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Frederick Hart: Shaping the Culture


SATURDAY, JULY 24, 1999

ANNOUNCER: Brought to you in part by ADM, feeding the world is the biggest challenge of the new century, because by the time this baby is old enough to vote, the world will have nearly two billion new mouths to feed. ADM, supermarket to the world.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. Frederick Hart is an influential American sculptor aiming to become more so. We visited him recently at his studio and home in the rolling hills of the Virginia Piedmont. The topic before the house, Frederick Hart, shaping the culture, this week on Think Tank.

(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Rick Hart, welcome to Think Tank.

MR. HART: Thank you.

MR. WATTENBERG: Thereís this wonderful book about you called Frederick Hart Sculptor. Pretty nice title. And in it, Tom Wolfe writes about the most ludicrous collapse of taste in the history of the American art world. And I guess heís talking about modern art generally, and he points to you as an exemplar of someone who is trying to move against that trend. And maybe you could give me a little fill in on that.

MR. HART: Well, I grew up in that world. When I was in art school in the í60s, action painting and op, and especially pop art were really coming into the fore. And what you think of today as contemporary art, or the modern idiom in the art world was really just becoming enshrined and enthroned in the American cultural hierarchy. And it was during that time that I just decided, this is not for me, this is not what I thought being an artist was all about, because I grew up with enormous admiration and taste for the masters of western art. And the world of art that I had suddenly found myself in, in 1961, was just not what I had dreamed of living. So, I rebelled completely against the whole modern establishment, or the modern academy, if you will, and just went off completely on my own, seeking a completely traditional or classically oriented artistic endeavor.

MR. WATTENBERG: Wolfe talks about the art establishment, he calls it the village, meaning --

MR. HART: New York.

MR. WATTENBERG: New York, yes. And is that sort of the influence that you and your colleagues are --

MR. HART: Rebelling against.

MR. WATTENBERG: -- rebelling against.

MR. HART: Thatís correct.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, you have formed, as I understand it, in order to further this neo-modern modernism, or post-modernism, new traditionalization, whatever you want to call it, but you have with a group of artists really established a school, a group called the centrists?

MR. HART: Well, thatís a title that doesnít really work very well. I mean, like, as Tom Wolfe said, how can you say, rally around the center, boys. We came with that -- took it from the point about the center cannot hold. But thereís a wonderful poet and philosopher named Frederick Turner who rights a lot about aesthetics out of the University of Texas who is sort of the guru of our group, and it involves poets. Thereís a new formalist movement in poetry, and heís one of the founders of that movement.

MR. WATTENBERG: Does it actually rhyme?

MR. HART: Oh, you have things that rhyme, and things that have meaning and value and people can relate to. But put structure and beauty back into poetry. And then thereís, you know, musicians that are a part of this, or composers who want to bring back melody and harmony and real beauty in music. And then a lot of architects who are involved in sort of the new urbanism, and a lot of classical revival sort of things.

MR. WATTENBERG: So, you mean, we might, or our children might have a world where poetry rhymes, where fiction tells a story, where architecture is not a glass box, and so on?

MR. HART: Thatís the hope.

MR. WATTENBERG: And paintings look like something, and sculptures.

MR. HART: And have meaning to you, personal, have meaning to society at large.

MR. WATTENBERG: How would that affect life?

MR. HART: Well, I think it would have a profoundly positive effect on life, because I think that the arts can be a moral force in society. I think that the real purpose of the arts in the truest sense is to be part of the civilizing process, and that by bringing beauty and value into the cultural mainstream and reasserting it as a thing of major importance is something that helps that hungering process of true civilizations.

MR. WATTENBERG: So, you are maintaining that this sort of a movement is not only ignored, but purposefully ignored by the art establishment.

MR. HART: Absolutely.

MR. WATTENBERG: And yet, you have two works, the Vietnam soldiers, and the restaurant in the National Cathedral, which are probably as prominent as any two works of sculpture in America.

MR. HART: Well, thatís very kind of you to say, but they are also singularly prominent in their lack of any critical acclaim from the quarters you would normally expect critical acclaim, you know.

MR. WATTENBERG: Does that bother you?

MR. HART: Yes, of course it does.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. That bothers you. On the other hand, particularly I gather your acrylic work, which I want to talk about, sells in vast numbers for large sums. That must provide a certain salve or balm against the Huns on the other side there who refuse to --

MR. HART: Yes, as they say, success is the best revenge. And a lot of that is which would normally be referred to somewhat contemptuously as popular success, and I welcome and Iím thrilled and honored by popular success. I mean, my whole schtick is the idea that I want to reach people, and that I want to say things that have value and meaning for people. And when I have such a fairly considerable affirmation that Iíve succeeded in that by the popular success of my work, Iím happy.

MR. WATTENBERG: Where does popular hit kitsch (sp)? One of the raps on you, again Iíve been doing my reading, is that from the little village up there, they said, well, you know, Hart, thatís sort of kitsch.

MR. HART: Well, anything that is generally regarded -- that in any way has sentiment to it, or can be dismissed as sentimental in any sense is usually dismissed as kitsch. So, thatís what youíre going to get when you do the kind of work I do. Because to that mentality, to that world, everything outside of, you know, their constellation is kitsch.

(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Letís touch just for a moment about the National Cathedral. The major piece there, the bust relief of --

MR. HART: Ex Nihilo.

MR. WATTENBERG: Ex Nihilo. Thereís a swirling quality, explain, what is it coming out of? Ex Nihilo means out of nothingness.

MR. HART: Out of nothingness and what I wanted to represent was the great sort of unknowable divine energy of the universe out of which being in consciousness was formed. It was all based on the writings of Tayar DeShardan (sp) who was a Jesuit theologian and something of a mystical himself, who believed that, as he put it, mankind is the universe become conscious of itself. The whole drive of evolution was not based on a struggle of one stronger organism over another, but based on the struggle for consciousness and being. And that the complexity of the universe creates a tension which causes consciousness to evolve, human consciousness, or consciousness itself. He speaks in terms of first there was geogenesis and then biogenesis, and then psychogenesis.

MR. WATTENBERG: And the swirling background of that would be the void, the chaos?

MR. HART: The void, the divine force, chaos, or the great unknowable energy of nature and life itself, which is the presence of God and the implication.

MR. WATTENBERG: Tell me about the work on the cathedral. You started out as a clerk?

MR. HART: I started out as a clerk because I wanted to be a stone carver, and thatís part of my learning process of getting as much absolute traditional mastery.

MR. WATTENBERG: After a very rambunctious youth, I gather?

MR. HART: Quite, yes.

MR. WATTENBERG: And so you learned the stone carversí craft?

MR. HART: Just as a part of teaching myself, or getting myself in a position of, as I say, having all the mastery of the traditional disciplines of my profession, of sculpture.

MR. WATTENBERG: And then went right into the competition to do that restaurant?

MR. HART: I didnít really run right into it. I mean, I heard about it around 1971 that they wanted to do this creation things for the whole facade of the cathedral. And I was just completely taken by the concept.

MR. WATTENBERG: Thatís the West Front?

MR. HART: The West Front, right entrance. And I was just blown away by it. And I spent about three years during which time I converted to Catholicism, immersing myself in the subject, and coming up with models, and coming up with ideas, and then eventually I came up with the ideas and the models that won the competition, and I was able to do the work.

MR. WATTENBERG: And you were what, just about 30?

MR. HART: Thirty-one.

MR. WATTENBERG: And how long did it take you from that point to complete it?

MR. HART: It was probably 12 to 15 years, somewhere around in there.

MR. WATTENBERG: Of full-time work?

MR. HART: Pretty much. I started on --

MR. WATTENBERG: The three big statutes, and then the frieze.

MR. HART: Theyíre called large friezes or, you know, bust reliefs. And then three figures, Adam, Peter and Paul. And then, during that time, I had, in that 14-year period, I did do the -- I got the commission for the three soldier statute, and I did that.


(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Can you set the stage for us on that, on Mai Lin (sp), and the wall, and where you came in?

MR. HART: There was a competition for that as well. There were 1,400 entries, and the winner was the black V-shaped wall by Mai Lin, and actually my team won third prize.

MR. WATTENBERG: What was your idea for that?

MR. HART: It was a wall with --

MR. WATTENBERG: It was also a wall.

MR. HART: It was a white wall with two sculpture groupings, one at each end of the wall. One of the requirements for the competition was that all the names be listed in some way or another. But, anyway, you may or may not remember there was an enormous amount of controversy over the wall.

MR. WATTENBERG: I remember very well. I remember writing columns about it.

MR. HART: Right, and they had -- there were bitter divisions among veterans about it. A lot of veterans thought it was unheroic, and didnít give them a proper acknowledgment and so on and so forth.

MR. WATTENBERG: Wall of shame they call it.

MR. HART: Wall of shame, yes.

MR. WATTENBERG: Itís turned out, though, even putting your memorial aside for a moment, that that has become a much beloved monument.

MR. HART: Yes, itís been unbelievably successful.

MR. WATTENBERG: I think across the spectrum now, it just took on a life of its own.

MR. HART: Thatís quite true.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. So there was this big fight and then they --

MR. HART: There was a big meeting -- until I think Secretary of the Interior Watt said he wouldnít give them a construction permit until they resolved the conflicts. And John Warner chaired a big meeting with all these veterans, and I think it was General Davidson who came up with the solution of adding a flag and a statue, and so that was the compromise solution. So I was asked to come up with a design concept, and I came up with the idea thatís there now. And they went ahead and commissioned me to do the sculpture.

MR. WATTENBERG: Wasnít one of the original arguments that it would detract from the wall, because there was a thought that it would be put right at the nexus there?

MR. HART: That was the -- there were a lot of these kind of hard heads that really insisted that the sculpture go right at the apex. And my idea from the beginning was -- my solution was to keep the two things from being in conflict, or trying to look like the sculpture was trying to take center stage put removing it completely from the wall area, so that it wasnít competing, but making it one monument, or making them all work together by having the figures themselves gazing at the wall, so there was an interaction between the two elements, and gave it some unity.

MR. WATTENBERG: I was a big hawk on Vietnam, I was working on President Johnsonís White House staff during that time. Is the picture of those three soldiers heroic to you, to use that word?

MR. HART: What I very often say is itís really a heroic sculpture disguised as a realistic statue, because the substance, the emotional substance of what I tried to do there, or wanted to do, was to reveal what is, I say, the true nobility of spirit of the Vietnam veteran, what they endured, the kind of anguish they went through both on the battlefield and at homecoming. And so Iíve always viewed them as true heroes. And rather than being a heroic statue in the Iwo Jima sense of the word, I felt like it was a heroic statute in what it eventually reveals itself to be, over a period of time, and what it says about the Vietnam veteran himself.

MR. WATTENBERG: What do you think of Mai Linís work (sp)?

MR. HART: I think itís -- you canít argue with the fact that itís the most successful piece of modern monumental design thatís ever been done in this century. Itís incredibly successful.

MR. WATTENBERG: That didnít quite answer it. Okay. You think itís successful, do you think itís beautiful?

MR. HART: Well, my original objection to it was that it lacked a human face, and thatís sort of what my work is all about. And I thought that the just kind of a telephone book listing of dead people was really not an artistic statement that I thought the occasion merited. So the whole idea of doing a sculpture was a way of giving all of thatís stated there in the wall a human face.

MR. WATTENBERG: What do you guess those three guys are thinking when they look at the wall?

MR. HART: I like -- the best version of that that Iíve heard is one Marine said he thought they were looking for their own names, which I think is very good, because thatís sort of what combat is all about, youíre out there looking, you know, to see if your name has come up.

MR. WATTENBERG: Tell me about some of the sculptures you have here out at Chesley?

MR. HART: Iíve always dreamed of having my own sculpture garden, just creating one for myself. So thatís actually how I got into that size bronze, I just decided I was going to start to do them, and I just sort of did what I wanted to do, such as The Source, or The Daughters of Odessa, with the idea that we would sell what we could of them to continue making a living, but the main reason to doing them was to do them was to create my own sculpture garden of my own work.

MR. WATTENBERG: What is the allusion in title The Daughters of Odessa?

MR. HART: Iím a big fan of Russian history, and originally that started as a small sketch of the four daughters of Nicholas who were murdered. And then it turned into a larger allegorical work, as a tribute to all of the innocent victims off the 20th Century. Itís meant to speak to all of the things -- I even called it Martyrs of Modernism as a subtitle. What Iím talking about, of course, is the deliberate destruction of things that are lovely, beautiful and filled with life, as personified by all of the brutality of the 20th Century.

And I picked Odessa simply because of all of the horrible things that happened in the 20th Century most of them got a dress rehearsal in the Ukraine somewhere along the way, whether it was the Pogroms or the suppression of the rebellion of 1905, or the actual revolution, the Stalinization, the collectivization of the peasants, the famines, the holocaust, the Nazi invasion, Chernobyl, all of the most dreadful things of the 20th Century were sort of played out in the Ukraine, so by making a tribute to all of the innocent victims of the 20th Century, I thought Odessa was kind of a nice poetic reference.

MR. WATTENBERG: Tell me about the third beautiful sculpture as you come in the driveway here at Chesley, Celebration?

MR. HART: Celebration, that was originally designed for a work I wanted to do in acrylic, a large work in acrylic for the Olympic Games, which was entitled The Heroic Spirit. And it was the idea of a work that I had wanted to do both for NASA at one point, and for Olympic Games as well, but I wanted to do something that reflected the striving and the heroic spirit, the human nature of reaching upwards. It never evolved, never acme into being for either of those projects, so I just did it as a bronze, because I liked them all, I liked the spirit of the things.

MR. WATTENBERG: And what are some of the other works that we see here?

MR. HART: Thereís a piece called The Source, which is a mystical figure holding a crystal ball that has water in it.

MR. WATTENBERG: The woman with the hood.

MR. HART: Right. As if sheís holding the very source of life itself.

MR. WATTENBERG: So this is, again, all heroism of a sort?

MR. HART: Spiritual heroism, if you will.

MR. WATTENBERG: Struggle against lifeís injuries, and a positive statement regarding that?

MR. HART: Right. Bringing light to the darkness.

MR. WATTENBERG: You had a stroke about a year and a half ago?

MR. HART: Thatís right.

MR. WATTENBERG: And tell me what youíre doing now, are you continuing to sculpt?

MR. HART: Yes, Iím back to work. Itís just been a real struggle getting back to work. Iím doing a tremendous amount of rehabilitative therapy of one kind or another. I loss the use of my left arm, so Iím trying to get that back, and get my left hand back. Youíve heard of the one armed paper hanger.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yes.

MR. HART: Yes, thatís me.

MR. WATTENBERG: But, you fortunately are right handed and you can continue. But, itís more of an effort and more of a strain now, I guess?

MR. HART: Well, the big difficulty Iíve had getting back to work is fatigue, I fatigue very easily, itís part of the post stroke syndrome. So just being able to put the hours in has been tough.

MR. WATTENBERG: Think Tank is a public policy program. What role has the federal government played in promoting the arts, and what kind of arts have they been promoting?

MR. HART: Well, I think that the whole controversy over the NEA and everything came about --

MR. WATTENBERG: The National Endowment for the Arts.

MR. HART: The National Endowment for the Arts, and public art, all the controversies that evolved out of that came about because neither side, neither the conservatives nor liberals, really were able to put forward a truly convincing vision to the public at large of what real value the arts have for society. And I think that if conservatives want to recapture the culture, as they say they do, theyíre going to have to start to get involved in commissioning works of art, and understanding the real value of art to society. Somebody has to come in with a vision of why this is important, if youíre going to expect the taxpayer to pay for it. There was a wonderful cartoon by Oliphant, of a couple of people walking around in what sort of looked like Grand Central Station, this huge empty hall, there was nothing in it, there was nothing there, and the title of the cartoon was, At the Republican Museum of Art.

MR. WATTENBERG: Tom Wolfe has a statement in that essay about you, I donít have it right in front of me, but where he says, itís pretty clear that Frederick Hart thinks America is a great country, or something like that. What does he mean by that?

MR. HART: Well, I think --

MR. WATTENBERG: Are you talking about heroism and nobility in both a universal and a national sense?

MR. HART: Yes. I think Iím talking about the heroic possibilities of mankind, and I think that the American system and democracy have been the product of the heroic spirit of man, and they are the nurturing place, the nest for that development of civilization in developing the heroic nature, heroic possibilities of the race. I just think itís gotten a little bit confused and a lot of stumbling going on.

MR. WATTENBERG: You can be scornful of what the academy is doing, and still regard it as part of this shining mosaic of how the force and counter-force work?

MR. HART: Right. The metaphor that I like to use is the idea that letís assume that all of a sudden we forgot how to build bridges, and people started getting injured, and bridges started falling down and collapsing. And so it was suddenly realized historically that a civilization prior to us, 100, 200, 300 years ago, were incredibly capable at building bridges. So we go back and we study how they did it so that we can move forward, you know, safely and productively. And I think thatís sort of a metaphor for what Iím about. In the art world, I think that we just entered a generation that has forgotten how to do it well, forgotten why to do it at all, and that we have to go back and relearn. As Tom Wolfe said, itís a period of great -- the great relearning is upon us.

MR. WATTENBERG: Rick Hart, thank you so much for helping us to remember.

And thank you for joining us. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.

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Brought to you in part by ADM, feeding the world is the biggest challenge of the new century, because by the time this baby is old enough to vote the world will have nearly 2 billion new mouths to feed. ADM, supermarket to the world.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.xn


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