The rather brilliant Milene Fernandez hosted an evocative panel Friday night at the Salmagundi Club in Manhattan. The topic concerned “The Responsibility of the Artist in the 21st Century.”
Milene’s panelists were Judith Kudlow, a painter and founder of the atelier The Harlem Studio of Art; portrait artist and painter Dan Thompson; and my husband sculptor Sabin Howard. These are acclaimed, experienced artists. They have something thoughtful to say about the nature of the artist’s responsibility in the world.
Sabin is the sculptor for the National WWI Memorial, a 58’ long bronze relief to be set in Pershing Park, Washington DC. We discuss the artist’s responsibility over dinner. And over breakfast… Sabin takes seriously his duty to create a memorial that honors our veterans and our fallen, that uplifts and inspires viewers, and that commemorates the Great War that claimed so many lives, devastated so many towns in Europe, and changed the entire world.
But Sabin was reflecting on his responsibility as an artist long before he won this commission. The nature of responsibility is informed by a sense of values and standards, and Sabin and I have a shared belief in standards in art. The structure of how things are put together matter. How skillfully they are put together matters. Beauty, excellence, and the artist’s skill matter.
These standards and values are often diminished, even scorned, in the broader culture. Excellence and skill are perceived as threats. Worse, standards, excellence, and skill are seen as victimizing people of lesser ability, so they aren’t supposed to be celebrated.
As Bret Stephens, a former Yale Law School dean, writes in this New York Times opinion piece “Diversity, Inclusion, and Anti-Excellence”:
What’s happening on campuses today isn’t a reaction to Trump or some alleged systemic injustice, at least not really. Fundamentally, Kronman argues, it’s a reaction against this aristocratic spirit — of being, as H.L. Mencken wrote, “beyond responsibility to the general masses of men, and hence superior to both their degraded longings and their no less degraded aversions.” It’s a revolt of the mediocre many against the excellent few. And it is being undertaken for the sake of a radical egalitarianism in which all are included, all are equal, all are special.
Ultimately, this concept of ‘responsibility’ and the values that undergird it point to a hierarchy of talent. The fact is that not everyone is going to be equally good at the same activity. I’m a lousy draughtsman, but I can read and analyze a document, and I can delight in DaVinci’s sketches. For another example, I’ll never be one of those athletic yogis who drop back into full wheel from an erect position. But I persevere at my yoga practice. Perseverance is itself a gift. I also enjoy seeing the more advanced yogis melt into pretzel shapes far beyond my own modest talents.
The “anti-excellence” ethic, rooted as it is in envy and resentment as much as in radical egalitarianism, strikes at the heart of this enjoyment. It tears down everyone to the lowest common denominator, disavowing the distinct individual gifts that enrich us all. It’s a poor adaptation to the probem of inequity of talent and ability. We each have the choice to be inspired by our friends’ genius; we can freely choose inspiration.
Fortunately, the artists at Milene Fernandez’s panel spoke openly of the artist’s responsibility to aspire to excellence — to be the best artist they can be. Kudlow, Thompson, and Howard are artists of extraordinary merit, after all.
The wonderful Judith Kudlow stated clearly that the responsibility of the artist was to “…do our best work always, do the best you can.”
Kudlow said, “We have to move people. We have to get out of our own way…we’re being trained with our minds and we paint with our heart.”
Sabin spoke from his heart when he added, “Every artist’s responsibility lies within what we see as our potential….How valuable we are is not ironic.”
On the irony that is used like a dull and sorry axe to hack away at excellence, Kudlow quoted contemporary painter Patricia Watwood: “Fine representational art is not ironic, not cynical.”
Kudlow also talked warmly about the artist’s responsibility to the next generation. It’s imperative for art teachers to be there for art students when they have a crisis of skill and aspiration. She implored, “Don’t make art students suicidal!”
With her elegant, soft-spoken affect, Milene Fernandez asked several crucial questions: “Is there a hierarchy to art? Is high culture necessary for feeling higher, more refined emotions?” My favorite was, “Are artists responsible for uplifting the moral fabric of society?
Portrait artist and painter Dan Thompson said yes : “After an objectively great education.” Solemn, sensitive, and intelligent, Thompson noted the difficulty now in getting people to pay attention longer than eighteen seconds. He said, “There’s a lack of coherence of fundamental thinking.” He suggested that a great education can counteract that. His words underscored the relevance of a foundation of standards and values.
Thompson also suggested questions for artists to ask themselves: “What did you see, what did you learn? How did you grow? How did you transform?” Simple on the surface, these questions carry the load of the artist’s personal responsibility.
I particularly loved one of Thompson’s comments about the nature of beauty: “Beauty is cadence. Beauty is in the voice of past artists. Beauty is vision, somebody’s vision that they carry with them.”
I think of the personal, human vision of the artist as an increasingly precious commodity in this digitized world. The human mind at play, at work, in the inquiring expanse of creativity can not be replicated by digital rendering. Listening to these accomplished artists talk about what it means to be an artist, I prayed that the art schools and ateliers would continue to teach the fundamentals of draughtsmanship by the human hand and design by the human eye. In my opinion, that is a primary responsibility of an art educator. Along with not making art students suicidal.
But young artists must confront their own progress. Sabin said, “The responsibility of the artist is to always grow and not become formulaic.” I know because I live with him that my husband takes that responsibility seriously. He feels an asymptotic relationship to the values of beauty, excellence, and sublime skill; he’s his own toughest critic, always demanding more of himself.
If Sabin Howard, Dan Thompson, and Judith Kudlow are artists of excellence, it’s because they’ve worked hard to achieve excellence. They undertook that responsibility.
I came away from the panel discussion impressed, enlivened, inspired, and grateful. The venerable Salmagundi Club is always a charming place for the discussion of art. That night, under Milene Fernandez’s guidance, it gave something precious to all who were present: it bared the soul of art.