At the outset of the twentieth century, the reputations of the most famous nineteenth-century French painters differed from those of earlier generations of artists. Older masters had been admired for their work, but the French Realists, Impressionists, and Post-Impressionists were lauded not only for what they produced, but also for the reaction they provoked. Their art was judged largely on whether it rebelled against and offended establishment tastes.

Young, ambitious artists of the early twentieth century sought admiration along the same lines. Doing good work wasn’t enough; one also had to be a rebel. Since a wider public now admired art that had once been considered radical, new radicalisms had to be invented—a process that has persisted since Picasso created Les Demoiselles D’Avignon in 1907, in order to outdo Matisse’s gentle Le Bonheur De Vivre, of 1906. Intellectuals who celebrated the violation of convention for its own sake formed an admiring chorus, ultimately making up a worldwide support system for Modernism. 

The cycle of trying to top earlier artists for shock value continues today. The contemporary art establishment that celebrates transgression has gained such power and influence that it’s fair to ask whether artists catering to it can truly be called rebellious, no matter how bizarre and unconventional their work might be. Such “challenging” art is intended almost solely for art-world intellectuals seeking new ironies, social-justice messages, or new ways to offend the conventional-minded, who have mostly stopped paying attention. Outbursts such as Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s about the Brooklyn Museum’s 1999 “Sensation” exhibit are rare. 

Part of Modernism’s appeal is the persistent myth that great artists are rejected by society, which in fact was not the case for most of the artists we admire today. The reputations of earlier artists may have been more local or modest than we now think they deserved, but this did not constitute rejection. Six months before his death, Van Gogh, the archetype of the starving artist driven to despair because no one can see his genius, received a highly enthusiastic review from G.Albert Aurier in the Mercure De France. There is every reason to believe Van Gogh would have achieved fame during his life, had he not ended it.

Another modernist myth holds that great artists have always confronted their publics with new and shocking work that takes a generation to be appreciated - which means, in effect, that all great artists were modernists, after a fashion. In fact, art history is a succession of retrogressions. Artists have always studied, copied, borrowed and stolen from previous art; those rebellious nineteenth century artists did also. In 2008, the Denver Museum of Art’s exhibit “Inspiring Impressionism: The Impressionists and the Art of the Past” demonstrated how these painters drew ideas from great masters. A similar exhibit of twentieth-century artists would show Modernists distorting older works, as in Picasso’s Cubist variations on Velazquez and Delacroix; or quoting them ironically, as with Larry Rivers’s Dutch Masters Cigars; or making them horrific, as with Bacon’s screaming popes. 

But while it initially inspired some color and excitement, the trashing of artistic conventions over the last 100-plus years has left a wasteland, one in which curators and critics can only encourage further deconstruction. I wish for a different rebellion, in which young artists reconnect with a country that should never have become so foreign—our cultural past—and discover the rich variations that remain possible there. Those who doubt this premise should take note of the American artist Reginald Marsh, who likened Coney Island crowds to compositions by Michelangelo and Rubens, and told his students to study and copy the old masters. Marsh’s devotion to the past did not eviscerate the astonishing vitality of his images of carnivals, burlesque houses, movie theaters, and Bowery drifters. His work was fresh because it was rooted in a tradition that he could draw upon for an original vision.

Our heritage is not locked up in classrooms and textbooks. Its humanity is forever relevant. Even the non-devout can see that fifteenth-century nativity scenes express the wonder of newborn human life, and of parenthood, and offer glimpses of a higher perspective. Reclaiming and embracing Western culture, including not only its canvases but also its classical music and literature, can develop the eye, mind, and temperament needed to render our present reality into something arresting—and new.

Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images


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