Over the last two weeks we've discussed "unschooled" art, which abandons technical skill in favor of a naive, primitive look. We debated the continuing relevance of "skill" in today's art world, and the challenge of distinguishing "loose and spontaneous" art which is good, from "sloppy and lazy" art, which is bad.
During that discussion a number of commenters reminded us that "skill" has its own pitfalls-- art can be technically skillful yet hollow and insubstantial.
That's probably a good opening to talk about Nelson Shanks.
Shanks is one of the most sought after portrait painters in the world, as he will readily tell you. (His web site describes him as a "world-renowned painter, art historian, art teacher, connoisseur and collector [with a] lifelong... devotion to fine arts." ) He is the darling of the Art Renewal Center which, in the overheated rhetoric of its Chairman, blames the success of unskilled art on a "conspiracy... to malign and degrade the reputations" of traditional artists using "pathetic lies and distortions."
Few would question Shanks' technical virtuosity, but I confess I find much of his work uninspiring.
Shanks is one of the most literal painters around today. There doesn't seem to be a square inch of ambiguity in his work. Any mystery comes from his arrangement of odd objects and symbols, which all seem to be painted realistically in the same fanatical detail.
Shanks fans tout the symbolism in his paintings. For example, in this portrait of Princess Diana, the composition is supposed to symbolize her isolation and loneliness.
To me, this heavy handed symbolism places Shanks in the same category as romance cover painter Elaine Duillo, who shares Shanks' technical skill but got paid a lot less due to class and gender biases.
Last week Shanks created a stir by revealing to the press that in his 2006 portrait of President Clinton for the National Portrait Gallery he hid the shadow of the Monica Lewinsky scandal:
Shanks said, "It actually literally represents a shadow from a blue dress that I had on a mannequin, that I had there while I was painting it, but not when he was there. It is also a bit of a metaphor in that it represents a shadow on the office he held, or on him." Shanks called Clinton "the most famous liar of all time."
If Shanks had turned down a prestigious presidential assignment because Shanks disapproved of the President, he would've been a profile in courage. Or if Shanks had warned the National Portrait Gallery that he was not painting the statesman-like image they wanted, he would have been an artist of principle. Even if he had kept his hidden symbols secret, he would've been no worse than other rascal artists before him. But he did none of these things.
When Shanks auditioned for the job, he lied: "I need to be fairly straightforward. I'll just try to paint the man, his intelligence, his amiability and his stature, maybe paint him fairly close to humor and try to get it just right." He won the commission by traveling to Washington and presenting his portfolio of respectful portraits to Clinton. After winning the first phase, he was required to present a preliminary sketch for approval. (His sketch obviously did not include the now infamous shadow). He did not reveal what he was up to until the painting had been unveiled to the public and was hanging prominently in the National Portrait Gallery. Then, Shanks went to the press to brag about how he had duped his client. Later, he had the temerity to complain that his painting was not getting enough exhibition time, probably due to pressure from the Clintons.
As far as I'm concerned, the example of Nelson Shanks offers us not one but two important lessons about technical skill:
- Technical skill is no guarantee of artistic quality
- Technical skill is no guarantee that an artist is not a jackass