Gustave Courbet — Portrait of Proudhon and his Children

Why the Left Disowned Art.

Michael J. Pearce
Apr 9 · 15 min read

A new era for painting and sculpture.

Strange things have been happening in the art world.

Until recently the American left was responsible for the production of major avant-garde movements that changed the face of art. Now, with its activists vandalizing statues and demanding the removal of paintings and sculptures that might offend their allies, it has deservedly gained a reputation for being a destructive force.

After a hundred years of allegiance to the avant-garde, the new moral positivism of the Democratic Party means artists can no longer count on the support of left-wing voices.

Instead of supporting art, left-wing intersectional activists have become busy iconoclasts, calling for the destruction of a painting of Emmet Till, throwing paint at public sculptures of Columbus and civil war monuments, spraypainting slogans onto the iconic Unconditional Surrender statue in Sarasota. There’s nothing particularly new or exciting about iconoclasm, but it is unusual that the political motivation of these activists is leftist, because supporting artistic freedom of speech has been the default position of the American left since the Second World War.

Saint-Simon

The close relationship between revolutionary socialism and avant-garde art began in 1825 when the French radical Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) appropriated the term “avant-garde” in the context of art, writing: “It is us, artists, who will serve you as avant-garde: the power of the arts is indeed the most immediate and the fastest. We have weapons of every kind: when we want to spread new ideas among men, we inscribe them on marble or on canvas; we popularize them by poetry and singing; we use alternately the lyre or the galoubet, the ode or the song, the story or the novel; the dramatic scene is open to us, and it is here especially that we exert an electric and victorious influence. We address the imagination and the feelings of man, and we must always exercise the most lively and decisive action; and if today our role seems nil or at least very secondary, it is because the arts lack what is essential to their energy and their successes, a common impulse and a general idea.”

From this moment — the birth of the avant-garde — we see a marriage of art to leftist propaganda, and an indication of the ministerial role of the avant-garde artist as an elitist intellectual leader, guiding a sheep-like congregation of the proletariat herd. Saint-Simon was an unashamed proto-communist revolutionary, urging scientists and artists to use their work to shape society, and casting them as defenders of the righteous radical faith. He cried out to artists, “…look with your eye of genius at the present condition of the human mind. You will see that the scepter of public opinion is in your hands. Seize it vigorously! You can secure your own happiness as well as that of your contemporaries. You can protect posterity against the evils which we have suffered and those which we still endure.” From its beginning, avant-garde art was intended to propagate the new faith of communist doctrine. Frequently criticized by their use of art as propaganda by their political enemies for a century avant-gardists developed a stock of defenses of free speech to protect their right to use art as a tool of political persuasion.

Until Saint-Simon, an “avant-garde” had only been known as a military term used to describe a formation of soldiers who advanced ahead of the main body of an army. Its personnel included scouts who rode ahead of the avant-garde to see what was ahead of the advance and report upon it; officials to demand the surrender of the enemy as they encountered it, and engineers to clear any hindrances to the progress of the main army. In these earliest days of the emergence of proto-communism during the industrial revolution, Saint-Simon established the idea of the artistic avant-garde as a quasi-religious antagonistic priesthood that ministered by leading intellectual discourse and crafting propaganda. It was a remarkable association that would stand for two hundred years. His use of the term “avant-garde” separated politically motivated avant-gardists from traditional artists as if they led the way, with the rest of culture meekly following. But proto-communist avant-gardists had no real intention of leading the army of the culture they wanted to overthrow — intent on revolution, they turned on culture itself, attacking the traditions and practices that had built Western civilization. This was the beginning of the West’s culture war.

Chernyshevsky

With the success of the Russian revolution in 1917, the avant-garde split in two and the revolutionaries battled for its soul, forming two distinct groups, the Socialist Realists and the Radical Avant-Garde.

The Socialist Realists were admirers of the aesthetics offered by the another proto-communist radical, Nicolay Chernyshevsky, champion of the realist tradition initiated by the French Communards Courbet and the philosopher Proudhon.

Chernyshevsky developed the powerful ideology of Socialist Realism which would dominate Soviet art until the fall of the Berlin Wall. They believed that art should be in service to the proletariat, and should be used to tell the stories of the successes of the revolution.

Lenin himself was deeply impressed by Chernyshevsky, declaring that he would not have become a revolutionary himself if he had not read his work, saying, “Before my acquaintance with the works of Marx, Engels, and Plekhanov, only Chernyshevsky had a major influence on me, an overwhelming influence.” Karl Marx commented on the writer and his work with high praise, describing him in his seminal work Das Kapital as “a great Russian scholar and critic” and “a master mind,” and “the greatest of today’s revolutionary writers”.

Describing the way he conceived Communist art, Lenin said,

“Art belongs to the people. It must have its deepest roots in the broad mass of workers. It must be understood and loved by them. It must be rooted in and grow with their feelings, thoughts and desires. It must arouse and develop the artist in them. Are we to give cake and sugar to a minority when the mass of workers and peasants still lack black bread? I mean that, not, as you might think, only in the literal sense of the word, but also figuratively. We must keep the workers and peasants always before our eyes. We must learn to reckon and to manage for them. Even in the sphere of art and culture.”

Lenin’s words are similar to those of his hero Chernyshevsky, who had written in 1853, echoing Saint-Simon: “Let art be content with its fine and lofty mission of being a substitute for reality in the event of its absence, and of being a manual of life for man.”

Boris Vladimirski — Roses for Stalin

In 1932 the Central Committee decree On Artistic and Literary Unions declared that Socialist Realism was the official doctrine of the Soviet Union and that non-doctrinaire art and radical avant-gardism were illegal. Art organizations were liquidated and replaced by a monolithic Artists Union, and art groups were ordered to have a faction of devoted Communists taking leadership. Radical avant-gardists were now officially traitors to the revolution and were imprisoned, exiled to the gulags, or killed. Now outlawed, the radical avant-garde was forced underground.

The prominent Bolshevik leader Karl Radek made an important speech to the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934 that helped to cement Socialist Realism as the dominant aesthetic of art within the Union. Radek said:

“Realism means the portrayal of this reality in all its basic connections. Realism means giving a picture not only of the decay of capitalism, and the disappearance of its culture, but also of the birth of that class, of that force, which is capable of creating a new society and a new culture. Realism does not mean the embellishment or arbitrary selection of revolutionary phenomena; it means the reflection of reality as it is, in all its complexity, in all its contrariety, and not only capitalist reality, but also that other, new reality — the reality of socialism….

Thus the Socialist Realist avant-garde became the institutional aesthetic of the Communist block, lasting as official doctrine until the perestroika reforms under President Gorbachev during the 1980’s allowed the underground Radical avant-garde to act in public.

The aesthetics of the second group, the radical avant-garde, were crafted by those artists and writers who believed that the revolution had provided the opportunity to completely re-invent art, to dispose of all the old aesthetic ideas of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy and replace them with new formalist abstraction. They rejected Socialist Realism because it depended too heavily upon the capitalist culture they sought to overthrow.

Malevich — Black Square

Malevich’s Black Square is an example of their desire to annihilate the past and replace it with new, radical avant-garde art. His own discomfort about the direction of his art was clear — of the un-painting Malevich said: “I could not sleep or eat, and tried to understand what I had done — but I could not.” It expressed the big nihilistic ‘no’ of the avant-garde’s desire to erase the past — and the reinvention of civilization envisioned by the revolutionaries. Now more than a century old, the painting has cracked and fractured like the dated radical ideas it supported. To Malevich’s discredit, close examination of the piece discovered that he had written a puerile racist insult over one of his colorful avant-garde canvases before painting it over in nihilistic black, reading: “negroes fighting in a dark cave”.

Hitler in Paris

While in Communist Russia the radical form of avant-gardism — that which sought to reinvent culture afresh — was crushed, in the first decades of the 20th Century it flourished in Europe and America, especially centered in Paris and Berlin, where its enthusiastic adherents explored methods designed to purify art of its bourgeois inclinations, experimenting with movements like Fauvism (using non-representational color), Dada (anarchic anti-art), Cubism (painting objects from multiple perspectives), and Abstraction (non-objective art). When the outbreak of the Second World War halted this avant-garde in France and Germany, New York inherited the role of leadership and the radical avant-garde quickly became the tool of Western propagandists, who were keen to show the leftist artists of Europe that they could flourish within American-style Social Democracy and needn’t support Soviet or Nazi enemies.

In 1939 Clement Greenberg published his derivative but extremely influential essay “Avant-garde and Kitsch,” and Democratic President Roosevelt announced that the Museum of Modern Art was the flagship of American culture. The radical avant-garde was firmly established within the heart of left-wing soft power, bankrolled by aristocratic leaders like Nelson Rockefeller, Peggy Guggenheim, and Gertrude Whitney. In the West, they argued, artists had a freedom of self -expression that was denied in the Communist bloc, where they were required to adhere to the Socialist Realist formula. The narratives of this radical avant-garde have been exhaustively accounted for in the art history of the Western academy, led by the Frankfurt school and other theoretical writers who positioned the radical avant-garde as the enemy of capitalism.

At the end of the second decade of the 21st Century, leftist support for the radical avant-garde has collapsed. Four landmarks help to illustrate the reasons for its fall from grace.

The first blow came in 1984 when Thomas McEvilley published an article about an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art titled Primitivism and Twentieth Century Art. McEvilley pointed out the hypocritical exclusivity of the avant-gardist cause. He argued for a multicultural relativism that broke down the unilaterally white, Western, heterosexual, male order of this art world, giving equal credence to art originating from other races, cultures, sexual orientations, and genders, hoping to create a globalized culture that paid equal artistic respect to all of its parts. Because his words were a truthful observation of the hypocrisy of the avant-garde establishment long cracks appeared in its leftist philosophical foundations. By the 1990s worrying academic papers were written with ominous titles like The Theory-Death of the Avant-garde, and Brutalities of the Vanguard.

A second heavy blow to the avant-garde landed in 1990, when Senator Jesse Helms proposed a statutory restriction as a condition for the appropriation of funding for the NEA to deny federal funding for artists who intended “to promote, disseminate or produce obscene or indecent materials, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts; or material which denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or nonreligion.” Helms’ proposal came as a response to exhibits of photographs by two artists in galleries which had been funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts: a collection of photographs including homoerotic pictures of naked men by Robert Mapplethorpe, titled “The Perfect Moment” held at the Corcoran, which included an infamously graphic self-portrait of the photographer inserting the handle of a black whip into his anus. A show at North Carolina’s Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art included Andres Serrano’s photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine titled “Piss Christ”.

The proposal went through challenges and modifications and was finally enacted January 14th, 2014. Two paragraphs in the proposal stood out for their implications to art in the United States — first a ban upon the NEA funding any kind of art production that was determined to be obscene, and second that if any project was determined to be obscene, then the NEA funds used to fund it must be returned, or no further NEA assistance would be provided to the recipient.

What these paragraphs meant was that the burden of deciding whether or not a work of art was obscene fell upon the galleries, theaters and arts centers, who were seldom in the financial position to defend themselves against expensive lawsuits initiated by people who might be offended by performances, images, and sculptures in their exhibits. Consequently, arts venues that receive federal funding choose to err on the side of great caution, self-censoring and seldom exhibiting nude paintings or sculptures, which for centuries have been regarded as the epitome of culture, and certainly avoiding live avant-garde performances which included nudity, thus limiting their cultural offerings to those works which stand little to no chance of offending the most narrow-minded of views about the naked body.

“…the greatest artwork that ever existed in the entire cosmos.”

A third blow to the avant-garde was tied to the world-changing catastrophe of 9/11. The academy was uncomfortable with the avant-garde’s failure to address multiculturalism, and the Federal government was uncomfortable with avant-garde obscenity, in 2001 the public’s disgust with the avant-garde’s endorsement of “shock art” came to a peak when the composer Stockhausen claimed the 9/11 attacks on our Twin Towers as “the greatest artwork that ever existed in the entire cosmos.” Even the New York Times piled on condemnation, suggesting Stockhausen, an icon of the radical avant-garde, was “a raving has-been.”

It is not a coincidence that directly after 9/11 the commentator Suzi Gablik insisted that we had reached the end of postmodern philosophy, Donald Kuspit announced “The End of Art” and we saw a new enthusiasm for traditional drawing and painting technique manifested in the dynamic 21st Century representational art movement as an alternative to avant-gardism.

A fourth blow to the left’s long alliance with the avant-garde came fifteen years after the towers fell when Hilary Clinton’s key advisor John Podesta came under scrutiny when a bizarre conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate” alleged he was involved in a pedophile ring centered upon a Washington D.C. pizza restaurant. Appalled that brazen child abuse could be going on, a man took a carbine to the place and shots were fired as he searched for a non-existent underground bunker beneath the restaurant in which kidnapped children were alleged to have been imprisoned. The story was absurd, of course, and the foolish gunman dangerously naïve, but because it involved guns and a major public figure, it got national television attention, and the public attention was directed to the features of the conspiracy.

Part of the “evidence” marshaled to prove Podesta’s alleged involvement in pedophilia was focused upon his avant-garde art collection, and viewers were shocked to learn that this pillar of the Democratic Party owned a sculpture of a decapitated naked woman whose pose closely resembled a photo of one of Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims. Another installation in his home included hyper-real sculpted hybrid human and pig figures, including piglet children. There were also supposed to be photos that showed children running away from a man and photographs of naked teenagers. A powerful perception of a sick relationship between left-wing politics, avant-garde art, and pedophilia was established by media outlets covering the story.

These revelations came at precisely the same time that the Democratic party doubled down on post-Marxist Social Democracy and intersectionality.

The Democrats had realized that they must persuade the middle class of their viability. While continuing with the party’s traditional support of unions, the 2012 Democratic party platform also proclaimed that the party would deliver what it termed “The Middle-Class Bargain.” In 2016 the platform described the middle class as workers — a dramatic departure from the anti-bourgeois class war beloved of proper Marxist lovers of the proletariat. The new party abandoned Marxism and emphasized Social Democrat ideas about managing a capitalist economy with socialist institutions and defending the weaker members of society.

This shift in the ideology of the party to include the middle class was coupled with strong support for intersectionality: the idea that all disadvantaged or discriminated groups — feminists, ethnicities, gender identities, were gathered together under the Democratic Party’s wing in an uncomfortable alliance of the disaffected and disenfranchised, and that all should be aware of each other’s persecution support them with political activism, and avoid causing offense to them.

Intersectional Democratic Party members were horrified that the aesthetic taste of Podesta — one of their elite leaders — could include such offensive things. Party leaders seeking the middle-class vote were appalled at the offense to bourgeois values. The sculpture of the beheaded woman clearly offended feminist factions. The weird genetically-mutated piggy-children sculptures and the creepy photographs of men with children running away had to go because they would offend just about everyone.

These developments meant that if the Democrats wished to maintain their alliance of the working class, the middle class, and the disenfranchised, it could no longer support avant-garde art because of the clear conflicts it might create. Henceforth the Party could only support art in the form of explicitly political propaganda that supported its platform — it has withdrawn from its long support of radical avant-gardism and free speech and turned toward a pious moralism, standing aside as its iconoclastic activists insist upon the destruction of art that offends members of its alliance. Although the 2016 platform repeats the same brief rote paragraph which has been repeated in their platform for nearly half a century — that the party supports the NEA and has had a long history of supporting the arts— there is no rush from Democratic congressmen to protest its decline and no outcry as it withers. With avant-garde art irretrievably stained by pedophilia anent the muddy toilet bowl of public opinion, no congressman is in a rush to leap to its defense.

The Republicans abandoned art two generations ago. Now that the Democrats have also renounced it, painters and sculptors can only turn to the aspirational class of American business owners and the wealthy for their financial support, for as even the young and foolishly idealistic Clement Greenberg knew, they are attached to the bourgeoisie “by an umbilical cord of gold.” Perhaps we will now see the emergence of American art that truly reflects the interests of the American people, untainted by political interference.

The Hudson River School celebrated the unique qualities of the great American landscape, and Warhol and Koons’ Pop Art celebrated American capitalism. Now, after the fall of the avant-garde, Imaginative Realism has become culturally supreme in literature, film, video, and gaming. Imagery from Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones dominate the public imagination. Comic books have evolved from childish entertainment into a sophisticated genre. This is the art of science fiction and fantasy, of pop-surrealism and low-brow. It is the art of a new generation that loves to dream and loves sensual experiences. It has nothing whatsoever to do with either Socialist Realism or the radical Avant-garde and has a vastly more widespread cultural influence. Imaginative Realism is the new art of the American people.

Michael J. Pearce

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Michael Pearce is a figurative artist and author of “Art in the Age of Emergence.” In 2012 he founded The Representational Art Conference.