Tilting at Windmills. An Interview with James Panero – by Michael J. Pearce
Honoré Daumier – Sancho and Don Quixote
James Panero is the Executive Editor of The New Criterion, where he has been on staff since 2002. He writes on art and culture monthly and serves as the magazine’s gallery critic. He is a contributor to a number of publications, including The Wall Street Journal, City Journal, New York magazine, and The New York Times Book Review.
Michael Pearce - It’s great to meet you, James. I thoroughly enjoy reading The New Criterion. Thank you for leading it.
James Panero – Thank you for reading it.
MP - You’re in an unusual position as editor of one of the only conservative journals commenting on the arts.
JP - True. And fortunate to do so. I am the Executive Editor of the magazine as well as one of its art critics. I have been on staff since 2002.
MP - Do you feel pressure to perform as a sort of cultural figurehead?
JP - My own pressure, with a sense of obligation to the history of the magazine.
MP - The history of the magazine features some exceptional writers—Roger Kimball comes to mind, of course, as a great cultural commentator—but there are few conservatives like Kimball in art commentary. Who do you see as the conservative critics of the present and future? Why do you think conservative magazines and media deal with the arts so little?
JP - The arts require engagement to write about effectively. Not every writer or every publication wants to commit to that engagement—seeing everything out there, making the studio visits, talking with artists. As it happens, several of my editorial colleagues are in Long Island City this morning to visit the Grand Central Academy, Jacob Collins’s school of traditional painting and sculpture. That’s what we do here. Roger Kimball, our Editor and Publisher, who has been writing for The New Criterion since 1983, has set a high bar. The same goes for our founding editor, Hilton Kramer.
I would also add that there are other excellent conservative-oriented publications that do contend with culture and the arts: First Things, The University Bookman, Spectator USA, Modern Age, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, City Journal, and National Review, to name a few.
MP – Jacob Collins is a giant in the Atelier movement, which has transformed art training. Ateliers are flourishing in every major U.S. city. Do you see this focus upon traditional skill as a symptom of a general move toward traditional American values?
JP - It indicates a desire to seek out some of those values, perhaps more than a symptom of a general move. Sublimated in a culture that seems only to crave the new and transitory is a sense that something has been lost. The more you look, the more you realize what is missing. Jacob is a force of nature who embodies this urge for cultural restoration. I have been following him for more than a decade. I recently wrote a profile of him and his movement for City Journal.
MP - Do you think the rise of the ateliers will change university policies? Students are interested in getting a job when they graduate—ateliers offer a skill set that gives them opportunities for employment in the burgeoning movie and video game industries— both huge consumers of skilled artists.
JP - I don’t think the ateliers will change the universities, but I hope the atelier model might be brought to more aspects of education to replace the universities. Not only is there a practical outcome, as you say, but such a system bypasses our educational establishment and their grip on society. We are already seeing some new opening in this regard, for example with the nonprofit Paideia Institute, for the study of classical language and history.
MP - I have seen a similar move toward striking a balance between past and future in Portland, Oregon, at the Salem Kiezer Career Technology Center. There is a powerful push and pull between restoring the past and living in the present.
JP - We are all starting to question our Brave New World.
MP - The founding fathers were cultured men. George Washington was ahead of his time in collecting American landscape paintings—he was called “the father of the Hudson River School” by one writer. Novelty for the sake of novelty is foolish, but this is a time of rebuilding. Should artists seek new ways to create paintings that express conservative ideas? What would those ideas be like?
JP - Conservatism is an inclination rather than a specific aesthetic that runs through the history of art. Any art that looks to valorise the order of civilization, to preserve that order in beauty and myth, is conservative. T. S. Eliot was conservative in this way. So was George Eliot. So was Cervantes. Don Quixote tilted at windmills to reclaim the lost age of chivalry. Alas, there is often something quixotic in this pursuit, but that is part of its beauty.
When it comes to the arts of America, I am among those who see a conservative strand running through American history, and so art that is conservative can have a particular national resonance. The Hudson River School is one example.
At the same time, America has also often followed progressive modes of politics and culture and been cowed by foreign theories of transformation and revolution. These opposing forces of conservative and progressive tendencies have generally animated American culture and at times fought over it. We make a mistake when we assume either side has won out.
MP - You’re suggesting temperance and moderation are useful virtues—these are unusual ideas in the early 21st century! How would you describe the conservative artist in this time? What are their goals?
JP - First uncover what needs to be conserved. That’s what Jacob is doing and what you are doing in propagating realist painting. So much of our cultural inheritance has been lost to amnesia and the dulling effects of popular entertainment. Just start by visiting the overlooked permanent collections of our museums.
You are right that an expectation of extremes has worn down our senses. Here is an example: get a record player and listen to an album from fifty years ago. Could be classical, jazz, doesn’t matter. Just listen to the nuance of that recording. Then plug your headphones into your computer and listen to a contemporary popular song on MP3. You will see that they have been mastered entirely differently. The first is optimized for the subtle midranges of the analog phonograph player. The second is for the extreme shrill compression of the digital file. The secret for our generation is to remaster ourselves away from these dominant extremities and to appreciate once again the midranges of life.
MP - Do you see a general movement toward traditional Western cultural values in America? How does America succeed in restoring those traditions and values?
JP - It comes in fits and starts. The problem is that many of our traditional institutions that serve to propagate these values continue to erode. The American museum is undergoing a sea change, from serving as a repository of culture to become an instrument of re-education. Likewise, our most important institution of all—the family—continues to falter. Until traditional institutions large and small are restored, I don’t have all that much hope for the culture, broadly speaking.
MP - What do you imagine happening in the future? What do you hope for?
JP - I hope the conservative instincts of the American character continue to fertilize these pockets of preservation.
MP - I see a groundswell of people who love art that is made using traditional techniques. At The Representational Art Conference, there is a deeply felt joy in meeting others who share that enthusiasm. Do you feel that same delight among The New Criterion‘s audience?
JP - Every day.
MP - If there is a community of people who share this pleasure in traditionally based art, then surely there is hope for the future?
JP - There is indeed a groundswell of interest in grassroots revivalism. Perhaps we are past due for an artistic Great Awakening. But any true revival must revive not only lost technique but also the ideals behind those techniques. So look not only to the draftsmanship of classical painting but also to the stories of those paintings, which most often draw from faith and legend. Through such stories, we connect the art of the present with the art of the ages.