Is there any hope for modern and contemporary art?

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Is there any hope for modern and contemporary art?

From Robert Johnston

Published before 2005


Dear Fred Ross,

First of all I would like to thank you for your continued efforts towards repairing the damage that has been the result of many years of neglect in the art world. I hold much admiration and respect for you and all of those involved with the Art Renewal Center. I've been a big fan of ARC for several years now and have shared your research with my friends and acquaintances. Several of my friends and I have written essays to one another explaining our praise for academic training and disdain for the misinformation that is out there in modern day art education.

You may find parts of the following letter a bit radical and/or off the beaten path, but I assure you that I am an intelligent fellow and feel that my questions are very heartfelt. I would like to get your opinion on several topics of interest that I have debated over for quite some time now. I feel like, in order to be fair and reasonable, that the issues that we have at our hands regarding the art world in modern times must be approached from all perspectives. I understand that you are busy, so, for your convenience, I have underlined the main points in this letter. Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing back from you.

I have been known for my given artistic talent since about the age of 6. I pursued academic realism as a young man. I apprenticed with a successful artist in France and wound up studying for nine months in Florence at the FAA and the Angel Academy. My drawing skills are outstanding and I formulate my paintings to classical standards. I now work at a cultural arts center and have a range of art students ranging from age 5 to 75. I even teach some art for special education. Many of my older students have never drawn or learned how to paint before, and many of my youngest students are not mature enough to interact on a higher level with fine art yet.

I find that learning art can be a very personal and enjoyable experience independent of academic standards. Younger students can actually learn cause and effect by abstractly experimenting with paint, young teens learn through mannerism and cartoons/comics, and older students are quite happy with overly idealized or impressionistic-looking results. What is the ARC philosophy to preliminary art education?

What is your opinion on Marla Olmstead? Is she illustrating an early sign of talent, no talent, and/or a situation that will stifle her artistic potential later on in life?

Secondly, I am somewhat taken back at the disdain for modern and contemporary art among modern-day classical realists, especially in the academies. I find that the modern day classical realists are far more literal than the classical artists would have been, but this is only because they are pushing the limits of natural perception to prove a point in the midst of Hockney's accusations and the gaudy photo-realist tracers. - But they are set aside from those that are still echoing the confusion of modern and contemporary art. So, aside from the few attempts of surrealism, there is very little to bridge together between the two camps.

During my time studying in Florence, I studied quite a bit of perspective geometry. I found that there are inherent geometric and mechanical flaws to both the sight-size and comparative measurement techniques. Geometry doesn't lie. Yet, my instructors swore by them even though the measurement techniques were destined to produce minute distortions. (As a result, I found that many academic students rely too heavily on these techniques and have a tough time working outside of idealized studio conditions.) What is your take on this?

What is the ARC philosophy on natural perception? Is it considered a virtue or not for artists to be able to sketch rapidly from nature to produce less literal results? Such as in the case of Rembrandt, does it still denote artistic talent? I find that teaching sketching to students actually trains absolute beginners to focus more on composition and wholistic proportional relationships. I feel that academic training should be reserved for those that have already developed a keen natural perception and are ready to move on to the next phase. Could premature exposure to academic standards potentially be stifling to artistic development?

A teacher has to remember that beginning students may not be capable of understanding art on an academic level. You cannot teach something to a student unless they are first frustrated by not knowing it. It takes time for one's perception of what art is to mature enough to even have a foundation where they can begin to understand the principles of a more academic approach. The problem is that we need more teachers that are both capable of understanding this and technically proficient enough to be able to inspire them to the next level. Unfortunately, we have a situation today where those who can are doing and those who can't are teaching.

I have a few other questions for you:

During the time of the Renaissance, art and science were synonymous. Excluding digital media, is it still possible for there to be a form of art (i.e., drawing or painting) that could be considered a scientific exploration (of optics) that is as of yet undiscovered?

Modern and Contemporary artists pride themselves on trying to come up with techniques that have never been done before. In doing so, however, they have regressed art and exploited individual elements, or fragments, of what art is as a whole in the name of major art movements. For example, exploitation of composition independent of the other elements of art is called abstraction. Because in so-called abstract art, the only focus is on composition.

Now, here is the kicker that I am willing to wager with you:

Is it possible, however, that there is an art form (within the boundaries of drawing and painting) yet to be discovered that is all-inclusive and actually builds upon art forms of the past to create a new "look" that has never been achieved before? Could there potentially still be a fresh new style that would be unapproachable for an artist without a foundation of academic training? (This would be just like how new theorems in physics or mathematics are impossible to create without a mastery of previous foundations of knowledge.) Is the equivalent of the theory of relativity yet to be discovered in art? If so, would it be a slap in the face to call it a legitimate form of realism?

"Without tradition, Art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse." (Winston Churchill)

In other words, is traditional classical realism, as we know it, all that is left for the art world to turn to for hope?

Sincerely,
Robert Johnston