Is there a place for beauty in the world of art? Or, the death of nihilism -- please
A friend who moved to California had many nice things to say about Minnesotans, but had one piece of prescient criticism. "There seems to be a Fear of Joy here," she said. "People find it difficult to let beautiful things in."
I knew she was talking about me. It wasn't until I was past my midlife crises that I allowed myself the pleasure of visiting art galleries. The only art I own is made by friends, so there is a personal connection, and low, low prices.
However, galleries do not mind browsers, because half the pleasure of working there is sharing the art with whoever walks through the door. You don't have to buy to look.
This is all to encourage you, gentle reader, to wander into the Jean Stephen Galleries and take in the work of Frederick Hart. Here's why: Hart was a sculptor so sublime in execution that his work is compared to Michelangelo and Rodin. His realistic, haunting portrayal of those three grunts at the Vietnam Vet's Memorial coming out of the jungle, looking at Maya Lin's long black wall of 57,000 names, gives a face to the dead that isn't on the wall itself. They appear to be looking for their own names.
What you can see at Jean Stephen are examples of Hart's work in three mediums. His brass casting is represented by a piece called "Metamorphosis" which retails at about $65,000. (For me, that would be about 150 years of Skyway News checks, but that doesn't mean I can't go in and look.) His work at the National Cathedral is replicated in a cast marble piece, one small section of "Ex Nihilo" (Latin for "out of nothing") that was part of his triptych on the Creation ($9,500). And his innovative work in cast acrylics is represented by many pieces, including "Emerging Flame." (The acrylics start at $1,900, and there is such a thing as time payments.)
Here's why I am telling you to go see it. No picture can do justice to the acrylic, because the images reflect and change and transform as you walk around them. This is where Hart was at his most innovative, because he figured out how to sculpt a piece, cast it in acrylic, then imbed it in more acrylic.
Hart's work was not accepted by the art establishment. He was vocally against a lot of Modern Art, preaching instead a return to skill, talent, structure, form and beauty. His D.C. pieces were ignored by the critics; not pounded, not dismissed, but not reviewed. Novelist Tom Wolfe ("The Right Stuff") called this a "catastrophic collapse of taste" on the part of art criticism.
His commercial success may have hurt him too. "He was the most successful sculptor in America," said Stephen Danko of the Jean Stephen Galleries. "His acrylic work sells in vast numbers for substantial sums. This embedding process is actually one sculpture inside of another. It shows more of the depth of humanity than can be expressed through a flat surface."
Aside from being an innovator, said Danko, "Hart is described as the most significant American representational sculptor of the 20th Century, as well as the most significant religious sculptor."
Hart's premature death in 1999 robbed us of a great apostle of Nouveau Classicism, which is the effort to bring back the virtues of classical artistry in sculpture, poetry, music and storytelling.
On PBS, Hart said, "I want to say things that have value and meaning to people. Art is part of the civilizing process by bringing beauty and values into the cultural mainstream, re-asserting it as a thing of major importance. Celebrating the pursuit of beauty itself has profound moral implications.
"It has to do with the religious or spiritual instinct," continued Hart. "When Van Gogh painted 'Starry Night' he was depicting a profound spiritual experience. In my work, I think of humanity as creation becoming conscious of itself."
Instead of work that is boring (Rothko) or repetitious (Dine) or repellent (Serrano) we have something that gives, dare I say it, Joy in the viewing. Take one look and tell me what you would prefer to have in your dining room: "Emerging Flame" or "Piss Christ"?
Hart had some champions defend him. James Cooper of American Arts Quarterly said that Hart represented "a sea change in American culture. It's an explicit rejection of nihilism. People have a hunger for a more complicated experience. His work is what people are yearning for -- beauty."
Jed Perl of the New Republic concurs. "Despite the Gonzo fashionable excitement about all kinds of dadaistic, nihilistic stuff, people are fending off the junk and developing an interest in technique."
Hart himself brushed off critics who dismissed him as kitsch. "Anything that has sentiment is written off as sentimental," he said.
Hart's goal was to portray "the heroic possibilities of mankind."
My experience comes down to this: I feel like I am a better person for having seen his work.