The many masks of modern art -- X; The conservative realistic tradition in 20th -- century art
Except for kittens, clowns, and babies, no subjects are more dangerous for an artist to tackle in this day and age than sailboats, seagulls, and lighthouses. To attempt to draw or paint any of these is to risk one's credibility as a serious artist. And for good reasons. All too often pictures of such subjects are nothing but transparent attempts to seduce our sympathies by appealing directly to our more sentimental and less critical natures, to subvert our ability to judge a work of art objectively by calling upon our love furry kittens or white sailboats against blue skies.
It's a low trick and one which works altogether too well. But we have learned to protect ourselves by becoming suspicious of paintings with so-called popular subjects. The only trouble is that such a reaction has made it too easy to go to the other extreme and to declare that pictures of sailboats and lighthouse cannot be art becausem they portray such popular subjects.
Now that's a simplistic solution which avoids the viewer's responsibility to make his own reasoned judgment on the merit of a particular work of art. It permits him to decide negatively on the basis of subject matter alone.
Simplistic perhaps but far from unusual. As a matter of fact it is the central fact of life for a large number of artists working today whose art all too frequently suffers rejection on the basis of style or subject matter.
Our century has produced hundreds of such artists. Unwilling to climb aboard the bandwagon of modernism which, despite all statements to the contrary, has been the fashionable route to success during most of this century, and, at the same time, unable to give their allegiance to the dead tradition of academic realism, these artists are forced to hammer a personal art out of raw experience , observation, and whatever traditional skills and themes they feel still apply to an art indigenous to our day and age.
Above all, these artists are pragmatists who deal only in what they know, can see or touch, or have experienced. They deal in hard evidence and are as far from the true believers of modernism as one can imagine. Confronted with a Motherwell, they see only blobs of paint, and with a Klee, nothing but childish scrawls."
But while they may be derisive about modernism, they take themselves and their art very seriously. As a whole they are truly dedicated to the notion of creative integrity regardless of where it may lead -- which for most of them means a limited following, a minimum of financial rewards, and no serious critical recognition whatsoever.
I've known a number of these artists over the years and have a hearty respect for them and for their work. Of them all, one stands out, both for the quality of his art and for the genuine humility he displayed toward that art.
Stow Wengenroth represents the very best of the conservative American tradition of lyrical naturalism, and occupies a position in the graphic arts very similar to that occupied by Andrew Wyeth in painting. Bot artists represent that quality in our national temperament which will never feel truly at home in an urban community.
Wengenworth is this country's master of black-and-white. No one else was able to orchestrate gradations of greys against areas of blacks and whites as well as he, and always within ordinary forest scenes, coastal views, or whatever other bit of local landscape he decided to turn into art. He was the ultimate master at hiding all traces of the scaffolding upon which he erected his compositions. His entire art was directed at drawing our attention to the natural wonders which had enchanted him and which he wanted to share with us.
Remarkable as he is, he is not unique. Artists sharing his point of view can be found everywhere. Although great pride is taken today in the fact that art exhibitions, held in cities throughout this country, are as sophisticated and "in" as any in New York, it is actually more extraordinary that artists of all ages are working in these same communities whose only creative interests lie in transforming their personal experiences and their knowledge of local landscape or customs into art of truth and integrity -- without any concern about what is going on in the art centers of the world.
I cannot imagine antyhing worse than a nation of artists taking their cues from what is shown along a few blocks of galleries in New York.But I felt quite differently at one time. I felt that the dramatic emergence of Abstract Expressionism after World War II we were finally about to rid ourselves of the confusions and contradictions rampant in American art between the World Wars. That our art was finally about to gain some measures of clarity and consistency.
Well, nothing much happened. Or perhaps I should say that little was clarified and that little consistency appeared. We have had some truly remarkable art these last thirty years, but things seem as confused and as contradictory today as they did in 1947.
I've come to the conclusion that that is how it should be, that any notion of a universal style of art for us is utterly naive and simplistic. It is, in fact , anti-life and anti-art to wish for such a thing.
I've come to the conclusion that art is and should be as rich and as varied as humanity itself, for there is room in it for all types of temperaments, points of view, and subject matter.
Which brings me back to Stow Wengenroth and to hundreds of other conservative artists of talent and integrity who devoted their lives to portraying whtat they saw and knew.