First of all, this is not an article on the history of the Wyeths, in particular, Andrew Wyeth, but a musing about the nature of art and art criticism. I have always found art critics a little hard to stomach. One would quickly say that is only natural coming from an artist. Yet I have an intellectual difference with much of art criticism no matter what the circumstance. Since this article is also not a general critique of art criticism itself, I will keep the focus on those critics who feign superiority of vision or refinement based upon the manner of an artist’s expression; the dismissive writer who, to prove his or her elevated understanding, disparages the work of realists or American Regionalists.
What prompted this writing was a rereading of a New York Times article on the death of Andrew Wyeth. This article brought back memories of smug professors and condescending instructors in art school who thought modernity was entirely wrapped up in abstract expressionism and the ever more absurd celebrity obsession of the avant garde. An excerpt from this article:
Art critics mostly heaped abuse on his work, saying he gave realism a bad name. Supporters said he spoke to the silent majority who jammed his exhibitions. “In today’s scrambled-egg school of art, Wyeth stands out as a wild-eyed radical,” one journalist wrote in 1963, speaking for the masses. “For the people he paints wear their noses in the usual place, and the weathered barns and bare-limbed trees in his starkly simple landscapes are more real than reality.”
What galls the critics even more than a total, blatant disregard of abstraction is the huge success of Wyeth’s pictures. For many in the art world, this just confirmed their superiority over the unwashed, ignorant masses. Of course, the work of a realist like Wyeth appealed to the ordinary and the not properly educated. For many of this ilk, to spread the amazing religion of modern art became a fervent fanaticism that if left to the mass of humanity would lead to the critic’s own demise as the repository of progress in human thought.
Young Bull, Dry Brush 1960.
Incapable of learning, growing and understanding, even today, the critics do not conceive of the idea that pictures have no intrinsic value, that their viewing is not based upon any formula found in the sciences. It is just as valid to call a Matisse work utter simple minded sweetness as it is to derogate a painting by Norman Rockwell.
Freedom of Speech, Oil on canvas, Norman Rockwell 1943. (Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, February 20, 1943.)
I will not justify the artwork of Andrew Wyeth, or for that matter, the work of his father, N.C. Wyeth or James Wyeth, his son. The necessity of doing so remains as only an exercise in futility. Many of those in academia still shrink from the colorful experiments of the Impressionists, mostly because the general public likes them so much. The degree of sophistication between, say, this:
Comedy, Watercolor and Oil on Paper, Paul Klee 1921.
Airborne, Tempera on Panel, Chadds Ford Gallery, Andrew Wyeth 1996.
…is a pointless discussion. One can easily say that the Klee work is infantile and simplistic. One can disparage the Wyeth picture. It is all nonsense! A person is no more sophisticated or intelligent in liking one over the other, nor is the Klee “greater” than the Wyeth.
Mathew Carey, Oil on Canvas, Library Company of Philadelphia, John Neagle 1825.
Is this painting by the early 19th century American painter, John Neagle (1796–1865) as “great” as the two others above? Who knows, who cares?
To practice the sophistry that makes judgements based upon Realism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, as if these are political or social organizations, indeed, shows an incredible lack of cultivation and understanding. If I enjoy the picture by Andrew Wyeth, does that make me crude and inelegant? Does it say something about my intelligence?
The fact that Wyeth was fiercely patriotic, I think, turns many critic’s stomach. They, having attended the same art institutions as myself, have been inculcated with the same collectivist, class mentality as most productions of the elite educational academies. They simply have no respect for conventional thinking or the majority of people. They have a simple-minded, stereotypical view of middle America and certainly disdain anyone whose aspirations are different than their own. Artwork that is realist and popular among the public must be inferior and connotes “bourgeois” values not worthy of great art. (As if excrement in a can or a messed up bed represents high intellectual achievements.)
I could go on. But why should I? I simply reject the false narrative of pseudo-intellectuals telling me what qualities I should look for in pictures. Any time I read that one of the bad aspects of a particular work of art is that it is enjoyed by many in the general public, I dispose entirely of the desire to read more from such a critic. Any time I find a critic, obsessed with his or her vision of what a picture should be and restricting understanding to just a certain class of pictures, I give them up for something more useful, like watching my hair grow.
Links to more information:
A wonderful video hosted by Michael Palin on Andrew Wyeth:
Self-Portrait in Grey