NEW YORK—A new vigor for classical arts, like another Renaissance, is in the air at the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, in Manhattan, where the lifelike sculptures of Sabin Howard are now on exhibit through March 22.
“Real art uplifts you, it transforms you,” said award-winning novelist Traci L. Slatton, who is also Howard’s wife.
Under the various banners of classicism, realism, and art that is simply “uplifting,” Slatton and other accomplished professionals from the art and literary world gathered on March 2 to celebrate Howard’s works—many of which depict gods in the Greek and Roman tradition and took Howard years to create.
“Looking is the point, beauty is the point, mastery is the point,” said Slatton in an opening speech that condemned the highly conceptual direction of abstract and contemporary art today. “Sabin Howard’s pieces lack irony; this is a deliberate choice.”
The event was not simply an exhibit but a call for a revival of traditional techniques and uplifting subject matter.
Stefano Acunto, chairman of the Italian Academy Foundation, which hosted the exhibit, implored, “Let us work to build upon the work of the greatest achievers, to improve upon it, and to develop it organically—much as Sabin Howard is doing.”
To this end, Acunto, who is also an honorary vice consul of Italy, released a new 10-point art manifesto at the event. A few of the points include “demand elevation, not degradation in subject matter and focus”; “seek reason and clarity, instead of celebrating unreason and emptiness”; and “cultivate devotion to the classics in every form.”
Lamenting the current state of the art world, Acunto said, “Our art spurns reason in a tipsy, self-inebriated and self-anointed binge of self-expression, attempting to capture the soul of our age by holding up a mirror of its very emptiness.”
One Hundred Years
Some of the speakers said the contemporary art world has been off-track for as long as 100 years.
Slatton pointed to artist Marcel Duchamp, who was known as a Dadaist and Surrealist. Duchamp’s 1917 work “Fountain” is, at least on a superficial level, a urinal hoisted on a pedestal.
“It would have been fine for five or ten minutes of intellectual entertainment or shock value, but it’s 100 years later and art is still being flushed down the toilet,” Slatton said. “I’m here to tell you, the emperor has no clothes.”
James E. Cooper, editor of American Arts Quarterly, puts the point of initial decline somewhere between World War I and World War II, with the decline gradually becoming more pronounced. He said he could see the change when he was attending the Pratt Institute. At first, he said such art institutions had it right.
“The idea of discipline, of the academy, of tradition, of virtue, of morality, of excellence, of beauty, of God, of spirituality, of inspirations, were structured into an art education,” said Cooper.
Then Cooper went away to fight in the Korean War for three years and returned to find things had changed at the Pratt.
“All over the walls were white paintings, black paintings, just a white square [in the painting], a black square, a white square in a black square, a black square in a white square, ad infinitum,” he said.
Cooper said he understands the original intent of such works. Artists in Europe felt like they couldn’t trust people who ran their countries, so they used art as a form of protest. But questioning tradition only goes so far, he found.
“There’s one thing that the modernists didn’t truly understand because they were so full of dedication and promise to changing the future. They didn’t realize that without a story, without a myth, without a sense of history, without a sense of philosophy, without a tie to Western civilization, or whatever civilization, you cannot create great art,” Cooper said.
Today, after decades of modern art that has run counter to what Cooper has called “great art,” a large portion of the art market has begun to thrive on such modern art.
“The art market is self-generating, like an inflated economy, the currency is essentially morbidly inflated,” Acunto said. “I’m telling you what you know but what is simply not said.”
But the speakers found hope in works like those of Sabin Howard that embrace tradition and are still selling well. Howard’s newest series of sculptures are selling in the six-figure range, and his prospective buyers include the likes of Elton John.
Peter Trippi, editor of Fine Art Connoisseur magazine and former director of the Dahesh Museum of Art, confirmed this trend.
“There is a market there, and it’s definitely getting healthier,” Trippi said.
Trippi also said that art education around the country is slowly changing, with many students seeking out traditional arts outside of universities.
“Rest assured, there are energetic and really talented young people out there who want to make art like this,” he said, pointing to Howard’s sculpture.
Instead of going to universities to get regular bachelor of fine arts degrees, many students are instead opting for earning certificates at ateliers that specialize in classical arts.
“The good news is those programs are working out really well. Slowly we are seeing the universities offer programs that resemble those ateliers because they know where the bread is buttered, and they know that they have to keep an eye on that market of young people,” Trippi said.
‘You know if it’s great’
Laz Avlon, a fashion model and blogger attending the presentation, said it made sense to him. “I think most people agree but they don’t feel like saying anything,” Avlon said. “They go into the art galleries, they see things, but they don’t feel it’s their place to criticize.”
“The speakers [at the presentation] use the word ‘discern’; most people don’t discern anymore.” He said people go into an art gallery, and they all scratch their chins and muse, but they know in their hearts if it’s actually good.
He related a recent experience when he went to an art viewing in the Lower East Side, and the piece on view was simply a carpet rolled up. “It wasn’t even a rug. … It was just a carpet,” Avlon said.
“When you see something, right away you know if it’s great,” he said.