Will History Remember Realism?
by B. Eric Rhoads
How will we be remembered in history? What will historians say about the state of art in and around the year 2008? In September the British artist Damien Hirst (b. 1965) certainly made a kind of history, thanks to the "product" he took directly to auction to generate a record $198 million.
So will our era be remembered for the gifted artist-craftsman who toiled over her works, or for the gifted promoter who calls his 120-person team with instructions on what to make next? The art of today that history records may well be the art of promotion, of our obsession with owning something important, of being the one who paid the most. Is this any different from buying the world's most expensive home from Donald Trump - at least when it comes to bragging rights? As the rest of us debate the gauntlet Hirst has thrown down, he surely is pleased to have achieved his goal - controversy, which increases values further.
I used to get steamed about the proliferation of such art, but I've lightened up considerably and now am actually amused by the gallop of others in the direction of Hirst & Co. I'm not hurt, not offended, not interested in defending the way things used to be, and certainly not against artists pursuing their own means of expression. Perhaps Hirst, Koons, Rauschenberg, and others like them will eventually be seen alongside Picasso in significance. Or, then, perhaps some hedge fund will ask the government to bail it out because it overpaid for a contemporary artwork that has retained neither its value nor stature. (It would be amusing to hear Congress debate bailing out the owner of Hirst's diamond-encrusted human skull, which goes on view at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum this month, if you can believe it.)
The art I care about happens to be out of vogue now, so much so that it constitutes the new avant-garde. Artists launching their careers from 1950 onward had trouble finding anyone to teach them the techniques passed down for generations. Instead, they were taught that expression is all that matters, that realism no longer counts. Fortunately, a tiny force of academically trained artists kept these techniques alive, though many were marginalized for clinging to art dismissed because it could be understood. Today, as I have mentioned before, there are hundreds of young artists learning academic techniques in ateliers. Perhaps, in time, this movement will spread to schools and universities, which have generally ignored it as passé.
Many dealers who sell realism find themselves seduced to abandon the artworks they love and follow the market zeitgeist in order to grow revenues. Thankfully, many resist this temptation. It is with their sense of passion that this magazine sticks to realism (both contemporary and historical), even as we watch other publications follow the money and morph into something else. For those who collect and love realism, our mutual support of each other is crucial. We must not only support dealers selling realism from the past, we must also support the living artists they represent. Without patrons and encouragement, these artists may also be forced to follow trends to survive, and that could derail realism's renaissance.
Though I never offer investment advice, I believe that the market will return to support the proven successes of the past, which usually outlive cycles of taste. Quality art will always find a market. Moreover, realist works provide comfort in times of uncertainty, which could increase their demand in the near future; a new vogue for realism may even make Hirst wish he knew how to paint.
Those of us who love such tradition must stand together. We must support one another emotionally and financially so that history will remember our era as the one that preserved realism, not the one that ignored it.