Volume I, Number 5, Fall / Winter 2005 - 2006

 

Art or Anarchy?

Huntington Hartford wrote the book Art or Anarchy? how the extremists and exploiters have reduced the fine arts to chaos and commercialism, in 1951. I am including the copy on the jacket cover followed by a more recent interview and some commentary.

"If music lacks melody, it grates harshly on the ear. If a book uses too many garbled sentences, you stop reading. But painting! In the elite and rarefied world, at least, of the contemporary artist, dealer, collector, and critic the situation has become a free-for-all! You make up your own rules today, and anything goes."

"Believing that the public has been duped for half a century, Huntington Hartford, philanthropist, art collector, and editor, speaks out against the tide of recent art and art criticism. He slashingly attacks the drippers, sprayers, abstract expressionists, distorters of reality, riders over canvas with bicycles and sports cars-and a museumful of other artists who, in his view, specialize in gimmicks and abstrusiveness and have made the world of art a sink of commercialism.

To museum directors, art dealers, and critics who examine a painting called White on White-one white square superimposed on another-and call it a classic, Mr. Hartford suggests that the artist should produce paintings that have subject matter and that he should communicate his subject clearly to the beholder. The artist is a leader of men, a creator, and he has a responsibility from which he must not run. It is his role to present the world to men as it is-whether the visible world of Winslow Homer of the subconscious world of Dali and Tchelitchew.

Picasso, De Kooning, Matisse, Roualt, Pollock, and Braque are criticized by Mr. Hartford as masters of the art of meaninglessness. Of Picasso, Mr. Hartford writes, "In his art he has gone an amazing distance toward wiping out singlehandedly all the gains that have painfully and step by step been made in painting during the last five hundred years."

Art or Anarchy? Will certainly be assailed by the in-group of modern art; however, Mr. Hartford's ideas will find many friends among the bewildered audience of art lovers who have been waiting for an articulate spokesman on behalf of common sense."

Interview with Huntington Hartford
Conducted by Paul Cummings
At the Artist's home in New York, New York
May 19, 1970 (From the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.)


HUNTINGTON HARTFORD: My concern I think has always been society itself rather than the arts. I've always felt that artists can be and should be the leaders of society, the intellectual leaders. I've always felt that there is some kind of tie-in between morality and the arts, which is not always a very popular opinion today. I felt that the arts are a teacher. And therefore when I felt that things were going wrong in the society, which I suppose I started feeling back twenty or twenty-five years ago, (of which we see many of the results today) I became particularly interested in what was happening in the arts because I thought this was highly indicative, a kind of dramatic symbol of what was happening in society as a whole. And on top of that I felt that not only are the artists a mirror of society; in other words, not only were they mirroring these things but I think the arts must be more than a mirror. They must, as I said, be a leader. They don't just reflect. They lead; they change the action and the course of events. Or ideally they should and they could. Obvious examples, of course, are television and motion pictures, commercial arts of the sort.

PAUL CUMMINGS: You don't seem to be interested in what critics have to say very much?
HUNTINGTON HARTFORD: How do you mean?
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, the value of art criticism, for example, is rather low in your estimation?
HUNTINGTON HARTFORD: Well, that isn't true. I mean I'm not really.... All I can see is someone like Picasso made an absolute hero of. And as long as art critics will do that - I wouldn't say that I would attack critics in general. But I do attack art critics who in my opinion frequently have a totally false sense of values and present it to the public for reasons, as I've said, to promote vulgarity, to promote something that's going to sell, and to promote something that's extreme to the point of being destructive. And I think Picasso is such a prime example of this. I mean if you follow the history of Picasso - to begin with, Picasso was almost totally unknown himself when he was in his fifties after the second World War. I mean he had anything but an admirable life. I wrote about this in the article. He never fought in either war. He was painting during the war, you know. An example of the difference between a great person and cheap person in my opinion, is Margaret Mitchell who never did a bit of writing during the war and was in hospitals all the time taking care of wounded men during the whole Second World War. She was too much of a human being to be concerned about whether she wrote another Gone with the Wind or not. She was concerned that men were dying. Do you know what I mean? Like Byron died in Greece. He didn't care about writing at that point. He cared about fighting for Greece which was more important than any writing he did no matter how great. To me this is the sign of a great person. And someone who paints away during the middle of a war and million of Jews dying - I mean Picasso and then to declare he's a Communist, all this crap, you know. To me this is a sign of a mediocre personality. And to be made a hero like Michelangelo or Rembrandt and so on! And as far as the work itself goes I mean it's crap. I mean I think there are a few things that have been good - the Blue Period. The answer to that of course is that there is no great artist in history, unless you want to accept Picasso, that has ever done his great work by the time - no great painter in history who has done his great work by the time he's twenty-five and done only a very few isolated things and lived into his eighties. Not one. Every goddamn example you could pick - Rembrandt, Winslow Homer, Constable, all the great artists, the artists that have got guts, and that are developing and growing as people - you know what I mean - as relating to the scene about them. They learn, they know more about it, they get closer, they get involved with it. And sometimes in their latter days they tend to fade out to some extent, sometimes because, as in the case of Monet and Degas, I think they became half blind.

The following quote was allegedly made by Picasso. There is some controversy over whether it is accurate. It may have been taken out of context or assembled from Picasso's own remarks. Nevertheless it is an opinion shared by many.

Self Portrait (1972)

Picasso: "In art, the mass of people no longer seek consolation and exaltation; but those who are refined, rich, unoccupied, who are distillers of quintessences, seek what is new, strange, original, extravagant, scandalous. I myself, since cubism, and even before, have satisfied these masters and critics, with all the changing oddities which passed through my head and the less they understood me, the more they admired me. By amusing myself with all these games, I became famous, and that very quickly. And fame for a painter means sales, gains, fortune, riches. And today, as you know, I am celebrated. I am rich. But when I am alone with myself, I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term. Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt, and Goya were great painters. I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and has exhausted the best he could the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries. Mine is a bitter confession, more painful than it may appear, but it has the merit of being sincere."

Editorial comment: After reading the book Art or Anarchy?, I found a lot of very interesting observations that apply today as they did over 50 years ago. Although "meaninglessness" in art has taken on some of the subtlety of modern poetry and to me has some value, it still leaves most of the contemporary art world out of the reach of the general public. My opinion about different expressions in art is akin to different expressions in literature. There are novels, short stories and poems, all of which have value. However in the "art world" all novels, most short stories, as well as romantic sonnets, and most styles of poetry have been denigrated and removed from serious exhibition or given any credence whatsoever. The current trends, as happened over most of the last century, continue to glorify the most obscure, jaded, meaningless, and destructive forms of expression. The public still is kept out of the loop and most serious artists still find it difficult to make a living at the profession of their choice.

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