"Let's Pretend" Art... and Life
by Joseph Veach Noble



Art continues to evolve. Some artists work diligently to perfect their techniques and to express their ideas in visual forms that can be understood by the attentive viewer. Others still try short cuts such as jumping at devices that catch the eye but result in empty gestures. One of these continuing “let’s pretend” art forms is pseudo primitive art. Well, “primitive” was what we used to call it; now to be politically correct we use the term “indigenous art.”

By copying the unsophisticated techniques of indigenous developing cultures, some contemporary artists hope their art work will be perceived as straight from the heart, unencumbered by academic traditions. Spontaneity and unsophistication are thought to be “in,” or “cool” as the latest buzz word goes. The truth is we can’t turn back the clock even if some of us want to. No one can go back and draw like the Neanderthals. We cannot pretend that this is not the last decade of the twentieth century.

The few of the viewing public who have escaped brainwashing by art dealers, academics, and critics do not know that they are supposed to admire this pseudo primitive art; accordingly, they often respond to it by exclaiming, “Why, my child in kindergarten draws better.” They even may be right.

But the art field is not alone in this attempted manipulation of taste. Other examples are in the fashion world. Today it is also very “in” for girls and boys (of all ages) to wear frayed blue jeans with gaping holes at the knees. These jeans are covered with deliberately-bleached white spots and streaks, and the costume is purposely finished off with untied shoelaces that trail on the ground. Baseball hats are worn backwards à la “Rap,” and hair styles consist of straggly strands dripping down over faces à la Michael Jackson.

But guess what? This type of dressing—as if one were part of the ragged poor—has been in vogue before! Just prior to the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette and her ladies-in-waiting played at being poor milkmaids. They dressed accordingly in the Palace of Versailles and even (so they say) mixed among the commoners in their disguises... until the revolution and the guillotine ended their play.

No one wants to be impecunious, but it is important to make the connection that it is the same ritualistic pretend poverty that is in fashion today. Some years ago, people now wearing frayed blue jeans wouldn’t be caught dead in such a getup, and, hopefully, they will feel that way again a few years in the future. We, of course, must not neglect to note other pop garb of the day: tattoos, earrings (also worn in noses, lips and navels) and shaved heads are in direct homage not to the poor but to the primitive cultures that some folks might wish to join but, once again, can affect no more than pretending in our scientifically-enlightened society. As if that isn’t enough, the very latest to hit the fashion market is “prison garb,” designed and made by imprisoned felons (including murderers), so that some misguided souls can even play “let’s pretend” in pseudo criminal outfits. But there is hope. The fashion world always follows the art world.

And the exposure of the “game” has already happened in art to the non-objective and neo-primitive artists who were all the rage up until just a few years ago. Their often decorative, sometimes offensive but ultimately meaningless works are beginning to be relegated to History of Art lectures. Neo-realism is becoming the style of the day. Just in time, because the public was finally “on” to turning off to the novelty of “modern” art. Now a growing number of people are interested in understanding what the artist of a representational painting is trying to say about life rather than about fads in art. They have begun to appreciate beauty and admire competent work that actually communicates values to them.

Now it’s time for the “in” folks in fashion to catch on and catch up to the new wave in art, a wave that can last because it’s real.

Joseph Veach Noble is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Brookgreen Gardens of American Sculpture, Director Emeritus of the Museum of the City of New York and former Vice Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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