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January 27, 2006

Same Old, Same Old

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards--

You can read here a New York Times review by Roberta Smith of yet another Cezanne show. (Requires registration.) The show is “Cezanne in Provence” and is being mounted at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. starting January 29, 2006.

Reading reviews like this, I feel like I'm stuck in a movie theater with the same film playing over and over. Not that there's anything wrong with Cezanne, I like his paintings a lot, but it’s not exactly like he’s an underexposed or neglected talent.

What is it today with museums and the founding (French) fathers of Modern Art? Why do we get show after show of art that is 100+ years old and yet are still publicized with this annoyingly proselytizing tone? Why is it necessary, on the occasion of the 500th or 5000th Cezanne show, to play the schoolmaster and lecture us on the fact that his art is important because "it effectively destabilized centuries of representation to reach a deeper, fuller, nearly hallucinatory kind of realism"?

I doubt that in the 1930s the art-loving public got nonstop shows of Delacroix and the Barbizon painters (i.e., the “School of 1830”), or that in the 1890s the public got nonstop shows of J. L. David and the Neoclassicists (also 100 years past their glory days). And I doubt that when Delacroix or J. L. David were shown a century after their deaths, that the curators found it necessary to hector the public about the incredible breakthroughs made by those artists, or how their art-making methods amounted to a complete overthrow of the previous artistic practice. (Despite the fact that in many respects they were as revolutionary as Cezanne.)

It’s kind of amazing how nostalgic and backward looking Dogmatic Modernism has really turned out to be. Modernism, forever fixated on its long-since digested “breakthroughs” reminds me of nothing so much as listening to an aging hippy talking about being at Woodstock or at Kent State.

Apparently, some kinds of revolutions are, like diamonds, forever...



posted by Friedrich at January 27, 2006


As you imply, publicists and their backers might simply be on autopilot. Or maybe, way down deep, they worry that the post-Cezanne, post-Monet art that really "destabilized centuries of representation" has shallow roots -- so the theme "representation = bad" needs to be hammered and hammered and hammered home. My cursory looks at the Carmel and Santa Fe gallery scenes suggest that representational art still hasn't taken the hint that it's supposed to be dead. Perhaps some paranoia by the Modernist and PoMo crowds is justified.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 27, 2006 6:29 PM

Umm, save for a minority, I do not believe the breakthroughs of modernism are "long-since digested". In fact, I believe the historicism you are advocating in this post is pre-modern and refutes itself. A 19th century perspective. :)

Cezanne was not an advance on Delacroix, and Picasso and Pollock were not advances on Cezanne.
This is what I personally take from modernism, as exemplified for instance in Freud, "Ulysses", "Rite of Spring", "Damoiselles d'Avignon". The past is not only not prologue, it isn't even past. The modernists killed space and time, and Cezanne's breakthrough is completely contemporary, as is Giotto's and Rembrandt's and whoever.

It is unfashionably pessimistic to believe we are no better than the Greeks and Romans, but the 20th century was not convincing or encouraging.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on January 27, 2006 6:43 PM

All great paintings live in the present, when viewer meets viewed. The reason for all the false historical hoo-ha is that Cezanne wasn't a great painter. He was made out to be one, because his paintings served to illustrate the degenerate ideas of the critics. The critics are people who want the world to reflect their image, but since they have no skills of their own and can't create anything, they find it more convenient to tear other things apart. Cezanne is the Norman Rockwell of the degenerates. Same with Picasso. And Pollack. Their work is sooo "interesting"! Yawn.

The reason why all these guys are played out as revolutionaries is that Modern Art is all about rebellion. You must tell people what the painters are revolting against. Cezanne was rebelling against proper drawing, Picasso was rebelling against the illusion of the picture plane and perspective, against "literal" depictions of women, Pollack was rebelling against objective representation and compostion, blah, blah, blah. You finally run out of things to rebel about. That's where Modernism is today. Spent. Repetitive. Surly. Inane. This is also why all the truly great painters of the past are recast as rebels, to fit the role. If you don't believe me, check it out. I challenge you to prove me wrong.

The one thing that is verboten, of course, is to rebel against Modern Art. Because it is a religious dogma. The claims only seem repetitive because they cannot be challenged, and they never change. Rebellion is the ultimate end. The only thing propping this dead carcass up is the vast amout of money that has been spent on such dreck. No one wants to be the last one holding the douche bag, so the critic and academic classes are well funded to keep the illusion going. The modern wings of museums to me are simply reliquaries of a mental ward.

Posted by: Brian Minder on January 27, 2006 9:03 PM

Wow, Brian I like me Ingres and Bierstadt and Peto as much as any guy, but I don't actually think Miro and Motherwell are insane. Maybe a little loose and self-indulgent and self-important, but not drooling psychos.

Your name sounds slightly familar, is this an invasion of the ARC religious contingent?

Posted by: bob mcmanus on January 27, 2006 10:49 PM


Not all people who reside in mental wards are insane. I think you should retract that statement before the PC Commissars knock down your door, demand a confession, and assign penance, as the religion requires.

I doubt you like any of those realist painters as much as I do, and they aren't even my favorites (not even close). Because if you did, you, like me, would not equate them with Motherwell or Miro. My guess is that you threw that in as a sort friendly equivocation: "Hey, I like and recognize the greatness of some of your guys, now why can't you be friendly and do the same for me?" I can't do that because it isn't true. They aren't on the same level. If you would like to debate that, I think it might be very instructive, not to me or you, since we don't agree, but to the 5 other people reading this thread, maybe.

I hope that my name would be familiar to others because of what I have done rather than what I have said. I don't speak for the ARC, but I wholeheartedly support their cause, which is to provide a FREE resource to people all over the world to see the very best of representational painting and to promote its resurgence. I haven't heard of any similar project from the proponents of Modern Art, to provide a huge, free resource to people promoting their favorite form of art. Usually you have to pay $10-15 for the visual insult.

I also can paint a a fairly high level (, so I think I offer a somewhat more credible perspective. Not only can I slop paint randomly on a canvas and talk psuedo-intelligently about it, I can also paint real stuff if I want. I know what the difference is.

Bob, if you will, please answer the point I made about Modern Art being obsessed with rebellion. Please don't direct it back to me. Let's discuss the big-time painters, if you are game.

Posted by: Brian Minder on January 28, 2006 12:33 AM

Nah, Brian, I am not equipped to defend modernism, and my initial comment was actually a criticism of modernist dogma if you read it carefully. But neither am I hostile to the work.

Uhh, Brian, I have the ARC collection on my harddrive (and CD's) obtained 1 2 or 3 clicks at a time over the course of the last couple years. I am serious, all what is it 70,000 items at somewhere between 30 and 50 an hour almost every day. Do the math. I guess I owe Fred and Sherry a lot of money or gratitude. I have tried to spread the word, and you will find several links to ARC under my name in the archives here.

If you like, you can consider me a lightweight for not attaching an ideology to my personal preferences. It is a fair criticism.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on January 28, 2006 1:26 AM

"Bob, if you will, please answer the point I made about Modern Art being obsessed with rebellion"

Damn, you're making me think above my paygrade. Wikipedia has a decent article on Modernism. Okay, too much contemporary high culture has become sterile because of a desperate desire for innovation for its own sake. But since the Modernism I identify with, the teens and twenties, was in part an ironic attack on the concepts of progress and cultural improvement I am having a little trouble defining exactly what it is Modernism is rebelling against. I mean, Gauguin in Brittany or Tahiti seems as much atavistic and reactionary as he does revolutionary.

I guess the question is whether there is some sort of prevailing culture, some set of fixed values and perceptions that Modernism is rebelling against. That this fixed culture was and is expressed in realism or the sonata form or the linear novel or progress. I think Modernism is saying that those values were an artifact of particular short stretch of the industrial age, and are not eternal or universal.

Sorry, I just don't get it. You can call Memling or Bourgereau or Alma-Tadema or Rembrandt or Poussin or Burne-Jones or the Barbizon guys realism or academic classicism or whatever but it still seems to me as much metaphor and symbols and sign as Warhol and Stella. There is no representation in art, and never has been. You want to preserve or renew a culture that barely ever existed, and are twisting the history of art to make it funnel to 1875. If Modernism is a rebellion against that, it is a very good thing, for Raphael and Michelangelo are part of that rebellion.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on January 28, 2006 3:54 AM

In Harold Rosenberg's book of essay's "The Tradition of the New", he spells out what I take to be the 'orthodox' position of Modern Art on artistic tradition:

For the painter under the influence of revolutionary ideas—though he may consider himself non-political—the way to paint is determined by the logic of an external development, whether in art or society. “Since such and such has been done, it follows that art must…” Mondrian leaves “naturalistic” art behind, and it’s up to the artist who comes after him to leave Mondrian (or Picasso or Klee, depending on whom he conceives as “last”) behind. But not Rubens or Correggio, since Rubens was left behind by other people. It follows that Mondrian is Art, but Rubens and the others are tombstones in a receding series, not even containing anything that can be negated.

What I'm wondering at, in a head-scratching way, is why Cezanne, who has been "left behind" in Mr. Rosenberg's sense for over 75 years, is still being treated as a great revolutionary in a NY Times article published in 2006! By what cultural or institutional magic has Cezanne been preserved from the fate of Rubens, who in Mr. Rosenberg's terms has been reduced to a tombstone "not even containing anything that can be negated"?

In other words, what does it mean to celebrate revolution when one's cultural thought-structure has become entirely sclerotic?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 28, 2006 9:51 AM

In large measure modernism has been an attempt to favor (or privilege) the difficult over the enjoyable. It won't wash. People want to like what they look at -- feel pleasure. Ergo the ever increasing doses of heavy handed "correct thinking" coming out of the art establishment. Someday the whole shaky superstructure will collapse. Tick, tick, tick...

Posted by: ricpic on January 28, 2006 11:59 AM

I don't know, Friedrich, I presume it is because the Post-impressionists were the founders, they broke the mold. Everyone else is playing with the the shards, but the pieces are there to work with because of Cezanne.

Leftists can leave Lukacs and Marcuse and Althusser and Robinson behind, but Marx is always around. Conservatives can build on Hayek and Kirk and Friedman but keep going back to Burke. Rockers who grew up on the Clash or Pixies still find the Seeds or 13th Floor Elevators a revelation.

The "generative impulse" of modernism is still accessible in Cezanne, in a way it is not in his successors, commenters, descendants. We can see what Pollock and Rothko are doing, but we can't quite see why they are doing it as easily as we can in Cezanne and Van Gogh and Gauguin.

If I am even understanding your question.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on January 28, 2006 1:19 PM

And with due respect, modernism is much more accepted in mass culture that many of your commenters seem to imply. Although they wouldn't pay a million dollars for it, I think very few people would find a Mondrian unacceptable or offensive if they found it on their wall. They would think it blandly pretty. A Miro farmyard or Girl before the Mirror would be fun or interesting, and probably picked up as a print at a garage sale before a Rubens or Poussin. The days when a crowd would recoil in horror from abstraction are long gone.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on January 28, 2006 1:28 PM


You gave me a head fake! I didn't think you were bitin' on this one.

For the record, some of my favorite painters are Sargent, Sorolla, Zorn, Fechin, Arkhipov, Levitan, etc. More of the direct painter crowd. I don't like the Salon painters much at all.

When people are talking about realism in painting, they are talking about the realistic depiction of nature (trees, hills, water, faces, pots, pans, etc.). They aren't talking about celebrating or upholding some passing era. The proof of this is that you can enjoy such great work created back then in the present, even if you know little or nothing about the time period when the painting was created. Great art always lives in the present, when viewer meets viewed. You understand very well what I'm talking about.

Modernism is saying "Screw nature and beauty; They bore me. I don't want to take the time to learn how to paint that stuff anyway. I don't like my culture, my world. I'm an outsider, and I resent it. Now I get the chance to judge you, and I'm going to tear you apart. I'm going to reject your values, your sensibilities, and your culture. I'm going to break the rules and ridicule and mock you. And if you don't like it, I'll just pretend that you're stupid, and not smart enough to understand. Eat that!"

Cezanne is innovative because he couldn't draw well. He is a rebel because he accepted that shortcoming. If you want to like him, that's okay. I'm not saying anyone can't, or that they shouldn't paint that way if they want. I'm just saying that its inferior to the true greats of painting. See, I'm JUDGING based on, of all things, QUALITY! I realize that in Modern painting, being a craftsman is irrelevant. IDEAS of quality are everything! Well, only the proper rebellious ones, anyway.

By the way, you still haven't answered my question about WHY Modern Art is obsessed with rebellion. So I'll ask it again. WHY IS MODERN ART OBSESSED WITH REBELLION?

Breaking molds, pieces and shards, tearing things down, leaving things behind--YES, YOU'VE GOT IT NOW! Its all about destruction. The destruction of realistic painting techniques, the destruction of the prevailing culture, the destuction of whatever. Or "ironic commentaries thereof". I just wonder why these guys can't keep their work on the bathroom walls where it belongs.

Posted by: Brian Minder on January 28, 2006 7:20 PM

Cezanne couldn't master perspective, but he had the moxie to keep painting even though, by the standards of the last 400 years, he was incompetent. His paintings came out rather nice, but it would be helpful if museum curators would mention that basic fact about his work.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on January 28, 2006 8:27 PM

Mr. McManus:

Sorry if I'm not being very clear, but I'm trying to point out that there is a contradiction between Modern Art Theory and the notion of a canon of Modern Art "old masters"...of whom Cezanne is clearly one.

This contradiction is not new; the creation of an orthodox list of "Modern Old Masters" (as funny as that sounds) was one of the major preoccupations of the first generation of Modernist critics, theorists and apologists for Modern Art. But I do find it odd that this formulation continues to be trotted out by contemporary art critics without (apparently) their even being aware of any incongruity.

I intend to write a post in the near future on exactly why this contradiction has been historically necessary, at least to the marketing of Modern Art.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 28, 2006 8:48 PM

I am tryng two arguments at once here. I also hang out at Obsidian Wings, where Edward is a NY gallery owner selling modernism. In that world, which may be Friedrich's, a representational painting wouldn't sell, and some variant on abstract expressionism is not seen as rebellion but as conformism (unless it is too passe). I suppose the modern defines itself as the new, and defines new as breaking with and refuting the past and tradition. You can see that as rebellion, I don't necessarily see it that way or think that artists see it that way. And you are talking about a very tiny part of culture, I can point you to original artists selling for 5-50k doing everything from conventional portraits to cubism to everything else. The high art world is about as small as the novelists trying to take the next step past Joyce and Pynchon or whatever, or classical composers trying to improve on Boulez. Tiny, miniscule, insignificant. Pittenger here talks about repulsive public architecture but we still have the glass boxes and tudor revival homes built every day. Civilization is not collapsing around us.

For the record, besides the obvious giants, I like the impressionists especially Gauguin before the 2nd Brittany 1886-88;Rogier van der Weyden, Georges de la Tour, the big sky Dutch guys like Salomon Ruysdael and most of that Dutch era, and late Sargent, the Italian watercolors. But I like a lot of stuff, obviously.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on January 28, 2006 9:12 PM

I venture to suggest that it's not so much that the artists are canonical, but that museum curators want an excuse to check out the French Riviera. Bear in mind that "Cezanne in Provence" follows upon "Matisse in Nice" and "Van Gogh in Arles" and "Van Gogh in St Remy and Auvers." I'm sure "Renoir in Cagnes-sur-Mer" and "Picasso in Antibes" are not far behind.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on January 28, 2006 11:12 PM


I guess we agree to disagree about Modernism. I know the market for living painters is pretty small. Still, though, this stuff will be the relics of our Great American Era. It pains me to think that the colored square paintings will occupy this space.

As far a civilization not collapsing, I wouldn't be too sure of that! Fractured families, soaring bastardization rate, decline of the schools, transferral of our industrial base to China, importation of rather dumb and fecund third worlders, continued decline of television, literacy and literature, massive government, personal, and corporate debt, dollar being phased out as the world reserve currency, etc. I wouldn't pull my finger out of the dike, if I were you.

As a side note on the Impressionists and the Dutch genre and landscape painters, I find that lots of people enjoy that stuff, as do I. These are just great painters painting the everyday life around them. When you go back and research, its amazing how hard it is for painters to do work like this, free to pursue their own subjects, and how popular and correct their decisions turned out to be. There always seems to be someone with an agenda to push on the painter, from the Church, to royalty, to aristocracy, to critics, to business, etc. Freedom is a precious thing.

Thanks for being a good sport. I hope you enjoy the rest of your weekend. Its good to know that there are others who take the arts seriously enough to argue about it some. I wish there were more people like you out there.

Posted by: Brian Minder on January 28, 2006 11:25 PM

I think that winifer has a point. Artists always think art is about "the art" when everyone knows that it's probably more about the dealers, the curators, and -- most of all -- the customer. There are a great many newly rich people around now, trying to understand art, charity, and -- well, ostentation. Which is why shows, auctions, prices and so on are a poor way to tell what's REALLY going on in an aesthetic sense.

It strikes me that the better way to know what this canon and that canon is about is to check the sociology of who's buying what. Those who happened to see Picasso, Basquiat or Pollock in the movies will see that's what to buy -- unless they happen to think that the patrons in those movies are being mocked, in which case they might turn to good old cowboy art or even Alma Tadema. I personally love Alma Tadema. I just wouldn't argue that it's "great" except in terms of technique. But don't you think AT made a great impression on Geo. Lucas? I'm thinking of the romance in the middle of the second triad of Star Wars. That palace had everything but the tigerskin rug.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: mary scriver on January 28, 2006 11:31 PM

"...[Cézanne's] art is important because 'it effectively destabilized centuries of representation...'"

Er, no, it wasn't Cézanne. It was Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daugerre who destabilized representation, and painting, by separating the two, and making the latter unnecessary.

Art, like marriage, has a need for need.

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on January 29, 2006 3:54 AM


Photography didn't make painting unnecessary. If it did, then it would have displaced all the great paintings before photography too. But it didn't. If great art was made before photography, then great art can be made again without use of photography. Great painting makes photography irrelevant, not the other way around.

Representational art is more than just rendering. Its rendering plus a lot of other things, like composition, color, subject matter, emotional communication, etc. These things, by the way, are what lifts photography into being an art form too, instead of just rendering. You might want to think about that instead of parroting the Modern Art line. None of it stands up to any serious scrutiny.

Representational painters just want more control over the process than photography allows. Sometimes they even use photography to supplement studies from life, compostional sketches, etc. The means are not the end.

Posted by: Brian Minder on January 29, 2006 8:18 PM

OK, the tripod did not replace the easel, nor did the automobile replace the horse-- people still ride horses, as we see here by the rather high one on which Mr Minder is perched!

Actually, I was referring not to the art of painting, but to the trade, or, better yet, job. Let's say you want to save your family's likeness for posterity. In 1806, you hire a painter-- your only option. In 1906, you hire a photographer. Or a painter. In 2006, you get out the digitial and upload the result into iPhoto. Or hire a photograper. Or hire a painter. What percentage of people hire a painter in 2006? And, speaking of representation, how representative are they?

In 1806 there was an army of professional painters doing mostly workaday stuff like portraits of the wealthy and landscapes of their real estate while dabbling in a little "art" on the side. In 2006, this army is now a collection of fey poseuses in urban "villages" collecting grants from the wealthy in order to attack them. (Painting is less relevant than blacksmithery!)

Might this collapse in taste have just a little something to do with the disappearance of the "job" of painting, a disappearance brought on by the introduction of more convenient tools?

As for "parroting the Modern Art line", c'mon! "Modern art" is an oxymoron.

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on January 30, 2006 2:48 AM


You are right about modern realistic portaiture. Most of it is just duped photography. But what about a Rubens or El Greco altarpiece, or Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescos? How does a camera do that?

I think the collapse in taste that really matters is the collapse in taste in the upper classes. The lower classes have always been mostly disinterested in the high arts. Look to the universities for that. Also, many super rich families used to train their heirs precisely in aesthetic taste because they were patrons and benefactors of the arts. I'm not sure if this is still the case. Now they want to improve the world by standing human nature on its head, like all leftists do, and the traditional arts seem like merely a sideshow to this more thrilling endeavor.

Posted by: Brian Minder on January 30, 2006 10:55 AM

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