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Art Under the Radar

Think Tank Specials — Art Under the Radar


BEN WATTENBERG: New. Newer. Newest. Shocking, More Shocking, Most Shocking. Shocking-est. Abstract. Super-abstract. If you went by the headlines, you'd think that this is all there is to contemporary art. But it's not.

We'll show you another side of today's art scene in our Think Tank Special, Art Under the Radar.

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BEN WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg, moderator of Think Tank. The art that made the headlines in recent decades did so mostly because of its ability to provoke. But some very talented artists are not all that interested in what's new, shocking, obscene or political, super-abstract or provocative. They're interested in art-Period. And they don't think what they're doing is old hat or stale.

Christie's Auctioneer: "And selling. Eight eighty to eight six nine."

BEN WATTENBERG: In fact, many will tell you the avant-garde is what has become stale.

Christie's Auctioneer: Fair warning now. Three hundred Nineteen is next. On the left at sixty. 800 thousand. I'll take twenty. And to the room. The bid's to this side and selling there at one hundred twenty. For you madam, 900, 120 thousand.

BEN WATTENBERG: When the cutting-edge of contemporary art is put on the auction block, you will often find it at Christie's. And it ain't cheap.

Christie's Auctioneer: Selling here then. All done. Not yours. At five seventy. For you, sir. Five hundred seventy thousand. Nine. One. Three. Thank you. Three hundred seventeen showing on the screen and downstairs. And 260,000 starts it. 260,000.

BEN WATTENBERG: Phillipe Segalot was Christie's international director of contemporary art.

SEGALOT: This is a work by an Italian artist called Maurizo Cattelan. It's called La Nona Ora in Italian, The Ninth Hour, in English. And we chose it because we thought it was an extraordinary work of art.

Christie's Auctioneer: Four eighty-nine. Five hundred thousand. Five hundred and fifty thousand.

SEGALOT: The artist tried to depict uh, the Pope, John Paul the second, struck down by a meteorite. That probably came from the ceiling and actually broke the ceiling. And that's why we have broken glass on the floor. Actually, it's not only a sculpture; it's a room-size installation, the red carpet, the glass is part of the work.

Christie's Auctioneer: "Six hundred thousand. Six hundred eighty thousand. Seven hundred thousand. Eight hundred thousand dollars on this telephone. Next to here, next in the room. Selling at - fair warning now - eight hundred thousand dollars. All done. Selling at eight hundred thousand."

"Number three eleven is the Jeff Koons showing there on the screen and as illustrated there in your catalogs and eight hundred thousand starts. Eight hundred thousand now."

SEGALOT: This work, Woman in Tub, was executed in 1988 by the American artist Jeff Koons.

There are actually two figures in this work. One that you can see, who is a naked woman in a bath tub, and one that you cannot see, who is supposedly a man underneath, you know, in the water. And you see him through the snorkel, which is apparent here in the work. And knowing Jeff Koons, you know, I'm sure he would like to have been the man, you know, underneath.

Christie's Auctioneer: "Two million four hundred thousand. Two million five hundred thousand. Two million six hundred thousand with Philippe now. All done? Two million six. Selling here then. Fair warning. Philippe, your buyer at two million six."

"And as illustrated in your catalog. Three, three, oh. And one million two hundred thousand dollars starts this. That's one million two hundred thousand for it."

SEGALOT: The work you can see here, Henry Moore Bound to Fail, was executed in 1967 by the highly important artist-American artist-Bruce Nauman. and it's actually a cast of his own back, uh, it was done in wax over plaster. And it represents the situation of the artist, you know, towards creation.

Christie's Auctioneer: "Five million six hundred thousand. Five Million eight hundred thousand. Six million dollars."

SEGALOT: I believe Bruce Nauman is one of the most important artists in the century, he was certainly very influential.

Christie's Auctioneer: "Seven million dollars. Seven million two hundred thousand. Seven million four hundred thousand."

SEGALOT: And this work is actually very timeless. It's also a very, very strong concept. And a very moving work, when you look at it.

Christie's Auctioneer: "Nine million dollars. On this telephone. Want it, Mark? No. At nine million dollars. On this telephone. And selling then. Fair warning. All done. Not yours, madam. At nine million dollars."

BEN WATTENBERG: Including commission, that's 9.9 million dollars. If you believe in market theory, it's a fair price. After all, that's what people are willing to pay for contemporary art.

BEN WATTENBERG: Hilton Kramer was the chief art critic at the New York Times for seventeen years.

What's the problem with contemporary art today?

HILTON KRAMER: The problem with contemporary art today is a profound lack of belief in what we used to, without embarrassment, call 'the higher values of life,' whether they religiously defined or socially defined, morally defined. With that lacking in the art, then you're left with a kind of free-floating hostility toward life itself and that's what defines a lot of this contemporary art.

JED PERL: We're in a time where there is tremendous activity and energy and freshness among artists, but a lot of it is not getting to the public that might want to see the work. And that's because there is a very powerful art establishment that has fossilized ideas, fossilized values. And in that sense, we are in a time that in many respects is not unlike the late 19th century.

BEN WATTENBERG: At the close of the nineteenth century, France was the center of the art world. There, public taste was dictated by official art schools known collectively as the Academy, which accepted only certain kinds of paintings for its exhibitions. Nymphs and virgins were very much in vogue. Soon artists began to rebel …

JED PERL: There were artists who were using old ideas of color, of structure, of storytelling, but were trying to give them new kinds of energy, new kinds of force, a new dynamic. And that art, I think scared many people. It made many people uneasy.

JED PERL: So you begin to have what is seen as the model of what advanced avant-garde art is. It's an art that pushes ahead of where the audience at large is, and then there's a kind of tension, argument between the audience and the artist.

BEN WATTENBERG: In the early part of the twentieth century, the avant-garde took off. Artists like Vasily Kandinsky were creating the first truly non-representational paintings. Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal for an art exhibition. Then he drew a mustache on the Mona Lisa! Ooh, how shocking!

BEN WATTENBERG: The experiments and "isms" continued. When World War II began in the 1930's, many European artists fled to America, and the center of the art world shifted from Paris to New York. This set the stage for the first truly American modern art movement: Abstract Expressionism.

HILTON KRAMER: By my reckoning, the last bona fide avant-garde movement were….were the American Abstract Expressionists in the forties and fifties because abstract expressionism was the last big modernist movement to meet with resistance over a significant period of time by the principle cultural institutions - the press, universities, the museums, the critics and so on.

BEN WATTENBERG: But by the late 1950s, much of that had changed. Abstract Expressionism had become the darling of the art world. It was mainstream-not only in New York's hothouse art world, but all over America.

Ben Wattenberg from Video: You, too, may find this one a little puzzling.

BEN WATTENBERG: Looking back, not everyone was impressed.

BEN WATTENBERG: David Levy is the director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

DAVID LEVY: The Abstract Expressionists were being driven by the sense that they had to move fast, and they couldn't wait for the normal evolution art-making. They stopped looking at the world. They were looking inside their heads, or whatever, and they were making action painting-and all of this stuff which is really quite self-indulgent in many respects.

In your judgement, was this a wrong turn?

DAVID LEVY: I do think it's a wrong turn.

BEN WATTENBERG: The evolution of art continued to accelerate. The focus of art shifted toward ideas - and away from images.

HILTON KRAMER: What happened in the sixties was a complete breakdown in the institutions of what they could any longer define as art. You no longer had to create a work of art, you could nominate something to be a work of art.

LYNNE MUNSON: When standards are jettisoned, and anything becomes art, then it's just a matter of how well can you sell the thing that you have created.

BEN WATTENBERG: Lynne Munson is the author of Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance.

LYNNE MUNSON: If you want to have a career in art, and you want to show at the best galleries, and you want to win grants and awards and be included in the most important museum shows, and have a successful career, making shock art is the safest thing that you could do today.

LYNNE MUNSON: Today's establishment class of artists - the shock artists - what they do is instead of pleasing the public, what they do is kind of find clever ways to criticize the public, or really attack the public in some ways, in an effort to please art elites.

BEN WATTENBERG: When financial analysts tout a stock, it tends to rise. When art critics focus on art that is new-newer-newest, that's the kind of art that tends to go up in value - at least for a while.

Christie's Auctioneer: "All done at six hundred thousand. Passed at six hundred thousand."

If art can reflect markets, it can also mirror physics: every action has a reaction. From the beginning there was resistance to the cult of the new and the shocking. Edward Hopper, for example, was among the top-selling artists in the 1950s, even as Abstract Expressionism was making the headlines. And today, too, many fine American artists are working under the radar.

BEN WATTENBERG: Even in New York City, the capital of the cutting-edge, something else has been flourishing.

The Center for Figurative Painting was founded by Henry Justin in 1999.

HENRY JUSTIN: I don't like to use the word overlooked, but I thought with my sense of the way art has been packaged over the last 10, 20, 30 years, I thought the idea of great painting in itself and the focus on it was sorely of lacking.

BEN WATTENBERG: The centerpiece of Justin's collection is the work of Paul Georges.

MR. JUSTIN: He's taken in a sense the space and color and form of Abstract Expressionism, one of the isms, and applied it to traditional genres-of still life, of landscape, and of figurative painting.

PAUL GEORGES: That center that opened is a total accident. His name is Henry Justin, and we call him "just in time." He just got here in time for me not to die poor. (laughs)

BEN WATTENBERG: Today, at age 78, Paul Georges is still painting almost every day. His New York studio is filled with canvases covering a lifetime of work.

PAUL GEORGES: Suddenly people are somewhat interested in me. If you spend 30 years in the wilderness then you get the slightest little glimmer. It's very nice.

BEN WATTENBERG: Paul Georges was born in Portland, Oregon and moved to New York City in the early 1950s. He had studied art in Europe and, before that, in America with the famous Abstract Expressionist, Hans Hofmann. But he didn't exactly follow in his teacher's footsteps.

GEORGES: … If you come back from France to a pristine America with three filling stations on four corners, the fourth corner does not need a filling station. And that's what I felt. Abstract Expressionism had used the territory. It didn't make it bad, just was no place for me in it.

BEN WATTENBERG: Throughout the 1950s and '60s, Georges began to develop a truly unique representational style of painting.

GEORGES: In the Renaissance, they invented perspective, and it goes to a point, or points on the horizon. If I stand like this, my feet point to the horizon. Every representational thing I do sticks. Unless I can make it fly. And that's- here I'm safe. Because here it flies.

GEORGES: WS. In Hans Hofmann's school I learned that things shouldn't close like that, because that's perspective-they should open like that, because that's freedom. So, things that open are free. Viola.

BEN WATTENBERG: Turns out, Georges has a thing with freedom. Throughout his career he has considered himself free to paint whatever he wanted-and bristles when asked to explain his work. For Georges, explanation threatens inspiration.

GEORGES: If someone asks me why, I often say "because."

GEORGES: I don't know what inspiration is, but if you say, "why did you do it," you right away make it impossible to do it. And that's why I made the picture "The Mugging of the Muse."

GEORGES: I'm a traditional painter but that doesn't mean I'm a bore. If you understand tradition, like I think I do, it is a magnificent thing.

GEORGES: In a certain way the Renaissance painters had the guts of their time. They made a tradition and they were the people who were important in their time. Modern art is what's important now. I'm a modern artist. It doesn't mean that I do what all the modern artists do. That isn't modern art. Art isn't one thing.

MS. FISH: Making a beautiful painting is a fearful topic at this time. People are afraid of not seeming serious. So there are things that you shouldn't paint, and sometimes it's extremely tempting to do them.

BEN WATTENBERG: Janet Fish's studio in Vermont holds her two latest still life paintings-with flowers, glass and lots of color.

BEN WATTENBERG: As a young artist fresh out of graduate school at Yale, Fish knew all about the abstract and conceptual art of the moment. But she decided instead to paint the world as she saw it.

MS. FISH: I made my choices not because I disliked what other people were doing. I felt a lot of it was really interesting. It wasn't good for me and it didn't seem honest to me. I wanted to work with the world that I was in.

BEN WATTENBERG: Fish has been showing at the DC Moore Gallery in New York City.

BRIDGET MOORE: The fun thing about representing Janet is that the paintings almost sell themselves. She's produced work in a particular sensibility that's uniquely hers. It's actually often copied by other people. There's a vibrancy that she brings to it - the absolute excitement of color and light in pictures.

Janet Fish: "C'mon, Maisy. Look! Look a ball!"

Dog barks.

MS. FISH: There is a kind of light in Vermont that's very different than in the city, where the soot in a sense mutes the colors.

MS. FISH: I think I've been painting so long, I don't really analyze it as I'm working. Sometimes it's the color and shape, and sometimes it's the kinds of echoes of meaning, or whatever, the things have-and it just depends on the painting. Now, in this case of the one I'm working on right now it's really just more about my life here, I guess. Being in Vermont and watching the dogs play. There's something about the scene.

MS. FISH: It's hard sometimes to explain what you're doing because it is so nonverbal, and you do hope that your paintings will say it for you.

BRIDGET MOORE: Janet's work is very life-affirming, it just brings a lot to the viewer it gives them energy. It gives them an optimistic perspective.

BEN WATTENBERG: For some people, Fish's paintings can be a little too optimistic.

MS. FISH: I found when I threw babies into the painting, I thought here's a pretty good forbidden subject matter. I mean, if you want to be taken seriously. If it's a dead baby it's fine, but - It's sort of on a par with sunsets. That's another thing you're not supposed to paint.

GRAHAM NICKSON: What's happening today is not really very much different to what was happening in the past, in the 18th century, in the 19th century, even in the 16th century. Where in fact, you know, you have a dominant mainstream, and then a few odd peripheries of people working away and doing extraordinary things, that are not necessarily part of the mainstream, but in the end, end up being the ones that survive.

BEN WATTENBERG: Graham Nickson's career outside the mainstream began in 1972. He had just arrived in Rome for an artists' fellowship when he discovered that someone had broken into his car. Everything he'd done so far as an artist - his whole portfolio - was stolen.

GRAHAM NICKSON: … Suddenly I'm in the middle of Rome and I'm about to take on a new studio and a two-year fellowship and I actually have no history. It's been wiped out.

NICKSON: (o/c) So I'm on the top of the roof of the studio complex and I'm looking at this sky and there's this incredible sea of vermilion and ultramarine and azure. And I suddenly realized that this is an extraordinary event. But I realize that the most dangerous thing to do at that time would be to paint a sunrise or a sunset, because it was so cliché and so hokey that I couldn't possibly do it. But, of course, you know, being foolhardy, I made a sort of rather miserable attempt, and I tried the next following night. And before I knew it, I was actually painting the dawns. And after two years I had painted every dawn and sunset available; I mean, every one. Maybe I missed about twelve. But that would turn out to be one of the seminal experiences in my life.

BEN WATTENBERG: Nickson is the Dean of the New York Studio School, which has been a holdout for traditional standards of training.

Nickson: "You have to say, 'What is important? What is crucial about the information that I'm looking at?"

GRAHAM NICKSON: It's unfortunately the fact that in a lot of places, all over the world, drawing has been phased out. You know, it's like Latin, it's become a kind of dead language. Well, the truth is that it's not a dead language, it's very vital and it's very alive. And in fact probably one of the most radical, one of the most truly avant-garde acts of the moment is trying to make sense of one's sensations and trying to paint a metaphor for that experience.

BEN WATTENBERG: That's exactly what the New York Studio School's founders believed when they opened the school in 1964. It was a time when art was becoming just another liberal arts subject in universities around the country.

Nickson: Let your eye and you hand - your charcoal- be synonymous with each other. Let the charcoal almost be your eye as you travel, finding those pathways through the space.

BEN WATTENBERG: At the New York Studio School, students work with practicing artists-and they learn about nothing other than drawing, painting, sculpture and art history.

BEN WATTENBERG: Since Nickson's arrival, each semester at the Studio School begins with a two-week long Drawing Marathon.

BEN WATTENBERG: Their drawings may look rough right now, but these students are learning the basics of the visual language. During these two weeks, Nickson says his students draw as much as they would in an entire semester as most art schools.

NATE HESTER: It's a demanding thing. It's hard on your body, standing in one place for that long. And then when you're working on something that's 4x5, it's a lot of up and down. It's like the Stairmaster all day. And I think mostly it's just, it's mentally challenging. You're pushing yourself to see the world in ways that you hadn't seen it before.

NATE HESTER: I don't really feel like I've made a successful drawing, but I feel like I may have the tools now that I might make one before I die.

GRAHAM NICKSON: I think something new is afoot-I think the belief that there's a new possibility in working from observation has come back to a lot of young people.

GRAHAM NICKSON: Drawing the figure today is as relevant as it was to the ancients, because in a way it's still as mysterious. Rembrandt's brilliance hasn't unlocked all the mysteries.

BEN WATTENBERG: Speaking of Rembrandt … Can a serious artist today paint in the fashion of the old masters? The work we just saw at the New York Studio School is traditional, but it's obviously rooted in the 20th century. Is it possible, though, to go back even before that-hundreds of years back- to find centuries-old technique to the art of today? There are those who are trying.

BEN WATTENBERG: Jacob Collins opened the Water Street Atelier in the mid-1990's. This converted warehouse space now serves as an intense training ground for about two dozen artists.

JACOB COLLINS: There are people here practically all the time. Everybody comes, they have the key, They're working from the model, they're working from the casts; after a while people start to paint still lifes and landscapes. Particularly the still lifes are great for people to support themselves. It's also a great way to start to really to organize, you know, compositions.

BEN WATTENBERG: Collins and his students, along other painters around the country, are taking an even more radical step away from the art establishment. And they're doing it by making paintings that look . . . old-fashioned - in fact too old-fashioned, even for some on the traditional side of the art world. Still the work sells.

DEBBORAH SPAINIERMAN: Part of the reason that Jacob's work and the work of his atelier group are so successful is because there is a huge demand for works that are beautiful.

These are paintings that feed the soul. There may be a higher purpose, there may be a higher meaning, there might even be rhetoric behind it but at the very most basic place they're beautiful and they're meant to be beautiful.

COLLINS: People do really like drawing and painting that comes out of a 19th century non-modernist tradition. People do respond to it. People really like it. I mean, I like it. I've always loved it.

COLLINS: I feel like my interest, for almost my whole life as an artist, has been to try to go back to when, there was a sort of a draftsmanship that I could connect to. And as I became more and more passionate in that pursuit, I became less and less interested in modernism.

COLLINS: I'm beginning a new self-portrait. I'm working on the drawing in charcoal, trying to get the gesture and the personality, just to generally hew out the shape and spirit of the figure. I don't know whether I'm capturing myself when I paint a self-portrait. It's hard to interpret yourself. Maybe I'm just expressing some search or some kind of fantasy about how I might wish I were.

COLLINS: When I think about the paintings that I love, like those Rembrandts and, you know those Titians, one of the things that I love is the balance in these artists of reason and emotion. That's one of the things I love and that's what I guess I'm pursuing - some idea that you can be trying to solve problems with logic and think hard and at the same time expressing some mysterious side of yourself or of the world around you, or capturing in a portrait or a figure, capturing a sort of a mystical quality to the way people are.

COLLINS: There's almost like an alchemy there that you're making something here that is at the same time representing something there.

COLLINS: Of course they're old-fashioned, but I guess I'm trying to make them really beautiful. And I don't think anybody would mistake one of my paintings for a painting that was done any other time. I mean, I'm trying my hardest to do something well and to do it with creativity and passion, and sometimes, if people are very passionate, they'll end up doing something new.

BEN WATTENBERG: As you might imagine, all of this activity spawned a movement within a movement.

Stefania de Kenessey is a classical composer. Like Jacob Collins, she has chosen tradition over the avant-garde.

DE KENESSEY: As a child I grew up knowing so-called avant-garde or so-called 20th century music as much as I did 18th, 19th or 16th century musics. So for me the idea of having dissonant music at my fingertips was nothing new. I always loved beautiful music more than I loved dissonant, harsh stuff.

BEN WATTENBERG: In fact, she wrote the music you've been hearing throughout this program.

DE KENESSEY: There are very few composers like myself who are really trying to do something that's quite new and quite traditionally grounded at the same time. And I thought it would be really interesting to connect up with painters who were in a similar situation, and poets and architects. And as it turns out, there's a whole younger generation of people working in all those areas who are very much of a similar bent as myself.

BEN WATTENBERG: De Kenessey has just restored an old apartment as a music studio-and as a meeting place for like-minded artists, a group that calls itself the Derriere Guard.

Frederick Turner is a poet, a philosopher and a professor at the University of Texas. Richard Sammons and his wife Anne Fairfax are architects. Their architecture firm renovated and decorated this studio. And Jacob Collins, who met de Kenessey just recently, has supplied the paintings that now hang on the walls.

BEN WATTENBERG: Congratulations on your new headquarters. Who would like to explain to me the derivation of the phrase, the Derriere Guard?

MS. DE KENESSEY: Well, since I coined it, perhaps, I should bear that burden. Uh-I was looking for some term that would somehow convey to the general public that there's a new, a new avant-garde out there, which is different from the real avant-garde, which has become the establishment.

BEN WATTENBERG: De Kenessey staged the first public Derriere Guard Festival in 1997. The event featured a keynote speech by novelist and provocateur, Tom Wolfe. Though many of the art world at large and even some of those in the traditional camp ignored the Derriere Guard, the event sold out all four days.

MS. FAIRFAX: The exciting thing about the Derriere Guard is this interdisciplinary, you know, cross-section that we get that we listen to Steffi's music and it resonates with us and we look at Jacob's paintings and we just go "wow." This is - we feel like we're at home.

MR. WATTENBERG: So you're all in the same room, in the same clubhouse, in the same movement. What's the commonality?

MR. TURNER: We all love beauty.

MR. SAMMONS: The good, the true and the beautiful.

MR. TURNER: You know, just as when modernism first emerged or when romanticism emerged or the Renaissance emerged, there was a historical process, and a social process, a cultural process, in which people were getting together, were thinking together, were involving the lively and interesting people in their cultures and that's sort of more or less what we want to do now.

MR. TURNER : I love the great modernists. But there is a time when to create the future. The present must break the shackles of the past, but there is also a time when to create the future, the past must break the shackles of the present. And I felt shackled by the present.

BEN WATTENBERG: Music with a melody, poetry that rhymes, paintings and sculpture that look like something, architecture with grace-the Derriere Guard says these forms are timeless.

DE KENESSEY: One of the problems, of course, of contemporary society is that all the arts are taught in complete isolation from one another. So to find out that there's a common spirit amongst all these arts is very, very liberating, and an enormous source of strength and inspiration for all of us because we understand that there's something going on. There's a historic shift in this way.

JAMES F. COOPER: There is a major movement going on and I think it will prevail.

BEN WATTENBERG: James Cooper is editor of American Arts Quarterly, a magazine published by the Newington Cropsey Foundation in Hastings, New York.

JAMES F. COOPER: The mission of the Newington Cropsey Foundation is to preserve works of Jasper Cropsey and other members of the Hudson River school and draw a connection between contemporary artists, painters, sculptors and the values, the timeless values, that one recognizes in Hudson River School art and in other major art movements of the past.

JAMES F. COOPER: This is our major gallery for showing contemporary art.

JAMES F. COOPER: There are many highly qualified figurative artists doing very original, creative work.

JAMES F. COOPER: This is a beautiful bronze angel, sculpted by Frederick Hart We regard him as a pivotal artist in changing the direction of contemporary art. When I first met Frederick Hart, I said, I'm really delighted to meet you, because if I hadn't found you, I would have had to invent you.

BEN WATTENBERG: In 1989, a Washington Post Op-Ed piece got James Cooper's attention. It was written by Frederick Hart. "Once," it said, "art served society rather than biting at its heels. Once, under a banner of beauty and order, art was a rich and meaningful embellishment of life, embracing-not desecrating-its ideals." Cooper decided he had to meet Hart.

JAMES F. COOPER: I'm having lunch with Rick and he said, have you ever seen my sculpture at Washington National Cathedral? I said, I've never heard of it. And there's no fault of mine, because there had been no articles written about it. We went there on a Friday afternoon. There were workmen still working on the façade. And I recall that they started to descend, climbed down the scaffolding as we were approaching. It was almost like a movie. And I recall being amazed.

JAMES F. COOPER: There is a moment in the history of art where a work of art is created that has the power, the beauty to change things. And art movements come out of that; whole paradigm shifts come out of that. That's why Manet is important, that's why Picasso is important, and one day, increasingly, Frederick Hart will be important.

Frederick Hart is one reason we're doing this program. In 1999, just before his death, I did a one-on-one interview with Hart for Think Tank. The program drew more viewer mail than any other had until that time and about 99 percent of it favorable. Viewers loved his work and they agreed with what he had to say.

BEN WATTENBERG: There's this wonderful book about you called, "Frederick Hart: Sculptor." And in it Tom Wolfe writes about, "the most ludicrous collapse of taste in the history of the American art world." And I guess he's 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.

FREDERICK HART: When I was in art school in the 60's, action painting and pop art were really coming into the fore. And what you think of today as contemporary art was really just becoming enshrined and enthroned in the American cultural hierarchy. 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, you know, a completely traditional or classically-oriented artistic endeavor.

BEN WATTENBERG: Frederick Hart learned his trade the old fashioned way: as a stone carver for the National Cathedral. While on the job, he heard about a competition to design a new work of sculpture for the West Front of the Cathedral, modeled on the creation theme. Three years later, in 1974 Hart was chosen for the job. He was 31 years old.

BEN WATTENBERG: Wolfe uses a word here a number of times about your work, and he calls it heroic.


BEN WATTENBERG: What does - what does that mean?

FREDERICK HART: Well, I think it's because the orientation is, in my work, and in much of the work that, you know, that I have admired throughout history, essentially leans toward what you would call the heroic possibilities of mankind. It's oriented towards celebrating and embodying what I would call the nobility of the human spirit.

FREDERICK HART: I am not purely looking for aesthetic beauty, but it's part of the whole. There's something about the pursuit of beauty that has profound moral implications, in my view, and it has to do with essentially what I would call religious instinct or spiritual instinct.

FREDERICK HART: I think really that it was that same kind of motivation that carried a lot of the best early modernists works into being. When Monet painted Water Lilies, and when Van Gogh painted the stars in that famous painting of a Starry Night, I think they both had profound religious experiences in the creation of those works. That's the kind of thing I'm trying to get at and what I think is valuable in art.

BEN WATTENBERG: Around the time Hart completed his creation sculptures, he entered another major sculpture competition-for the Vietnam Veteran's memorial. His design placed third out of more than 1400 entries. But the winning design, Maya Lin's polished black granite wall, stirred controversy.

Nat Sot: Vietnam Veteran: "This is not a memorial to mourn or grieve. This is a memorial to honor those who served."

BEN WATTENBERG: After extended debate, a compromise was reached. Frederick Hart would create a figurative sculpture to complement the Wall -- the Three Soldiers.

BEN WATTENBERG: Is the picture of those three soldiers heroic, to use our earlier word?

FREDERICK HART: What I very often say is that it's really a heroic statue 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 some of 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.

BEN WATTENBERG: What do you guess those three guys are thinking when they look at the Wall?

FREDERICK HART: Well, I like -- the best version of that, that I've heard, is one Marine said he felt they were looking for their own names -- (laughter) - which I think is very good because that's sort of what combat's all about, you know, out there looking, you know, seeing if your name is coming up.

BEN WATTENBERG: One year after Rick Hart's death, a thousand people attended a memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral.


Tom Wolfe: "The existence of those three solders and the existence of Ex Nihilo by Frederick Hart became a challenge and simultaneously a rebuke to the establishment that has been already referred to this afternoon. It reminded the entire art world of what art had been, of what art tried to do throughout most of history which is to give humanity a sense of, of inspiration, of uplift."

Choir Music

JAMES F. COOPER: Rick represented a growing idea, a seed change that is happening in American culture, no matter how hard the arts establishment struggles to prevent it happening. It's happening. You see it in the work, and there's no way to stop it. It's what people are yearning for: beauty.

BEN WATTENBERG: Is the art world about to be turned on its head? Many think not.

HILTON KRAMER: These more tradition-oriented artists have been with us all along. And um, it might be that they're being paid somewhat more attention now than before, but there's more attention being paid to everything now because the art world, you know, has grown to be such a behemoth. I don't think it represents a trend.

MR. PERL: I think what we're seeing today is what we've seen 20 years ago and 50 years ago, and it is that despite the gonzo, fashionable excitement around all kinds of Dadaist, nihilistic stuff there are artists and there are museum goers, there are gallery goers, there's a public that hungers for more complicated kinds of experiences. And we see people at every point, now as in the past, fending off the junk and looking back even as they move forward. And I think that's what keeps art going, really.

DAVID LEVY: I think that we're in a very open period in the art world and we have to be very careful when we have that kind of freedom to use it well. Um, but we have bounced back to a real interest in technique and in skill. And at the same time, a sense of freedom that the technique and skill are there only as a resource and that we have freedom to use it in new ways.

BEN WATTENBERG: Stefania de Kenessey goes a step further. She thinks that traditional art is the next new thing.

DE KENESSEY: Everything new that could be done under the sun has been done in the 20th century, so literally in terms of novelty nothing is left. The only way to - to do something new is to move back to the past and to use it again selectively and in a fresh way. But I'm absolutely sure that the way things will move in the future is to turn back to tradition. There's no question of it.

So, is it a movement, or wishful thinking, or promotion? Maybe all three. I guess we'll find out. Art can set a vision of human nobility and purpose, which makes life more meaningful, and bearable. That is true in painting, sculpture, writing, architecture or music. There is an argument afoot that in recent decades the most publicized art has run right off the rails, away from meaning as we've known it and toward shock --- dominating the landscape, driving more traditional art forms beneath the radar of public life. Now there are those who say that a turn is in order, and perhaps on the way. That would put a new art, building on traditional values, back above the radar, in our sight line, where it belongs. For Think Tank, I'm Ben Wattenberg.

NARRATOR: To learn more about Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg, visit PBS online at PBS.org.

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