For artist Robert Florczak, the ideals of classical art are what is worth preserving. Unless we build on the standards and ideals of past masters, new work will necessarily be shallow, unable to contribute in any depth to our culture.
It is the foundational ideals—ideals like beauty and depth—responsible for the great works that we most need, he wrote in a recent email exchange.
He uses a quote from historian Will Durant to make his point: “Roots are more vital than grafts,” he said.
“Today, without those continued ideals, we have lost the culmination of all the forward-propelling greatness—the roots—and instead witness lateral extensions—the grafts—that have little or no connection to anything of aesthetic substance. Like branches growing farther and farther away from the tree, they soon have nothing to support them,” he wrote.
He explains contemporary art in opposition to these ideals: “We have arrived at a time in cultural history [where] the cult of personality has reached unimagined heights, where … the artist is more important than the art, and the idea or concept more important than the medium.”
Conceptual art, wherein the idea is more important than its expression, espouses that the artistic idea itself is enough, that it suffices as a work of art, and that skill and expression are irrelevant.
“These ‘artworks’ are the grafts of which Durant speaks,” he said.
Florczak’s artistic career has ranged from fine art to advertising, according to his website. His paintings grace the private collections of celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, as well as corporate collections like those of AT&T and Beecham Pharmaceuticals.
An Aesthetic Standard
The foundational ideals or aesthetic standards are briefly and bluntly outlined in Florczak’s five-minute video, “Why is Modern Art so Bad,” on YouTube. In it, he explains that for centuries Western art created astonishing works of beauty that inspired and uplifted humanity.
The artists of these works strove for the highest standard of excellence and sought to improve on the works of previous artists. These works were profound, inspiring, and beautiful.
Now the deep and meaningful have been replaced with the new and different, and novelty is now held in higher regard than the once-inviolable standards. In fact, he says, recent works strive for the “silly, pointless, and purely offensive.”
At the time I write, Florczak’s video has gotten over 1 million views. Some of those responding feared that following classical standards would lead to “tired repetitions” of earlier art.
Florczak disagrees. “The challenge to the true artist is to create fresh and vital work within the framework of established universal aesthetics. It is easy to produce something completely new; it happens each time an artist breathes and claims his breath to be a work of art.
“What is truly difficult and profound is to produce something new within the demanding expectations of universally held, centuries-old, aesthetic criteria,” he wrote.
He explained that late 19th century English painter Lord Frederic Leighton painted nothing like Giotto, an Italian painter from the late Middle Ages. “But their foundations were completely shared and respected,” he said.
Standards Transcend, Deepen Culture
Across centuries, the standards have held true. The ancient Greeks held these values as do today’s representational artists.
“Classical standards, the foundation upon which excellence has been historically aspired to and achieved in the arts, are universal and eternal, and can still be recognized in the works of many artists working today,” Florczak wrote.
These standards apply across cultures as well. Early 19th century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai created elegant woodblock prints. His cultural background and interest in subjects were entirely different from the Western masters of the Renaissance, but they embraced similar ideals. “His visual principles were in perfect harmony with those of Raphael,” Florczak explained.
Within a culture, each artist contributed to the work of his predecessor, so that over time, the cultural body of work deepens.
“It is within this [artistic] sharing that we bond and grow as a people, something that can’t be done when the ‘rules’ of art are being invented with each new work,” he said.
Continuing in the Tradition
Florczak has worked predominantly as an illustrator, but he comes from a background in the fine arts. He has “intimate understanding of the classical methods of the Old Masters,” according to his website.
“[I] have tried to maintain the standards of classical aesthetics in my work as much as possible. I far from succeed,” he wrote.
His compositions, subject matter, and types of media have all been somewhat influenced by the classical tradition.
As far as media, he works in graphite, watercolor, and in transparent oil glazing, a technique that is centuries old.
His subject matter often depicts themes from history, mythology, or literary works, as did that of the masters of old.
In designing a painting’s composition, he follows the concepts of Dynamic Symmetry, which he explained in detail: “Dynamic Symmetry [is] a system of composing a painting by breaking down the rectangle into sub-rectangles, each of which is proportional to the whole.
“All objects in the composition are not placed randomly, but placed in ‘dynamic’ locations. This is not simply a mathematical conceit, but a design concept that has been discovered to exist within nature, and shown to be most pleasing to the eye, even if only subconsciously,” he said.
He used this method for his painting “Distant Thoughts.” “I composed the two figures, the tree, and all of the surrounding elements within a rectangle that was broken down into a schematic (white lines) based upon a Dynamic Symmetry formulation. The viewer is unaware of this balance in the finished piece, but is subconsciously aware of it nonetheless,” he stated.
Florcazak’s work should quiet the skeptics. “Distant Thoughts,” despite its formal composition, the antiquated costumes and poses of its figures, and its romantic theme, looks nonetheless fresh and contemporary. Thus it succeeds exactly where critics would find fault—it seems new.
Yet he does not place the classical ideals on the altar of novelty.
“In the end, the replacement of classical art and ideas with the worship of rule-breaking and concepts-over-skill is depleting society of that which is culturally most rich and noble. Continuing to replace roots with grafts, as Durant cautioned, has surely resulted in a dead tree,” he wrote.
In our series “The Classics: Looking Back, Looking Forward,” practitioners involved in the classical arts respond to why they think the texts, forms, and methods of the classics are worth keeping and why they continue to look to the past for that which inspires and speaks to us. For the full series, see ept.ms/LookingAtClassics