TRAC: A Resurgence of Realism?

by Theodore Prescott

The second Representational Art Conference (TRAC 2014), held in Ventura, California, from March 2–5, 2014, was ambitious, stimulating, sometimes cheeky, often fun and a bit conflicted. It attracted close to 400 registrants from twenty-nine states and twelve foreign countries. Given that this conference was dedicated to promoting and defending a practice of art that has been critically derided as empty and passé by influential artistic voices, those are impressive numbers. No doubt some people were drawn to the quality of the keynote speakers and the special guest panelist. But there was a sense of camaraderie that eludes many professional or academic conferences. The two keynote speakers were the British philosopher Roger Scruton and the American painter and author Juliette Aristides. The special guest panelist was the sometimes controversial Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum. His presence loomed large at the conference, and one academic session was devoted to papers on his life and work.

The conference revolved around a few topics, which provided thematic unity and focus. The most obvious was “representational art”—the kind of art that characterizes the pre-modern Western tradition. When that tradition started, and who or what is included in its history, may be debated. But there is no question that the demise of traditionally oriented painting and sculpture has been repeatedly announced and long sought by some “progressive” artists and critics. Several conference presenters referred to that, and its refrain provided some of the “we are in this together” ambiance.

We first discern the conceptual framework of representation in an artist’s mastery of technical skills. Thus, demonstrations such as Graydon Parrish’s, on using the Munsell Color System, and Stephen Perkins’s, on modeling an écorché figure, were designed to provide understanding of a system and the way its use establishes artistic form. The focus on systems continued into some academic papers, too, such as Kristie Bruzaenak’s “The Quest for Beauty through Classical Proportion Systems.” Other presentations, such as Jeremy Lipking’s or Alexey Steele’s, were not explanations per se but provided the chance to witness the systematic unfolding of their approach to portraiture.

The conference provided several opportunities to see work. An invitational exhibit filled public areas of the conference site. There also were three off-site exhibitions. One, at the Ventura County Museum of Art, featured paintings of fresh produce by the conference director, Michael Lynn Adams. The other two were in galleries at California Lutheran University, which was a major sponsor of the conference and the professional home of conference organizers. Both group exhibits were stylistically diverse, in keeping with the organizers’ stated goal of seeking “a wide variety of work that is skills-based and explores a broad range of techniques and ideas … founded in recognizable expressions of our sensory (particularly visual) experience of reality.” The smaller of the Cal Lutheran exhibits, “Women by Women,” as the name implies, featured work by women, about women. The subject is of growing interest in the representational art community and poses significant questions about gender, perception and representation. In essence, it is asking if there is a “female gaze” that is discernibly different from the way men depict women. One of the exhibitors, Ruth Weisberg, gave a wryly winsome address to conference members before we entered the exhibit. The former dean of the School of the Fine Arts at the University of Southern California, Weisberg has had a long career of depicting women. She often draws her subjects and iconography from historic paintings in traditional Western art, which she recasts with contemporary people and themes.

The larger exhibit, “Resonating Images III,” was the final installation in a three-part series that has explored representational art from 1900 to the present. It featured works by twenty-five artists. With the possible exception of Nerdrum, they are not artworld rock stars but have achieved some critical recognition. A number of works were loaned by galleries like Forum and Koplin del Rio that feature contemporary realists. It was an intriguing exhibit, anchored by Nerdrum’s The Poacher (2013), a large painting at the far end of the gallery. What was striking was how contemporary many works in the show seemed—that is, if one expects a commitment to tradition to also convey cultural or spiritual continuity with the past. The various styles of representation in the exhibit were highly skillful and engaging. They owed an obvious debt to historic representation, but their sensibility often seemed comfortably at home in our broader artistic culture.

In his paper, “The Problem of Content in Contemporary Realism,” Michael Zakian, director of the Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University, illuminated some reasons for the discontinuity I felt between conference ideals and the sensibility of “Resonating Images III.” Zakian applauded the high level of craft coming out of today’s ateliers and academies but asked, “What is added to the world with such technical skills, beyond technique?” He argues that contemporary realism has tended to overlook depicting narrative in a way that makes the meaning of the story palpable. Showing a Rembrandt drawing, Cain Killing Abel, he quoted the critic Peter Schjeldahl, who wrote that the drawing “feels like what it is to commit murder.” Zakian contrasted the Rembrandt to William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s beautiful The First Mourning, in which Adam and Eve mourn Abel’s death. Even with its gestures of grief, the formal emphasis of the painting muffles its narrative import. In addition, artists face the problem that our culture does not use art to mediate its narratives. Modernity has predisposed us to look to the forms or ideas in a work, rather than seek insight into shared beliefs or find wisdom about human experience.

The weightiest topic addressed by conference presenters was kitsch. It was the subject of Roger Scruton’s tightly crafted and highly charged keynote address, “Faking It.” He opened by asking why anyone would want to be a representational artist if not to get at the truth. Scruton then proceeded to describe our problems with fakes, both as a broad cultural phenomenon and a specific artistic problem. He distinguishes between lying and faking by noting that the liar deceives the victim, but the faker deceives himself, too, as he is drawn into an increasingly elaborate dialogue based on dishonesty and disbelief. Scruton argues that, in one sense, the cultural problem is universal; we all need to fake it at certain times, when propriety or charity compel each of us to say things we do not really believe. But it is different in art, and Scruton finds the false front of fake art emerging at a specific moment in Western history—perhaps as early as the saccharine, not quite credible pieties of Bartolomé Estebán Murillo’s Madonnas. He did not explain why fakery emerged when it did but noted that it was curious that fake art and fake culture had a beginning, as opposed to social fakery, which is apparently timeless.

For Scruton, fakery is inextricably bound to kitsch. He defined kitsch in his 2009 book, Beauty (now published as part of the Oxford “introduction” series as A Very Short Introduction to Beauty), as a “disease of faith” and pointed out that it is not simply an artistic phenomenon. But the artistic embrace of kitsch concerns Scruton because he believes that art’s social role has increased in significance in the last few centuries. In Beauty, he wrote: “In an age of declining faith, art bears enduring witness to the spiritual hunger and immortal longings of our species. Hence, aesthetic education matters more today than at any previous period in history.” (Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 188) Scruton told conference participants that “so far as art has a universal function, it is dealing in confirming what is real.”

How did kitsch become so embedded in the mainstream of contemporary art? Paradoxically, Scruton locates the acceptance of kitsch in modernism’s initial fear of it. The idea that genuine art has to be original and should not falsely perpetuate outmoded beliefs and artistic conventions was advanced by the art critic Clement Greenberg in his influential 1939 essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” Scruton noted that, for Greenberg, there was no third way, so that art that was “academic” or that drew from tradition was—a priori—kitsch. One of Greenberg’s goals was to maintain a critical distance between art that was serious high culture and art that was accessible, popular and commercially successful. A significant result of his criticism was that a whole range of human feeling became suspect. Sentiments came to signify sentimentality, and people influenced by Greenberg seemed unable to distinguish between the genuine human sympathies of an artist like Edward Hopper and the simulated sentiments of an artist like Maurice Utrillo. It is all kitsch. But Scruton notes that there was a catch, because the doctrine of progress meant that original gestures could not be repeated, and thus “the flight from cliché” began to generate its own clichés—those of fake originality. Scruton is especially scornful of the critics and philosophers who have devoted their lives to explaining and promoting meretricious work, as though Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst were our equivalents of Michelangelo or Caravaggio. So we have arrived at a place where contemporary kitsch is presented as high art but is embedded with an art insider’s ironic wink. Anyone faintly aware of the contemporary art market recognizes a historical irony here, too; Greenberg’s assertions that commercialism and popularity have no place in art have been displaced by the commercially driven appetite for “what’s happening now.”

Early in the lecture, describing kitsch’s effect on religious belief, Scruton showed a picture of a shrink-wrapped “threepack Holy Family set,” the kind of item you might find in the decorations aisle during the Christmas season. Though it’s easy enough to chuckle at its crassness, Scruton highlighted kitsch’s cultural complexity by describing two people. One is a cultured American tourist standing in front of a Donatello—say, the Annunciation in Santa Croce—deep in aesthetic appreciation but completely unmoved by the representation of belief. Nearby is an Italian peasant praying earnestly to a plastic St. Dominic. Who has the greater problem in terms of knowing? The chasm between knowing a profound belief only as “art,” and using a cheap simulacrum to find “religious truth” illustrates the contemporary dilemma. There is no artistic solution for the divorce of aesthetics from a search for truth unless, as Scruton said, artists are committed to “confirming what is real.”

Given Scruton’s attitude about kitsch, it might seem strange that Nerdrum embraces the word. I have not followed Nerdrum closely, although I had seen a show or two of his at the Forum Gallery in New York in the first decade of the new century. Before the conference, I was unaware that Nerdrum had declared he was a kitsch painter—just as his detractors had insisted—in a statement at the opening of an exhibit of his work in Oslo in 1998. He apologized for calling himself a fine artist. Since then he has turned what might be seen as a publicity move into a movement, and the idea has caught on within his immediate circle, as well as among representationalists who do not accept current definitions of art. There have been several books about the kitsch movement, and a growing list of kitsch exhibitions, including the cleverly located “Biennale del Kitsch 2010,” in Venice, Italy.

Nerdrum did not speak formally at the conference but participated in a public discussion with Scruton. His ideas on kitsch were presented as a system by Jan-Ove Tuv in the paper “Kitsch as Superstructure for Representational, Narrative Painting.” A student of Nerdrum, he has published several essays about kitsch, including in Nerdrum’s 2000 book, On Kitsch. Tuv located the difference between kitsch and art in the critic Arthur Danto’s statement about artists who aspire to paint like Rembrandt. For Danto, such an ambition was only acceptable as art “if you paint ironically.” But for Tuv, irony has no presence in kitsch. He explains kitsch in terms of what it is for: passion, sentiments, narratives, representational skill, the frank imitation of what has gone before, beauty and the conviction that being true to one’s time is unimportant. Tuv positions kitsch in a separate universe, apart from the gravitational pull and celestial order of fine art. Part of his argument is that fine art is a historic development in Western culture, deeply influenced by Immanuel Kant and the Enlightenment. It is an idea, not an immutable category of being. Nerdrum has insisted that artists must grasp philosophy if they are to work effectively and free themselves from the reigning orthodoxies in art.

There is a seeming split between the way Scruton described kitsch negatively, and Nerdrum’s willingness to adopt it, and fly its flag proudly, aggressively. The disparity is partly due to the history of the word. Scruton was using the term in its original descriptive meaning, which signified both poor craft and a sentimental parasitism on art—that is, imagery that feeds on its association with a subject, without giving real form or genuine feeling to it. Nerdrum and his followers are responding to the word as it had come to be used in post-Greenbergian criticism, which amounts to a series of taboos about loving craft, imitating the past and being direct in one’s sentiments. But there were still differences that could have been explored, such as how Scruton saw irony as a hallmark of kitsch, while the Nerdrum school apparently eschews it. The discussion between Scruton and Nerdrum—which on some websites had been anticipated as a debate—was remarkably agreeable. They had a good bit to say about the contemporary critical environment, and the need to live outside of it. They were in general agreement about what they were against. Only at one point did Scruton say, rather gently: “I don’t think you have to call what you do ‘kitsch,’ Odd, to defend it.”

A small but telling difference did emerge, though. For Scruton, real art has redemptive potential, for both the artist and the audience. He noted how important it is to have an audience beyond a guild of fellow artists and art world professionals—“the experts.” But Nerdrum obviously hungers for approval by the experts. It is admirable that he has fought hard for his artistic vision, but does he need to wrap himself in the narrative mantle of the persecuted outsider—that staple of romantic modernism? The woes of such cultural disenfranchisement seem a bit exaggerated to me. After all, resale prices for Nerdrum’s larger works are in the six figures, and they are in the collections of the Hirshhorn and the Metropolitan museums. How persecuted is that?

Juliette Aristides gave the final major presentation on the last day. Aristides, who has an atelier at the Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, is the author of Lessons in Classical Drawing. She advocates a slow art, beginning with the acquisition of representational skills but leading toward a lifetime focus on content, meaning and philosophy. Unfortunately, I had to miss the talk, but I heard and read such good things about it that I contacted her, and was able to discuss the presentation. It highlighted a dilemma lingering in the background of the conference and was summed up by the questions, “What are we looking at and what are we looking for?” She began with her experience of being in the Scuola San Rocco in Venice and stopping to draw an interesting view she saw on the first floor. A friend went to the second floor and came back down several times, saying Juliette just had to see what was upstairs. But Juliette, busy with what was right in front of her, resisted. Finally, her friend’s persistent entreaties sent her upstairs, where she encountered Tintoretto’s stunning cycle of paintings.

For Aristides, the problem is that most of us look only at what is in front of us. Most Americans never make the trip to the second floor and are ill-equipped to discern what the representational movement is about. The dominant culture tries to find meaning in progress, she said, but everything that is uniquely and profoundly human becomes disposable in that vision—such as the two million plastic beverage bottles sold every five minutes, or the 208,000 photos uploaded to Facebook every second. For Aristides, the aim of art—real art—is different than the aim of progress, because it is directed toward what is of enduring value. Viktor Frankel, a Viennese psychologist who endured years in a Nazi concentration camp wrote: “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life. … Man is able to live and die for the sake of his ideals and values.” So artists need something to live for and work toward, which is of value both to them and to their audience, even if that audience is small. She cited J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings—an Oxford-based literary group that included C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams—as an example of a small group of people committed to an alternative vision that ultimately had enormous cultural impact. The Inklings were not looking for critical success and commercial market share; they were driven to create mythic worlds that confirmed their deepest longings for goodness, truth and beauty. What they longed for was invisible, until they made it real.

So, a resurgence of realism in representational art will give forms, narratives and beauty to those things we cannot see but need, if we are to live meaningfully. It is “confirming what is real.” If TRAC 2014 stimulates a move toward this in the years ahead, it will someday be seen as a seminal gathering.


Theodore Prescott, a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art at Messiah College, is editor of A Broken Beauty (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005). He is also a sculptor.


American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2014, Volume 31, Number 3