1: Contemporary Painting: Avant-Garde or Not? Part 1

Posted May 29, 2009
Last Updated Jun 21, 2012



In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the dominant theories in contemporary art cluster around postmodernism, a term originally used to describe dissatisfaction with modern art and “International Style” architecture in the early nineteen-sixties, it was redefined and codified in 1979 by Jean-François Lyotard to describe a new philosophical worldview. Postmodern concepts can be found in literature, art, architecture and cultural criticism. Believing truth to be socially constructed, the philosophy is skeptical of the optimistic, objective certainty promoted by modernism and skeptical of universal principles in general. A minor but growing challenge to postmodern authority in art has been put forward by “classical realism,” an anti-modern art movement attempting to revive traditional practices, universal values, and univocal meaning.

To analyze the depth of contrast between classical realism and postmodernism, two contemporary painters have been selected as representatives: Gerhard Richter representing postmodernism, and Jacob Collins representing classical realism. Richter paints both realistically and abstractly. Switching back and forth, he invests both with equal validity. In context and subject he takes a non-traditional, avant-garde approach. Although less avant-garde than extreme forms of twentieth century modernism such as Dada, postmodern art continues to be provocative and critical of ‘bourgeois” society, therefore the label is still warranted. The classical realists are proudly not avant-garde. To leave no doubt, a member of Collins’ circle of colleagues, Stephania de Kenessey, refers to the revival movement as “derriere-guard.” (Panero, Radical un-chic, 27)

Avant-garde art seeks innovation in experimentation, prefers novelty to formula and is critical of existing convention. Avant-garde art movements have existed since the 1850s, beginning with Gustav Courbet’s “realism,” whose shockingly frank realism is unrelated to today’s classical realism. Twentieth century modernism represented the apogee of this practice. Many avant-garde movements are politically related to Marxism because of their critical, revolutionary stance and their basic philosophy, which is materialist dialectic. (Most early modern movements even adopted “manifestos,” reinforcing the link.) Even though political Marxism has been largely discredited today, it continues to exert a subtle influence in art criticism, and has crossed the divide from modernism to postmodernism.

Gerhard Richter and Jacob Collins exemplify the two alternative approaches because some of their paintings appear deceptively similar, but their work is in fact conceptually opposite. (This superficial resemblance is especially clear in their landscapes, but it may also be said of some of their figurative and still life paintings.) The three primary differences between Richter and Collins are related to philosophy, method and politics. Philosophically, Richter is primarily a postmodern materialist and Collins is both realist and neo-classical idealist. In method, Richter paints objectively from photographs only; his realist paintings are photo-paintings. They are part of a personal dialectical process where he switches between photo-painting and non-objective abstract paintings. He switches back and forth intentionally to “negate” the illusion of subjectivity of realist depiction in the same manner as he negates photographs dialectically by painting them.

In Collins’ paintings, the method is traditional and his dialectic is between realism and classicism. Collins never uses photographs; he always paints from direct observation. As a realist he is honor-bound to report the specific facts of what he sees, but as a classicist he strives to find ideal beauty in nature and in the human form, so he must strike a balance between what is real and what is ideal.

Classical realism is a late twentieth century movement in painting, newer than postmodernism. Originally the title of a Richard Lack exhibition in 1982, Lack began publishing Classical Realism Quarterly in 1985 to educate the public about traditional art. Other traditional painters working in the nineties later adopted Lack’s label for themselves. (Panero, New Old School, 104) Small in membership and influence at first, the movement has grown and matured during the first decade of this century with younger talent like Collins.

Collins endorsed the brand name in a recent interview: “{My art is] Classical Realist, which is an interesting label that was coined about thirty-five years ago. It’s a useful word because it’s a paradox historically. The classicists and the realists were very opposed to one another 150 years ago. But the two of them could have constituted the heart of the dialectical mode in traditional painting, especially in pre-modern painting. So I think Classical Realist works,” says Collins. (Panero, Jacob Collins Interview, 1)

Unrelated to previous realist movements, classical realism places a high value on skill and beauty. Central is the belief that twentieth century modernism disrupted and distorted the original purpose of art, which is the mastery of a craft to produce works that ennoble, inspire and enrich culture. Neither avant-garde nor materialist dialectic, it disputes the core objectives of modernism, postmodernism, and photorealism. As in the Renaissance, its basic aim is to recover the Greco-Roman canons of form and beauty and apply them to modern painting, drawing, sculpture, etc.

Richter is considerably older than Collins. He was born just before the Second World War and grew up in post-war Germany. He began his career in the early sixties when avant-garde practice was prerequisite to being an artist, realism was out of style and political forces divided his country. By the time the younger American-born Collins was growing up during the eighties, the political climate had changed. The Berlin Wall fell as capitalism triumphed over communism. In art, photorealism had challenged the hegemony of abstraction and pluralism challenged the unilateral authority of the modern art establishment, providing a foothold for the nascent classical realist movement to take root. Although Collins has not publicly advocated a political ideology, his painting and writing indicate a culturally conservative tendency. Richter also eschews political labels, and his ironic, contradictory writing makes him hard to pin down, but he is basically non-traditional and has occasionally shown interest in Marxist causes. “Richter is no vulgar Marxist,” declares Jeanne Nugent, but Robert Storr sees Richter and his biographer, Benjamin Buchloh, as having at least some Marxist leanings. (Nugent, 13)

Richter is well documented; Collins is less well known because his movement and its conceptual framework are somewhat enigmatic to the greater art community. Most in the art-educated community are puzzled by his anachronistic painting and question his purpose: Why does Collins turn his back to postmodernism and the avant-garde, preferring instead to find inspiration in what seems an obsessive adherence to tradition? Doesn’t he believe in progress?

Across the Philosophical Divide

The concept of a vanguard implies progress, so the first question to ask is: is there such a thing as progress in the arts or is there only directionless change? In other fields, medicine, for example, knowledge has progressed significantly over the last 500 years but has the art of painting improved also during this time? Is Pollock’s painting an improvement over Raphael’s? If the question had been posed fifty years ago the answer would likely have been “yes- Pollock is more relevant,” because modernism was confident of progress, but the world has shifted philosophically and politically since then. Philosophy has had time to digest Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The original bomb-chuckers, the leftist anarchists of yesteryear, have been replaced with right-wing terrorists like Timothy McVeigh and Osama bin Laden. Is this progress, regress or just meaningless change? It depends on whom you ask. Can philosophy address the issue?

The concept of progress belongs to science, technology and the philosophical worldview based on them (empiricism or logical positivism). Science uses inductive reasoning from observation, but most philosophy, including postmodernism, is syllogistic and uses deductive reasoning. Science is progressive because its reality is built by testing theories based upon observable facts, but many postmodernists are skeptical of this view of reality. They tend to see cultural progress as a tool of knowledge-power and therefore a myth. These would admit that technologies improve, but art styles are entirely historic and represent directionless change. This poses a conundrum for avant-garde artists who need a philosophical basis for critical discourse but also feel the need to see stylistically ahead of their times. Years ago, modernists were able to find support for vanguard approaches in scientistic philosophies, but postmodernism offers no such support.

The postmodernists who argue against the existence of historic progress may be in error. According to Jürgen Habermas, this argument “contradicts itself through self-reference, and… presuppose[s] concepts they otherwise seek to undermine, e.g., freedom, subjectivity, or creativity.” [Habermas] sees in this a rhetorical application of strategies employed by the artistic avant-garde of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an avant-garde that is possible only because modernity separates artistic values from science and politics in the first place. [Habermas views] postmodernism [as] an illicit aestheticization of knowledge and public discourse.“ (Aylesworth, 1)

Artists of the seventies and eighties turned to postmodernism for inspiration, reading Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and others who were working out their philosophical insights during this time. Many late twentieth century artists based their artwork on the new philosophy, but the art they produced simply maintained the progressive dialectic of modernism. Evidently it was so deeply ingrained that tradition continued to be automatically rejected as artists struggled hard to avoid repeating anything. Many artists who insisted upon being “cutting edge” believed anything already done was “exhausted.” Some theorists during the seventies and eighties, such as Thomas Lawson and Douglas Crimp, announced that painting itself was exhausted, simply because it had been done. (This thinking persists among some of today’s artists and theorists, but the fact that Richter, Collins and thousands of others are still painting tends to refute it.)

In eschewing the modernist search for knowable truth in functional discourse, postmodernist philosophers like Michel Foucault contended that truth is plural and relative to historical context. Foucault argued that power creates knowledge and that all truths are relative, historically embedded within the specific power-knowledge paradigm functioning temporally, and therefore altered by historic changes. So, even though postmodernism is basically progressively neutral, it takes on an even more committed relativistic stance than its older sister, modernism. This allows the avant-garde to continue to function in postmodernist art, only now it is contextually framed as critique instead of protest. Even stripped of the concept of progress, postmodernism, like modernism, cannot embrace any kind of traditional stability.

So what can contemporary artists who love tradition do? Is postmodernism the only choice? No, there are other epistemological supports for today’s artists to hang their hats on and still be considered relevant. According to Walter Truett Anderson, there are four worldviews: the postmodern, which views truth as socially constructed, the scientistic, which finds truth empirically, the socio-traditional (see below), and the neo-romantic, which finds truth in nature and the inner self. (Anderson) A major socio-traditional philosophy that argues against the skeptical materialism of postmodernism is contemporary Thomism, the latest scholarship surrounding the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and the teleology of Aristotle. Calling theirs a “perennial” philosophy, contemporary Thomists see their thinking as a living tradition in much the same way as classical realist artists see their painting. (There are other modern traditional worldviews that could provide philosophical support for classical realist art, but none with a more thoughtful, rational response to postmodernism without recourse to an anti-philosophical fideism. Jacob Collins talks about his respect for “classical humanism,” meaning Renaissance humanism, which is relatively analogous to Thomism. It is possible that Collins knows nothing about Thomist philosophy, but even so, it can still be used to support his ideas and painting.)

Thomism has been called the philosophy of “common sense.” As the British humorist and Thomist philosopher, G. K. Chesterton, wrote:

“... The philosophy of St. Thomas stands founded on the universal conviction that eggs are eggs. The Hegelian may say that an egg is really a hen, because it is a part of an endless process of Becoming; the Berkeleian may hold that poached eggs only exist as a dream exists; since it is quite as easy to call the dream the cause of the eggs as the eggs the cause of the dream; the Pragmatist may believe that we get the best out of scrambled eggs by forgetting that they ever were eggs, and remembering only the scramble. But no pupil of St. Thomas needs to addle his brains in order adequately to addle his eggs; to put his head at any peculiar angle in looking at eggs, or squinting at eggs, or winking the other eye in order to see a new simplification of eggs. The Thomist stands in the broad daylight of the brotherhood of men, in their common consciousness that eggs are not hens or dreams or mere practical assumptions; but things attested by the Authority of the Senses, which is from God.” (Chesterton, 36)

 Postmodernist philosophy is partly based upon a poststructuralist reading of Marx and shares its dialectic. Marxist ideology is about as far removed from Chesterton’s common sense as one can get. Leon Trotsky railed against it in his defense of dialectic materialism:

“’Common sense’ is characterized by the fact that it systematically exceeds dialectical ‘tolerance…’ Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar [thought] in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion. Dialectics does not deny the syllogism, but teaches us to combine syllogisms in such a way as to bring our understanding closer to the eternally changing reality.”  (Trotsky, 1939)

Change, and especially revolutionary change, is the ideal for Marxism and avant-garde art, but is making an avant-garde statement the purpose of art? Ancient philosophers like Aristotle taught that fine art had a higher purpose. A great Thomist who studied Aristotle, Jacques Maritain, has written extensively on the arts. He argues that artists are beings who pursue something different than philosophers because making is different than doing. He explains that artists aren’t considering behavior as philosophers do when creating art; they are absorbed in a process outside of themselves. He argues that artists stop existing for themselves and exist temporarily only for the work. According to Maritain, fine artists produce work for the work’s ends, with the final cause being dictated by the work. If fine art is assigned a primary goal, it is the pursuit of beauty, which is further defined as truth revealed and glorified. Maritain teaches that beauty is analogical, individual and specific, but not relative or subjective. Art is a kind of visual knowledge that delights the soul (or mind) when seen. In Maritain’s words:

      The fine arts seek to produce, by the object they make, the joy or delight of the intellect through the intuition of the sense: the aim of painting, said Poussin, is delight…But if the delight in the beautiful work comes from a truth, it does not come from the truth of imitation as reproduction of things, it comes from the perfection with which the work expresses or manifests the form…In the presence of a beautiful work…the intellect rejoices without discourse. (Maritain, Chapter VII,)

 However, the pursuit of aesthetic beauty is quite discursive. Things are beautiful in their own way but always contain essentials like integrity and proportion. Jacob Collins creates beautiful paintings that exemplify Maritain’s philosophical ideas on art. Beauty is an identifying feature shared by classical realists, separating the work from other kinds of contemporary realist painting. Nothing they paint is loud, vulgar, or ugly. They celebrate the noble and heroic aspects of humanity, the kind of uncritical things that cynics find forever corny and denigrate with terms like kitsch and cliché. However, Collins’ painting is not Clement Greenberg’s relaxation of standards: it is not art made to entertain or appease the public’s lowbrow taste. Collins’ painted dissertations on aesthetic beauty are not retro kitsch for pop culture.

In many areas both Thomists and “Continental” postmodernist philosophers agree: especially in areas that argue against logical positivism and other modernist, scientistic approaches. In fact, Foucault and Derrida are part of the same Aristotelian tradition that includes such opposing figures as Hegel and Nietzsche. The main difference between deconstructivists like Derrida and contemporary Thomists is their opposing conclusions: postmodernists conclude that “being” is an artificial concept constructed of historical contingencies, and that all our hierarchies and dichotomies are also based on arbitrary historical chance. Thomists agree that some, but not all, dichotomies and hierarchies are true categories, but above all, “being” is absolutely real. They argue that the human being is an intrinsically substantial and indivisible thing, embedded in the concrete, individual data of sense. Both philosophies begin with the same syllogisms common to Aristotle and Plato, but one provides a nihilistic conclusion while the other allows a metaphysical one.

2) Across the Political Divide:

The political climates artists grow up in have major effects upon their entire lives and these effects are reflected in their art production. Any understanding of an artist’s work must take his or her political environment into account. Without knowing Richter’s background, his landscapes might be mistaken for traditional throwbacks, homage to quainter times- but they are not! When viewed alongside his abstracts, the seeming preference for tradition is negated and it becomes clear that Richter selects his images using a nontraditional, personal dialectic process. Richter’s photo paintings, at least in purpose and meaning, are not what they appear to be. With Richter one must look beyond the simple and superficial to see irony, enigma and critical statement. Richter uses the context of traditional landscape to critique the concept of traditional landscape. Richter is in fact critical of a traditional reading of his work.

Collins was born in 1964, in the second half of the twentieth century, and was a teenager during the Reagan years. Collins is a traditionalist- his paintings are what they appear to be- homage to the images chosen and respect for his subjects. Although he does not publicly support any political ideology, his paintings speak for themselves. Many look like they were painted a century or more ago. They show a quiet defiance toward modern expectation and a stubborn traditionalism in context, style, and presentation. His studies are sketchy and impressionistic, but his finished works have the polish of nineteenth century salon paintings. He paints modern people and places but carefully rejects almost all traces of influence from twentieth century painting styles. He carefully chooses timeless, universal images for representation.

Half a century ago, “in 1959, the critic Clement Greenberg wrote that ‘the very best painting… of our age is almost exclusively abstract.’” In a recent review of Collins work for The Wall Street Journal, Roger Kimball notes, “This has obviously not been the case for some decades. What happened?” Kimball goes on to answer his own question: “Several things. On the one hand, there was a powerful upsurge of what Greenberg elsewhere called ‘novelty art,’ the 57 varieties of pop, op, minimalism and neo-Dada performance art that have infested the art world like a gigantic flea market.” (Kimball, 1) On the other hand, the art that Greenberg hated and feared most, figurative realism, was slowly reemerging.

Politics influences art even when it is covered up. In Clement Greenberg’s early writings, he openly advocated Marxism, but during the Cold War era, he suppressed all overt references to socialist ideas; yet his central idea that bad art appeased “middlebrow” taste stuck fast (middlebrow is a Greenbergian euphemism for “bourgeois”). Remnants of left-leaning jargon remain all throughout current art criticism. It can be inferred from the leftover critical language used by the defenders of avant-garde art: terms like “reactionary” and “bourgeois” are still ubiquitous.

Gerhard Richter was born in Dresden in 1938, right into the maelstrom of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. During his childhood, before and after the war, he must have known devastation in his own back yard no American could hope to relate to. This background surely radicalized Richter. That he should have commemorated the mass suicide of the communist terrorist group RAF (Red Army Faction) in his “October 18, 1977” series of paintings, now exhibited at the MoMA, should come as no surprise. He reacted to the horror of Germany’s destructive militarism with deep distrust, distancing himself from politics and exploring the extremes of both communism and capitalism. His skepticism for all political solutions fed a strongly deconstructive nihilism. Describing his own painting he said, “Surely you don't think that a stupid demonstration of brushwork, or of the rhetoric of painting and its elements, could ever achieve anything, say anything, [or] express any longing.”  On his ability to paint representational images with facility, he said, “Being able to do something is never an adequate reason for doing it.” (Gilmore, 396)

In a review of Gerhard Richter’s recently published book, “Thought Images: Frankfort School Reflections from Damaged Life” (2007, Stanford University Press), Rodolphe Gasche of SUNY Buffalo wrote, “The book’s major accomplishment is to establish a significant connection between the work of the Frankfurt School and contemporary French thinkers, in particular, Deleuze and Derrida.” (Gasche, 2) This critically important connection shows that Richter, a postmodernist, is interested in both Marxism and the avant-garde. In the book, Richter investigates and revitalizes the Frankfort School’s Denkbilder (thought-pictures), the work of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, two earlier German artists who were openly Marxist-leaning, avant-garde modernists. 

Contemporary Painting

Art Review and Essay

  1. 1: Contemporary Painting: Avant-Garde or Not? Part 1
  2. 2: Contemporary Painting: Avant-Garde or Not? Part 2


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