The Artist’s Eye, Contemporary Art Has Real Problems and It’s Okay to Say So

I write this out of love for traditional art and love of the pleasure I see that it brings to others when I paint in public. Art has enjoyed protection over the centuries because it has served society.

Now we are told that it can do no wrong. The artist supposedly needs total freedom of expression, like a bratty child. Didn’t Michaelangelo, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Velazquez, and many more do pretty well without that total freedom? The big problem, and the reason I have to speak out, is that contemporary art has spun off into irrelevance for many people. This leaves us, as I see it, with an actual consequence, namely the reduction of interest in and financial support for the arts. I have spent years studying technique and analyzing quality in art masterpieces. Something has gone wrong.

In this article, I use the term "contemporary art" as shorthand to mean that which is considered important by museums, academics and critics, even though any art done today, even that which uses traditional methods like my own, is technically contemporary.

Contemporary art has been steered in its current direction by mere mortals, and they are the only professionals who insist on answering to no one outside their field. Why should they be considered incapable of making mistakes? Why should they be so indifferent to public opinion? Why should they have such an easy time squelching protest about the use of public funds for art which the general public finds repulsive or inadequate? If actual traditional art skill is required for someone to be considered an artist (not the case today), then some people won’t make it, but is everyone able to be a lawyer or doctor or ballerina or football player? ( It does take skill and effort, and in fact there is plenty of slick or boring realistic painting around which doesn’t carry on in the humanistic tradition of the masters and that actually is also part of the problem.) I have stuck stubbornly to traditional techniques because this kind of art speaks to me, and very important to me is that fact that I am clearly far from alone in this response.

Contemporary art is based on a drive for novelty, with "pushing the envelope" or redefining art considered to be the most important thing. Mere mortals decided this. It is not a fact but a strategy. Suppose you redefine "hot" as "cold" and intimidate everyone to go along with it. Will you then be able to make ice cubes in an oven? If we define slices of cow or a few lines on a gallery wall as art, we have a spectacle that some people like, but it’s not art and there are consequences. Yes, the French Impressionists did things in a novel way, but it wasn’t the novelty that was important, it was the color, psychology, and liveliness of the paintings that made them successful. Focusing on the novelty aspect misses the point. Supposedly photos and video have replaced traditional painting, and young people and non-Europeans don’t respond to traditional Western paintings, so you’ve got to shock them, gross them out, puzzle them to get them into a museum. I have made art in public for over 12 years, and I know that people of all ages and backgrounds do care. They stop to look, and in addition to what they say, I can see in their eyes that my making of life into art really matters to them. Whatever the problem may be with museum attendance, it’s not that people don’t respond to quality traditional art.

Anything we object to now will supposedly be loved by people in the future. The French Impressionists were refused by exhibitions juries of the Salon, which according to the Metropolitan Museum’s Timeline of Art History (at "had a virtual monopoly on public taste and official patronage." In other words, you couldn’t make it as an artist without their support. The Impressionists dared to challenge the Salon and with great effort eventually of course did become highly valued artists. The "Salon" of our day is made up of the academics, critics, and curators who scorn the traditional approach. Isn’t it perfectly reasonable to rebel against them now? Today’s "Salon" handles challenges to its leadership and its glorified artists with sneering condescension, ridicule, or below-the-belt attacks. Meanwhile, intimidated government (yes, it’s possible, under certain circumstances) is at times bending over backwards to support offensive work, creating, in my analysis, an unintended competition to make the most offensive work possible. At other times government seems to be trying to use art as social work, which is a good application but art-as-therapy should stay in the therapy room unless it’s professional quality.

It’s time for a swing of the pendulum, time to question whether people in key jobs in the contemporary art field are really somehow irreplaceably enlightened. Is all art we don’t like now going to be loved in the future? Are these particular people in these key jobs the only ones who can recognize true artistic worth? Is everyone who doesn’t like contemporary art "like Hitler," secretly harboring the desire to imprison, torture, and commit mass murder? Or is this a smear tactic? If this opposition represents cruelty to artists, what about the fact that, while being kind to a few recognized artists, the critics, curators and professors are ignoring and rejecting numerous other artists? By the same logic they use, aren’t they "mean" to do this? Are they trying to "kill" the non-favored artists?

Admittedly, contemporary art is making big money for a few artists and a lot of collectors, but not every business that makes money is beyond reproach. If you know enough to vote for the kind of government you want, you know enough to offer opinions about what art benefits your society. Change may be difficult, but if many people speak up it then maybe some grant judges, curators and academics can take a different tack or be replaced by people who will. That is no more harmful or objectionable than making changes in who gets jobs in government when there is a post-election change in party control. Government is a two-party system allowing dissent; the art world has for too long been a tyranny, albeit with good press. It’s legitimate to want change. It’s legitimate to say that in the big picture art funding is suffering from the ill-used freedom of the past few decades. Art matters. People in power in the contemporary art field don’t own it but merely play roles in it for now. If you agree with me, don’t let them bully you into silence.

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About the Author: Ronnie Levine