New Traditional Art:

A Manifesto

For six hundred years, since Masaccio became the first Italian painter to invest the human form with shadows, and by that powerful extension of realism symbolized the coming of age of responsible awareness, Renaissance values have determined the character of European art.  These values, continually checked by reason and observation, express the dignity of human reason, within the order and balance of nature.

These values were represented in a visual language which was gradually improved and refined over time.  Leonardo, for example, helped develop the technique of chiaroscuro, with incredible skill, intellect and draftsmanship, he created beautiful tonal drawings and paintings which improved this language, thus allowing human reality to be seen and understood by all.  He also added to this ‘Great Tradition’ in other ways, making further contributions possible for those who followed.

Each new generation stood on the shoulders of those who came before.  Leonardo and Michelangelo studied the art of Giotto, Masaccio, Donatello, Verrocchio et al., and without Michelangelo and Leonardo there could be no Raphael, who learned from them both.  And without these three, there is no Caravaggio.  While without Caravaggio and his human realist painting, there is no Velasquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Rubens, Van Dyke, no landscapes of Claude Lorraine, and certainly none of the French painters, David, Gericault, Ingres, Courbet, Millet, Corot, and the Impressionists, all of whom used the language of tonal painting and in different ways contributed to this Great Tradition.

Art was therefore lead by this ‘Tradition’ which began with a ‘Revival of Learning’ in Italy in the 13th Century and led to three hundred years of Italian painting, followed by three hundred years of French painting, whilst also gaining from the contributions of Dutch, Belgium, Spanish, Russian, German and British painters, all contributing to and participating in the self-same tradition.  Practically, this language provided the values, with method and understanding, from which no subsequent artist of importance could ever turn aside.

Yet today we are continuously being told how the arrival of 20th century artistic innovations ”liberated” both art and us from this tradition.   It has even become fashionable with some modern art historians to claim that modern art begun way back in our past.  However the effect and results of modern art are nothing like as grand as the Renaissance tradition and these claims are nonsense.

Unfortunately, a social difficulty exists for contemporary art today as most people are ‘ too busy living their lives in this modern world,’ with work, family, house, entertainment, or hobbies, to even notice this 20th century modern art we have inherited.  In its facture and observation it has become an elitist minority activity.  Certainly few people ever stop to consider if modern art is actually affecting their lives in a positive or negative way.  This is not, I believe, simply because of the inappropriateness of modern art, with its modern nature, materials and content.


The problem is considerably greater than our modern art establishments today will admit. For sadly when art lost its place in the forefront of communication it lost a great deal more. By abandoning those traditional values which included honest observation, technique and intellectual skills of equal standing, art lost all common sense credibility and the confidence of the public.  Art today is no longer seen as a subject of serious consideration or concern for most people as it once was when it led in the progress of peoples lives.  During the Renaissance, developments in art brought new mathematics, science, technology and incredible inventions, to name but a few, while it both inspired religious thought , and brought man intellectually into a new meritorious society.

Art also assisted in the Reformation; it aided the Romantics and ended with the Impressionists.  It was always a voice of conscience, quite often the lone voice and as it dealt with those values regarding belief, human reality, beauty and truth, it naturally offered meaning and an opportunity of understanding for all people, through a direct and universal language of sight.  Art was therefore appreciated accordingly.  For example, when Leonardo finished a painting, the whole city of Florence lined up for two days to see it.  Art always had importance, respect and a place of value in the public eye, because it represented and maintained values that people wanted.

So what went wrong with art, why is modern art so difficult, or different, and why did it change?  These are questions I, as a contemporary painter, am often asked.  The reasons are not straightforward, and the subject is seldom presented openly, especially in the media, which has a deliberate bias for the entrenched and prevailing pro- modern view of art.  I have therefore attempted to provide a fresh alternative view and offer my own knowledge, experience and suggestions accordingly.

Historically, there were a number of reasons which provide a background for a calamitous series of changes in modern art. They range from the effects of the industrial revolution, with mass migrations to the cities, and a great loss of faith in the Christian Church, fomented particularly by left wing intellectuals, who saw its humanist and individualist values as an enemy of their collectivization.  There was the continuous impact of constant change, with extraordinary developments in science, technology and warfare.

The established confidence in universal order was utterly undermined by those terrible world wars and the shocking realization that man could destroy himself, along with every other living thing. If we add to these changes the huge impact of mass consumerism; then we find ourselves with a modern world that has supposedly lost faith with both spiritual and human values, a modern world which claims to be only concerned with commercialism and the promotion of self.  However, perhaps the greatest changes artistically occurred due to a new emerging element in society, the Industrialist.

These powerful owners of vast industries, who unlike the aristocracy, did not have past understanding, experience, or knowledge of art and culture, were unfortunately naive with respect to the value of art.  Unfortunately, these self made fiercely independent characters, with pragmatic dominant views may not have immediately seen the true value of past Art, or appreciated a coherent language with imposing responsible views from the Great Tradition.

Equally these views may not have suited their commercial interests.  Certainly seeing themselves as new leading lights, they would naturally have been attracted to ideas which supported notions of the ‘new and the modern’ instead of traditional art.

A practical explanation of Classical painting could simply be said to contain three basic elements: Line — allowing us to describe shapes with outline, along with the means to describe forms, plus also the means to describe distance and space; Tone — which describes all light and surfaces; Temperature — a means to describe colour.  Combining temperature with tonal values allows light values to be described.  For tonal control in drawing and painting, when combined with temperature and a desire for accuracy of representational line, are the hardest standards to achieve.

These developments for Classical art, however, were by no means simple discoveries. Master mathematician and draughtsman Brunelleschi, with Line drawings, brought the development of perspective to a higher level.  And to this was added the primacy of Tone in traditional drawing and painting, in the works by Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Mantegna and others, which led directly to those giants of the High Renaissance with the “Grand Manner” which followed.

It is therefore essential to fully appreciate how the recording of Light, through the use of Tone, was a hard earned vital step in this process of realistic painting, before we stop to consider what happened next.  For it is both extraordinary and shocking to discover how the artists working in the modern manner removed Tone from the palette, only to replace it by linear abstraction, with dreadful consequences for realism and for Fine Art.  Nor is it generally understood today, how much easier the crafts of drawing and painting becomes without this discipline.

For without Tone and the necessity of tonal values combined with temperature values, the technical problems of painting are greatly reduced to very simple, even simplistic, solutions.  Practically, those giant accomplishments for painting in the Classical style have become, instead, just a matter of brightly coloured two-dimensional designs.  Unfortunately, for the future of Fine Art, it is also worth mentioning that many early modern artists, like Picasso and Braque, among others, were very gifted in the skills of marketing and networking, and sought change that would bring personal credit, but without regard to the desperate loss of those preceding victories and values in the practices of observational realism in painting, that first begun back with the revival of learning in Italy.

From this moment on, all the struggles which occurred were purely political ones, with regards to achieving influence and credibility for this new Modern Art.  These activities were deliberately designed to encourage both the general as well as the art-loving public to accept that a valid artistic struggle was occurring over views and opinions on art, whereas this was really a battle for power and influence.  Its aim was to encourage others to support a particular view as factual.

And victory was achieved when those few concerned had enlisted sufficient authority and support.  It was a distressing procedure that worked against natural growth, common sense and order, thus laying strong foundations for incorrect assumptions that were inherited by proceeding generations as evident truths.  One can only view this as both strange and distressing, how those art historians of the day failed to remark on the extraordinary disappearance of tone from the painting and how subsequent art historians followed each other like lemmings, right up until the present day without challenge or even a whisper of comment.

As a result it has become quite normal to accept as valid all excesses of abstraction, or uncontrolled temperature values.  Unfortunately, this was followed by an apparent lack of skill and competence in artwork by exponents of Modern Conceptual Art; modern artists who clearly did not, or probably could not paint directly from life, but made or wrote essays instead on everything but the art of painting.

Regrettably their influence is now felt in art education, where pupils and students are expected to write essays and study this new conceptual modern art, instead of learning how to draw or paint from life and produce artwork made with loving care, discovering as a consequence, how to appreciate all of the beauty of man, nature and God, through honest observation and the practices that helped contribute directly to the development of European art and the progress of mankind.

Equally strange was the acceptance of those ridiculous ideas of “personal expression”, presented by modern artists to excuse their choices to paint in this lessened manner, by claiming this was intellectually valid, for they were individuals and entitled to their own opinions without comparison or consideration to past standards or values.  One hundred years later these hopeless ideas of relativism and expression are now considered the norm.  And a smoke screen of presenting an idea of personal taste as Art has left some people thinking that an appreciation of art need be no more than personal opinion.  This is utter nonsense.

Art is a form of visual communication, which presupposes various individuals sharing common signs and meanings.  Great art was not, nor can ever be, a matter of personally choosing colours, marks and signs that must be decoded by each observer to obtain their own personal and guessed-at interpretation.  Instead Art is an activity which requires training, knowledge, education, and professional experience in the hope of acquiring capabilities and standards to achieve a product which is acceptable by comparison to past achievements, as in any profession, and without which there can be no standards whatsoever.

Unfortunately, today we are surrounded by cheap, ignorable images; they are everywhere.  Some of these images are instructional and useful, but most are cheap and worthless.  Great art is not, nor can it ever be, a worthless image.  For a worthless image cannot commune with nature, dynamically reaffirm the experience of life for us, offer religious aspirations, encourage personal standards and achievements through self discipline, or inspire a love for life, God or mankind.  Now and once again, after the parenthesis of modern art, we require new images that can offer help with these essential needs.

In a world full of electric changing news updates and an obsessive attention seeking media, there is a need for constancy and solidity in social values.  We need a new form of traditional art.  I define tradition here as ‘knowledge based upon experience,’ plus the benefits of good sense and reason.  We need a new art that can see and use the beauty of honest observation, within the normal language of sight.  We need a proper visual language that has immediate and instant recognition for everybody.

A new language with clarity of purpose, inspiration, plus beauty, not another version of ‘Anything Goes,’ a daily flushing of poor images which apparently require the use of writing and words, to fully explain their weak artistic content or lack of commonly shared forms.  Who indeed needs this present art world, filled with modern artless conceptual objects, made from questionable materials that are not, nor can ever be, considered as Fine Art? In the 21st Century we surely want art that could play a part in our lives again.

Unfortunately however, only a certain number of people have any active professional involvement with contemporary art.  At the top of this tree are dealers and galleries, who have a vested interest in continuing to promote the artwork they have been selling.  Then there are the people who work in the media, the majority of whom have a pre-programmed view.  This view is inevitably biased towards modern art and has a cynical outlook towards traditional art, which is it sees as old fashioned.

Sadly this appears to be a view most have automatically accepted, without first considering the situation.  And then there are the ‘ trendies,’ the followers of fashion, who like to believe they are in the lead in today’s society, with its modern designs and attitudes and undiscriminating mentality.  Nevertheless, I am also a professional member of this art community and my advice here is simple: to dealers and galleries, be more selective and sell an honest product for an honest price.

For the media, stop thinking your job is to instruct people, especially in how to live and think, when, with a few exceptions, you do not have the qualifications to speak, for example, on religious matters without proper study and qualifications in Theology, or speak on philosophical matters unless you are a qualified Philosopher, and most especially not about Fine Art, unless you are a professionally qualified, practicing artist or art historian and have proper practical experience in craftsmanship and knowledge of the field.

While for those ‘ trendies,’ stop buying into trendiness, and if you do have a real genuine interest in Art, then first study aesthetics – pertaining to the distinguished as different from the merely pleasing, before making any further purchases of contemporary art.

However, taking a considerably more serious view, there are grave doubts now about any long term future for Art.  Philosophically, major problems exists today for modern art with all its contradictions, especially when claiming, ‘the idea is more important than the object.’  If this were true, then there would be no need to make an object, nor talk or write about one.  If art was simply about ideas, then this activity has the wrong title and should be called Philosophy.

However, these weak ideas can never achieve those professional requirements of philosophy either.  Indeed it is hard to imagine any trade or profession whatsoever, where a complete lack of suitable knowledge, practical ability, professional expertise, or proper working experience would be acceptable.

So by now you will have realized that I believe there is a definite need for change.  In the 21st Century, there is still only one generally accepted view of Art, which is called modern.  This implies by the title of ‘modern,’ that this is art which is relevant, valuable and contemporary, when the truth is the very opposite.  So a new story is beginning here.

It is the untold story of a fight for the survival of New traditional Art, and the title itself, ’New Traditional Art,’ is chosen for this heroic struggle to bring new life, importance and vitality into today’s contemporary art.  I am also pleased to report that this describes an ongoing programme, with plans to reintroduce the lost language and values of classical painting from the Great Tradition to a modern world.

–  CharlesHarris MA BA