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December 10, 2007

Derriere Guard Alert

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The ever-useful Arts & Letters Daily site offers this link to a December 2007 New Criterion article by James Panero about a group calling themselves the "Derriere Guard." Apparently the poor fools want to bring back "traditional forms and techniques" to art:

In the fine arts, that means Classical Realism, a movement seeking to reunite beaux-arts technique with classical ideals through a loose network of schools, ateliers, and apprenticeships. This year’s Derriere Guard festival brought together a weekend of talks with presentations of realist art and classical architecture, poetry, dance, music, drawing [...]

Panero begins with a put-down on Tom Wolfe because Wolfe doesn't like Abstract Expressionism and considers Picasso a fraud. Then he goes on to mention some Guard events, bringing the name of painter and art school proprietor Jacob Collins who is striving to roll back the Modernist tide rather than simply complain about it. But much of the piece is about Wolfe and suggests that he is some kind of conspiracy theorist regarding the promotion of Modernism.

The last part of the article focuses on the Classical Realists (the artists, not the activist group) in a more sympathetic -- though equivocal -- manner, noting parallels with the struggles of the early Impressionists against the Establishment of their day.

Altogether, a rambling essay with no clear, take-away idea.

Perhaps that's because of a sort of feud between Wolfe and The New Criterion's founder and present co-editor/publisher, Hilton Kramer. Panero naturally sides with Kramer, much as National Review writers tend to avoid strongly disagreeing with William F. Buckley. For this reason, I read Panero with a wary eye. (Full disclosure: I'm a New Criterion subscriber.)

As the for Derriere Guard, this is the first time I've heard about it. Chalk that up to living far from New York City or perhaps my habitual sloth and ignorance.

It was nice to learn about the group and its activities. Modernism and its spawn remain far too powerful for the good of what's left of Western culture and, until it is cut down to its proper size, I welcome just about any group willing to join the fight against it.

Now re-read the last sentence carefully. I did not advocate complete elimination of Modernism. Some 2Blowhards readers seem to think that's my position. Perhaps that's because, even though I was educated to like Modernism, I no longer care for much of it and am not shy about saying so. But not caring for something is not the same thing as hating it and wishing for its destruction.

In an ideal world, I would like to see Modernism and, especially, Post-Modernism held to the same level of importance and prestige as our present cultural elites regard, say, Thomas Kinkade.

And Picasso. Was Tom Wolfe correct to consider him a "fraud?" I think that shoe doesn't completely fit. "Clown" seems more accurate.



posted by Donald at December 10, 2007


I'm confused. It sounds from what I read that Wolfe and the Derriere Guard are on the same side---"The enemy of my enemy..."---why would they have such a problem with Wolfe?

Posted by: annette on December 11, 2007 9:42 AM

annette -- I'm not sure either. Hilton Kramer (I ought to read his essay collections) seems to be friendly to basic Modernism. Apparently he thinks Matisse is tops. But he does not like PoMo. Wolfe doesn't like any of it, so they've had a spat or two -- the linked Panero article has a paragraph or two about that. So there is ambiguity about the Classical Realist painters. Being anti-PoMo is good. Being associated with Wolfe is not so good. I also detected from Panero and sense that their trying to use old oil painting techniques was a little odd, and less important that their subject matter, so far as the anti-Modernist/PoMo cause is concerned. This last point makes some sense to me.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 11, 2007 10:33 AM

Does anyone else find the name 'Derriere Guard' amusing? It sounds like the gay equivalent of a chastity belt.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on December 11, 2007 10:37 AM

Behind-the-scenes politics can be hard to make sense of, no? ... You'd think Panero would be more sympathetic to the neotrad scene ... But, for al his crustiness, Panero and Hilton Kramer do have a thing for what I think Hilton sometimes discusses as "classic Modernism." The current edgy art scene displeases these guys not because it descends from modernism but because it has disgraced modernism. Or such is my impression anyway. Hilton doesn't look at the advent of modernism as a bizarre episode that somehow metastisized; he's with the conventional art-history account all the way up until about Pop art, if I remember right. So for him (and presumably his school) the current neotrad scene misses the point entirely. The point for them isn't to step outside the modernist spell and breathe fresh air; it's to revive it, return it to its roots, and re-enchant it. Me, I've been much happier just letting it go myself.

But more generally I get baffled by the way intellectuals stake out positions in this way. You'd think people following the arts would look at the advent of something like a lively new neotrad scene and say 1) "Neat!" (why not wish 'em well?) and 2) "What does it mean that in this post-neo-cyber day and age we suddently have a lively new neotrad scene?" Well, I'd say those two things anyway. But real intellectuals tend to have hard points of view, and tend to root for teams, and tend to see the world through their own lens and only their own lens ...

FWIW, Tom Wolfe strikes me as basically right in his "Painted Word" and "Bauhaus to Our House" books. He also seems to me to deserve a lot of credit for pushing a lot of important questions onto the public agenda. They're major, major books, however slim and fun to read they also are. But he is a journalist, not a critic, and he does write in a hyperbolic way. Me, I see both of those facts as strengths (at least as Wolfe puts 'em into effect). But in the eyes of real intellectuals they make his p-o-v vulnerable.

Anyway, I've actually attended a few Derriere Guard events and met a few DG people. (It is a funny name, isn't it?) I think De Kennessy, Turner, and Collins are major -- and majorly rewarding -- culture-figures myself, and well worth taking seriously. I'll try to pull something together about the scene.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 11, 2007 11:14 AM

Dr. Weevil - yeah, when I saw the title of this post I thought there was some mistake in author attribution - it sounded more like Michael than Donald.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 11, 2007 11:48 AM

'In an ideal world, I would like to see Modernism and, especially, Post-Modernism held to the same level of importance and prestige as our present cultural elites regard, say, Thomas Kinkade."

OK, this is not quite wishing for these movements' destruction, but it's wishing for their almost complete marginalization and exclusion from serious discourse, which is still a pretty tall order, isn't it?

Posted by: BP on December 11, 2007 12:08 PM

Shouldn't it be 'Derriere Garde'?

As to the distancing from Wolfe, that just strikes me as a typical ploy--establish your good faith by pounding on the guy or gal who is a few notches away from you on the spectrum, then move in his or her direction and hope nobody notices.


Posted by: Narr on December 11, 2007 12:56 PM

...contemplating it a bit more... shimmering-silver, possibly satin. Or Dupioni silk. Covering some polycarbonate/bone imitation structure. Laced. Definitely laced.
On a second thought - no, make it claret-red: we're talking about Michael here. The more vulgarity, the better.
Lace remains, however, but becomes gold. And a dangling fringe. Black. Yeah.

...what were you saying?

[sorry. parties' week. besides, I have nothing to wear to this one!]

Posted by: Tatyana on December 11, 2007 3:30 PM

The problem with these extremely technically gifted classical realist types is that they're also extremely tight assed. Everything is so perfect you can hardly breath. It's like visiting a home where nothing, not even a throw pillow, is out of place. It takes all the air out of the room. No looseness no life. Don't believe me. Look for yourself. Google classical realism. If your idea of quality is every leaf on every limb of every tree perfectly delineated you'll be impressed. But perfection is not life. In fact, it's a kind of death.

Posted by: ricpic on December 11, 2007 4:02 PM

My problem with the classical realist school is that, as ricpic says, its too concerned with replication and not with expression. There have been many fantastically gifted realists in the past who managed to be expressive and substantive while being faithful to nature. In my opinion, the new interest in nature and the classical realist schools are a step in the right direction, but still a good piece away from the goal.

A great example of what has been lost since the turn in the late 19th century to today is Antonio Mancini, who is the subject of a current exhibit at the Philidelphia Museum of Art. Unbelievable is all I can say.

Posted by: BTM on December 11, 2007 5:00 PM

When do we get past getting past modernism?

Posted by: ckc on December 12, 2007 1:49 AM

The issue is not, Should modernism and post-modernism disappear; the question is, What have they contributed to real art? Judgments on this will always vary. TS Eliot the modernist contributed a lot; post-modernist ramblers next to nothing. Is the real complaint, that classical realism puts all the leaves back on the trees; or that they aren't raging against a universe in which they still find meaning?

Posted by: E. Hayes on December 24, 2007 10:02 PM

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