This season’s batch of Salon Thursday lectures, created and hosted with customary aplomb by the Dahesh, continued on a high note last night when Jacob Collins -- New York City artist, teacher, and founder of the Grand Central Academy – came to discuss the foundation of his contemporary art school, patterned on the model of the 19th-century atelier.
My long-standing admiration for Collins as an artist, an arts activist and a teacher is without bounds. He has been at the forefront of a strong, pervasive and ever-growing movement to correct the course that art (and art history) has taken after its disastrous, dehumanizing collision with Modernism. For Collins (like your correspondent and millions of others in an invisible majority), the break from the Academy was not an explosion of new freedoms, but an invitation to hollow, ridiculous and often offensive amateurism and self-indulgence.
Aside from the beauty of his work, Collins also joins such diverse figures as Graydon Parrish, Ted Seth Jacobs, Anthony Ryder and Ephraim Rubenstein as an important teacher to new generations of artists who aspire to virtuosity.
Collins spoke to a packed house last night (April 3), in a relaxed and conversational forum. After telling us about himself and his mission to rescue art from Modernist muddle-headedness, he opened the floor for questions, charming the crowd for more than an hour. Any man who says, unashamedly, I love stuffy, old fashioned humanism. Many have argued that the world that I’m in is lonely, but the rest of the world that I am fleeing is moving so quickly that I cannot apprehend it is a kindred spirit to these pages.
Though not explicitly stated as such last night, what Collins is seeking is a return to a Renaissance Ideal; another Age of Enlightenment. Modernism has robbed art of its human element, and the fundamental connection between great art and great emotion has been lost in a morass of irony, ‘theory’ and hucksterism.
As Collins said during his opening: What got me here? As a kid in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, I grew up in a time from which I felt distanced. Something gave me a sense of loss. I recognized that something was missing when I looked at the work of the great Renaissance masters through the 19th Century, which is really the Renaissance arc.
I was outraged in my youthful way by its absence, by a lack of continuity. What happened, I wondered? Why can’t we have that art? And why am I discouraged by teachers and experts rom pursing that ideal in my own studies?
Of course, Collins realizes that an engagement with the past does not mean living in the past. As he said, the problem with that is that it’s reactionary. But there is clearly something wrong with the 20th Century. And that there is some cultural suppression of the humanist impulse is fairly obvious. I’m at a point where fixing something that is wrong is a big part of my life. That, and I want to make beautiful art.
One would think making beautiful art was part of the agenda for any art student, or any art school. But Collins did not find that to be the case. First, I had to learn how to draw and paint decently. That was very hard. Years later, I started an atelier because I kept bumping into people who wanted to do this – become part of the artistic tradition – under a coherent structure. When I was a kid, I wanted to fix things and make them look good. And that, in a way, is what I’m doing with the Academic Tradition. My great ambition was to be a marvelous artist; not by contemporary standards, which I thought were false and ugly, but by the high standards of the 19th Century.
I thought we would change the culture, which was a charming fantasy. My goal isn’t to step into some throne of art culture, but to open up space for artists working in this tradition. And that is slowly happening. This culture and ideas and philosophy is more advanced than it was 20 years ago. What is missing is the patronage, a way of having some kind of nexus with the culture.
Collins is acutely aware that the very language of the current art establishment is against him. He says, This revival of interest seems natural in that reconnecting to drawing and painting is natural. There is today an “institutional avant-garde,” to use a contradiction in terms, but there it is. There is a deep, false, association of art with the notion that, as progressive politics are morally good, and regressive politics are morally bad, regressive art is bad. It’s a cultural value that’s universally accepted – ergo, progressive art is morally good and regressive art is morally bad.
If you want to bring back that art, the argument goes, you are bringing back the culture that went with it. If you want to go back to that type of art, then you want to go back to a culture that preceeds progressive politics … but I think that is a specious argument. It should be, instead, couched in terms of Modernism vs. Humanism. But Post Modernist thought rejects that because it bound to its own irony.
The context and the language of art – so many people have created a language of art that has, built into it, a value system that is antithetical to this art. You need to have a new language to discuss it.
How we have gotten to this impasse is also a topic that animates the artist: The phenomenon of the last 100-150 years is unusual. It’s like the Renaissance in reverse. There was a “scrap that” attitude of the 20th Century that is almost historically without precedent. That has led to a fragmented art world. My hope is that some patronage would evolve to support these artists and this type of art.
The question of why it happened – I’ve spent my life thinking about it. There is a sort of taboo for people who advocate on behalf of pre-Modernist art… but, part of me feels that’s just too bad. All I want is to collect around me people who are interested in this. It’s a different world. As I say, if you want to play the piccolo, and connect with people who like it, don’t spend time in heavy metal concerts.
It was an extraordinary evening with an extraordinary man: gifted artist, philosopher, and activist. Kudos, as always, to the Dahesh for providing an ongoing forum for art scholarship and outreach.
One last brief word about The Grand Central Academy of Art. This is the school founded by Jacob Collins, located in mid-town Manhattan. To quote their Web site, The Grand Central Academy of Art … is built on the skills and ideas that have come from the classical world, the Italian Renaissance and through to the Beaux-Art tradition of the nineteenth century. The Academy is a center for the revival of the classical tradition where a new generation of artists is supported in the pursuit of skill and beauty. Interested readers can learn more at: http://grandcentralacademy.classicist.org/index.html.