trendy ‘artist’ like Rauschenberg dies, all heck breaks loose.


Wyeth comes out of a tradition dear to the hearts of historical art aficionados everywhere. He painted things as he saw them – images – which were not distorted beyond recognition, which has been the norm in 20th century modernism. When Hitler assembled an exhibit of ‘modern art’ that he termed “degenerate” for its distorted human figures and other hallucinogenic and slapdash images and forms, the avant-gardists used it as an affirmation that they were right.


But just because a bad person says that the sky is blue does not mean that the sky is not blue.


Rauschenberg came along in the 1960s contemporaneous to people like Andy Warhol, who died in 1987. Rauschenberg became famous for sculptural assemblages that involved ‘found objects’ (mattresses, blankets, tires, stuffed animals) and ‘paintings’ that were merely agglomerations of manipulated photographic images. This was like Warhol who made his famous Campbell’s soup can ‘paintings’ from images that he directly “appropriated” from the commercial world.


In short, neither originated his own images – they “borrowed” them or “found” them, and so there developed a conflict in some quarters about whether either really was an artist.


The movement that led to Warhol and Rauschenberg is sometimes referred to as ‘concept art’ where the artist has a ‘concept’ (like reproducing a Campbell’s soup can as a jokey comment on commercial culture) while the ‘execution’ is merely an afterthought. In short there is no need for any kind of serious artistic apprenticeship or training in order to execute the idea. So if an artist today wants to include a human form in his art, he can just as easily use a mannequin than sculpt a human figure from clay or stone. In other words, expediency over artistic tradition.


Meanwhile, an artist like Wyeth paints in the old-fashioned way – he studies a barn, a tree, a portrait, and then makes a painting of it using his artistic powers of observation and painterly execution.


Anyone who has impartially studied the work of both Rauschenberg and Wyeth knows that neither is a great artist. And a judgment like this would cause a firestorm within the avant garde because no avant-gardist is ever supposed to be compared to an old-fashioned artist like Wyeth. Yet the two have major weaknesses.


Wyeth’s strengths are in his painterly skill, which is hardly Renaissance quality, but nonetheless is somewhat accomplished. Rauschenberg’s forte, on the other hand, is his visually stimulating work.


Their weaknesses? Wyeth’s art indeed is somewhat static and does have illustrational qualities. Rauschenberg’s weakness is that, like Warhol’s, his execution requires no artistic talent as we know it, but merely a sense of “design”. His ‘paintings’ always have had an air of commercial perfection, as have Warhol’s.


So neither Wyeth nor Rauschenberg reaches the level of what it means to be a great artist.


Of course the New York gliteratti would dismiss such criticism as mere bumpkin unenlightenment.  After all, Rauschenberg and Warhol are icons of modernism. So was Picasso.


The question is: Is the modern art establishment itself corrupt?


And the answer is: For the most part, yes.


To put this in context, it is important to understand the genesis of ‘concept art’ and thus most of ‘modern art’ in the first place. It is not an artistic movement, it is a political movement that was born with the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848.


In the Manifesto, Karl Marx essentially said that up is down and black is white. He said that the natural economic laws like supply and demand did not apply, that the state should set prices and wages in order to create a more equitable society. He ignored the reality of economic growth – that it follows a course of trial, error, risk and patience. Marx said simply that each person should get what he needs and that this should be decided by a dictator and his functionaries. This of course is fantasy, and every time Marx’s ideas have been applied, the people have become destitute and mass murder has ensued.


The reason that ‘concept art’ and communism were kindred spirits is that communism says that all people are the same and all people are worthy. ‘Concept art’ says that everyone is an artist, and that no art training is necessary. It upends the millennia of tradition that says that the best artists rise through hard work and talent, just as economic growth arises through generations of risk and patience.


That is why Picasso, an avowed communist, was so revered by the modernist movement and embraced by the left – because he obliterated all of the traditions and standards of art history, and replaced them with a facile, cartoon-like signatures in which any artist can see his own greatness.


When a father from New Jersey drives into New York City with his children and looks at Picasso and says, “My kid could do that,” he is absolutely correct. But the art establishment looks down its nose at the father and judges him a fool. There is a reason for this. Most of the ‘modern art’ establishment is corrupt, like the commissars of a failed dictatorship. And even when they know in their hearts that the people are suffering – as art is suffering today – they cannot admit it because they are in power and are benefiting, with all the privileges and wealth.


Andrew Wyeth was no great artist. He was a decent painter who achieved fame and created controversy by swimming against the tide of today’s modernist ethic. In the long run, however, today’s artists will be judged by the timeless ethos that rules our world. Whether the political left, which controls the arts today, manages to undermine art over the ages is yet to be seen. From the evidence, we can hope that their reign is a short one that will be tossed on the ash heap of history, just as Marx’s theories have been.


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