Feuilleton 3: The local scenery
For more than three hundred years, the French Government paid promising young artists to learn from the art and culture of the past. The program was called the Prix de Rome, and every year, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture would send the winners of its annual competition to the French Academy in Rome, to study for up to five years, at the expense of the state, at what was then considered the capital of the international art scene and the focal point of all that was good in culture. The prize eventually was expanded to include categories for architecture, music, and engraving; the award continued until 1968, but the list of honorees is surprisingly bereft of major painters—David and Ingres won, but none of the prominent figures of late 19th and early 20th century art are on the list.
However, this might not be an indication of myopia and insularity on the part of the Academy; it might just be that the Academy was in the business of cultivating a specifically local talent base. The artists who were given the Prix, after spending their time in Rome, went back to wherever in France they came from and continued their artistic practice. The academy cultivated French artistic talent for the purpose of enriching French culture; the impressionists, and every avant-garde movement after them, has been in the business of cultivating the international art scene for the purpose of enriching the global artistic endeavor (or perhaps, more accurately, of furthering the individual careers of specific artists). The artistic avant-garde has always existed in opposition to such things as the academy and conventional tastes, and now it appears to exist primarily1 to serve the needs of international collectors and investors; its connection to any sense of relevance to a local community is tenuous at best. I’m not sure how I feel about this, but it is hard for me to fully accept an artistic philosophy which seems to have no ties to a local scene or a sense of community. I don’t believe art is at its best when it serves only to shock the public or to manifest the wealth of the investing classes. Artists realize their finest purpose when they minster to the culture around them.
Yet I do believe that to do so most effectively, it is important for artists to be aware of what has gone before and to dialogue with other artists of the present and the past. Could something like a revitalized study-abroad prize fulfil these purposes in today’s art world? We already have a plethora of study-abroad scholarships for college students; also, there are the MacArthur Fellowships, which go to just about anyone including architects, musicians, and visual artists. it would not be a stretch to think of a MacArthur-type grant set up specifically for artists, and specifically for the purpose of sending them to study and learn at one of the big art capitals such as New York, London, or Paris.2 New York has a disproportionate number of museums and galleries. Without firsthand exposure to these cultural resources, the young artist of, say, Omaha is cut off from the history of their chosen discipline; library books and internet searches will only go so far.
Avant-garde movements have a long history of attracting, like a magnet or a whirlpool, the bright young talents of the global scene; Mary Cassatt was sucked into the orbit of the impressionists, and Picasso was a Spaniard before he came to fame in Paris. New York has been siphoning off the local talent since at least the 1940s, and I think this is a loss for the continued relevance of local scenes. Sometimes I wonder if abstract expressionism would have been as big a deal if it had not attracted the top-dollar collectors and investors that it did. It captured the imagination of the art world at the time; Pop Art did so next, and then . . . well . . . it seems that artists are continually squirting out abstract works of such bland, soulless homogeneity that the critic Jerry Saltz has dubbed the current movement “Zombie Formalism.” Would this be happening if New York was not some mythic hub of art? What if what happened in New York was merely the New York flavor of a widespread, decentralized artistic abstract movement?
If there were a Prix de Nouvelle Yorque, artists could use it to look at and study the holdings of the Guggenheim, the MOMA, the Whitney, and whatever else they wanted to look at and then go home to ruminate over what they saw and incorporate it into their local art scenes. They would have the benefit of contact with the artists working in the world’s art capital; they might even make contacts with the gallery owners, dealers, and collectors who drive the New York market. The lessons they learn could be applied back home—instead of the scenes in the smaller cities being considered cultural backwaters, they would gain in prestige from having Prix alumni living and working in them. These alumni would go on to cultivate the rising generation of artists in their own cities. Is there any downside to this arrangement?
I’m a strong supporter of healthy, vibrant locally-oriented art scenes in every major city. To me, it seems like the art-magnet model of the New York scene taking talent from the hinterlands is not beneficial to a thriving network of artists everywhere. If artists were able to think of their hometowns as places where they could exert influence and make a living, the results would be beneficial to all: the artists could remain in a good position financially and be able to cultivate and care for their local communities, which, working together, would enable the entire global artistic endeavor to further accomplish its calling to care for and nurture the culture at large.
But is there ever a situation where connection to a local community actually hinders an artist’s personal and professional development? What if, in pursuit of their personal artistic vision, an artist has to break ties with their local community? What then?
That is the issue brought up in a very good book about artists, vocation, and responsibility to the local community, which I would like to turn to next.
A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN
Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel My Name is Asher Lev is a brilliantly executed psychological tour de force. It gets us deep into the mind of the titular protagonist as he grapples with the fundamental questions all artists must face: What am I doing this for? Why am I making art? The struggle is further complicated by Asher’s being a member of a sect of Hasidic Jews who frown upon drawing and painting as “foolishness;” his situation is complicated even further by his father’s being chief emissary to the powerful Rabbi who presides over an international Hasidic movement based in Brooklyn. For three generations, Asher’s family has been traveling the world in the service of the Hasidic leadership; Asher is embedded in a community that watches his every move, wondering if he will follow in his father’s footsteps or tacitly renounce his inheritance by pursuing his artistic path. I would recommend this book to everyone who ponders the impulse which causes artists to break away from the comforts of family and community in the service of the muse.
Asher’s story bears a striking similarity to that of Stephen Dedalus, the hero of James Joyce’s semi-autobiographical first novel (and major character of his magnum opus Ulysses). I closely examined Dedalus’ aesthetic vision a few months ago; both Dedalus and Lev share a desire to transcend their upbringings and exercise their artistic capabilities to their fullest. Unlike Dedalus, however, who is very articulate about his views and is willing to explain them to anyone who will listen, Asher is very taciturn, and often unable, when questioned, to explain precisely why he feels the need to express himself through drawing.3 This causes no small amount of exasperation in his father, who repeatedly says “only an animal does not know why it does what it does.” Asher’s artistic impulse bears much in common with that of the abstract expressionists, even though he never departs from figurative drawing and painting; he really blossoms when he comes into the orbit of Jacob Kahn, a secular Jew who is a sort of agglomeration of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, and who was with Picasso at the Bateau Lavoir, reinventing sculpture while Picasso was creating cubism.
The story comes to a crisis when Asher, having left Brooklyn to study in Paris, creates two paintings which draw upon the Christian iconography of the crucifixion to explain the tensions he sees in his own family. Later, they become the centerpiece of a triumphant one-man show and are purchased by a major museum, but cause an irreconcilable rift to form between Asher and the Hasidic community. Asher explains that there was nothing within his Jewish intellectual experience which would have served as suitable iconography for the suffering he wanted to portray in his paintings, but it is just too much; the Rabbi says to him that he has “crossed a line;” there is simply too much awareness of the murder of countless Jews throughout history by Christians who wielded the cross as a weapon. Asher’s own grandfather was killed by a Christian fanatic on Good Friday. The situation seems very similar to that of Chris Ofili who was censured by the Roman Catholic community after he used elephant dung as part of his The Holy Virgin Mary more than thirty years after the events in My Name is Asher Lev. Undoubtedly, there have been many more times when artists have used symbols and forms which offended part of their audience, and undoubtedly it will happen again.
I assume Asher will do just fine, but I’m sad for his loss of community. Stephen Dedalus says he must go to Europe to “forge within the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race;” I doubt Asher has any grandiose concepts in his mind when he leaves Brooklyn. Despite his leaving Ireland, Dedalus’ art is still in relation to, and in communion with, his natal culture; by “crossing a line,” Asher’s is not. His artistic impulse is carrying him away from his community, unlike Dedalus who is merely absent for a time (and turns up again teaching Greek History in Dublin in Ulysses). Sometimes I wonder if this idea of an artistic impulse which absolutely must be followed is simply a romanticist lie; it is a popular one, however, and keeps appearing in fictionalized accounts of artists—Miloš Forman, in Amadeus, has Salieri call it “a lust in my body;” Kirk Douglas’ Vincent van Gogh expressed similar feelings in Lust for Life. Would real artists subscribe to that feeling, though?
Surprisingly, the religious aspects of Asher Lev’s tale are muted; in fact there doesn’t seem to be much discussion of religion at all, despite Asher’s milieu being the religiously circumscribed world of the Brooklyn Hasidim. Whether Asher’s gift is from God or from the Devil is a question that is always open and stated several times in the novel, yet nowhere does anyone say that Asher’s art is wrong or evil. The problem his family and community have is that it makes them uncomfortable. However, his story does have implications for members of religious communities who feel the desire to express themselves artistically yet feel pulled away from that desire by their faith tradition. Here’s a question for the artists of faith who may be reading: have you, in pursuit of your art, ever had to make a break from your faith community, or done something which your faith community disapproved of? Was it an easy or a hard decision?
AND FINALLY . . . SOME AI SILLINESS
So apparently Substack has a new AI image generator. I am still ambivalent about what to do with these technologies; what use do they serve? What problem are they solving? As far as I can tell, their most important purpose is to make vaguely off, uncanny-valley pictures that can then be laughed at. This makes sense, really; a big part of the Internet is sharing humor, so perhaps AI image generators are just a complex way of generating humorous imagery. Far be it from me to use a tool in a way orthogonal to its intended use case, so here we go: let’s see if the Substack AI image engine is capable of giving me a chuckle.
But a masterpiece really should be huge, right? The largest paintings I know of are Monet’s waterlily pictures; can the Substack AI give me Monet painting them?
Not exactly. It seems our Monet is wearing welding gloves to work on this picture. Where is the white beard? But otherwise, pretty good. Now what about another famous image of an artist working? Can the Substack AI give me Dalí Atomicus?
Hmm . . . the vibe is a little off, but I can imagine the actual Dalí working this way. (I can even see a hint of a Daliesque mustache on our AI-generated artist).
That’s interesting—the AI didn’t listen to what I was asking for, but instead gave me an artist who is, apparently, painting with fire. There are untapped possibilities here. I must get out my paints and candles and head for the studio.
Of course there are exceptions; there are avant-garde artists who are ministering to their local communities, and there are avant-garde artists who are ministering to the international scene in a non-mercenary, non-commodified way. I’m speaking about a general pattern, not making a hegemonic claim about all artists currently working.
Here in my hometown of Omaha, we have fellowships at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art; many Bemis fellows have gone on to highly rewarding careers as professional artists. But I’m not going to pretend that Omaha is an art capital in any sense of the term (although Omaha’s Joslyn Museum has on display the official RUINS banner image, aka Daniel Huntington’s Roman Ruins in Southern Italy).
The two books are almost mirrors of each other; A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man is written in third person about a very loquacious protagonist whose words reveal his inner life; My Name is Asher Lev is written in first person about a protagonist who is barely able to talk to anyone about anything, yet whose prodiguous and prolific actions—his drawing and painting—are the key to understanding him. The similarities and differences of these two books are fascinating to consider, but that would require an entirely separate discussion.