Cultural Renewal May Not Be Pretty, But It is Beautiful: Punk, The Ashcan School, and Remodernism

Robert Henri “Snow in New York” oil on canvas 32″ x 25 13/16″ 1902

“Do whatever you do intensely. The artist is the man who leaves the crowd and goes pioneering. With him there is an idea which is his life.”

-Robert Henri

When I was a teenage punk, I was just having fun.

Only later did I understand I was participating in the messy but vital process of cultural renewal.

It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I was sixteen years old in 1986, living near Washington, DC. My geeky group of friends and I were performing the young male ritual of rebellion right next to an epicenter of an aggressive, controversial youth movement.

Only about a decade old at that point, the music and fashion sensation of punk had mutated into what was called hardcore. DC was the home of now legendary bands like Bad Brains and Minor Threat, and the excitement they generated spilled out into the suburbs.

I got a bad haircut and started wearing a black leather jacket and combat boots. On weekends my buddies and I left behind VHS movies and Dungeons and Dragons marathons and ventured into the big city, prowling the hip enclave of Georgetown.

We had a routine route, visiting the Exorcist stairs, Smash Records, and the Commander Salamander boutique. Mainly we walked the streets, feeling a thrill of immediate kinship whenever we encountered another band of promenading punks. We finally had something in common with some girls, too.

In time we started to visit the seedy clubs featuring shows with loud, fast songs and shouted vocals, while the audience danced by jumping around and bouncing off of each other. It was exhilarating.

Punk began when a bunch of self-starting kids, often working class, got bored with the bland, predictable culture being offered by the establishment. At the time there was no internet, and only sensationalized, derogatory mainstream media coverage. Hardcore punk was all underground and word of mouth, shared mix tapes and Xeroxed fliers. It felt like a conspiracy, like being initiated into something mysterious and special. We created our own alternative, and it spread.

I wrote about some of punk’s contradictions in my 2018 book, Remodern America: How the Renewal of the Arts Will Change the Course of Western Civilization:

Punk’s anti-establishment outlook put it on the radical side of things, but I never got how advocates of a movement that emphasized individuality and independence could turn to a politically leftist worldview. In the 1980s the Cold War was still raging, and a lot of the major figures of the punk world openly sided with the communists.
But looking at actions instead of rhetoric, it was clear to me leftists were the most vicious enforcers of the establishment in history.
Around the world, their whole political system as practiced demanded an individual’s submission to centralized power, the exact opposite of punk’s message.
It made no sense to me how any free thinker would ally themselves with brutal regimes who used constant surveillance, intimidation and violence to keep entire populations captive. The problems
of America, how we fell short of our high ideals, how we were easily distracted by crass consumerism, seemed minor compared to the literally murderous systematic oppression coordinated by greedy and
aggressive totalitarians elsewhere in the world.
I did not understand I had been recruited into a covert war which had been brewing for decades. The Cold War was being fought unacknowledged right in the midst of our placid existences, in the classrooms, on the television. Postmodernism co-opted the potentials of punk.
If I’d had more perspective then I could have seen the double standards in play, and understood their origins. But I was just a kid, lacking experience and insight. It was easier just to ignore the contradictions.
If punk meant being a nonconformist, I would follow my own conscience. I could reject materialism and unthinking obedience to authority without buying into audaciously misguided leftist dogma.
To me punk went beyond the music that sounded a certain way, a gaudy aesthetic, lapses into lazy nihilism, and a juvenile reflex towards sardonic defensiveness. Punk advanced quintessentially traditional American viewpoints: no respect for the unjustified hierarchies the powerful attempt to impose; emphasis on action and energy; commitment to justice and progress; and the desire for the liberty to pursue individual happiness.

When I look around today, at all the people with the dyed hair, tattoos, and facial piercings, I still remember how shocking such trappings were when my peers were doing it back in the day. It makes me reflect how art is a leading indicator for society-for good or ill. All the once-startling punk displays are bland and predictable.

Almost one hundred years earlier, there was another aggressive, controversial cultural phenomena going on in the United States, in painting. We’ve come to call it the Ashcan School.

Artist Robert Henri (June 24, 1865-July 12, 1929) was an inspirational artist and teacher initially based in Philadelphia; he later relocated to New York City. Henri (pronounced Hen-rye) was bored with the bland, predictable art being produced in the American art establishment at the time: either gentle, pale Impressionist imitations, or flattering Gilded Age portraits of wealthy patrons.

Henri mentored a group of journalist illustrators which included notables such as William Glackens, John Sloan, and George Luks. In an era before common photographic reproduction, newspapers used artists to create the pictures for their stories. These men were used to depicting the grime and grimness of newsworthy city life. Henri encouraged them to bring that real world engagement into fine art.

Like punk many years later, the Ashcan School was an alliance of freethinking individuals each following their own artistic vision, rather than an organized, regimented movement. The artists shared a Modernist urban sensibility, dark palette, gritty realist subject matter, and an appreciation for the common people. They made sketchy yet accurate depictions how life was lived at the time, instead of polite, idealized fantasies. As Henri put it, “There is only one reason for art in America, and that is that the people of America learn the means of expressing themselves in their own time, and their own land.”

This was considered to be bad taste. Like many other art movements like Impressionism or Fauvism, the title of Ashcan started as an insult. A reviewer sneered about the “pictures of ashcans and girls hitching up their skirts on Horatio Street.” The artists embraced the derision as a badge of honor.

The Ashcan School artists were also referred to as “The Apostles of Ugliness,” much as the punks were called “foul mouthed yobs.”

But the critics are missing something important: the ugliness isn’t the point. It’s the willingness to undergo the rough journey needed to renew the energy of life.

Something too constrained stagnates, even dies. There’s always something a little wild and scary about real growth.

There’s a difference between pretty and beautiful. Prettiness is a surface. Beauty is the substance. Pretty is an outside appearance; beauty is from within. Pretty is agreeable. Beauty is truthful, and as we know, the truth isn’t always pleasing.

Accepting yet refining the harshness of truth through creative expression is a transcendental experience. The joyous human offering of art can add significance to mundane squalor.

Right now, Postmodern establishment mismanagement has created a culture which is neither pretty nor beautiful. They need us to believe the squalor is the point, after all. Artists are needed as the pioneers which carry out the idea that life is wonderful and surprising, even if elitists call us trashy. Cultural renewal will be a little wild and scary.

The latest cycle of real change in the arts actually started decades ago, although the cultural institution-controlling elites do their best to suppress the news.

In 2000, two British artists, Charles Thomson and Billy Childish, were tired of transgressive yet still bland and predictable Postmodern art. They were brave enough to tell the truth: the galleries and museum were filled with objects that weren’t really art at all. They described a new cultural understanding called Remodernism, rising to take the place of failed Postmodern artifice. Their manifesto included this key proposition: “The making of true art is man’s desire to communicate with himself, his fellows and his God. Art that fails to address these issues is not art.”

Childish soon struck off on his own, and continues as a celebrated painter, musician, and writer. Thomson remained committed to cultivating Remodernism as a movement. Guided by his inspirational example, grassroots art groups were founded around the world.

I was inspired. In my own Remodern America manifesto, I wrote my take on what is happening now:

Remodernism reboots the culture. Remodernism is not a style of art, it is a form of motivation. We express the universal language of inspired humanity. We do not imitate what came before. We find in ourselves the same divine essence of love and excitement which has inspired masterpieces throughout history. We are strengthened by drawing on traditions thousands of years old. We integrate the bold, visionary efforts of the Modern era into a holistic, meaningful expression of contemporary life. Remodernism seeks a humble maturity which heals the fragmentation and contradictions of Modernism, and obliterates the narcissistic lies of Postmodernism. Remodernism is disruptive innovation applied to the moribund art world.

As for Robert Henri, his wisdom was captured in a great book called The Art Spirit. It encourages us to understand how important the role of the artist is.

As for me, I still pull out my Bad Brains and Minor Threat albums when the mood strikes me. It’s good music to paint to.

A version of this article originally appeared on The Masculinist, now on Substack

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I don’t fundraise off of my blog. I don’t ask for Patreon or Paypal donations. If you’d like to support the Remodern mission, buy a book. Or a painting

Learn more About My Art: Visionary Experience

My wife Michele Bledsoe has written her own inspirational book, Painting, Passion and the Art of Life.

Remodernism Video: BEFORE THERE WAS FAKE NEWS, THERE WAS FAKE ART

Visit other posts for more commentary on the state of the arts.

Please send any inquiries to info@remodernamerica.com. Thank you!

DAILY ART FIX: THE ASHCAN SCHOOL: CULTURAL RENEWAL MAY NOT BE PRETTY, BUT IT IS BEAUTIFUL

In August, I became a contributor to The Masculinist, a website exploring men, faith, and culture.

From August 12, 2021: THE ASHCAN SCHOOL: CULTURAL RENEWAL MAY NOT BE PRETTY, BUT IT IS BEAUTIFUL

Robert Henri “Snow in New York” Photograph: Flickr

Robert Henri “Snow in New York” Photograph: Flickr

Like punk many years later, the Ashcan School was an alliance of free-thinking individuals each following their own artistic vision, rather than an organized, regimented movement. The artists shared a Modernist urban sensibility, dark palette, gritty realist subject matter, and an appreciation for the common people. They made sketchy yet accurate depictions of how life was lived at the time, instead of polite, idealized fantasies. As Henri put it, “There is only one reason for art in America, and that is that the people of America learn the means of expressing themselves in their own time and their own land.”

This was considered to be in bad taste. Like many other art movements such as Impressionism or Stuckism, the title of Ashcan started as an insult. A reviewer sneered about the “pictures of ashcans and girls hitching up their skirts on Horatio Street.” The artists embraced the derision as a badge of honor.

Read the full article here: THE MASCULINIST – THE ASHCAN SCHOOL: CULTURAL RENEWAL MAY NOT BE PRETTY, BUT IT IS BEAUTIFUL

**************

I don’t fundraise off of my blog. I don’t ask for Patreon or Paypal donations. If you’d like to support the Remodern mission, buy a book. Or a painting

Learn more About My Art: Visionary Experience

My wife Michele Bledsoe has written her own inspirational book, Painting, Passion and the Art of Life.

Remodernism Video: BEFORE THERE WAS FAKE NEWS, THERE WAS FAKE ART

Visit other posts for more commentary on the state of the arts.

Please send any inquiries to info@remodernamerica.com. Thank you!

DAILY ART FIX: The Art Spirit – Beloved Painter and Philosopher Robert Henri on How Art Binds Us Together

Art world links which caught my eye...

“Through art mysterious bonds of understanding and of knowledge are established among men.”

-Robert Henri

An informative piece on the influential artist and educator Robert Henri, the author of the classic work The Art Spirit. Henri articulates how empires follow art, and not vice versa.

“The work of the Brotherhood does not deal with surface events. Institutions on the world surface can rise and become powerful and they can destroy each other. Statesmen can put patch upon patch to make things continue to stand still. No matter what may happen on the surface the Brotherhood goes steadily on. It is the evolution of man. Let the surface destroy itself, the Brotherhood will start it again. For in all cases, no matter how strong the surface institutions become, no matter what laws may be laid down, what patches may be made, all change that is real is due to the Brotherhood.”

See the full article here: BRAIN PICKINGS – Beloved Painter and Philosopher Robert Henri on How Art Binds Us Together

**************

I don’t fundraise off of my blog. I don’t ask for Patreon or Paypal donations. If you’d like to support the Remodern mission, buy a book. Or a painting

My wife Michele Bledsoe has written her own inspirational book, Painting, Passion and the Art of Life.

Remodernism Video: BEFORE THERE WAS FAKE NEWS, THERE WAS FAKE ART

Visit other posts for more commentary on the state of the arts.

Please send any inquiries to info@remodernamerica.com. Thank you!

ART QUOTES: On the Purpose of Art

 

Richard Bledsoe “Side Saddle” 

“The purpose of Remodernism is not to shock, but to incite: to stir perceptions in the wordless depths we all share. Incitement is not a gentle process, nor should it be.”

-Richard Bledsoe, from the book Remodern America: How the Renewal of the Arts Will Change the Course of Western Civilization 

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Pierre Bonnard “Self Portrait” 

 

“Painting has to get back to its original goal, examining the inner lives of human beings.”

-Pierre Bonnard

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Bob Dylan From the “Off the Beaten Path” Series 

“The purpose of art is to stop time.”

-Bob Dylan

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Morris Graves “Night Bird” 

“I paint to rest from the phenomena of the external world – to pronounce it – and to make notations of its essences with which to verify the inner eye.”

-Morris Graves

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Robert Henri “Thomas Cafferty (Smiling Tom)”

 

“I paint for the sole purpose of magnifying the privilege of being alive.”

-Robert Henri

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Henry Miller “The Procession” 

“The purpose of life is to remember.”

-Henry Miller

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Ben Shahn “Father and Child” 

“It is the mission of art to remind man from time to time that he is human, and the time is ripe, just now, today, for such a reminder.”

-Ben Shahn

ARTICLE: On Artists and Alcohol

the-absinthe-drinker-portrait-of-angel-fernandez-de-soto-1

Pablo Picasso “The Absinthe Drinker”

Raise a glass to this informative article.

Click on the Link: Drinking Scenes: The Relationship Between Artists and Alcohol, by Matthew Sperling

A key quote from the article, which amuses me on many levels:

“Toulouse-Lautrec’s pictures were described by Gustave Moreau as ‘painted entirely in absinthe’; he would stop at every bar in Montmartre in order to étouffer un perroquet (choke a parrot), in the slang of the period; and he had a specially made hollow walking-stick which held an emergency half-litre stash of absinthe and a tiny shot glass.”

At the Cafe La Mie

Choke a Parrot

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec  “At the Cafe La Mie”

For me, drinking and art making don’t mix too well. These days, I might have a beer while painting at night, but it’s a rarity.

Party Painting

Multitasking: Painting at the Bar

I have been to some of the art parties that are currently popular, where wine and paint both flow. Wikipedia calls them “The Paint and Sip Industry:” group painting lessons where adult beverages are served. I’ve had wonderful experiences at events like this. It seems to be a great way to get newcomers to art lose their tentativeness and really enjoy the process, without worrying too much about the results. These inclusive, sociable painting parties really fit the Remodernist dynamic that art is for everyone.

It’s a lot of fun, but a very different vibe than the slip into the state of intuition I work up into in the studio.

Something I have learned is moderation in drinking is wonderful; however, moderation in art is a travesty.

“The artist should be intoxicated with the idea of the thing he wants to express.”

-Robert Henri

1899c Sidewalk Café oil on canvas 81.6 x 65.7 cm

Robert Henri “Sidewalk Cafe”

STUDIO: The Image Morgue

Image Morgue 2

These fragments I have shored against my ruin: a sample of my reference material

 

“The model is not to be copied, but to be realized.”

-Robert Henri

In painting, there really are no rules. But understanding painting as I do, there is a prevalent practice these days which I find completely undermines the integrity of the act.

Projector artists. Artists who cheat themselves and their audience by projecting an image onto their canvas and doing a paint-by-numbers routine to create their works. Artists like this have reduced themselves to a mere cog in a mechanical reproduction process, not creating, but taking dictation from their gadgets. They let their tools make their discoveries for them. It is an inferior mode of creation.

If you’re an artist, do your own rendering.

Now I am not rejecting the use of source material. I learned the hard way, through years of artistic practice, I lack the omnipotent powers of observation and recall to paint strictly out of my own mind and produce the results I want.

How do a frog’s legs attach to its body? How many wings does a mosquito have? What is the musculature of a horse? These are just some of the composition problems I have encountered. I can’t see clearly enough into my memory to reach the level of realism I want in my paintings.

So I use source material. Not all the time, but when it’s important to get something right, and I can’t summon the depth of detail I’d like to. When needed, I find photographs on the internet of what I want to portray, print them out, and study them.

But then-and this is the really important part-I put the photograph down, and paint what I remember about it, what I learned about it.

The image passes through the filters of my consciousness and becomes more me. And that is vital in art: depicting your own unique sensibility.

I leave a scattering of paint spattered sheets of paper lying around the studio. But then, my wife Michele Bledsoe comes along and rescues them, and files them away in our office. Safely stored in a drawer, there’s a manila folder bulging with pictures. It’s my image morgue.

A morgue file is an old hard-boiled term, dating back to the days of gumshoes and ace reporters. It was a way they described the newspaper clippings they collected for quick reference. The idea still creates a powerful tie to the past.

Looking back through this folder today, I was amazed to see a history of my paintings unfolding before me. Seeing the crumbled pages brought back memories of the times I was actually utilizing them in my artistic struggles. It was like visiting with old friends.

Image Morgue 1

A small sampling that I can relate back to 6 different paintings