But Panero’s assessment is now much clearer to me, for with his new review (in the current New Criterion) of Collins’s effort to revive the Hudson River School, Panero reveals—to me, at least—the root of his earlier complaint. After some effective contextualization, Panero expresses concern that Jacob Collins’s students, “with their small, scrupulous studies of rocks and stumps, may be missing the forest for the trees of genuine Hudson River School landscape.” Why?
The original Hudson River School artists did not go into the wilderness to paint illustrations of the natural world. They went to paint the God they saw manifest in the natural world. . . . Can there be a Hudson River School revival without the revival of God? This is the question that Collins and his students must confront. Their studies, no matter how precise, many never come together as a whole without an underlying philosophy that goes beyond mere proficiency.
Self-styled religious reviewers can unfortunately tend toward the Charlemagne-style forcible baptism of the secular efforts of contemporary art. Then along comes Panero: “To understand the Hudson River School today, Collins’s students must learn to see themselves as seminarians as well as painters.”
Philip Bess provided a similar critique of another positive development, the New Urbanism. In his book Till We Have Built Jerusalem, Bess writes,
something seems missing from the polemics and practices of the New Urbanists: viz., a recognition that a certain kind of social order is a prerequisite for traditional urbanism. . . . a social order that appreciates the centrality of the various moral virtues . . . The rationale for a new traditional urbanism . . . cannot be based upon the market appeal of an autonomous traditional aesthetic.
A new Hudson River School and a New Urbanism are admirable cultural turns. But to survive they need more than Christian cheerleading. They need the kind of religiously informed constructive criticism exemplified by Panero and Bess.