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Margot Schulzke’s name and her work are well known coast to coast. A contributing editor for The Pastel Journal, she is widely regarded as an authority on the subject of composition and design. Her upcoming book, A Painter’s Guide to Design and Composition (Northlight) will be out January 2006. The highly-regarded Pastel Society of the West Coast ranks her as a Distinguished Pastelist, an honor extended to only 26 of PSWC’s approximately 4 members. Her work has been featured in a number of books and articles, a list of which appears below.  She has served as a juror for many exhibitions, such as Pastels USA (2003) and Pastels 100 (2004).

When Art Isn't
--- © Margot Schulzke, 2002

Now and then, when I look at what has passed for art in the last fifty years I wonder, what am I missing? What is here that I don't understand? But the impulse passes in an instant, a split second; I am not really taken in. It seems that the name of art is being taken in vain. It's a question of quality versus kitsch, at both ends of the spectrum, since we can also find plenty to blush about in the traditional forms of art.

Let me be very clear: we are not talking here about the good stuff. Obviously there is much in the general realm of “modern” art that is worthwhile. There is quality to be found in the realm of abstraction, in cubism, etc. The soaring abstractions of Lionel Feininger will always be valid. Abstract expressionism had much to be said for it, as well. However, avant-garde art, so-called, has received special treatment at the hands of the media, the NEA, the museums and major galleries for some fifty years, so it can afford some special treatment in this article.

First, let's consider the term “avant-garde”. It is French for “leading edge”. It is, in this artist/writer's book, no longer legitimate terminology, because the art forms it supposedly describes have long since graduated to establishment status. They are no longer leading or cutting edge but are as entrenched as any 19th century Victorian academy ever was. For lack of a better term, perhaps it should be replaced with postmodern, another that is in use today.

For several decades, the question, “Is it new?” has taken precedence over “Is it good?” Robert Vickery, creator of over 75 Time magazine covers, credits Thomas B. Hess, editor of Art News in the fifties, with introducing the term. In 1982, Vickery observes, “Time Magazine art critic Robert Hughes announced, 'We only review the new.' ”

John Canaday was for many years an art critic for the New York Times. “The cult of the new,” he observed, “had replaced the cult of the worthy. …Indeed, for the last couple of decades, critics have fashioned the art world by pruning out anything live and vital, treating with careful neglect artwork of which they disapprove. Well, they got just what they wanted-their garden is growing TV-dinner art: frozen, emotionless, flavorless. Now they say, what went wrong? Why is the art of the last decade so disappointing? [1]

The roots of this movement go back beyond Hughes, beyond 1982, to the fifties. When Joseph Albers became the director of the Yale School of Fine Arts, Vickery relates that he “fired or humiliated into retirement the entire, and I repeat, entire faculty. (He) harangued his students with, 'If you don't do it my way, I suggest you commit suicide.' [2]

At about the same time, “magazines and newspapers stopped reviewing the (traditional) national shows,” Vickery relates. He notes, “John Canaday, before he resigned from the New York Times, pointed out that a few narrow-minded people were dominating the art world in this way.” In relation to Andrew Wyeth, “he (Canaday) said that if the work was good, it didn't matter if it was traditional. Shortly after this, Canaday was no longer with the Times.” It was not long before the New York Times began using terms like “excrement” to describe Wyeth's colors. [3]

Applying the “newness” standard for artistic quality has led to some ridiculous extremes, a “shock of the week” mentality that has brought the world such things as the infamous Virgin Mary painting adorned with elephant dung, which was exhibited not long ago in the Brooklyn Museum. It has blessed us with such trivialities as bed sheets being strung for miles across the Northern California landscape - for a few days. Art should be more than just a plea for attention, yet many of these “happenings” and other alleged artworks have no other reason to exist.

This line of thinking, if carried to any logical conclusion, rejects anything “old” as unworthy of mention. So this week's startling new art is next week's stale leftovers. Within reason, newness is good. But so are the more durable standards of authenticity, fine composition, draftsmanship, genuine passion, and durable craftsmanship. To say nothing of beauty. Where do they fit in? In the postmodern model, they don't. There is a conscious effort to exclude them from consideration.

So the more searching question, in preference to “what is here that I don't understand,” may be simply, “What is here?” Because we do understand. Let's call a spade a spade. A considerable portion of what purports to be art isn't. Artifice, maybe. And just possibly the person who created it is not an artist. We must be allowed the option of reaching such conclusions, and be forthright enough to say so, where appropriate. Neither fine artists nor the public should allow themselves to be intimidated by a small clique of art gurus-collectors, designers, gallery curators-who continue to control the national (and often the regional) scene.

A number of years ago, during a series of trips I made to New York to attend openings of the Pastel Society of America annuals, I did an informal survey of fine traditional artists. Did any of them ever get grants from the NEA, I wondered? Did any of their associates ever win such grants? Did the societies that represent them get grants? After many such queries on both coasts, the total number I found who had received NEA grants was zero. None.

It appears that the NEA does something fine for classical music-symphony, opera and ballet, etc. But it does nothing to level the playing field for living visual artists. Instead it requires traditional artists to struggle uphill to compete-financially and in terms of museum exposure-against avant garde/postmodern artists-while we continue paying taxes to support their grants. It is kind of like requiring Target and Kmart to donate to the support of Walmart-although I wouldn't carry that analogy too far.

Tom Wolfe, writing on the life and works of sculptor Frederick Hart, relates the creation of Hart's stunning, two-story high bas-relief sculpture, Ex Nihilo, which adorns the west façade of the Washington National Cathedral. Wolfe labels it “the most monumental commission for religious sculpture in the twentieth century.” It was a breathtaking, breakthrough accomplishment. To complete it took thirteen years.

When the sculpture was dedicated, the reaction of the press was silence. It was as though Frederick Hart and his work did not exist. “After the dedication of Ex Nihilo …in the months and years that followed,” this sublime accomplishment received “no press, not even so much as a one-paragraph review.” [4]

It was as though he had dropped into a publicist's black hole. But Hart was not and is not alone. Virtually all artists who prefer time-tested classical standards over postmodern trends have for several decades been relegated to outer darkness.

Postmodern jurors routinely reject work that is “too good”. One juror's statement about her selections for a regional show here in Northern California was that she chose work “indicating that the artist was still struggling.” With what, we wonder-design, drawing, technique? Muddy color? The answer is yes.

Exactly on this point, Vickery quotes critic John Russell, who claims that “multi-layered difficulty…is the surest indication that important art is on the way.” On the way? I'd like to know what time it will arrive. And shouldn't we hold the celebration until it does?

Vickery comments, “I guess that means if it looks lousy, it's probably good. And, of course, if it looks good right off the bat, it's probably lousy.” [5] Which explains why that magnificent work of yours didn't make it past the postmodern juror. It was just too darned good to be…umm, good.

Contrast Hart's stunning work with the installation in 1976 at Hartford, Connecticut, of a pile of thirty-six huge rocks, as Wolfe puts it, “just plain rocks from off the ground” arranged in some sort of triangular pattern. The selection of the sculptor, and part of the funding, was arranged by the National Endowment for the Arts. The putative artist, Carl Andre, then presented the city of Hartford “with a bill for $87,000.” Not unexpectedly, the City Council dug in its heels, as “citizens hooted and jeered” at the insult to the community and to their eyes. Also not unexpectedly, the NEA put the City Council's feet to the fire, and they paid up.

Less than ten years later, when the colossal figure of Portlandia, by Raymond Kaskey, arrived by barge in Portland, Oregon, Wolfe reports “thousands of citizens lined the shore and boulevards, cheering and crying. …The art press, however, continued to ignore such work, as did the museums and major galleries. And so did the art schools. By 1994, there were only half a dozen offering a full-scale curricula in the sculpting of the human form.” [6]

I have not seen the sculpture Portlandia; perhaps it is fine, perhaps not. But surely it is better than rocks dumped in the park.

What is happening in music is in sync with that in the visual “art world”. The NEA last year (2001) issued a list of 365 Songs of the Century. Cyndi Lauper, Shania Twain and the Grateful Dead all made the list. George Gershwin did not. So are we, as Michael Long asks, “culturally incomplete if (our) familiarity extends to Gershwin, but not to TLC?” [7]

It's a good question. However, the question is really not just what do we know, but what do we want to know? Do we, as a culture, really want to be more familiar with the Grateful Dead than with George Gershwin? What responsibility do artists have to the community? Is it trendiness, anarchy and nihilism that make a civilization soar? Are we really just a reflection of the current culture, or it is a two-way mirror?

In a 1995 PSWC newsletter, I suggested that we as traditional artists should become more informed, and then more vocal, in shaping the forces that control our publicity, exhibit and marketing opportunities. That we should take a more assertive, more confident approach. We know the key question for traditional artists is not is it new? but is it worthy? We know traditional art is created with at least the intention of offering layered meanings, solid design, deep space and all the other good stuff that holds up well against the shock of the week. Shouldn't we speak up more, so the rest of the world will know it, too?

Of course it is more satisfying just to paint than it is to be an advocate. It was, for thirteen years, more satisfying to Frederick Hart just to sculpt. But he deserved vastly better than he got for creating Ex Nihilo. [8] Many of those who are reading this article deserve far better than the stony silence from the major media and the cold shoulder from the NEA that traditional artists get. Numbers of serious artists becoming at least part-time advocates may make the critical difference; probably nothing else will.

We need to think about where we are going, and where we are taking civilization. And about things so mundane as the equitable distribution of tax dollars to artists. Reading widely on these subjects is a starting point. Some of the best writing on such questions appears in two publications-the California Art Club Newsletter, and the American Arts Quarterly [9] . I recommend both.

Gradually more artists are speaking out. And I believe more people are listening. Over a decade ago, Richard Schmid said he believed that the modern art movement was an aberration-“one over whose muddled theories future generations will shake their heads in amazement.” [10] More recently, a University of Chicago art historian asked, “Why, in order to be serious, do things have to be ugly?” [11]

When critics join the artists in shaking their heads, we know things are at least moving in the right direction. Following the opening of a show in New York, art critic Hilton Cramer observed, “I frankly had never heard of most of the so-called artists…and will happily avoid seeing their work in the future. …I don't go to art galleries to look at video monitors or flickering computer screens, or to listen to electronic squeals and blips.” [12]

Well said. Maybe there is hope, after all.


[1] Robert Vickrey, Letter from a Guest, Artist's Magazine, p. 4, June, 1995.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tom Wolfe, In Memoriam, Frederick Hart (1943-1999) An American Sculptor, reprinted from the Weekly Standard in the California Art Club Newsletter, Summer 2000. Hart is also the sculptor who did Three Soldiers for the Vietnam Memorial.

[5] Vickery, op. cit.

[6] Wolfe, op. cit.

[7] Michael Long, Loony Tunes, The Weekly Standard, Apr. 9, 2001, p. 39.

[8] Hart responded to his own experience by organizing a group called the Centerists (sic), whose objective is to formulate a “new aesthetic for the arts”. (Wolfe, op. cit.)

[9] Contact them at P. O. Box 1654, Cooper Station, N.Y. 10276.

[10] William Eiland, quoting Richard Schmid in U.S. ART, September, 1989.

[11] Wolfe, op. cit.

[12] Hilton Kramer, The Critic Examined, Art and Antiques Magazine, p. 98-9, Jan. 2001.


All artwork copyright © Margot Schulzke 2009. All rights reserved.