Who killed art?
The mystery is all around us. Happily, Camille Paglia is on the case.
In a recent column Paglia noted that the visual arts have lost their aesthetic. That is, they have lost their soul.
Architects are producing buildings of surpassing beauty. Industrial designers are filling everyone’s homes and pockets with exquisitely beautiful objects. Opera, theatre and dance are doing wonderfully.
But then, a young visual artist drags a lump of coal across a piece of paper and declares that he has deconstructed humanity’s carbon footprint.
Don’t believe me? Check out Bravo’s reality series, Gallery Girls. By now the show has mercifully been put to rest, but you can probably find it online or on On Demand.
As soon as you get past the personal dramas of the aspiring young gallerists, you will notice two things: first, that aesthetically interesting and engaging art is being produced… in China; second, that young American artists are more interested in their ideas than in their art.
Paglia summarized the trouble with contemporary visual art:
Performance genres like opera, theater, music and dance are thriving all over the world, but the visual arts have been in slow decline for nearly 40 years. No major figure of profound influence has emerged in painting or sculpture since the waning of Pop Art and the birth of Minimalism in the early 1970s.
Yet work of bold originality and stunning beauty continues to be done in architecture, a frankly commercial field. Outstanding examples are Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, Rem Koolhaas's CCTV headquarters in Beijing and Zaha Hadid's London Aquatic Center for the 2012 Summer Olympics.
What do contemporary artists have to say, and to whom are they saying it? Unfortunately, too many artists have lost touch with the general audience and have retreated to an airless echo chamber. The art world, like humanities faculties, suffers from a monolithic political orthodoxy—an upper-middle-class liberalism far from the fiery antiestablishment leftism of the 1960s.
Paglia is quite correct to say that visual artists need to learn to work with their hands. They need to get their hands dirty and to engage with the stuff from which they make art.
To me this means that they have abandoned the aesthetic in favor of ideas. It beats working.
Astonishingly for anyone who knows anything about art, young visual artists seem to believe that they should be using their art to communicate an idea… or better, to disseminate the jejune politically correct insights that inhabit their minds.
Amazingly, young visual artists have come to believe that their ideas have some kind of surpassing importance.
Yet, when art conveys an idea, when it has a point of view, when its values lies in your ability to grasp the idea, then it is just stealth propaganda.
When gazing on such works it is impossible to be engaged by the work or challenged by it. Forget about enjoying it. You are more likely to feel that you are being assaulted, if not insulted by it.
For my part, I question whether it really is art.
If you want to think through the issue, ask yourself what Homer’s idea was in the Odyssey? When Homer spoke about “rosy-fingered dawn” was he making an environmental impact statement? Was that other great metaphor, “the wine-dark sea” an invitation to break away the chains of custom in favor of Dionysian revelry?
Was Giotto deconstructing theology when he painted his altarpiece of the Madonna and child? Or was he prefiguring the rise of capitalism?
Unless you live in Neo-Platonic hot house, art is not a vehicle for communicating great ideas. If anything, it dramatizes moral dilemmas in a way that is aesthetically engaging and compelling. It invites you to think; it does not tell you what to think.
If, as Paglia correctly notes, today’s artists are more interested in producing shock than contemplation, their work lacks all but commercial value.
In her words:
Artists can now win attention by imitating once-risky shock gestures of sexual exhibitionism or sacrilege. This trend began over two decades ago with Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," a photograph of a plastic crucifix in a jar of the artist's urine, and was typified more recently by Cosimo Cavallaro's "My Sweet Lord," a life-size nude statue of the crucified Christ sculpted from chocolate, intended for a street-level gallery window in Manhattan during Holy Week.
As for Paglia’s larger question for contemporary visual artists: what are they saying and to whom are they saying it, the answer is not very difficult.
The work of contemporary visual artists does have a rationale. It is making a mockery of the people who buy it.
Visual artists are saying that the wealthy capitalists who collect their works have no aesthetic, have no sense of beauty and will buy any piece of junk as long as it has been exhibited in an art gallery or museum.
Artists have found a way to exploit the insecurities of the 1%.
Rich collectors do not know very much about art. They are unable to appreciate great art, but wish merely to enhance their social status by becoming patrons of the arts.
Artists are perfectly happy to enable them.
It’s not about what capitalism is doing to art but about what today’s young visual artists are doing to capitalists.
Of course, many collectors are having a few laughs of their own. For them, buying fine art is like buying penny stocks. Most will turn out to be junk, but it only takes a few to make the investment worthwhile.
For the collectors out there, it’s a good time to trade in your Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman for some Old Masters.
You do not want to be left holding the empty bag when the world discovers that its emptiness has only meaning: you don't know the difference between great art and a great scam.