At the dawn of the 20th century, the set of ideals which acted as the foundation of Western art were still as strong as they had always been: artists were experimenting with fantasy and symbolism, drawing from and reinventing the past etc. In 1902 Paul Gauguin completed his ‘Savage Tales’ which explored the emotions and sensuality of French Polynesia’s noble savages, and in 1907 Gustav Klimt completed his masterpiece ‘The Kiss’, for which he was influenced by the ornate Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna. But it would be in those early golden years of the century, when a new breed of artistic intellectuals began to emerge from the back streets of Europe’s metropolises, those men who felt the need to pour scorn on the very cultural ideals that had given birth to the masterpieces of Western civilisation, which eventually led to the domination of an extreme culture of the anomalous that in the 21st century still rules the art world with an iron fist.
There is a famous unattributed quotation which goes, ‘One reassuring thing about modern art is that things can’t be as bad as they are painted’. Meaning that all contemporary art creates is a window into the cess pit of humanity. Nevertheless, there is change afoot: young artists are emerging from those very back streets from which the cultural destroyers emerged with a view to reversing the insidious trends of the last century. One such artist is Richard T Scott, a Paris-based painter who holds higher cultural aspirations than his contemporaries and their decadent immaturity.
Training at the New York Academy of Contemporary Art and working for such renowned institutions as the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art he has lived the life of many an artist before him, but Scott possess something other artists haven’t for a long time, the desire to evoke the lost essence of beauty and sensuality.
To look at one of Scott’s paintings, from his portraiture to his compositions, is to see art as if it were born anew, a potent pleasure which makes the endorphins spring forth. With sheer talent, skill, unfettered sensitivity and thoughtfulness Scott is a rara avis in the cold and nihilistic world of contemporary art. I had the opportunity to speak to Scott about his perspectives on art from the past to the present and also what the future holds.
First and foremost, Richard, what ignited your passion for art?
I believe it was Van Gogh’s ‘A Starry Night’. It’s cheesy perhaps, but I am not ashamed of sentimentality if it is profoundly felt. For me, it was always painting. I’ve always enjoyed film, music and theatre, and even performed in a number of plays and musicals and a few films. I experimented with installation, sculpture, print-making, photography… but painting was always my true passion. When I was a child I could only see art in books. We didn’t live near a museum and my parents weren’t interested anyhow. I was completely on my own. Popular culture taught me that modern art was exciting and that realism was just boring. And so I never even looked at paintings before impressionism. But, when I finally encountered Rembrandt in person at the Met, I suddenly knew I had found something profoundly more powerful than anything I had encountered before. It was as if I could see through those eyes into the tragedies of my own life. I found empathy there. I found a brethren spirit.
On another note, it might be useful here at the beginning to clarify certain terms. I have a big issue with the terms ‘art’ and ‘artist’. I don’t think of myself as an artist. But for this interview, it’s much easier for me to use the term ‘art’. Though, what I mean by ‘art’ is something more akin to ’ars’ in ancient Rome: a definition including the concept and the means of expression – the art object itself. This is important to point out because the contemporary definition of ‘art’, which didn’t exist before Immanuel Kant, accounts for only the concept – the ‘sublime’ or Platonic form, as opposed to ‘beauty’ or matter. I reject Kant’s definition because art is made by human beings, for human purposes and does not exist outside of a human perception. And so, an idea alone in some abstract void cannot be art until it has been communicated. I reject this false dichotomy because both terms are incredibly ambiguous and am not actually mutually exclusive.
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all/Ye know on earth’ – John Keats
Your paintings mix together the essence of all the great artistic movements, from the Renaissance to Impressionism. What is it about the past you find so inspiring?
Well, the present is just the accumulation of the past. It’s hard to be inspired by the future because we don’t know what it looks like yet. But, if I understand your question correctly, you mean the past as in (before the 20th century) and not the recent past.
I simply feel a deep emotional resonance in the old masters, especially the Baroque period, which I don’t find in very much contemporary art. For me, the purpose of art is meaningful communication, and that requires both emotive and conceptual content being conveyed by the work itself. In order to do this you have to have some degree or form of skill. This doesn’t negate conceptual art, because the art can be in the text… For example Michael Craig-Martin’s ‘An Oak Tree’ [comprising a glass of water on a shelf]. I find this kind of amateur philosophy to be quite entertaining and sometimes very compelling. But, the visual aid – the glass of water – is not the art. The glass of water is a glass of water. The accompanying text is perhaps the art. So, it’s a different form. But as fun as it might be to postulate about the nature of being, it has no emotional significance and therefore, is not meaningful communication. It’s a cerebral game.
Because my natural form of expression is painting, I simply use all the tools available to me in order to profoundly reach the viewer vis-à-vis visual language. Unlike contemporary art, my work is visual and not verbal and so, it doesn’t respond to linguistic analysis via Derrida and Foucault (like Richard Prince does), because their theories simply don’t apply to visual language. Meaning in a visual language is not a simple equation, as in subject = symbol. Though there are often conceptual components in my work; narrative or iconic meaning, I prefer to speak primarily through the technical narrative (composition, subject, formal language, etc…) which is more ambiguous and more open to the viewer bringing their specific experiences to the piece. The heart of the emotional and conceptual content must be conveyed visually by the work, but the details have to be filled in by the viewer. This is what makes a painting powerful.
What triggered your desire to explore the philosophy of transcendentalism through art?
I felt that the dialogue for the past century or so has become increasingly narrow, self-referential, and alienating. Sure, on one hand, modernism and subsequently post-modernism opened a door (not exactly new) to exploring other distillations and combinations of expression. And some of the results have been interesting. But at the same time, they locked the door to many incredibly fertile modes of expression. When the avant-garde became the dominant institutional dogma it switched from liberating the artist from rules, to dictating a new set of rules:
‘Thou shall not make beauty. Thou shall not be sentimental. Thou shall not be emotionally honest and poignant. Thou shall not be skillful. Thou shall follow the zeitgeist. Thou shall follow only modern art. Thou shall find your “inner self”. Thou shall be ironic and not sincere. Thou shall be “new” and “original” and sacrifice your talent for the “truth”.’
The myth of the ‘new’ and ‘original’ only exists to those with a limited knowledge of history.
So, I’m not interested in fashion. I’m interested in communicating profoundly to all people and all generations of all times. The timeless is what will stick around. All the fashions will be forgotten. History is revised and re-written by every historian who comes along and so influence is not fixed and the iconoclasm of the past century is simply a cycle, and not a paradigm shift. There is no ‘modern’ man. Human nature is the same as it has been for hundreds of thousands of years.
How do you see art in its simplest form?
I see art in its simplest form as the means for refining and exploring human communication. Every language has its limitations and what I try to do in my work, is develop the visual means of intuitively conveying emotional and conceptual content.
What does art have the power to do?
Art has the power to be the foundation of civilisation. It has the power to alter individual lives. Beyond that, it’s not very practical.
Do you think artists have a duty to create works which exhort the beauty and sensuality of the world?
I wouldn’t say that we have a ‘duty’. I would simply say that ugliness stilts the emotional range communicated in a piece. It can give you disgust or repulsion but not much else. I’m simply interested more in other emotions and concepts and prefer to use a full vocabulary. Beauty and sensuality are simply more subtle and uncommon.
Do you think that the majority of contemporary artists are afraid of exploring the traditional notions of beauty and sensuality?
Yes, because of both the philosophy and the market forces underlying contemporary art. Conveying beauty and sensuality requires skill. Skill can be compared and measured and therefore, the work’s value is no longer purely a brand – like a blue chip stock. Jeff Koon’s is a stock and because it doesn’t try to be beautiful or sensual, it can’t be judged on how successful it is. So, what ever monetary value you project onto it – it will hold it.
The other side of the coin is that we’ve been taught for a hundred years to mistrust beauty, sincerity, and sensuality. According to Kant, Hegel, and Marx (the dominant philosophers behind contemporary art), we must seek only the ‘truth’ and reveal it for others. The truth is that humans are humans, and a huge part of our meaningful experience lies in beauty, emotion, and sensuality. To deny that is simply naïve. Modern and postmodern art are interested in exploring breadth… which is fine, but that’s why it has become so superficial. Instead, I’m interested in exploring depth.
In the last few years the subject of beauty in art has ignited much passionate debate, with many arguing that as a society our perceptions of it have declined to such a degree we no longer have the ability to appreciate the true value of beauty. What is your opinion on this?
I think this is true to some degree. But, I’m optimistic. Things can change in the blink of an eye. Regardless, human nature hasn’t changed for tens of thousands of years. People will always be drawn to beauty instinctively. We don’t have to be taught to find significance in beauty; we have to be taught the contrary in order to counter our instinctual response.
But I have to be a little critical of the approach taken by historians like Roger Scruton and Robert Hughes. They point out the contradictions of the contemporary art world, but they don’t offer the public an alternative. Robert, I completely understand why you don’t like Damien Hirst, but tell me, who do you like? If the hype is unfounded, show us something that is truly great! It’s counter-productive! There are a number of incredible painters, for example, who embody the qualities that Scruton and Hughes preach, but they never mention Andrew Wyeth, Antionio Lopez Garcia, Odd Nerdrum, Vincent Desiderio, Steven Assael, July Hefferenen, or even Lucien Freud. The only one Hughes mentioned is David Hockney, and frankly, Hockney is one of the most mediocre talents in figurative art. No wonder people think figurative art is boring – if that’s all they’re exposed to. It makes me wonder if he isn’t trying to sabotage our movement. You know, he wasn’t exactly a proponent of beauty twenty years ago. If you read his book Nothing if not Critical, you’ll find him spinning the BS as didactically as every other critic.
Ever since the early days of Boccioni, Duchamp et al and the advent of such movements as Abstract and Conceptualism, contemporary art has been on a vicious crusade to deride and ultimately extirpate traditional artistic cannons from Western civilisation. Would you say that statement is true?
Yes. I think the appropriate term is iconoclasm. Though, I want to emphasise that if traditional artistic canons come back into dominance (and I think they eventually will) we shouldn’t position ourselves as oppressing other modes of art, whether they be conceptual or abstract. There have been a few interesting insights which have come from those movements and I think the dialogue between is quite revealing. If we become the oppressors again, we will simply set the stage for another iconoclasm in the future.
Where do you see contemporary art in ten years time?
The financial crisis has thrown the art institutions off balance. The traditional modes of exchanging power are shifting. That, coupled with the democratising force of the internet, has put more power into the hands of the artist and shifted power away from the galleries, art historians, and critics. Figurative art is no longer being so effectively drowned out, and so there’s been a massive undercurrent of incredible figurative artists exploring the depths of the representational image.
So, I see it as more diversified. There will be more figurative art, though it still won’t be the dominant mode. And the ‘centre’ of the art world will no longer be in New York. In fact, it will be in many major cities at once: London, Paris, Beijing, Hong Kong… and actually, this is already beginning and people haven’t recognised it yet.