For the sake of argument

Don’t fall for the modern art hoax

KENNETH FORBES July 5 1958
For the sake of argument

Don’t fall for the modern art hoax

KENNETH FORBES July 5 1958

Don’t fall for the modern art hoax

For the sake of argument

KENNETH FORBES

Recently I found myself, rather unpleasantly, in newspaper headlines. It started when I questioned the selection of Canadian paintings to be exhibited at the Brussels World Fair. I described them as modernistic nonsense which were neither good paintings nor representative of Canadian art. I also doubted the qualifications of the selection committee as judges of good art, since they were gallery curators and art critics who were not artists and who obviously knew nothing about art.

1 was met with a storm of criticism. One critic said mine was “a voice from another world;" a modernist artist in Toronto dismissed my complaint, illiterately, as “the flatulent utterances of the perennial fustians;" and another called me an exponent of a style of painting whose day was past.

The criticism does not trouble me. In fact, I would not want to be anywhere else than on the opposite side from those who are creating and foisting on the public the ugly, distorted, sadistic, grotesque and just plain incompetent scrawls that are so-called modernistic paintings.

My own qualifications for expressing an opinion on art are simple: I started drawing at the age of four in the studio of my father, John C. Forbes, a professional painter and one of the founders of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. The first of a score of my paintings accepted by the Royal Academy in London was hung when I was eighteen, and was bought for Lord Leverhulmc's collection. I have twice won the first portrait prize of the National Academy of America (where only one other artist has won two firsts). I have been a full-time professional painter for forty-five years. All that may make me a “perennial fustian." but I think it also gives me the authority to declare that modernistic painting is the greatest hoax in the history of human arts.

Like the other arts, painting is a medium of communication. The painter must convey to the viewer some scene, experience or insight from the world of reality. If he fails to do so. then his art has failed. And modernistic art fails to communicate.

True, there are many who pretend to find continued on page 50

KENNETH FORBES IS A DISTINGUISHED CANADIAN PORTRAIT PAINTER.

pets or draperies. Abstracts are quite meaningless and relatively harmless.

The really vicious branch of modernistic painting creates pictures that seize reality and distort, pervert and brutalize it. Such paintings as Roualt’s Christ, with its disjointed, disintegrating features, is not only destructive to art but downright blasphemous. When men like Picasso, Van Gogh, Cezanne and Braque look at beauty and reality and convert them into distorted ugliness and unreality, a sane observer can only conclude that they are deliberately setting out to destroy mankind’s dignity.

If the issue were an academic disagreement between the traditionalists and the modernists of painting, it might be of no great concern to the average layman. But modernistic painting is more than a stupid fad. It is, in fact, a cynical promotion inspired by the oldest and least artistic of motives — profit. As such, it should be investigated like any other questionable promotion. When a daub like Cezanne’s Bathers (an awkward group of women who seem to have been hurriedly constructed of cardboard and metal, and which Cézanne, an incompetent painter, could not sell at any price during his lifetime) sells some years later for $237,000, that makes the profiteers of the business world look like pikers. And when an official of New York’s Museum of Modern Art values at one million dollars a painting by Seurat, a modernist who applied his paint in eyestraining patterns of dots—surely that needs no comment.

How have the art profiteers been able to hoodwink — indeed, to enlist as allies —the museum curators, gallery directors, wealthy patrons of art and the critics whose help is so essential to the success of their plan for replacing good paintings with bad? The answer is simple: the entire plot was outlined some years before the advent of modernistic painting by Hans Christian Andersen in his fable. The Emperor's Clothes.

This story is so precisely a blueprint for the promotion of modernistic painting that it is worth outlining. Two rascally tailors offered to make a magnificent wardrobe for the emperor. They let it be known among his courtiers that the fabrics they would spin (from costly raw materials paid for by the imperial treasury) would be so fine and precious that only people with rare intelligence and discernment would be able to see the clothing. To dull clods the emperor’s clothes would be invisible. Since the tailors stole the materials and made no clothes at all, the emperor strutted about in the raw. But the courtiers, terrified at being proved unintelligent, exclaimed in admiration of his matchless clothing. Only a young child, too innocent to know he was demonstrating his ignorance, exclaimed, “The emperor has no clothes on!”

By using a similar technique th spreading of propaganda insisting that modernistic art is significant and mean ingful to people of perception and i¿1 telligcnce and that all who scoff at n are moronic, some dealers have been able to persuade an incredible assortment of otherwise intelligent and honest people to see magnificence where only ugliness exists. Fear of being ridiculed as unperceptive and dull is leading men of great influence in Canada, the United States, Britain and France to stand rapt before framed abominations, to buy them for home or gallery, to praise them in print.

So completely have the people who control the buying and exhibiting of art been seduced by the modernists that today the traditionalist painters find it nearly impossible to get a viewing. The

For the sake

“Modernistic

meaning in modernistic art. But they do so for reasons that arc either financially or intellectually unworthy. To understand how dealers have been able to enlist support for these incomprehensible horrors on canvas, it is necessary to

argument continued from page 8

art is more than a stupid

understand just what modernistic art is and how it came to be.

Modernistic art is two growths. One is the abstract or non-objective school. The artists of that school create “puzzle pictures,” exaggerated doodling of color-

fad. It’s a cynical fraud”

ed zig-zags, swirls and geometrical shapes that do not pretend to represent anything on earth or in the heavens. These scrawls do not belong on framed canvas, but their gaudy patterns can be quite pleasant to the eye as designs for car-

younger men with a living to make against such competition are having a hard time. They can seldom expect to have their work exhibited under the present jystem of selection. I calculate that ninety-nine percent of paintings bought and exhibited in North America today are non-traditionali.^.

The modernists' strongest propaganda weapon is the pretense that their work is a revolt against convention, a seeking for new forms and textures and viewpoints. It is none of these. It is, instead, an excuse for not learning the fundamentals of a difficult profession. Far from being a brave quest, modernistic painting's invasion started via an unhappy accident.

A Paris art dealer named Ambroise Vollard had some Cézannes and Van Goghs left with him for debt. In later yeais Vollard was to be known as the great exponent of modernism, but at that time, just before the turn of the century. Vollard undoubtedly knew good painting from bad, and had little hope of selling those paintings. But a Dutch collector saw them and expressed interest.

"1 see beauty in them.” he told VollarcL who shrugged and took his money. It is perhaps significant that three weeks later the collector was found to be insane.

The incident suggested to Vollard. though, that if anyone—even a mentally deranged person—could detect beauty in such paintings, it might be possible to launch a vogue for meaningless, ugly pictures. Other Paris dealers, sensing a new source of profit, climbed on the bandwagon. It proved all too easy to deceive pretentious people who wished to assume an appearance of erudition. And that is how the degradation of painting came to be.

A queer picture is queer

It is true that an individual's judgment of any painting is a personal decision, but surely an intelligent man's taste could not change, unaided, to the point where in a few years an art that has evolved for centuries becomes worth only one percent of his attention, and an offshoot born of mediocrity deserves ninetynine percent.

This has not happened, of course, as far as the public is concerned. The average viewer remains the innocent child who secs only the truth. To him a queer picture is still queer. I am told that the public is staying away in droves from galleries where the usual fare has become the modernistic painting — but eighty thousand visitors saw a week's exhibit of traditionalist old masters in the Toronto Art Gallery. If the public's taste can prevail against the profiteers and the bemused art officials (and I hope it can. but with no great confidence) then in time the value of a modernist painting will return to its true level — that of a square of used canvas.

To visualize what the world of art would be like if literature and music were debased like painting, imagine these horrendous situations:

Ninety-nine percent of all books are in the incomprehensible language of James Joyce's Finnegan’s Wake or in the style of Gertrude Stein's "a rose is a rose is a rose.”

Ninety-nine percent of all music is of the "emancipated” type that sounds like energetic juvenile delinquents banging on drums and tin cans and tootling on whistles against the counterpoint of a cement mixer, a riveting machine and a braying jackass.

Those fates could not befall books and music, of course. The public wouldn’t

stand for it for a day, and the men who produce and distribute books and music would not let it happen.

Does the art world, then, not possess similar protectors? Apparently not. Certainly not in positions where they should be defending the nation's taste against the assaults of propagandists of modernism. In the once great art schools of North America there remain few traditionalist teachers, men and women who insist on students learning the groundwork of a career in art. The few traditionalists who have not been ousted

by the modernists see their work undone as soon as their pupils pass on to other teachers, see premiums put on laziness and shoddy work in the name of “freedom to develop along their own bent.” The wealthy patrons of art, collectors as well as board members of galleries and museums, have too often proved willing to be persuaded that acceptance of modernistic art is proof of insight and sophistication. and lifts them above the common herd. I think it is significant, though, that of the many professional, business and political leaders whose por-

traits I have painted, none has seen beauty or interest in modernistic painting. The w-ealthy dupes are men and women who have inherited or married into wealth. They have never had to face the realities of value—financial or artistic.

What about art-museum curators and art-gallery directors? Surely they are knowledgeable men. art experts, dedicated to building up a permanent art treasure for their city or their nation? Unfortunately this is not the case. In almost all instances these dictators of public taste

are not experts who happen to have been bitten by the modernistic bug but men who never were experts to begin with. What else can one conclude when, for example, the National Gallery’s directors pay vast sums of public money for incomprehensible scrawls, including specifically fifty thousand dollars for Picasso’s The Little Table, twenty-two thousand dollars for a Derain picture and sixteen thousand dollars for Chagall’s The Eiffel Tower?

It is not surprising that gallery officials arc weak at judging modern art, since there are no standards by which to judge it anyway. But in the past they have been unable to judge even the genuineness of traditionalist paintings—take the infamous Van Dyck forgery.

When 1 was painting a portrait of the late Prime Minister R. B. Bennett in Ottawa, he asked my opinion of the state of art. 1 shocked him by replying that it was in the control of artistically stupid people. He challenged me to prove it.

I told him that more than a dozen "masterpieces’’ on the walls of the National Gallery were fakes — and bad ones at that, notably the alleged Van Dyck

Venus and Adonis that hung in a place of honor, and had even been selected by National Gallery officials to represent the best of Canada's art treasures at an old masters’ exhibit in Toronto.

Bennett raised the question in parliament. What went on behind the scenes I do not know, but presently the picture was relabeled “School of Van Dyck” and before long it disappeared into the gallery’s vaults, along with the rest of the spurious dozen. Later the prime minister asked me how I had been so certain that the picture was not genuine. 1 told him: "When 1 see a Van Dyck that 1 could have painted better — it’s not a Van Dyck.”

When art “connoisseurs” and critics can be fooled by such obvious fakes it is not surprising that they take refuge in the kind of paintings that cannot be judged by any known standards of art appraisal. Because modernistic paintings are meaningless, they must be described in words which arc also meaningless. Hence we read well-known critics describing modernistic paintings in the following terms:

“This picture has integration of plastic

conscious and is related to the outer volumes.”

“The canvas conveys plastic disintegration of rhythmic essence.”

“The painting has a phenomenal degree of microcosmic synthesis of threedimensional entity.”

Propagandists for modernistic paintings have been uncovered in their nonsense so often that it’s a wonder they haven't given up in shame. Phrases like the above have been written by “experts” to describe splashes of paint on canvas made by chimpanzees and even a donkey with a brush tied to his tail who was encouraged to show his artistry by being fed lumps of sugar. But perhaps the most hilarious commentary on modernistic painting occurred at England’s great Bournemouth exhibition.

For years the best English artists had their work accepted at Bournemouth. Then the modernists took over. One artist who had showed regularly there had his work rejected for three years running. One day he surprised his six-yearold son in his studio. The boy had laid a canvas on the floor and was squeezing tubes of paint on it at random. When

the artist called out he frightened both his son and a cat dozing on a shelf. The cat knocked a can of blue house paint onto the canvas and the boy sprawled over it. The resulting mess gave the artist a diabolical idea. He scattered a handful of earth over the canvas and flung twigs at it. Then he submitted the canvas to the Bournemouth show. It was accepted.

An official of the British Arts Council went so far as to devote most of his comment on the exhibition to this painting. He proclaimed publicly that “at last English painting has developed a great genius.” A Daily Mail reporter (not an art critic) called on the genius and wrote:

“He was standing on his head in a corner and was disinclined to be interviewed, being only six years old. His collaborator, the cat, was nowhere in sight.”

All England laughed — except the modernists. But the story also illustrates one reason why I am not too hopeful that sanity will soon return to art. The “expert” who proclaimed the canvas to be the work of a genius was later knighted and given an even more important post in the world of the modernists. if