Skip to comments.When ART becomes Inhuman.
Posted on 01/22/2003 6:50:06 AM PST by vannrox
When ART Becomes Inhuman
Many of todays avant-garde artists, Ive decided, have modeled themselves on that well-known societal fixture, the snot-nosed teenager. Since the 1960s, the hippest modern art has aspired to exactly what every garden-variety 13-year-old brat aims for: maximum opportunities to shock, flout, insult, and otherwise chuck rocks at polite society.
And so artists spread American flags on the floor and invited gallery and museum patrons to walk on them. Sculptors stacked bricks in low heaps and convinced collectors to pay bags of money for something they could have made themselves after a shopping trip to Home Depot. Damien Hirst piled up empty beer bottles, cigarette butts, and other garbage at a party (see Cristopher Rapps essay on page 46) and it was instantly proclaimed a valuable sculpture. Fraternity brothers everywhere, you have a future!
Andres Serrano immersed a crucifix in a jar of his own urine (Piss Christ get it?). For other art works he mixed pigs blood with milk, and took pictures of his own ejaculations (masterful pimpled-teenage-boy stuff). The truth is, human and animal excretions have gotten a real workout from the contemporary art crowd. Chris Offili got rich decorating the Virgin Mary with both feces and cut-outs from porn magazines. Awesome, dude.
Obscene language and bizarre pornography have grown like mold over much modern art. Images of Presidents and religious leaders have been defiled. Sadistic rituals like razor-cut bloodlettings have been dressed up as performance art. Novel writers and film and theater producers have started selling voyeurism, drugs, homosexuality, and pedophilia to middle- Americans at the mall, instead of leaving these things to patrons of peep shows and trendy art galleries. One of the most heavily Oscar-awarded movies of recent years American Beauty combined all four of those degradations in one package.
I had begun to think the adolescent-minded art vandals were running out of eyes to poke their sticks into. But then Denmarks Trapholt Art Museum opened a new show. And this time the artsies threw their snowballs at the wrong car.
The exhibit included a row of ten blenders, each containing a live goldfish, and each capable of being turned on, depending upon the viewers whim. Along with his blenders, Danish artist Marco Evaristtis creative display included a bazooka missile surrounded by tubes of lipstick, and a nude picture of (naturally!) the artist himself, with his eyes blackened. All in all, a world-class specimen of modern, teen-brain art.
At the Friday opening, two fish were blended. The museum replaced the creatures that were liquefied, to maintain the original work of art, as museum director Peter Meyer put it. Then on Sunday (the Trapholt apparently attracts a rough crowd on the Sabbath) five more fishies were diced by members of the viewing public.
At that point, the forces of decency sprang into action. First, five surviving fish were stolen from their blenders by animal liberationists. Then the Union for the Protection of Animals got the police to order the plugs pulled on the appliances. Even with the power off, the animal rights crowd continued to fumecomplaining that the fish suffered from a lack of vegetation in their homes.
Surely youve noticed that the art smarties never lay out Cuban flags for gallery visitors to trample on, or decorate Martin Luther Kings picture with elephant dung. But this time the creative geniuses went too far, and one left-wing cause (animal rights) ended up crusading against another (shock art). Will goldfish murder be the spark that sets off a wildfire against modern arts decadence? Stay tuned!
If the war over Goldfish Art was
blackly amusing, most of the sophomoric obnoxiousness now common in modern art is a lot less funny. Never mind dead fish. A student taking classes in the new genres department of the San Francisco Art Institute recently satisfied one of his course requirements by blindfolding and gagging a volunteer, having sex with him, defecating, then giving and receiving an enema, all on an open-air stage in the company of other class members, two professors, and passersby. Artist Jonathan Yegge explained that his piece was an exploration of the notion of the master-slave dialectic in Hegel. When the volunteer later complained, the artist stated Im just shocked and appalled that you cant do certain things in art school. His instructor Tony Labat, who sanctioned the performance, deflected criticism with the response that a professor is not there to police students about their work.
Last year, Harpers one of Americas most venerable literary magazines ran a major four-page article, subtitled The Triumph of the Testicle in Contemporary Art, celebrating a genius named Matthew Barney whom the author hailed as the Michelangelo of genital art. In case youre wondering, the writer informs us that the 1990s, in the arts as in politics, were the decade of the genital. I wont expose you to the details. Suffice it to say Barneys art consists of photos and films of him playing with himself.
It isnt just sex that obsesses todays art avant-garde. A fellow named Maurizio Cattelan recently soldfor $800,000his life-size sculpture of Pope John Paul II being struck to the ground by a meteorite. Rachel Whiteread created a full-size rubber and foam mattress and got $330,000 for it at an art auction. Tom Friedman put a dead ladybug in a styrofoam cup, placed it against a white wall, called it Untitled, and sold it for $29,900.
I took some notes last year when I visited the National Ceramics 2000 show at the Everson Museum, an I. M. Pei-designed art shrine in Syracuse, New York. A sampling of the pieces on display:
This is the high art of today. Critic Jacques Barzun calls it anti-art. It ridicules, it desecrates, it celebrates vileness, it rejects all rules, conventions, and decencies. It attacks everything by dislocating everything . The cruel, the perverse, the obscene, the sick [are] increasingly taken for granted as natural and normal.
Obviously, theres nothing illegitimate about art sometimes being shocking. But today it virtually has to be in order to be accepted by the tastemakers now guiding the art establishment. When ugly, ideological works first started popping up a few decades ago, they were respectfully described as interesting, Barzun points out. But now, half a century later, unless a piece of art is disturbing, cruel, perverse, it is written off as not merely uninteresting but contemptible. Tame. Outdated. Reactionary.
One way that todays art trendies get away with presenting so much junk as art is by intimidating audiences with pretentious gobbledygook. Barzun gives examples:
When the titles of compositions did not joke or provoke, they
expressed the wish to appear learned, difficult, scientific: Investigation No. 12, Structure for Two Pianos, Study in Curves and Squares . More than ever before, the creators harangued the crowd. Theories proliferated; books, periodicals, interviews, catalogues of exhibitions, and program notes explained and justified in recurrent clichés. Their art was the result of concentrated study of spatial and linear interrelations, or of the determination of spaces by their relation to surface and line.
Hence Jonathan Yegges rubbish about master-slave dialectics. Or Harpers magazines ludicrous blather about Matthew Barneys testical art. (Free sample: Barneys stroke of genius was to push through the barrier of genital literalism into the rarefied realm of mythologya mythology not just of genitalia in general, or of the obvious and overexposed phallus, but of the testicles, those most vulnerable and delicate of reproductive organs.) You could hardly write a parody more ridiculous than this; alas, nonsense of precisely that sort now dominates our museums, our art schools, our galleries, our journals, and far too many of our public spaces.
Deliberate destruction of the ideals of Grace and Beauty characterize much of the art of the twentieth century, mourns the late sculptor Frederick Hart. Barzun adds that the arts of Modernism have played a part in the general relaxation of conduct so widely complained of since the mid-century. The attack on authority, the ridicule of anything established, the distortions of language and objects, the indifference to clear meaning, the violence to the human form, the return to the primitive elements of sensation ... have made Modernism at once the mirror of disintegration and an incitement to extending it.
A little incident I remember from the late 1990s nicely illustrates how current art often degrades the viewer. When Chelsea Clinton turned 17, President and Mrs. Clinton decided to celebrate the occasion by squiring her through a weekend whirl of Broadway showsan endearing coming-of-age present that many parents will identify with. In the course of taking in three of New York Citys top 1990s musicals, Chelsea and her parents were entertained by: same-sex kissing, marijuana use, heterosexual intercourse, shrill blasts of black racism and cultural separatism, the use of sex toys, and masturbation. In addition, they were mooned. This was not an anti-Clinton protest, mind you; all paying customers in the theater were mooned. Whatever happened to raindrops on roses and warm woolen mittens?
I recently came across a telling story in a short biography of Arthur Dove, one of Americas first revolutionary abstract painters. Dove was a rather gloomy sort to begin with, a discarder of women, and a misanthrope. (He once said he loved the landscape of his home town of Geneva, New York but hated the inhabitants: It is swell from 3 a.m. until 6. Then the people begin to appear.) This disdain for humanity was magnified by Doves Modernist philosophy. One morning he dashed off in his diary, This is a beautiful day. Am tempted to go out looking. Then he caught himself in this weak human habit of caring about things like natural beauty and comfort. He amended his entry, Weather shouldnt be so important to a Modern paintermaybe were still too human.
I then thought of a nearly opposite little story about the American artist Thomas Hart Benton. One stormy night Thomas Benton, the painter, came out, journalist Joseph Mitchell recorded in 1932. When he saw our oak fire he pulled off his shoes and sat down in front of it and talked until midnight about the beauty of the United States. Benton had experimented with and then rejected abstract painting, precisely because it was so unfriendly to everyday citizens. Both his perspective on life and his art thus turned in an utterly different direction from that of Arthur Dove. For this, he was effectively exiled from New York City and the approval of the art establishment that was then enshrining an inhospitable Modernism as the national artistic creed.
At the heart of artistic Modernism lies a deeply anti-social, even inhuman impulse. We explore this in the realm of architecture on pages 26-33, in Philip Langdons article about buildings that assault and insult. But this same tendency pops up in all contemporary arts. A few years ago, American composer Dominic Argento explained how he tries to keep pleasing melodies out of his operas. If during intermission or after the curtain he hears someone whistling or singing a tune from his work, the composer told NPR, he knows hes failed. He believes audiences should absorb ideological messages in the theater, not beautiful songs.
The twentieth-century writer is by nature anti-social. He despises his audience, concludes Barzun. Thats why so many of them neglected clear syntax, were unnecessarily obscure, and created ugly, graceless works.
The current philosophy and practice of art thrives on deliberate contempt for the public, agrees Frederick Hart. An offended public is a critical necessity for the attainment of credentials . This is shriveling art, making it less and less meaningful, he warns. Once, under the banner of beauty and order, art was a rich and meaningful embellishment of life, embracingnot desecratingits ideals, its aspirations, and its values. Not so today.
Hart observes the increasing artlessness of modern homes and places, and says the flaw is not with a public that refuses to nourish the arts. Rather it is with a practice of art that refuses to nourish the public. The public has been bullied intellectually by the proponents of contemporary art.
He contrasts this to the attitudes of artists in earlier civilizations:
If one visited a town or city in Renaissance Italy, art was
another form of service. When the Italian peasant looked about, he saw an array of dedicated embellishments from his church to his public buildings, fountains, and plazas. The artwork, which was exquisitely created, embraced his values, his religious beliefs, his history, his aspirations and his ideals. It was meant to give enrichment through its artistry but, more important, to give purpose through its meaning ... It was not created for arts sake but for his sake. Art and society had achieved a wonderful responsibility for each other.
Let me suggest one further reason why modern art is often so crude and depressing: Attitude has been substituted for craftsmanship. A few years ago I attended a talk by the novelist Chaim Potok about how art should be created. Millions of artists have technical skill. Whats needed today is a viewpoint, he argued.
I could hardly disagree more. The truth is, remarkably few contemporary artists have the kind of hard-won technical skills that allow a person to make great art. Yet our salons are overflowing with viewpointmost of it ill-earned, untested, and entirely dubious.
Let me illustrate this with the trendy shock-artist Andres Serrano, who burst onto the scene with his photo of a statue of Christ immersed in urine (sparking one of the early wars over NEA funding). He went on to photograph mixtures of semen and blood, a woman urinating into a mans mouth, a vat of milk. (This latter shot produced nothing but a pure white page, leading Serranos printer to ask him Why cant we just sell the unexposed photographic paper, which is indistinguishable from your picture? Serrano answered: Because we can sell my prints for a lot of money.)
I heard Serrano lecture at Cornell University several years ago, and got to ask him some questions. What struck me most was how little artistry there was in the artist. He explained quite frankly that his training consisted of less than two years of perfunctory classes at the Brooklyn Museum of Art School, where he found that I couldnt paint or sculpt at all. He then became heavily involved in drugs for a decade. At age 28 he decided that photography was something he could handle.
Before long he was photographing a calfs head on a pedestal, someone dressed as a Catholic Cardinal standing next to a bound and bleeding nude woman, Christs head atop the bloody skinned body of a goat, a dead coyote dangling from a hangmans noose, and close-ups of his wifes used menstrual pads. He became a celebrity artist.
But even today, Serrano admits, I dont know much about photography. Even though developing is as big a part of the photographic art as composing and shooting, he acknowledged being incapable of printing his own compositions; he sends his film out to others to interpret and finish. I dont like to do any manipulation. Not even cropping, he said.
I was also struck by the carelessness of much of Serranos work. He told a story about hurrying to build a cross-shaped plexiglass container because he wanted to attend a party that night. The tank, which he had planned to fill with blood and then photograph, leaked as a result of his sloppiness. So he just overflowed it intentionally to hide his leaks and shot it that way.
Admittedly, Serrano stands on the front edge of artistic decadence. But he is a highly celebrated and in many ways representative member of todays art establishment. As I write, a major one-man retrospective of 60 of his photographs is being featured at Londons Barbican, one of the worlds most prominent art museums.
And we could cite hundreds of other examples illustrating how the combination of too much viewpoint with too little craftsmanship is leading modern art into blind corners. High technique has gone out the window, and its no longer thought that special gifts or serious training are required to make art. Innovation is now all that counts. Literally any grade-school child could recreate the dead-ladybug-in-a-styrofoam-cup. All thats needed to make you an artist is an inclination to break taboos.
As a result, a huge proportion of todays artworks are just gimmicks, or commodities. Critic Lynne Munson describes a writer who composed a poem consisting of only one word. It read: LIGHGHT. He received an NEA grant for this.
In his book Popism, Andy Warhol reports how the owner of one of Frank Stellas all-black canvases was asked by a neighbor what it was. Informed it was a painting, she burst out laughing, then poured a bottle of whiskey over it, destroying it. Over the phone, the distraught owner informed Stella what had happened. The artist told him not to worryhed just whip up another exactly like it.
Warhol himself was of course a master at convincing people that even the chintziest, most formulaic work could be art. He used studio assistants and mass-production silk screens to churn out multiple copies of most of his (extraordinarily unartful) images. Not surprisingly, forgers also found it a piece of cake to make indistinguishable knock-offs of his works. Experts say up to a fifth of all Warhol pieces currently in circulation are fakes. Doesnt that tell us something about the quality of the original pieces? Isnt it also telling that contemporary paintings have repeatedly been hung upside down or sideways in major exhibits and nobody noticed? And mightnt it tell us something that Willem de Koonings abstract expressionist compositions didnt change in quality after he lost his mind to Alzheimers disease?
The idea that art is built out of radical viewpoint rather than virtuoso skill was brought to its logical conclusion by Modernist composer John Cage in his work 433 which calls for a pianist to come on stage, sit at a piano, play nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds, and then leave. Cage produced other compositions by tossing a coin, putting indeterminate notes down on paper, and randomly mixing recorded sounds. Karlheinz Stockhausen, another contemporary composer, insisted that what he wrote shouldnt be called music, only vibrations. (Few of his listeners will be inclined to quarrel with that description.)
Compare these adolescent nose-thumbings with the way great art has traditionally been createdthrough years of inspired study and diligent concentration. Beethoven, for instance, had to work very hard, notes pianist Anton Kuerti. Beethoven achieved what he achieved through extraordinary effort and self-criticism. The music didnt just flow out. Beethoven would work for years on the same piece, constantly improving it. The result: art that is powerful enough to enthrall both novices hearing it for the first time and connoisseurs who have drenched themselves in it for years.
The result is mediocrity, and worse. A few years ago the National Endowment for the Arts endorsed the idea that the expressive behaviors of ordinary people (for instance, dinner- table arrangements playtime activities and work practices) are art too. Were all artists nowmaster and meathead alikeand there is no formula for separating treasure from trash.
Back when these promiscuous definitions of art were just taking over, a New York City curator named Henry Hope Reed wrote a book called The Golden City which compared Modernist and pre-Modernist designs of everything from major buildings to public lampposts in side-by-side photos. See two examples of his documentation below. Can anyone say our lives are more beautiful under the new rules?
One of the saddest effects of contemporary arts bullheaded ugliness is that it has made high art, architecture, and music repellent to a significant portion of the population. Everyday citizens have just said (like Hobbes above), Sorry, that stuff doesnt match my furniture (or worldview), and turned their backs in droves. In the opening of his story on page 34, James Kunstler illustrates todays popular disconnect from art. And the fault lies far more with our artists than with our public.
When people are offered less self-indulgent and degraded art, they respond positively. What was the most visited art show in Britain last year, and the fourth most visited on the globe? Try Seeing Salvation: The Image of Christ, a collection of virtuoso paintings depicting Jesus, done by artists like Titian and Mantegna. (The exhibit was the only major Western cultural attraction put together for the new Christian millenium which had a religious connection.) Upon hearing the news, the director of Britains National Gallery (which hosted the show) responded, I am astonished.
Todays public, starved for masterful traditional art, responds voraciously when it is offered. Buckley demonstrates this with examples. At the [U.S.] National Gallery of Art, one of the most successful recent exhibitions was on the art of Victorian England, from Turner and the pre-Raphaelites to Leighton and Alma-Tadema. These pictures, alive with color and movement pointing backwards to the storytelling art of Copley and Carpaccio [were] surrounded by admirers. Meanwhile, nearby modern art was quite ignored by the crowd.
It is the contemporary renunciation of the moral responsibility of art that is the source of recent hostilities between art and the public, warns Frederick Hart. The publics declining conviction of the importance of art is caused by self-absorbed creations that have lost all sense of obligation to the public good and the betterment of man.
The good news is, all this is reversible. Rising above todays unpleasant and unenlightening art will not be easy; any return to time-tested forms will be resisted fiercely by todays artistic establishment, which is utterly wedded to radicalism. But Catesby Leighs reporting on pages 36-41 suggests that a spontaneous shift toward higher and older forms of art is already underway. And Sam Torodes wonderful feature article about Andrew Wyeth spotlights an enduring model for creating art that has both nobility and popular appeal.
If art is to flourish in the twenty-first century, it must renew its moral authority, suggests Hart, by rededicating itself to life rather than to art for arts sake. Art must again touch our lives, our fears, and cares. It must evoke our dreams and give hope to the darkness.
And if the proponents of todays shock-art remain in charge instead? Western society will go on. But it will increasingly make do without the creations of living artists. It is possible to live without art, Hart warns, and if art continues to be nauseating, life without art will become, for some, desirable. People will fill their houses instead with computers and electronic toys, Shaker furniture, prints of classic paintings, hi-fi systems playing Mozart or Motown, grandmothers quilts, and other products created by people more interested in beauty or honest reality than todays self-anointed artists have ever shown themselves to be.
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There is indeed nothing new under the sun . . .
I've been to dozens of modern art exhibits in the past few years, mostly in Washington at the East Wing of the Nat. Gallery, Hirschhorn, Phillips and Corcoran. I have never seen what he's describing. I have seen some extremely innovative, thought provoking exhibits.
Frank Buckley writes in his upcoming book, As for what the ordinary buyer wants, there is no mystery. Representational artrealismbrings visitors to a museum, and realism is what the small collector buys.
Art has never been realistic. The most popular exhibits are Impressionism and Post Impressionism, which are starting on the road to abstraction. Much of modern art is similar to prehistoric art. Why is that? Pre-Renaissance artists didn't use vanishing point perspective. Why is that? Maybe art is something more than "lovely to look at".
The bumper stickers are right: art predicts the future, i.e., it reflects its culture but it represents thoughts that haven't found their way to words. The most interesting message of modern art is that art is not what we thought it was, and, ultimately, we are not what we thought we were.
To the list of oeuvres d'art mentioned in the article we should add 'My Bed' by Tracey Emin, which features an unmade bed with grubby sheets, surrounded by condoms, soiled knickers and bottles of vodka, and was shortlisted for the £20,000 Turner Prize. A good friend of mine has a bed like that, but no-one's offering him 20K.
I'd be too timid to admit that. (LOL)
2 major clients:
Corporations and foundations.
And with that kind of a price tag they still get federal tax dollar through the NEA.
Nothing is allowed to be "pretty" or "beautiful" these days. If a man composes some music that has no screeching or drums or draws flowers etc. it is assumed that he's a "wimp" or "gay".
A cartoonist like Walt Kelly was at the top of his craft AND able to make social/political statements AND able to do completely light hearted "family friendly" things.
No one has stepped in to replace Henry Mancini (who didn't just compose film scores).
Burt Bacharch was ridiculed for years even though his songs were very successful.
The left complains about crass consumerism but the only thing that bothers them about American culture is the "consumerism". Being crass and in your face has been their game plan since the 1960s.
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