Conservative Art?

by Victor M. Cassidy

We live in a left culture. Those who claim to speak for the art community are invariably leftish—and they assume that everyone shares their views. But most artists know that politics and art are very different realms so they avoid partisanship in their work. Usually it’s the weaklings who make political art—and most of it is photomontage that depends for its effect upon our recognition of the people being demonized. Since the political landscape changes very rapidly, such work can become obsolete overnight.

When political conservatives make art, what does it look like? By what standards do we judge it? These questions came to mind recently when I visited Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan for three days of lectures on “Traditionalism and Modernism in Western Art and Architecture.” The talks were sponsored by Hillsdale’s Center for Constructive Alternatives (CCA), a quarterly seminar program whose audience consists of students, alumni, and college donors.

Roger Scruton, the traditional conservative philosopher and writer, gave the keynote address: “Traditionalism, Modernism, and the Meaning of Art.” Karen Wilkin, art curator and critic, spoke on “Influences of Pre-Modern on Modern Art” and Ross King, an English art historian, gave a rousing lecture on the birth of Impressionism. There were many other lectures, a panel discussion on current events, tours of the Hillsdale campus, and more.

Located roughly 60 miles west of Detroit, Hillsdale (founded 1844) is a coeducational, nonsectarian college that provides a traditional liberal arts education, grounding students in Western history and philosophy, science, foreign languages, and culture. Hillsdale was one of the first colleges in the U.S. to admit women on an equal basis with men—and the first to have women faculty members and trustees. A center for Abolitionist sentiment in the 19th century, Hillsdale declares that it “proudly adheres to the non-discriminatory policy regarding race, religion, sex, and national or ethnic origin that it has maintained since long before governments found it necessary to regulate such matters.”

Over the past two decades, Hillsdale has steadily upgraded its faculty and student body. Enrollment in 2009 was 1,381 students, up from 1,012 in 1986. Today, 82% of faculty members have terminal degrees vs. 68% in 1986 and 50% of entering students in 2009 ranked in the top ten percent of their high school class up from 19% in 1986. During this same period, the library has more than doubled its holdings and Hillsdale has increased scholarships and grants to $17.9 million from $2.5 million.

Scholarships are critical because Hillsdale accepts no federal or state government aid of any kind. Alone in the United States, the college refuses all such aid because this means that the federal government can enforce an “affirmative action” plan that requires detailed reporting about the race, gender, and ethnic origin of students, faculty, and staff. Hillsdale rejects “affirmative action,” stating that its long-standing nondiscrimination policy is better.

To survive without government funds, Hillsdale has built a patronage network among political conservatives. CCA seminars are part of this, also Imprimis, a monthly publication (circulation: 1.8 million) that reprints lectures given at the college by faculty and leading conservatives.

While at Hillsdale, I visited the college’s art gallery to see an exhibition of work by present and past college art faculty. The show included portraits, landscapes, still lives, genre paintings, a small statue of Thomas Jefferson, a pastel drawing of Abraham Lincoln, a bust of Andromeda, photographs, pottery, two fiber pieces, design art, and more. Save for the textiles, all the work was figurative with occasional religious overtones.

Samuel J. Knecht, a painter, is chair of Hillsdale’s Art Department. His current project is a five by ten-foot painting of the signing of the U.S Constitution. He expects to complete it late this year and has already visited Independence Hall in Philadelphia to take photographs and to work with a group of professional re-enactors inside the Assembly Room where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed.

Knecht, who has taught at Hillsdale for thirty years, says that “we are out of the mainstream and unapologetic.” The art curriculum is “one which has a strong balance of fine art studio rooted in tradition, art history . . . and an excellent digital and photography track.” Students study Modernism in class, he continues, but “I myself behold it with skepticism especially in its paradigms rooted in randomness and nihilism.” In all studio courses, he states, “students are challenged to learn rather than to experiment without direction.”

Basically, Hillsdale offers skills training for students who want to make traditional paintings and sculptures. Such training is available elsewhere, but it is not emphasized at the art schools that encourage student experimentation and innovation. Many respected artists make figurative work, but rarely on patriotic themes.

Anthony Frudakis, a sculptor and associate professor of art, recently completed a larger-than-life cast bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln that was erected on Hillsdale’s “Liberty Walk,” which comprises statues of Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Margaret Thatcher, and Winston Churchill. Yet to come are Ronald Reagan and Frederick Douglass.

Frudakis worked for two years on Lincoln. Since hundreds of Lincoln statues already exist, Frudakis sought a fresh source and chose a portrait by Francis Bicknell Carpenter (1830-1900), an artist who lived in the White House for six months as he painted the President and later wrote a book about his experiences. Frudakis also employed a life mask of Lincoln to get his features right and collaborated on the clothing with a seamstress who knows historic costume. A life model in a bathing suit helped make the pose anatomically convincing.

After building a wire armature, Frudakis made a scale model of the piece from wax-based clay. He scanned his model and used design software to recreate it at full size in Styrofoam (we are skipping some steps here). A foundry cast the statue in bronze and Frudakis spent weeks finishing and patinating it.

None of the art that we saw at Hillsdale College had a partisan edge, but the subject matter was definitely conservative and the style traditional. Identical standards apply to all art, regardless of the maker’s politics. Is it fresh or tired? Dead or filled with life? Made with skill and passion? Viewed this way, the 2-D work in the college gallery disappointed, but Frudakis’ sculptures are very strong. We really see President Lincoln and feel the burdens of his office. Equally compelling are Frudakis’ statue of Washington as a youthful commander and his Jefferson, the intellectual Founding Father. Frudakis may be out of the mainstream, but he still knows his stuff. There aren’t enough artists like that.