Those of my readers who at least take a glance through the “Culture” or “Lifestyle” section of their daily newspaper – you do read at least one daily newspaper, don’t you? – may have spotted some rather odd stories from the art world yesterday. First there was the cleaning lady who polished up what she thought was just a dirty bucket, but which was part of a pricey art installation. Then the hucksters known professionally as Christo and (the late) Jeanne-Claude gained Federal approval yesterday to install their latest art project in the United States, which will see a nearly 6-mile stretch of the Colorado River covered with a giant piece of silver polyester.
The popular, common-sense reaction to the types of work at issue can generally be summed up in the assertion: “It’s not art,” an assertion I have always had a problem with. Sometimes popular opinion is right in pointing to a painting or sculpture and rejecting it for being bad. This is often true of contemporary art, for example, which frequently embodies a kind of zero-sum-game in which there is no art TO the art, or no sense of the creative process coming to a healthy fruition. Rather we are presented with a mish-mash of the discarded and often tired ideas of others, sewn together into some sort of Frankenstein monster.
However at other times the man in the street rejects something because he assumes, if he does not care for it, that therefore it must not be art. Yet the question he is really asking himself in such instances is not the grand, philosophical one, i.e. “What is art?”, but rather, “Is this really any good?” And the difficulty is, particularly when those of a more traditional sense of values are the ones asking this question, that in many cases they are not capable of forming a sound opinion on the subject.
The perception of the relative worth or merit of a piece of art can change over time. Take, for example one of the most legendary pieces of sculpture in the history of Western art, Michelangelo’s “David” in the Academia in Florence, which was completed in 1504. Today, this idealized image of the young shepherd who later grew up to be the King of Israel and a human ancestor of Jesus, is so familiar to us that we do not stop to think about what an incredibly radical piece of art it was at the time. We make fun of it by turning photographs of it into dress-up magnets for the fridge, or printing greeting cards putting David on a surfboard wearing sunglasses as a sort of Renaissance-era California dude.
Yet to create such a gigantic piece of public sculpture, and one that was completely nude, at that, was considered not only somewhat shocking at the time, but also a technological folly and a waste of money. As work progressed, the critics came out of the woodwork to take pot-shots at Michelangelo for trying to carve something which had not been seen in the West since the days of the Roman Empire. There were complaints that the nose was too big, that the neck was too long, that the left leg was out of proportion to the right, and so on. And yet here we are, five centuries later, and it would be difficult to find a reasonably-educated person in the Western world who could not identify this somewhat controversial work of sculpture, made long ago for a small Italian city, as being emblematic both of that city and indeed of the entire Renaissance as a whole. It almost certainly appeared either on the cover or inside the pages of any textbook on the history of Western civilization that you may have studied in school.
Of course, to compare the work of Michelangelo to the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude is to be fundamentally unfair for many reasons, which is something that the aforementioned man in the street does not quite perceive. We can accept the work of the former as being that of a genius, and reject the work of the latter as being that of a pair of hustlers, but we need to understand why that is. It is not solely a question of whether or not we like what we are looking at, but rather a combination of many different questions that we should be considering: is there actual art (i.e. trained skill or technique) that has gone into creating the work? What is the artist’s point of view on the subject he is representing? Does he speak to universally accepted truths, pleasant or unpleasant as they may be? Is his work inspirational, or is it a condemnation?
It distresses me that my near-contemporaries in their 20’s and 30’s are often incapable of discussing subjects such as art, architecture, arthouse films, and so on, because in many cases they have been ruined for further inquiry into the subject by those on the left, who as educators used the very brief exposure they may have had in primary and secondary school to such subjects to try to indoctrinate their pupils with a leftist or flat-out Marxist understanding of Western history and culture. This drives the common-sense student who still has some remaining interest in art running to the hills, or possibly to collecting the work of Norman Rockwell and Thomas Kinkade, which is even worse. It may also drive him away completely from any sort of art that is non-representational or non-academic, when there is still much of value that can be found in these types of artistic expression.
In effect, the left has done such a good job acting with malpractice in the study of the arts, that the patient is now on life support. And if we have a rotten, sickly culture in wide swaths of the art world – and I would argue that we do – then the way to cure that is by cutting off the bad bits, rather than continuing to allow those who caused the gangrene in the first place to be the ones to diagnose what the problem is. For if we do nothing, and fail to educate ourselves about our culture and the way it expresses itself artistically,then the long decline of Western art which we have witnessed over the past several decades will only continue to accelerate.
Art matters in the long run because it eventually comes to represent, symbolically, the people and the societies which made that art in the first place. Michelangelo’s David represents the Renaissance for millions of people around the world who have never seen him, and that even though there were many other works of art created at the same time. We should be asking ourselves what, 500 years from now, our descendants will think of the art that has come down to them from us. And given the types of art mentioned in the beginning of this post, we should be very concerned about what we will be leaving to them.