Evolution Through Art
A new book offers a platform for the figurative art movement to knock down the door of the art world.
I was 18 when I made a sincere effort to fall in love with art.
The suburban life of American culture is almost devoid of appreciation for the vast history of art and its meaning. I grew up in an art culture of the postmodern, in which art was confusing at best, and families would walk out of an art museum underwhelmed and snickering contemptuously at the soulless shit entombed there.
The good art, now a hundred years old at least, felt like it came from an ancient era. I felt detached from it and wondered at its meaning. In canonizing the greatness of the ancients, lifting their work on pedestals, while presenting postmodern art as what exists now, art culture undermined the validity of the living figurative art of our time. Not that there was much left to show. Postmodernism and historical obsession allowed figurative art to become almost extinct.
In college I focused on science, but I soon discovered that I needed breaks in my work and used the pause to look at art. To just sit, and look at it, and feel it. After an expenditure of effort on a problem, when I turned my attention to a piece of art, I was better able to feel the energy shimmering from it.
The internet in the year 2001 began to usurp previous forms of art dissemination through magazines and galleries with a direct-to-consumer access of the latest work being done anywhere in the world. Artists could post updates of works in progress which gave a higher level of engagement with the audience. It was by surfing the web that I began to discover artists that shared my values and collect work, for the first time.
One such was the artist Michael Newberry living on the island of Rhodes, Greece who painted life-sized monumental figurative works at a masterful level to which he would dedicate thousands of hours of effort. They often featured an individual, in which the pose and atmosphere on the canvas conveyed the inner emotions of the subject.
Michael was advocating for the arts through philosophical articles and reviews of contemporary figurative artists, in which he spoke plainly and from the heart but with a razor sharp knowledge of art history and theory.
He also wanted to create a foundation to support a high-level cultural shift in the American museum culture toward the figurative arts through intellectual advocacy. And, he was looking for someone to help with the project.
That summer I went to stay with Michael Newberry in Greece to create what became The Foundation for the Advancement of Art and enjoy the experience of living overseas in a beautiful place. I was a teenage, straight, and socially awkward physics student visiting a middle-aged gay artist. This definitely piqued my family’s curiosity, who wondered what was going on. But it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship in which I also gained a creative mentor who would follow my career from physics into architecture.
The foundation went on to hold a conference at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan with artists, curators, journalists, and gallery owners in attendance, with talks by philosophers and artists. The message was that figurative art based on innovation, substance, and vision would be the future of art.
Art is representational, conveying images that are understandable to our minds and delight our senses. Art builds on the technical achievements of the past even while leaping beyond them. Art fights for the soul of humanity. These are tenets I took away from the experience.
In retrospect, it is unclear to me if we made an impact, other than participating in the accumulated impact from all forms of art advocacy diffusing into our culture. Thankfully, more cultural forces for good were at work.
Fifteen years later, it has become clear to me that the world scene for artists has undergone a dramatic shift. Thousands — tens of thousands of figurative and representational artists are practicing around the world, showing their work through Instagram, selling work directly to their audience of followers.
They have been enabled by the slow return of the art atelier — what is now called the Atelier Movement. Thirty years ago, an art student might need to consult an ancient manuscript for knowledge of how to compose the figure. Today, there are academies such as the Florence Academy, the Grand Central Atelier, the Gage Academy, among others, who preserve the ancient tradition of technical excellence and churn out artists who have little thought for the last century of postmodern garbage.
Even if the students are taught a classical method (and I am always horrified when every painting from a graduating class looks almost identical), some of these students use the time after school to experiment with a broader range of styles of expression, in order to forge their own individual spirit. (A great example of this is Zoey Frank, who is reinventing herself without losing touch of her classical foundation.)
Most amazing to me is that the artists I am finding and loving are often young, some of them half my age. This means that over time, there is going to be a fabulous class of figurative artists coming into maturity, and then yet another class of students taught by them. Eventually, we have what every era deserves: a flourishing art culture.
Unfortunately this movement is only starting to get its advocacy legs. Despite world-wide grassroots art-making, we have yet to see fresh, excellent figurative art in museum shows, or see high-dollar sales compete with modern trash, or to see a sustained collector base of intelligent, thoughtful, and moderately wealthy individuals who could support regional representational artists and build a resale market.
Having written an influential book on a topic, I often say “to start a movement, write a book.” Newberry put pen to paper, and result is Evolution Through Art which published this week.
The book is a self-published double-spaced manuscript, and in the hand it is has the unassuming feel of street authenticity. It might have been something you get handed as class notes by a professor.
The first section of the book is a contemplation of the role that the development of figurative art played in our evolution. Works like the Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, the Venus of Hohle Fels, and the Venus of Willendorf served psychological functions for our ancestors, while also calling on or actively developing our cognitive abilities.
Newberry’s point is that the psychological function of art is multi-faceted and complexly intertwined with our evolution. He talks as much about the experience of creating art, as the act of observing it.
The artist was sorting through the turmoil of millions of sensory perceptions, transforming a kaleidoscope of emotions, and ephemeral thoughts into a recognizable painting or sculpture that the audience could take in a glance and hold in their hand. The art was an instantaneous summary of what was important to focus on in life, emotion, and thought.
Newberry carries us swiftly through time, picking and choosing advancements in the successful representation of the figure. He always pays attention to the subtle and beautiful emotional experience of the art, never forgetting that we are not talking just about form. For example, how the divine beauty on the face of the angel painted by a young Da Vinci in The Baptism of Christ was both an example of technical excellence and emotional genius.
The nude is an important form in Newberry’s work (as it is in the history of art) and he treats the nude over time. Only a few days ago my seven-year-old son asked me why we sculpt nude figures (he sees me working on several of them in the living room) and it was a little difficult to give him a clear answer. Newberry points out that an artist addressing the body of the subject is forced to acknowledge that “There is a real person here!” and dive deeper into the humanity of the subject, bringing genuine human empathy to bear.
The second section of the book is a candid stare at the dark side of art history, at individuals who have sought to destroy art. This was all new information to me, and I wonder where a modern art student would go to find it.
For example, at the same time that Michelangelo was working on the Pieta in Rome, and da Vinci was working on the Last Supper in Milan, Girolamo Savonarola built an eight-sided pyre filled with objects such as works of art and musical instruments, and held a public bonfire in 1497 in Florence. The clear theme is that often, directly alongside those who are trying to advance the arts, are those who are finding religious or other reasons to tear it down.
It makes me wonder if, in the future, we will be more comfortable acknowledging the 20th century as a rampantly successful anti-art campaign.
What is most essential to Newberry’s thesis is his clear understanding of the impact philosophers have had on the history of art.
In particular, he contrasts the Ancient Greek idea of eudaemonia, “the ultimate state of the noble soul” (and, honestly, my new favorite word) as described by Aristotle; with the stupid laundry-list view of beauty by a teenage Edmund Burke; and with the truly horrible views of Kant.
Kant contrasts beauty with the sublime. Beauty is ignoble, dull, and safe, while the sublime is noble, violently passionate, and mentally challenging.
Although Kant may have never intended the sublime to be expressed in art, it reads like a rule book for postmodern art in the 20th century:
There are three key attributes of Kant’s sublime: formless, non-sensory, and mentally painful. … what if his concepts were implemented as art? It would be crucial to eliminate the attributes of representational art such as form, light, and subject matter.
Newberry then discusses several works by 20th century artists such as Pollock, Christo, Whitehead, McCarthy, and Duchamp that exhibit Kant’s notion of the sublime in their conveying of “horrific insistence on negative emotions like wrath, despair, and violation.”
There is a clear headed strength in Newberry’s words. He is a great figurative artist who is commentating on postmodern art. He is like a man staring down a vicious beast, and without flinching, is able to subdue it. And in this strength he is giving power to figurative artists everywhere.
The third section of the book resumes the contemplation on the history of art, discussing Vermeer, the French Impressionists, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet, and their unique contributions to understanding of color and light. We should not forget that this survey course is being delivered by a practicing artist on the very cutting edge of color theory.
He also concludes the book with a discussion of a sprinkling of living artists who, through their work, are continuing to push art forward: Melissa Hefferlin, Daniel Maidman, Abiodun Olaku, Hironori Kiyoshima, Martine Vaugel, and Peter Schipperheyn.
Newberry concludes with a new proposal for the sublime:
Art integrates senses, emotions, and thought. The sublime in art elevates our sensory experience, heightens and taps our emotional potential, and furthers our knowledge. The sublime in art can give us a moral to the story, a stance toward living. At its best, the sublime in art inspires awe in our human potential and awakens our desire to evolve as a whole being and as a species.
The figurative art movement of today has the boots on the ground; it has the sincere appreciation of a small audience of real people who make sacrifices to afford art; it has intelligent and active individuals who are trying to advance figurative art in galleries and museums; it has magazines that celebrate figurative art and annual conferences; it has intellectuals who can stare down the beast; it has a sprinkling of galleries that promote great representational work; and it has new and established ateliers that are producing wonderful artists.
There is a growing power in all of this. Artists are figuring out that if they organize, they can provide mutual support and love, while advocating for themselves. I have seen groups of artists develop a monthly salon and achieve several group exhibitions of their work in regional cultural centers. But it is still only knocking at the door of the multi-billion dollar art world and the institutions that exist to protect it.
Ideas have power that can grow over time and change history. Ideas can compel, convince, and be a rallying cry for cultural change.
The modest, clear, and compelling thoughts of Michael Newberry, a dedicated life-long artist, show us that we have a moral justification to break down the door and move in.
Brett Holverstott is a writer, architect, art collector, and hobby sculptor. He holds a BA in Philosophy and a Masters in Architecture.