Seeking Excellence in the Age of Mediocrity

The Young Men & Artists behind "The Exhibition": In Conversation with Fen De Villiers

Fen de Villiers is a young sculptor IM–1776 has featured before – he’s now put on an exhibition in London along with likeminded artists. Paintings, drawings, sculptures, tapestries. They’re trying to restore to the arts a manly love of the beautiful which requires somehow going back in history and attempting to remake it. Arts and men became enemies about a century back and no one has figured out how to fix this. Men turned instead to cinema and eventually computer games for visions of the glorious past or the future, for that matter, in a world increasingly inimical to their existence. Even the phrase “modern art” became intolerable to most men, perhaps because they see their abolition in its ugliness.

These artists, Alexander Adams, Matthew Fall McKenzie, Harald Markram, Vladan Pejanovic, Sam Wild, Ferro, and Fen, are young men, in their early 30s mostly, looking to master their craft at the same time as they’re trying to find an audience. ‘The Exhibition’ is as much a school for them as for the viewers. They’re investing in a future by trying to start a movement, as much the buyers are investing in them by buying their artworks. It’s also a surprise that the right can produce and is willing to buy art. Especially, it’s unheard of for young men of “the Right” to attempt this in our time; what does ‘the Right’ even mean except a kind of hatred of an increasingly intolerable official despotism and a worse, more tyrannical one, unofficially? It’s all that ugliness that makes young men revolt and look for beauty. We’ll see whether the struggle really is noble, whether there is enough talent and fellowship to achieve something.

‘The Exhibition’ is also an attempt to restore honesty to art and that requires honesty about the moral and psychological origins of our love of beauty. Not the cool, knowing language of liberal art criticism; nor the sneering and sarcastic habits of social media. But it also cannot be the sentimentality or niceness that reduce public speech in our society to ridicule. Some combination of harsh honesty and high feeling would be necessary, so that artists, critics, and audience can deal with our unhappy times. The hope is that new art would be a cure for the dark passions in young men’s hearts, which can turn to hatred. A new criticism could in parallel offer an artistic education, historical and technical, to replace the ignorance clothed in contempt that characterizes so much of social media. This is part of the point of making sure we’re not just consumers, even of beautiful images, but that we know something about producers — the artists, the makers, the teachers. Masters. Eventually, we should have them again. Restoring mediocrity is not worthwhile; restoring excellence is.

I talked to Fen de Villiers after I took a look at ‘The Exhibition’ tour he filmed for the online audience — most of us couldn’t make it to London for the week-long exhibition in early July. I asked him for photos of all the works. I tried to understand what they’re attempting. ‘The Exhibition’ is a humble beginning, and I wanted to understand both elements, the humbleness, which includes a return to the past, to historical styles, and the daring of making a new beginning, neo-art. I saw Romantic and impressionist paintings, Futurist sculpture, medieval tapestries…

The first thing I learned is that art might be in the blood: Fen is an artist son of artists, his brothers are artists, too. He was raised for it, a living instrument, if you will. Probably nature is even more important than habit: He says he’s been asked what else he might do aside from art; he speaks candidly, but politely, and I get the point, the question is meaningless to him. Art is no more nor less a choice than life.

The second thing I learned is that art is something you have to fight for, every step of the way, and possibly for life. In his apprenticeship years, Fen went to study art in Glasgow. He was brought up to model and mold, to create shapes, to bring his intentions to reality with his hands. Art is a struggle or it’s an embrace. You’re always looking to close the distance, to bring a vision out of yourself and at the same time to attain the power to make something you couldn’t have made before. It’s good to be alive, if you can do it; art is a gift. In Glasgow, Fen learned about a modern vision of art, a form of therapy for envious cripples: No mastery of form and of the instruments of the art, but instead, in this almost ascetic seclusion for the matter the artist works with, kids would do anything from propaganda to confession — but not work. They were cut off from any tradition of learning and doing, trying to reinvent art on the basis of a brutal, contemptuous censorship of everything that had come before. Obviously, they were also proudly Marxist at Glasgow.

Fen crashed out of Glasgow pretty quickly, left his native Britain, went to Belgium to study in Antwerp, where classical training offered him the kind of skills and the atmosphere in which to become an artist. Inspiration, the wonder at what it’s possible for men to accomplish offered by familiarity with the tradition, gives the artist freedom. He graduated the Academy in Antwerp and began to look for that other side of the artistic impulse, something competitive and more personal at the same time, a desire to make his own mark and go his own way.

But this is not a fairy tale with a hero who faces his obstacles and learns better, returns home, triumphs… Fen learned over the years that the misery he left behind in Glasgow would come home to him in Antwerp. Year after year in the decade since he graduated, he’s seen the school that cultivated his talents being turned into an imitation of British art schools, destroying skills and professionalism, producing kids who are strangers to plaster and wax, to marble and bronze, who don’t know any more about the chisel than they do about the forge. A school killing itself by severing its connection to the past in self-contempt, looking to become more relevant, more imitative of prestigious garbage, modernizing its way into a trash can. And what kind of kids come out of such an institution? Bizarre recruits habituated to propagandize, like in Glasgow, people who reach for political grievances to express their unhappiness or sickness.

This is the context for Fen’s art, and for the collective that put together The Exhibition: An attempt to survive this onslaught of preachy ugliness, of incompetence parading as creativity. The ugly spectacle, the horror of the castrated reproducing by driving people mad. Three questions come out of this confrontation, they guided me in my interview with Fen:

Would the historical styles of painting mean something different now, can they offer some freedom to men through the arts? 

Were the historical styles themselves a rebellion against late modernity, in the context of the arrival of powerful machines, a technology that made for a wealthy bourgeoisie and announced a mass society? 

Can the arts provide spiritual discipline through individual achievement in a moment when artists compete with ideological critics and technological production?

Fen thinks so. He talks about the cycle of the arts from barbarism to high achievement, the stages by which a culture reveals to itself its true powers and desires — and his own desire to start or rather restart the last promising cycle. His example is English Vorticism (Wyndham Lewis) or Italian futurism, a vigorous mix of man, machine, and matter that exults in power and marvels at new achievements, but at the same time is modestly merely the rough beginning of something that could be great. A century back, the catastrophe of WWI put an end to those movements as soon as they had begun. Fen thinks we can reconnect to that moment and move forward in a better direction.

‘Getting your hands dirty’ is what art now needs. It means dealing with the mad forcefully. It means making or protecting beautiful things. It means the experience of the rough, the uncertain, the matter that resists will — the strength that will endure after we’re dead. We have to look back in time, face down the horrors of the 20th Century. We might need resources, guidance from much older ages. But who am I talking to? Who believes that beauty is somehow trans-historical, that it can reach us today from the ancient past, or that it can promise a future despite all the doubts and all the weakness we see around us, in ourselves?

There’s another story to tell about Fen and his collaborators, about digital technology, everything from teaching admirers about the technique to thinking together about the possibilities of 3d printing and other new machine powers. But that’s for another time. Fen is in a way a creature of the digital age. At the end of our interview he insisted that neither The Exhibition nor anything else would have happened without one man, Matthew the Stoat, who brought the artists together and helped form a collective. How did he do it? Like many of the younger radicals, he started in a Discord server.

Titus Techera is the Executive Director of American Cinema Foundation.

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