The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 26, 2019

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The Problem With Modern Art: Or, Why Beautiful Art Matters
James F. Cooper (MA 49:4, Fall 2007) - 04/25/08

During the past fifty years, one subject, amongst all the timeless Permanent Things conservatives have so vigorously defended, remains unexamined, unreported, all but ignored. Yet, as this essay would suggest, it may hold the key to a new world, a new way of seeing. Twenty-five years ago, at the height of the so-called culture wars, Newsweek magazine published a special edition on “The Revival of Realism.” On the cover was a reproduction of William Bailey’s Portrait of S. Bailey was a little known professor of art at Yale University. His paintings were exhibited at the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, a small three-room gallery located on the top of an old apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The Schoelkopf was one of only three or four galleries in New York City specializing in works by realists. The title Portrait of S was a sly allusion to John Singer Sargent’s famous, or rather infamous, Madame X, shown at the Paris Salon of 1882. Sargent’s model was a high society woman of somewhat low repute, and the painting caused a minor scandal. Although Sargent was still a very young man, already recognized for his great talent as a portrait artist, he found it necessary to remove himself from Parisian society to the English Cotswolds. One hundred years later, Bailey was similarly tweaking the nose of the arts establishment by introducing, like Sargent, a questionable subject. In 1982, modernism was the obligatory style of contemporary art, if you wanted a review in The New York Times, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a place in the Whitney Biennial or a big-time, prestigious art gallery on 57th Street.

Bailey’s painting is a realistic portrait of a young woman with her breasts and upper torso partly uncovered. It’s a very handsome, well-composed painting, but does not compare to the beautiful still-life paintings of ceramic bowls and porcelain Bailey is best known for. The editors of Newsweek intended to deflect any positive statements about the new realism of the late 1970s and 1980s. Their essay made it clear that this painting and the others they reproduced were not selected because they were beautiful. Indeed, many of the works were intentionally ugly. The Newsweek editors had cleverly undermined their essay on realism with derogatory phrases such as “cornball humanism,” “shallowness of mind” and “seductive nostalgia.”[1] They wanted to provoke their audience, and they did. Conservative readers were outraged at the nudity on the cover of a traditional magazine and cancelled their subscriptions in droves. Conservatives, however, missed yet another opportunity to reconnect with the traditional cultural values that lie at the heart of their beliefs.

Twenty-five years ago the sculptor Frederick Hart was hard at work on the Creation Sculptures for the main entrance of Washington National Cathedral, the most important and beautiful work of public art since Daniel Chester French’s Abraham Lincoln in the memorial at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Beginning with the 1974 commission, which Hart won in open international competition, and during the ensuing sixteen years from model to monument, an official unveiling ceremony and a blessing from Pope John Paul II, a blanket of silence descended over the project. Totally ignored by the media and newspapers, including the Washington Post, the cathedral project drew attention at last in 1982, when Hart became the subject of a negative campaign after winning the commission for Three Soldiers at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Three massive bas-reliefs, carved from Indiana limestone, are set in the tympana above the Cathedral’s great bronze doors. Life-size carved figures of Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Adam flank the entrance portals. The stone centerpiece consists of eight life-size figures emerging from a twenty-one-by-fifteen-foot “primordial cloud” of creation. Hart’s inspiration was so profound he converted to Catholicism. His mentor was the great Baroque sculptor Bernini. Hart wanted to create a work worthy of George Washington’s admonition for a great national cathedral: to serve the spiritual needs of the new nation. Like all great artists, Hart believed beauty is the supreme way for an artist to show proper respect. The public admires the realism and moral themes at play in all Hart’s works, but it is the aesthetic quality of Three Soldiers that sets it apart from the other, more recent additions to the Mall: the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Korean War Memorial and the World War II Memorial.

Twenty-five years ago the National Endowment for the Arts funded a series of confrontational works, which subsequently almost ended the existence of the NEA. The controversy over funding and the ensuing firestorm, which continued for several years, provoked the single largest mail response in Congressional history. Conservatives responded as never before, expressing their shock and outrage over government-funded exhibitions such as Piss Christ—photographs of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine—and sexually explicit homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. The wave of moral outrage overwhelmed not only Congress but many of the American banking and corporate institutions that had provided matching funds for these NEA grants. These protests were met with equal ferocity by the cultural establishment, the press, the media, university professors, Hollywood actors and the full weight of the liberal establishment. The give and take was unprecedented.

More than that, it was unexpected. No one had ever challenged the credibility of the arts community before. The NEA was regarded as sacrosanct, wrapped in the mantle of the memory of John F. Kennedy. Indeed, the records of its grants were unavailable even to conservative senators who demanded accountability. This time those who had little knowledge of the arts and its issues felt fully justified in protesting government funding to the arts, defending their faith, their moral values, their nation. The cultural cognoscenti felt equally justified defending the First Amendment and freedom of expression. Constitutional lawyers were much in demand for panel discussions on funding to the arts and the numerous criminal trials for indecency and pornography that suddenly sprang up. The Republican president quickly appointed a lawyer as chairman to keep a lid on the troubled Arts Endowment, but a year later had to fire him when it became apparent that a lawyer was unprepared to lead an arts organization. Conservatives had pressed their point effectively through political action, but they had missed a great opportunity to address the cultural issue.

Why should a dissertation on beauty be addressed specifically to conservatives? Does the topic of beauty hold more relevance for conservatives than, say, liberals? If the answer is yes, as I propose it does, why hasn’t there been more attention paid to the subject of beauty by Republican and conservative leaders? This blind spot about cultural issues has hurt conservative credibility with the public. But, more importantly, it hurts true conservatism at its moral, spiritual and philosophical core. At this critical post 9/11 time of world terrorism, this nation finds itself culturally disarmed, its moral strength sapped. The reason for this decline is no mystery. Conservatives abandoned the culture some time around the end of the First World War. By century’s end much of the old master legacy was being ignored, and major art museums were aggressively collecting postmodern minimalist and neo-Dada works. Beautiful architectural treasures such as Pennsylvania Station were torn down to make room for highways and high-rise glass boxes that destroyed the soul of inner cities in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. If one political party stands more responsible for the precipitous decline in cultural standards, the other blindly ignored it.

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