Beauty for Ashes (2010)

Beauty for Ashes (Ernie Sandidge), Video, 9:51m  2010

Beauty for Ashes (Ernie Sandidge), Video, 9:51m 2010

Beauty for Ashes is a project about the contemporary practitioners of realist/academic painting and their complex relationship with the contemporary art world. In 1863, the creation of the Salon des Refusés in Paris, which broke with the French Academy, led to the birth of the modern art movement, resulting in the eventual establishment of the avant-garde in galleries and museums worldwide. Almost 150 years after, many artists continue to work with the same shared aesthetic concerns of the classic Western canon, grounded mainly on traditional figurative representation and taking craftsmanship as the central value of their works. The use of irony versus sincerity emerges as a key philosophical divide between contemporary art and those in search for the restoration of traditional aesthetic values of beauty.

This project, which includes a small publication, a video documentary and an exhibition of works by the interviewed artists, examines their perspective and posits questions about the way in which contemporary art defines its historical present.

Beauty for Ashes is being presented in May 2010 as part of the exhibition Undercurrents: Experimental Ecosystems in Recent Art, curated by Anik Fournier, Michelle Lim, Amanda Parmer and Robert Wuilfe of the Whitney Independent Program.

The salon exhibition as part of this project includes the works of Katie Claiborne, Michael De Brito, Madora Frey, Anina Gerchick, Laura Gilbert, and Ernie Sandidge.

[Exhibition text]


Give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.

Isaiah 61:3

To Robert Rosenblum


Art history is kind to those who attempt to move its narrative forward, but is contemptuous to those who refuse to look for new forms and instead content themselves with ones from the past. These kinds of artists, unlike outsider artists, are well aware of art history, are generally trained and educated in it, but either for lack of desire or interest, remain distanced with the theoretical debates of the present, turning into outcasts, or rendering themselves invisible to the contemporary art system, resigned to their peripheral existence from the dominating art world.

The refusal to belong to one’s own time is not a new phenomenon. Every now and then, a handful of these “reactionary rebels” (like Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth) are admitted into the annals of art, albeit with a certain discomfort, coming to occupy prominent — if isolated— hallways of an art museum without quite fitting into the canonical narratives of Modernism. Over the course of time the anachronism of those artists, if still unforgiven by most art historians, is rarely a concern to the average museum visitor (Nighthawks or Christina’s World, while art-historically anachronistic, have found their places by force of their popularity and iconic timelessness). This is often the case with other art forms. Is it troubling to us today that Rachmaninoff was composing XIXth century music in the XXth century—well past the time of the emergence of the most dynamic work of the Russian Avant-Garde? From the standpoint of the average XXIst century classical music listener, it doesn’t matter much if his works were composed a few decades later.

Similarly, our obsessive fascination with timelines and evolutionary thinking makes us forget that generations of artists at any given period coexist at one particular time. A history of art of the early 1920s should equally document the rise of Surrealism and Dada as much as the fact that Monet was still alive and actively working on his Water Lilies. Yet, despite the proven impurity and porosity of our grand narratives, our record-keeping mechanisms of journalistic criticism, scholarship and museum collecting primarily document the present through the new forms, while secondary narratives, like old conversations, often recede and exile themselves into other realities.

The prevailing, if rarely explicitly spoken, view of those concerned with constructing, debating and chronicling the present —curators, artists, critics— is that those secondary conversations are at best of little, if any, interest. And yet, this vague desire to continue the semi-Hegelian impulse on the evolution or progress of art is unsatisfactory when art-making today resembles less of an advancement of new ideas than a hodgepodge of debates and references to previous ones, when one observes that artists continue to refer to all sorts of previous modern and post-modern narratives from hard abstraction to land art. Times change, indeed, but do our art forms? What if, God forbid, our cultural moment seen fifty years from now were to be regarded as a vast, reprise —imaginative perhaps, but ultimately a reprise— of Postmodernism? Writers like Nicolas Bourriaud have tried to solve this problem by introducing the —unfortunately also unsatisfactory— term “altermodern,” attempting to add a third chapter to the modern and post-modern narrative. The question is: what are the ultimate overriding values and ideas that we, as contemporary art producers today, subscribe to, and how do they differ, if at all, from those of the past? We may never know the answer until we truly understand those aesthetic ideas that we have broken with, and what that rejection says about us today.

Nowhere is this aesthetic break clearer, or the divorce greater, than between the contemporary art world and the art practices that can loosely be grouped as those of the art academies. Generally described as realist, academic or figurative, the artists who made this kind of work share the aesthetic principles of mid XIXth century art as the dominant tenets of their artistic discourse.

The implicit philosophical breakup with academic art goes back to Kant’s Critique of Judgment, where he attacks an art that is only rooted in the appeal to the senses instead of a cognitive, collective discourse. In 1863, with the creation of the Salon des Refusés in Paris, an effective bifurcation in art making led to the birth of the modern art movement and the eventual establishment of the avant-garde in galleries and museums worldwide. Amidst the vertiginous changes that the avant-garde provoked throughout the XXth century, academically inspired art took a secondary and silent place to a reduced and conservative market.

In the XXth century, Clement Greenberg equated academic painting with kitsch. Academic art communities today have thus created their own ecosystem of validation and support, as well as their own market and context. Grounded mainly on traditional figurative representation and taking craftsmanship as the central value of their works, some of these artists, led by realists like Odd Nerdrum, have defiantly self-defined themselves as kitsch, openly breaking with the notion that they produce art of their own time. The use of irony versus sincerity emerges as a key philosophical divide between contemporary art and those in search for the restoration of traditional aesthetic values of beauty. Whether referred to as academicism, figurativism, realism, or kitsch, the world created by these artists is one permeated by a profound idealism and nostalgia, at times resentful and in its own way rebellious, resulting from a sharp rejection of the values held by today’s art. A text written by an “anonymous student” on Odd Nerdrum’s website is perhaps the best example of a rejection of the contemporary world:

A greeting to you, gifted one, you who want to attain sincerity in your work. You are a stranger to your time, but do not loose [sic] heart! I know Art feels unpleasant to you; you have become a slave beneath an aristocracy of incompetents. Art was never meant for people like you. Art has its justification – the untalented need comfort – but so do you. You have been ashamed of your ability too long. So long as the skillful craftsman can only aspire to defeat, a great injustice is done. Know this: without you as a subjugated guarantor, the incompetence of Art becomes worthless. The money and honor obtained by artists rightfully belong to you, so take them back! Put an end to the humiliation, withdraw from Art and let it complete its fall into worthlessness. The 19th century was the twilight of talent; take part in its dawn. Through Kitsch the talented one can save himself. It is a new discipline in which skill finds a superstructure. A superstructure serving the genius of ability. Do not allow Art to retain its moral authority over ability.

Today for an artist to discard the entire history of the avant-garde and pursue a private dialogue with Rembrandt or Vermeer would strike contemporary art adepts as an act of self-induced deception, and the ideas or works that emerge from this world hardly worth the time of those who have been following a century and a half of aesthetic debates. Yet why is it that we don’t hold the same standards to those artists who still are clearly engaging with modernist ideas that are also nearly a hundred years old?

Rather than vindicating or condemning either the contemporary or academic art worlds, it may be revealing to study the reason of the persistence of the academy almost 150 years after the challenge of modern art, at the current juncture of “art after the end of art”. At a time when contemporary art language grapples with replacing the remaining postmodernist legacy of rendering pure feeling or pure beauty as suspect, recurring to terms like “new sincerity”, and reinserting human dimensions into the frameworks of post-minimalism, the fate of the academy and its idealistic search for sincerity and sentiment may prove to be a fertile ground to initiate a reflection on contemporary art’s dependence on irony. This doesn’t mean that one should have to recur to representation or to the formats of the academy: Greenberg notwithstanding, Abstract Expressionists, in their earnestness, were closer to Manet than they are to Richter.

In his famous novel Of Human Bondage (1915), Somerset Maugham narrates the life of protagonist Philip Carey, a man in search for meaning in his life. In one episode of this search he decides to become an artist and stereotypically moves to Paris. In the contemporary time period of the novel, he enters the academy around that mythical time when Cubism and other avant-gardes are being born— although in the narrative we see an environment closer to La Bohème. His ordeal, as well as those of his peers, is dreadful, as he is an impoverished as well as a mediocre artist doing his best to achieve notoriety. His teachers, and we as readers, know that his project is futile. In the end he gives up art making, and moves on to other quests.

Somerset Maugham originally intended the title of the work to be Beauty for Ashes, but eventually abandoned it as it had been taken by another, now-forgotten novel. Yet it has struck me that the title is evocative of a belief in art-making as deliverance, an idea that once was fervently held and which we in the contemporary art system are so estranged from. Or are we? Do we secretly hope for it, but instead protect ourselves with cynicism? Do we still hope for art to generate emotional and intellectual kingships, but refute that we engage in such idealistic desires? As we ask ourselves these questions, we may realize that those who make contemporary art and those who see themselves in dialogue with the XIXth century are ultimately not that different in their way of understanding the problem of being an artist in the XXIst century. These are questions that we can’t formulate quite clearly at this time —at least I can’t— because they exist in our present moment. The discussion may revolve around the choice that we face: to either make art as a place to lose ourselves in it as ourselves—as the Romantics did— or in hoping that we can project ourselves as someone else—as the cynics do. Both choices, nonetheless, imply a desire to freedom from history.

Pablo Helguera

New York City

May 2010

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