Postmodern vs. Evolutionary Art

The following is a version of my part of a joint presentation with Stephen Hicks given at the first ever Malibu Summit student retreat hosted by The Atlas Society on June 29, 2019 at Scorpiesse in Malibu, California.  

June 29th, 2019 at Scorpiesse – Stephen Hicks talks with Atlas Advocates at The Malibu Summit. 

An Impasse Between Creating and Destroying

The contrast between postmodernism and what I call “evolutionary art” is both epistemological, in the sense of how the art is made and the knowledge behind it, and metaphysical, what kind of subjects are important. Postmodern art is about seeking new means and content to challenge the very concept of art. Evolutionary art builds on the contributions of great artists and great art movements with new insights into human psychology and aesthetic means. Philosopher and The Atlas Society Senior Scholar Stephen Hicks, Ph.D, summarizes the difference this way:  it is the difference between a master making a stained glass window and the moron that throws a rock and smashes it!

Louise Bourgeois vs. Martine Vaugel 

Louise Bourgeois at MOMA. “Untitled” (1998), fabric and stainless steel at center

The postmodern works I am including are considered important by important art institutions. A defining moment and lifelong obsession of French-American postmodern artist Louise Bourgeois was the trauma of discovering her father’s affair with her governess. Bourgeois was a member of the American Abstract Artists Group and had her own salon called Bloody Sunday. She referred to her early to later work as “fear of falling…art of falling…and the art of hanging in there.” Not an abstract artist, not a competent drawer or sculptor, with no discernible standards of any kind, she didn’t use art as a means of personal evolution, to grow both technically and soulfully. Instead her works convey that she remained stuck in a regressive emotional intelligence state, which conveyed the only kinds of emotions available to a hopelessly incompetent artist – pain, anxiety, and confusion. 

A great example of her arrested development is this untitled head shown at her retrospective show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Clumps of wool clobbered together to form a cylinder base and a cotton ball-like head, which is then crudely sowed over with pink-flesh colored compression wrap bandages, wrapping the nose, stitched over mouth, and stuffed into the empty eyeball sockets. A cauliflower ear is formed grotesquely out of the same stuff. One has to call into question, not how pathetic her work is, but what is her motive for exhibiting it, and what are the motives of the critics, curators, and directors who give her a reputation that only the awesome prestigious power of New York’s great art institutions can give. Empathy for humanity may be in the press release, but there is a deeper motive that they may not want to examine. 

Martine Vaugel, is a contemporary French-American sculptor whose bronze figure and portrait sculptures are, in her words, the “expression of my love affair with the human spirit.” She is the founder of the Vaugel Sculpture Method, a method of clay modeling based on her knowledge of human anatomy and mastery of structure.

The female figure pictured is a current work in progress. Martine expresses passion with an innovative technique that uses the face and body to convey the human condition. She makes this woman’s head look natural – notice the twist, arch, and torque of her uplifted head. Her eyes have an intent gaze and her mouth looks unselfconsciously in the middle of breathing. The realism of her body is idealized with the litheness and athleticism of a body in its physical prime.  Her crouching figure conveys physical humility yet the body is torqued in such a way as if her body is in the process of spiraling upward following the lift of her head. You don’t find this kind of nuanced feeling nor hope nor benevolence in the towering genius of Rodin with the exception of The Kiss though he didn’t carve the final marble version. I personally think Martine is the greater artist. 

Martin Creed vs. Abiodun Olaku


Martin Creed, Lights Going on and Off, Tate. 

The postmodern master of “light” is Martin Creed, a British musician and conceptual artist who won The Turner Prize in 2001 for Work No. 227: The lights going on and off,  which was admired primarily for its audacity. Many people question whether Creed’s work is art at all. Creed himself is ambivalent about his work, saying, “The only thing I feel like I know is that I want to make things. Other than that, I feel like I don’t know.” 

 The lights going on and off  is an empty room with a light switch, I don’t know if it is on automatic or whether the audience can participate by flipping the switch themselves. No skill, no intelligence, no comprehension of light or space theory, and no respect for the museum viewers. The position of Creed and the museum is that viewers are idiots if they don’t get it, and they are idiots if they think it is art. Creed is also the clown who, along with the museum director, recorded and made an audio loop of the artist farting, which they then streamed through the museum. What is the message? The philosophy? The sense of life? Money, time, effort, catalogs, press releases, curation, and reputation went into presenting this, um, crap. 

Abiodun Olaku, untitled as of this article. 

Abiodun is a master of composition and perspective whose art conveys a profound, benevolent, and honorable respect for humanity. There are people conversing and cooking, and laundry is drying on clotheslines. These everyday activities are elevated by Olaku’s skill at painting light through three-dimensional space. Notice how the lights dance through space; look at the orange lantern low on the right side just above the boat and compare it spatially to the first lantern on the left. Then look at the way the rays of the boats’ lanterns  are triangulated through the depth of space. A theory I have about spatial depth in painting is that it pulls the audience into the artist’s vision, and, as the space opens up, they experience the depth of feeling, literally. Olaku is better at painting light than any other living artist. This is pure genius and sophisticated on a level rarely acknowledged by the art world. 

Paul McCarthy vs Tanya Ragir

Several years ago, without knowing what I was walking into, I visited and reviewed Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary. The disgusted and angry look of the security guards should have prepared me… But really, there is nothing short of a psychotherapist’s training that can prepare you for the worldview of Paul McCarthy. McCarthy is an American transgressive performance artist based in Los Angeles who exhibits all manner of things going into and coming out of bodily orifices. The piece above, Cultural Gothic, is a motorized group of cheap mannequins, the father encouragingly touches the son’s shoulder as the son humps the goat. … 

A performance piece, Sailor’s Meat, recorded as a video and stills shown at the same exhibition at the Geffen shows McCarthy fetishizing hotdogs by sucking and fucking himself with them. McCarthy was a long-time art professor at UCLA. Postmodern aesthetics has some simple guidelines, two of which are to shock the audience and push boundaries. The latter has a qualification: what they mean about pushing the boundaries, it is not about elevating art or humanity, indeed it is about anti-elevation, anti-evolution, anti-art and to see how far humanity can sink into disgusting states of being. By his own admission, McCarthy’s art is not serious: “My work is more about being a clown than a shaman.” Nevertheless McCarthy is a darling of the contemporary art world who shows widely at the most important contemporary art institutions internationally. Why is this going on in the art world? 

Contemporary American sculptor Tanya Ragir also lives in the Los Angeles area. Fortunately, her work has been shown extensively in museums and galleries over the past 25 years. Two years ago I visited Tanya in her home studio compound in Venice Beach, California. This piece, Doubt Kills the Warrior,  was in the courtyard. I took this picture at 2:00 AM as I was leaving after a fabulous day of talking about art and life. Notice the ascending pose, the gracefulness of the entire body, the elegant position of the head, and the exquisite floating lightness of her hands. The title implies that this woman’s pose is the antithesis of doubt – certainty – a conclusion which is a surprisingly different than the one I would have drawn had I not seen it.  I would have imagined certainty as a stoic male figure with a firm chin, forceful, and steely gaze. Tanya instead shows us a woman effortlessly rising, full of peace, unselfconscious, and displaying her life force as if it were the most natural state of existence. 

Marcel Duchamp vs. Newberry

The greatest postmodern artist is Marcel Duchamp. The BBC took a poll of 500 people in the art world and the result was that The Fountain, the urinal pictured above, was the most influential modern artwork of all time. I think of Duchamp as a very clever cynic, his key works integrate senseless content with senseless means; no effort, no care, and nothing remotely artistic. He did one interesting painting, Nude Descending a Staircase, in 1912. But for the next 54 years, until his death, Duchamp occupied himself with  cynical projects like drawing a mustache on the copy of the Mona Lisa, and using a reproduction of a Rembrandt for an ironing board cover. And apparently for the last 20 years (!) of his life did next to no work. The startling thing is that Duchamp got any recognition from the art world,  much less adulation, especially when it is obvious that he is not anything close to what such artists as Da Vinci or Rembrandt were.

Newberry, Denouement, 1987, oil on linen, 54” x 78.” 

Duchamp has had a profound influence on me as an example of what not to do, as it kills any hope of evolving as an artist. In my 20s I had a kind of dual life of mastering the fundamentals of drawing and painting and developing theories that would take my art beyond the artists I love such as Rembrandt and Monet, but I also studied the works and theories of the postmodernists. The more I studied postmodern art the more I was certain that it was a conceptual virus, if an artist tries to incorporate any element of the anti-art nature of postmodernism it will go on to infect every element of value that art offers, as postmodernism is meant to do. 

I am including my own work in this presentation for many reasons. There is a lot of sophistication to my work. Denouement (above) is a great example of my color and light theory, spatial theory, body language as a tool of expression, rigorous analysis of composition, the thoughtfulness in how themes are conveyed by visual language, meaningful and empathic communication of emotional states, and the sheer love of making art. 

Newberry, The Kiss, 2019, oil on canvas, 24” x 36.” 

My most recent work, just completed a few months ago, is The Kiss. I have been painting now for over five decades – give or take a few years if you consider whether to pinpoint my start at 11 years old painting or at 17 when I sold my first works. The Kiss is a nice contrast to Duchamp in the sense that instead of withering away with a meaningless existence, my enthusiasm, knowledge, and passion for art is increasing as I get older, hard to believe when I started as passionately as I did. 

Though the coloring and lighting of this piece is classical, there are some very modern touches, and perhaps an innovation in viewpoint. The composition is made of repeated patterns of slants. Verticals create stoic-like feelings, horizontals calmness, but diagonals create a feeling of energy, drama, and anticipation. While setting this up with the models they were originally flipped with their heads upside down at the bottom. Visually it is normal for top to recede and the bottom to come towards us. Think of a still-life table top and the wall behind, or a landscape with fields coming towards us, and the distant mountains and the sky behind. Or a model posing with the stand’s base coming towards us. With The Kiss, the top is coming towards us and the bottom is receding, flipping our natural ways of experiencing things. 

Notice also that you the viewer is not standing, nor sitting, you are not grounded but you the viewer are floating above them. This gives a feeling of an other worldly experience as if you are floating on the wings of love. 

Another good contrast with Duchamp’s The Fountain – the project consisted of acquiring the urinal and the brief few hours it took to drop it off at the gallery as a submission. Perhaps the concept took him a few seconds. With The Kiss, I had hoped  it would take three or four weeks to complete,  but the perspective was so different, and the theme so profound, with the added pressure of Rodin’s Kiss haunting me, that the painting took eight months of full-time work. An elevated emotion like love is terribly difficult, any blemish, mistake, or awkwardness kills the theme. It needs a transcending skill set. 

The Most Insightful Lesson I Learned Early That Probably Saved My Art Life 

In Ayn Rand‘s The Fountainhead, the evil character Ellsworth Toohey is an architecture critic and cultural organizer of groups of writers, artists, and architects – all of whom are mediocrities like the above postmodern artists I presented. Near the climax of the novel, Toohey shares an unprotected moment of self-revelation as to his motives. He hated the good, the talented, and the benevolent geniuses among us. He knew that publicly criticising them would give them too much popular attention, and undercut his goal to destroy them. He came up with the brilliant yet evil concept that the best way to destroy the concept of true greatness is to elevate pathetic mediocrities to the status reserved for geniuses. Blanket the media with unstinted praise of them, give them esteemed venues, manipulate wealthy but confused collectors to buy and commission their horrible works. Do such a thorough job of sabotage that the public cannot comprehend the incomprehensible and give up trying to understand anything to do with art. The result is a public that says “who am I to judge?” Toohey hoped that by creating a psychotic art culture great artists, without the hope of recognition, would just lay down and die in obscurity. 

Unfortunately Rand’s fictional account is eminently true in real life. The pinnacle of our art world is made up of cons, posers, frauds, cynics, creeps, the insecure, the confused, hacks, manipulators, and some evil people. 

The good news is that art education, especially artists ateliers, are once again teaching toward skills. Great artists meanwhile keep making masterpieces. Entrepreneur art magazines and organizations are promoting contemporary figurative art, soulful art collectors are collecting, and philanthropists are endowing awards. We can find optimism in the brilliant work of philosopher and Atlas Society Senior Scholar Stephen Hicks calling out the fallacies and horrors of postmodernism and offering us better alternatives such as value-orientated aesthetics. Perhaps in a few years we will see a new breed of critics, directors, and curators with a passion for evolutionary art replacing the sorry, pathetic postmodern Tooheys and restoring a sense of authenticity, empathy, talent, and genius to the art world. 

On the day of my presentation I got this pic of Stephen Hicks in front of Icarus Landing, on loan to Scorpiesse. 

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