The relationship of 21st-century representational art to the past is enormous and inevitable, and this is altogether a source of strength. The task of new representational art is not to imitate past art but rather to exploit it for the individual artist’s needs and purpose in creating new work. The former tradition was systematically dismantled over the course of two centuries of high culture, this being true in all the fine arts. This process was the legacy of Romanticism, in which for the first time the advanced artist found established culture unsatisfactory and inadequate to deal with current empirical and intellectual reality. A driving force in this gradual reduction was to overcome successive authoritarian aesthetics, each displacing its predecessor. The dismantlement has thus released art at last from all authoritarian prescription, setting the artist free for the first time in history to explore all the possibilities of art. One result of the now-completed process is that all forms of past tradition cannot plausibly be restored to their prior positions of privilege and authority. But rather than seeing this process as a loss, it should instead be viewed as an empowering liberation.
In visual art, the complete impoverishment of technical and expressive resources ultimately led to Conceptual, Installation, and Performance Art, and other Post-Modern genres. The only way for painting and sculpture to be productively resumed is to pick up their discarded remnants and reconstitute these art forms. Representation is all told the most powerful tool for accomplishing such reconstitution, but it is not therefore intellectually privileged. The artist is free to employ any degree of figuration that is found useful to the immediate purpose of creating new work. What is often meant by “representational” is art of extremely high iconicity, with iconicity being the degree of resemblance between the object and its artistically rendered imagery. Such detailed rendering is commonly called “realistic,” not to be confused with 19th-century French Realism.
Painting of the highest iconicity was perhaps first achieved by Caravaggio, and was extensively employed by the 17th-century Dutch still-life masters. It has made numerous reappearances in art history since then. In sculpture, the phenomenon can be dated from high-classical Greek and Roman art. Its use today is making a powerful comeback, but it cannot newly assume privilege and authority, which would make it subject again to the same aggressive dismantlement already undergone by the former tradition. Along with representation, the artist today is free to explore and exploit any resources whatsoever of technique and expression to be found within the whole of world art and culture. The Western tradition deliberately divested itself entirely, finally getting rid of all authoritarian prescription, with no view toward renewal or restoration. It is therefore not unreasonable to assert that we live now in a globally expanding era of Post-Western art. This is a new situation in which unlimited elements of Western art history can play a major or central role, but one without the privilege and authority that its own tradition willfully abandoned.
James Mann is author of Tombstone Confidential, a 500-page single poetic work published in 2016 and consisting of 10,000 lines of formal, rhymed pentameter quatrains, a poetic equivalent of detailed representation in painting and sculpture. Simultaneously he published Manifesto of Vandalism: Beyond Post-Modernism, a theoretical work intended to define the current innovative frontier in all the fine arts, with special historical and analytical attention to painting. Originally a professor of literature, in the late 1980s he began developing fine-arts theory, in part to justify his own revolutionary work in poetry. This eventually led to a career change as Curator of the Las Vegas Art Museum for ten years, where he originated over fifty separate exhibitions of known and emerging artists, calling the general aesthetic framework Art After Post-Modernism. Besides producing more than two dozen museum catalogues, he is co-author of the Santa Fe Printmakers Series, and has published articles in American Arts Quarterly and the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Since 2014 he has curated an annual invitational exhibition, at New Mexico Highlands University, of figurative work by contemporary New Mexico painters. In 2019 he will publish a new book, 200 Poems, all of these composed again in rhymed pentameter quatrains.