Coffee with Cornelius – Art and Power

I had a lovely time chatting with Cornelius Christian on his podcast, Coffee with Cornelius.

He was an excellent host, and allowed me to explain the early history of the avant-garde and its indisputably proto-communist origins. I regret that I didn’t have time to talk about how New York brahmins appropriated the term “avant-garde” to mean something quite different.

Early 20th-century American art critics Guillame Apollinaire, Clement Greenberg and Edward Jewell subtly changed the meaning of the term when they began applying it to left-wing artists who were individualists, instead of using it to describe artists who were socialist-realist propagandists. The transition began with Apollinaire, who had coined the terms “surrealism” and “orphism,” and also used “avant-garde” in 1912 to describe “the young painters of the avant-garde school.” Apollinaire said these avant-gardists wanted to make pure paintings after the fashion of the legendary ancient Greek painter Apelles, who had used delicate lines to compete with his rival Protogenes.

Regardless of whether Apollinaire was unaware of, or did not understand the history of the term as the specific domain of socialist realism, or if he deliberately appropriated it in his search for the nomenclature of modern painting, using “avant-garde” to describe modern and abstract artists was a significant choice, for now the term was equated with radical efforts to find a new art to satisfy the new time, not to describe specifically communist propaganda.

In Fall of 1939 Greenberg’s Avant-Garde and Kitsch was published in Partisan Review – an American communist journal. The article was written from the position that in the 1930’s, capitalism was perceived as a failed and broken system for which the only antidote was Marxist communism. This apocalyptic stance colours everything that follows in the essay. With remarkable pessimism, Greenberg claimed that avant-garde culture was a response to “the last phase of our own culture.” He starts well, noting that the birth of the avant-garde coincided chronologically – and geographically, too – with “the first bold development of scientific revolutionary thought in Europe,” which presumably means Saint-Simonian proto-communism. But he quickly gets his facts absurdly wrong, ridiculously claiming that bohemia “was then identical with the avant-garde,” despite his own admission that bohemians were “demonstratively uninterested in politics.” He maintained that the avant-garde had emigrated from bourgeois society to bohemia, and rejected the markets of capitalism, but that bohemians were also conscious of the fact that bohemia needed bourgeois money. Greenberg correctly explained that his avant-garde artists – he really meant bohemians – had rejected revolutionary politics and embarked upon a search for the absolute, manifested as art for art’s sake, at which point subject matter or content were “avoided like a plague.” His avant-garde, then, tried but failed to imitate, not god, but “the disciplines and processes of art itself.” This imitation of imitation was “the genesis of the ‘abstract.’”

This was an hopelessly incorrect application of the term “avant-garde” to the true situation in mid-19th century France, in which the bohemian and individualist practitioners of art for art’s sake would have vehemently objected to being described with it.

Clement Greenberg

By describing bohemian abstract artists as “avant-garde,” the Marxist Greenberg had appropriated bohemia and given it a radical left flavor. The contradiction was self-evident – hadn’t he said himself that his avant-garde was umbilically attached to the American elite by capital? His claim that after 1848 bohemia had become a sanctuary from capitalism jars with the historical narrative of the repeated story of bohemians either maturing into members of the bourgeoisie as they found success, or, as Murger had described, finding the hospital or the morgue instead.

This new avant-garde was still used as a propaganda tool, but now it was a tool that projected American soft-power.

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Listen to the Dobsky Story.

Carl Dobsky, Gravediggers, Oil on Linen, 42″ x 54″

Here’s an Mp3 recording of my MutualArt story, “Carl Dobsky – Prophet of the West.”

Click here to listen.

Click here to follow along with the article.

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Carl Dobsky, and Other Prophets

Carl Dobsky, Birds Of Paradise, Oil on Linen, 60″ x 84″

MutualArt has published my most recent piece of journalistic writing, “Carl Dobsky – Prophet of the West.” This was a really enjoyable journey into the world of prophets, as I did some background reading to understand how Dobsky’s paintings affected me. I hadn’t previously considered that 20th-century performance artists who were concerned with social criticism were the equivalent of old testament prophets. Biblical prophets often used performance and visual props to make their ideas more impressive.

In Jeremiah 19, Jehovah gives the eponymous prophet detailed directions on how to stage a performance outside the East gate of Jerusalem for the kings of Judah, and the city’s inhabitants, in which he smashed a clay pot, using the event as a parable to illustrate how the faithless city would be ravaged by the anger of their god – “Even so will I break this people, and this city.” More recently the Chinese performance artist Ai WeiWei used this same gesture in a brief video, which he titled “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” to emphasize his disrespect and distaste for Chinese traditional culture.

Jehovah instructed another Prophet, Ezekiel, to perform a lengthy endurance event, According to the Tanakh, he said, “Now, son of man, take a clay tablet, put it in front of you and draw the city of Jerusalem on it. Then lay siege to it: Erect siege works against it, build a ramp up to it, set up camps against it and put battering rams around it. Then take an iron pan, place it as an iron wall between you and the city and turn your face toward it. It will be under siege, and you shall besiege it. This will be a sign to the house of Israel. Then lie on your left side and put the sin of the house of Israel upon yourself. You are to bear their sin for the number of days you lie on your side. I have assigned you the same number of days as the years of their sin. So for 390 days you will bear the sin of the house of Israel. After you have finished this, lie down again, this time on your right side, and bear the sin of the house of Judah. I have assigned you 40 days, a day for each year. Turn your face toward the siege of Jerusalem and with bared arm prophesy against her. I will tie you up with ropes so that you cannot turn from one side to the other until you have finished the days of your siege.”

Doesn’t this remind you of the performance artist Chris Burden, who spent twenty-two days in February of 1972 confined naked to a bed in a Los Angeles gallery? What did it mean? The audience felt frightened. Burden described feeling like a repulsive magnet. Willful self-imprisonment, deprivation, and suffering. Compare the masochism of Burden’s action with the religious extremity of Ezekiel: – the former is an act of self-indulgence, the second, an act of a zealot.

Surprisingly, there are several books about prophets as performance artists. Here are a few:


I’m glad that painters as skillful as Carl Dobsky show that cultural criticism was not only the domain of the avant-garde, and I’m glad that he is willing to point to the hypocrisy of the West, and I’m glad that ancient prophetic performances show that members of the avant-garde were as conservatively traditional as representational artists, if more disingenuous about their intentions. The prophets of the Torah never felt the need to pretend that they were artists doing something new and radical. The prophets were the self-confessed preachers of their faith, just as many performance artists of the avant-garde were preachers of their own intersectional faith, which had nothing to do with any god.

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The Illusionists

“The Illusionists” video is on Youtube. Enjoy fifteen minutes of imaginative realist paintings and sculptures, narrated by Michael J. Pearce, produced by BRITBAT studio.

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Illusionists Trailer.

Here’s a one minute trailer for The Illusionists video. To watch The Illusionists Facebook premiere this Saturday at 10am PST, visit this link and click “Get Reminder.” 

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Facebook video premiere of “The Illusionists.”

The opening frame of “The Illusionists.”

Last year I organized a show called “The Illusionists.” I was fortunate to be able to show work by some of the greatest imaginative realists alive today, including Roger Dean, Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell, Pamela Wilson, Richard MacDonald, and a long list of superb painters.
The show was very successful and drew large numbers of people to the gallery. While it was up, my friends Brittany McGinley and Huicho Le made a fifteen-minute film, which I presented.

Join us Saturday 13th June on Facebook at 10 AM Pacific Standard Time for the video premiere of “The Illusionists.”
Here’s the link to the event notification – go there, and click “Get Reminder.”

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Pamela Wilson and the Absinthe Drinkers

There’s nothing nicer than a glass of ice-cold absinthe on a hot day.

I wrote this story about Pamela Wilson’s paintings of absinthe drinkers in celebration of both the decadent Bohemia she imagines and the drink itself. I love absinthe, I love feeling that coldness spread across my chest, and I love the dreamy buzz it causes.

Pamela Wilson - The Absinth Drinker and the Hostile Silence
Pamela Wilson – The Absinth Drinker and the Hostile Silence

Pamela’s paintings capture a wonderfully theatrical and bizarre world – a world that I wish existed in reality, and would cheerfully participate in. However, it’s also a world that could quickly tip into becoming a nightmare.

Writing the story gave me an opportunity to think about the nature of real Bohemia – with its attractively idealistic individualistic anarchism, and its sordid and evil consequences flourishing alongside it. The desire for utopia is always stained by the fact that entropy eats away at the ideal as much as it gnaws at the material.

Here’s the story

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Digital Art Teaching

How do studio artists teach drawing and painting with the requirements of social distancing limiting the interaction we are allowed to have with our students? I’m worried about next semester, with so much uncertainty about how to work in a world of social distancing.

Fortunately Graham Toms, art boffin at CTEC, in Salem, Oregon, has shown me how he has quickly transferred his classes to a partially online basis.

Graham produces simple, thirty-minute demonstration videos using a video camera, some lights, and his laptop. He has a friendly, chatty approach that works well, and he obviously enjoys himself while drawing.
His students still need to have a phone or access to a computer, but he keeps their costs down by having them use cheap butcher paper, charcoal, and chalk. While watching the video with Graham, students can comment in the chat window. He is free to reply to their questions while the video plays. After the video is complete, the students make their own drawings, and Graham progresses around the virtual classroom using a video conferencing program (I’ve used Zoom, and it’s pretty user friendly) checking on their work through their iPhones.

Graham’s method could quite easily be transferred to a course in traditional atelier-style figure drawing by asking students to purchase the Bargue Drawing course book by Gerald Ackerman, or Juliette Aristides’ Classical Drawing Atelier and use it as a text book.

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Eddie Martinez and the McMansions of the art world.

Eddie Martinez – Keys to a Defunct Castle

My editor asked me if I would write a story about Eddie Martinez, whose work is selling for spectacular sums at auction. I was unimpressed by the work, which I think has no artistic merit whatsoever, and annoyed by his gallery’s lack of response to my request for an interview with Martinez, and with them.
Here’s the story, a harsh reflection on the failures of Martinez’ work, on what art is for, and on what we might need in the present.

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The Death of Last Rites.

Latest in the growing list of commercial victims of the virus, Last Rites Gallery in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen has just announced that it is closing down after a twenty-year run of selling macabre and dark art to a devoted audience of connoisseurs. Owner Paul Booth hopes to reopen in a year or two. His last show was “All of me is Illustrated,” a collection of photographs of tattooed people used in a new edition of the brilliant Fahrenheit 451 author Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man.” and “The Illustrated Woman.”

Many of us who watch the art world with more than casual interest expected that the covid virus would bring catastrophe to our domain. I am skeptical both of excessive claims that it will somehow be magically transformed into a new and perfected world, and of apocalyptic prognostications of the end of art, with mass closures of museums across the world.

The biggest art galleries possess assets worth incredible fortunes, and boards of directors with wealth so great that they have not flinched in their acquisitions of expensive works of art at auction. I see no reason to expect Covid to make any long-lasting, serious impact upon them.

It’s the workers and the middle class and the smaller, independent galleries like Last Rites who will suffer the worst of the crisis, not the aristocrats of the American art world.

Rest in Peace, Last Rites. Gone but not forgotten.

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