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 fume—complaining that the fish suffered from a lack of vegetation in their homes.
Surely you’ve noticed that the art smarties never lay out Cuban flags for gallery visitors to trample on, or decorate Martin Luther King’s 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 art’s 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 “I’m just shocked and appalled that you can’t 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, Harper’s — one of America’s 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 you’re wondering, the writer informs us that “the 1990s, in the arts as in politics, were the decade of the genital.” I won’t expose you to the details. Suffice it to say Barney’s “art” consists of photos and films of him playing with himself.
It isn’t just sex that obsesses today’s art avant-garde. A fellow named Maurizio Cattelan recently sold—for $800,000—his 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:
* A human head with a steering wheel attached
* A piece of rotten fruit covered with maggots
* The severed lower torsos of a man and woman, topped with steak and chicken dinners sitting on plates
* A Bozo the Clown mural adorned with toilet plunger, mousetrap, and other objects
* A portrait of a woman the artist tells us was abused—depicted bloody, cut, with lizards skittering over her body
* A face-off between Jesus and an Indian medicine man
* A pair of amputated feet hanging from an industrial chain
* A mother getting her throat cut, graphically, by a baby.
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, there’s 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 today’s 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 cliches. 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 Yegge’s rubbish about master-slave dialectics. Or Harper’s magazine’s ludicrous blather about Matthew Barney’s testical art. (Free sample: “Barney’s stroke of genius was to push through the barrier of genital literalism into the rarefied realm of mythology—a 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 shows — an endearing coming-of-age present that many parents will identify with. In the course of taking in three of New York City’s 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 America’s 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 Dove’s 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 shouldn’t be so important to a Modern painter—maybe we’re 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 Langdon’s 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 he’s 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. That’s 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, embracing—not desecrating—its 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 art’s 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. What’s 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 “viewpoint” — most 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 man’s mouth, a vat of milk. (This latter shot produced nothing but a pure white page, leading Serrano’s printer to ask him “Why can’t 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 couldn’t 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.
Andres Serrano. Detail of Blood and Semen II, photograph.
Before long he was photographing a calf’s head on a pedestal, someone dressed as a Catholic Cardinal standing next to a bound and bleeding nude woman, Christ’s head atop the bloody skinned body of a goat, a dead coyote dangling from a hangman’s noose, and close-ups of his wife’s used menstrual pads. He became a celebrity artist.
But even today, Serrano admits, “I don’t 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 don’t like to do any manipulation. Not even cropping,” he said.
I was also struck by the carelessness of much of Serrano’s 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.
Lacking skills which allow some photographers to turn the everyday into art, Serrano has instead been forced to rely on extreme subject matter to gain attention. When I heard him speak he was just finishing a particularly hideous series of photos of dead bodies stored in an undisclosed morgue. One was a closeup of a female shotgun suicide. Another series was of a man who had been hacked to death by his wife. There was a shot of an eight-year-old dead from meningitis, a gruesomely decomposed drowning victim, and a decapitated woman. It was disturbing to see this gruesome inhumanity neatly captured in artsy slides, calmly narrated by Serrano’s jaded voice. “I’ve done body fluids, the Ku Klux Klan, sexual freaks, and death,” he concluded his lecture. “I don’t know where to go after this.”
Admittedly, Serrano stands on the front edge of artistic decadence. But he is a highly celebrated and in many ways representative member of today’s art establishment. As I write, a major one-man retrospective of 60 of his photographs is being featured at London’s Barbican, one of the world’s 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 it’s 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 that’s needed to make you an artist is an inclination to break taboos.
As a result, a huge proportion of today’s 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 Stella’s 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 worry — he’d 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. Doesn’t that tell us something about the quality of the original pieces? Isn’t it also telling that contemporary paintings have repeatedly been hung upside down or sideways in major exhibits and nobody noticed? And mightn’t it tell us something that Willem de Kooning’s abstract expressionist compositions didn’t change in quality after he lost his mind to Alzheimer’s 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 4’33 ” — 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 shouldn’t 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 created — through 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 didn’t 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.
A “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoon shows the two friends out walking after a snowstorm. Calvin proclaims with outstretched arms, “This is my latest sculpture.” Hobbes asks “Where?”
“All of this!” replies Calvin.
“But you didn’t do anything,” splutters a perplexed Hobbes.
“Right. Art is dead. There’s nothing left to say. Style is exhausted and content is pointless. Art has no purpose; all that’s left is commodity marketing. Consequently, I’m signing this landscape, and you can own it for a million dollars.” Calvin takes a stick and traces his name in the snow.
“Sorry,” answers Hobbes, turning away. “It doesn’t match my furniture.”
Calvin concludes with a sigh, “The problem with being avant-garde is knowing who’s putting on whom.”
The current gospel that artists needn’t master certain skills but only need be “true to their own vision” is a convenient rationalization for irresponsible slapdashery. It frees self-proclaimed artists from accountability to anyone (teachers, tradition, the audience, the truth, the greats who preceded them). It exempts artists from having to revise or refine their work (that would undercut “spontaneity” and “authenticity”). And, handiest of all, the elevation of viewpoint over craftsmanship effectively places modern artists beyond criticism (Who are you to step on my viewpoint?). Modern artists may claim to be revolutionaries, but in practice they demand docile consumers offering up automatic respect, without any criticism of their dogmas.
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. We’re all artists now — master and meathead alike — and 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 art’s 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 doesn’t match my furniture (or worldview),” and turned their backs in droves. In the opening of his story on page 34, James Kunstler illustrates today’s 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 Britain’s National Gallery (which hosted the show) responded, “I am astonished.”
He oughtn’t have been. Frank Buckley writes in his upcoming book, “As for what the ordinary buyer wants, there is no mystery. Representational art — realism — brings visitors to a museum, and realism is what the small collector buys.” Artful traditional paintings and sculptures require serious skills, however, skills only acquired through apprenticeship and study. That’s much harder than buying a calf’s head and taking a picture of it.
Today’s 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 public’s 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 today’s unpleasant and unenlightening art will not be easy; any return to time-tested forms will be resisted fiercely by today’s artistic establishment, which is utterly wedded to radicalism. But Catesby Leigh’s reporting on pages 36-41 suggests that a spontaneous shift toward higher and older forms of art is already underway. And Sam Torode’s 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 art’s 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 today’s 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, grandmother’s quilts, and other products created by people more interested in beauty or honest reality than today’s self-anointed artists have ever shown themselves to be.