Ehren Clark: To introduce our readers to the nature and tradition of classical art and to your place on the forefront of this tradition, how do you approach painting?
William Whitaker: I let it lead me. I never quite know what idea, approach or technique I will do next. Classical techniques interest me because they are such a challenge. I’m currently concentrating on finish techniques, particularly edge quality.
I could draw well, but when I was very young I was made to feel insecure about my drawing interest by the overwhelming influence of mid-20th century art movements, none of which valued traditional drawing. The establishment let me know that my interests and talents were obsolete. I was influenced a lot by Abstract Expressionism, for none of us can escape the time in which we live, but I continued to work to improve my traditional drawing and painting skills, too. Everybody in the art world, including me, assumed traditional skills would be easy to master if they chose to put aside what was considered more challenging ideas of self-expression. As I attempted to enlarge upon my native capabilities and discovered just how difficult and complex traditional painting was, I gained a healthy respect for my artist predecessors and discovered there was an entire visual universe to be explored in an object bathed in a mere single source of natural light.
Most of us stay with art because of the never-ending challenge it makes on us. If we aren’t stretching ourselves, most art students eventually lose interest and move on to saner pursuits. I’m still in art because I have so much yet to learn.
WW: I define the current resurgent interest in classical tradition as a reborn interest in 19th-century academic painting. When I was college age, there was no interest in academic art. We thought of it as “early bad taste.” Alma-Tadema and Bouguereau were despised. I’m delighted by the subsequent change, but I’m still mightily influenced by my early influences. I respect Bouguereau’s skills, but I still have trouble accepting him aesthetically.
Utah is full of strong young talent doing excellent work grounded in the classic tradition. There is a great revival in interest in traditional art all over the world. I don’t know why this is so, but I suspect it has to do with the technologically complex times in which we live. The world of 1956 seems so naïve and simplistic, limited and rigid now.
Utah has always had wonderful artists, more so than surrounding states. Alvin Gittins was the best portrait painter, not just in America, but in the world when I was a student. The glorious color and design of Doug Snow’s work still moves me as much now as when I first saw it. I’m sure you’re familiar with all the strong younger artists coming to prominence now. I’ve reached a point in my life when I’m most inspired by artists younger than I am. The influences of all kinds of traditional art are going to be very exciting to see develop over the next few decades.
EC: What do you see as primary differences between conventional paintings and painting that has been done by someone schooled in the classical tradition?
WW: By conventional painting, let me assume you mean painting that falls short of having the wall presence of great works in museums. While no artist ever gets up in the morning and decides to do a mediocre painting, great art has always been rare. If it were not almost impossibly difficult, it wouldn’t be called art. All art training, including academictraining, has shortcomings, but a person of real talent who gets classic academic training basics, will have a great advantage over those who are not pushed as hard in their formative years.
The most valuable contribution made by classical training is in discipline. Classic training teaches the artist how to see by making him draw until he can replicate with near-perfect precision anything that is placed before him. A visual artist has to be a visual expert. If one can’t accurately draw form, that person cannot see form. It’s as simple as that. Now armed with powerful drawing (seeing) skills, and disciplined by the effort it took to acquire those skills, a person of real talent, drive and ideas can go on to apply his training in whatever way he chooses. It might eventually lead to whole new art forms nobody has yet thought of.
WW: The complexities of painting techniques were painstakingly discovered, built up and added upon over the course of several hundred years. When the mainstream deliberately turned away from this body of technical knowledge in the 1950s, there was a real danger that important artists’ methods and tools would be lost, thereby severely limiting generations of future artists. It is fortunate for everybody, no matter what their personal art direction, that it didn’t get that far.
During the course of the 20th century, knowledge that had been acquired over the previous 400 years was being deliberately thrown out. The young find pleasure in shocking their elders and much of 20th-century art was about shocking the middle class, shocking the establishment. Well the world turns. Young artists today are resurrecting classical technique, thus attempting to turn the art establishment on its head. This establishment, now made up of people of my generation, has a vested interest in maintaining that traditional painting is dead. The young are talking back and are determined to prove that those ideas are bankrupt.
Contemporary art will only be better and have far greater expressive latitude when younger artists get outstanding training in traditional skills.
EC: In a post-modern context, how have the classical arts adapted to the plurality of the postmodern and what are some contemporaneous variations within the classical model?
WW: We have so much more freedom of choice now, in everything. It’s humorous to remember that mid-20th century fashions were so rigid that girls’ skirts could not vary in length by more than an inch. Likewise, the idea of what was acceptable in painting was equally limited. Young painters today are not so influenced or impressed by the non-artists who have run the art establishment. No real painter sits down and applies a title like “postmodern” or “classical” to what he or she sets out to do, and they are fairly indifferent when others do it for them. There is so much freedom of choice today that people can work outside the box and not be self-conscious about it. I believe the tremendous complexity of our times and the excellence seen in so many related and non-related fields is responsible for this freedom of expression. I maintain that a young, talented artist who masters the difficult and complex skills of drawing and painting can take this resource and do incredible, yet-to-be-discovered things with it in 20 years.
EC: How is the nature of classical art different today than that of the pre-20th century canonical rejection of the classical academy?
WW: I don’t believe the classical academy was rejected in the 19th century. Change began then, but it wasn’t until well into the 20th century that the old academy was entirely destroyed. Of course, what passes for classical training and classical art today is very different from what it was in a very rigid and rather limited 19th-century world. For example, everybody grows up today with a far more sophisticated exposure to visual imagery than the people of 1880 and almost no appreciation or knowledge of the Greek classics everybody was familiar with then. It’s impossible to go back to that world outlook. What can be done is to take the best of that world and the best of the 20th century and the best of what is around us today, learn and absorb these things, and come out with something entirely fresh and new and ultimately better than what went before. It is good to respect the old ways, but it is also good to incorporate the best of what is currently available.
I think the best is yet to come. If we allow people the freedom to do what they really want to do, and if a wealthy world can support a wide range of visual expression, then we will see incredible stuff in the future – works, techniques, approaches, mediums -_ that nobody has yet dreamed of. There will always be a place for wall painting and everything else that passes for visual art today, but we are living through an age of incredible technological expansion. Artists of ability and imagination are going to be inspired to devise entirely new means of visual expression.
EC: Do you see the return to classical art training as a growing phenomenon globally and in Utah?
WW: Yes. Just see the kind of work being exhibited in the Springville April Salon and compare it to the work that was being done when I was a student. There is a far larger pool of excellent talent working today.
This is not just a national flowering, although the U.S. is certainly leading the way. I’m in communication with young artists all over the world, Europe, Asia, Africa, who really want to learn the traditional basics. I don’t know why this is happening now and not in previous decades, but it is a fact.
I’ve lived to see the contemporary art world become a joke and superfluous in the eyes of most. Major national and international contemporary art exhibits are largely ignored or serve as inspiration for humorous articles by newspaper columnists looking for droll stories. The public has turned away from Cezanne and his descendants and turned to movies for visual entertainment and serious contemplation and review. Today everybody on the street is a knowledgeable and perceptive film critic, just as the masses who crowded the Paris Salons of the 19th century were very respectable painting and sculpture critics. The Art Establishment has removed contemporary art from public participation. For plays, films, and musical productions to gain acceptance, they must pass the judgment of a supportive public. But the public has no vote on what is proclaimed Art and enshrined in an art museum.
I have high hopes that a growing generation of artists will, through their excellence, be able to rebuild the respect for our field and interest in our field that is so sadly lacking today. I believe this contemporary interest in classic art training is going to have a great and good influence and will make a more vital and interesting visual future for us all.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.