Art Criticism: The Scandal of Dissent

It’s a well-established fact that the art world does not tolerate criticism from the right, which is one of the reasons why you find very few conservatives writing about art. When we think of an artist boldly painting something that is rejected by the art establishment of the time, we are trotting out an old, long-dead canard that no longer has any meaning. No one in the art establishment today would be scandalized by John Singer Sargent’s infamous “Madame X” (1884), a work whose sensuality was once considered highly shocking. The only way to shock the collective mindset of the art intellegentsia today is to dissent from the socio-political opinions which they regard as sacrosanct. An illustrative example in this regard can be found in the art establishment’s reaction to a piece that appeared in National Review over the weekend.

National Review Editorial Intern Liam Warner’s (one assumes) intentionally provocatively-titled article, “The Whitney Is Not an Art Museum”, describes a recent visit of the author to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where after touring the permanent collection he visited the current exhibition, “An Incomplete History of Protest”. The premise of Mr. Warner’s piece is that the work on display in the show is not actually art, but rather propaganda. He makes the argument that the purpose of art is to elevate, using examples such as Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” as it might be perceived by both a believer and a non-believer.

I disagree with the idea that propaganda cannot be art, since one need only look at Raphael’s logge in the Vatican or Mantegna’s frescoes in Mantua to realize that art has often been created for or doubles as propaganda. Nor do I agree that the purpose of art is to elevate – at least, not exclusively. Mr. Warner’s inclusion of Goya’s “The Third of May” in his argument is an interesting choice, because of course much of Goya’s art in particular belies the notion that art necessarily elevates. Works such as “The Drowning Dog” (c. 1819-1823) shown below, one of Goya’s greatest paintings, actually depresses, rather than elevates. Similarly Edward Hopper, whom Mr. Warner mentions favorably at the outset of his article, is an artist whose work is often characterized by a deeply depressing, sometimes sinister undertone, even when the image itself is of a bright, sunny day.

Still, I give Mr. Warner credit for tackling a subject that few conservative writers are willing to touch.

For example, Mr. Warner points to the notable absence of any specifically conservative viewpoint in the Whitney’s survey of American protest art. “The March for Life has been going on since 1974,” he notes, “yet we find no ‘Abortion Is Murder’ sign in the quite incomplete history of protest. That would get the museum shunned by high society.” The Whitney has, in effect, curated out all significant American protest movements with which it disagrees, by simply pretending that such points of view do not exist: something which the art establishment itself regularly accuses the right of doing.

Reaction in the art press to Mr. Warner’s article was predictable. Over on ArtNet, the staff chuckled up their tattoo sleeves at Mr. Warner’s temerity in being offended by the art on display:

The National Review dubs the Whitney’s exhibition “An Incomplete History of Protest” a “fascinating combination of leftism and bad taste.” The writer takes issue with the show’s inclusion of photographs from anti-Vietnam War protests, posters addressing the AIDS crisis that depict genitalia, and work by the Guerrilla Girls, arguing that such imagery amounts to coercive propaganda. Nobody tell him about the David Wojnarowicz show!

For those unfamiliar with his work, David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992), who is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney, created the sort of collage art that Urban Outfitters used to put in their changing rooms to make the place seem more edgy. He is particularly beloved by the left for his juxtapositions of illicit imagery and Christianity, such as a collage “Untitled (Genet after Brassaï)” (1979) in which, inter alia, an altarpiece of Christ crowned with thorns is depicted shooting up heroin, while the (grossly overrated) French author Jean Genet (1910-1986) is shown in the foreground with a halo. [N.B. To be fair, I have only read Genet in translation; perhaps in French he is not so paralyzingly self-obsessed.] You can see this and similar garbage by following this link, but be forewarned that your life will in no way be improved upon by looking at it.

Meanwhile, Art News posted the following, in linking to Mr. Warner’s piece:

But not all negative reviews are inherently productive or worthwhile. One writer takes issue with the focus on progressive movements in the Whitney Museum’s ongoing “An Incomplete History of Protest” exhibition. He was particularly affronted by the work of “some organization called the Guerrilla Girls,” and he calls the show, in part, “an entire floor of lies.”

The interesting thing about Art News’ editorializing in the forgoing is that it betrays the writer’s underlying, utterly unexamined myopia. The Whitney’s exhibition materials make no mention of the term “progressive” in describing the show. In its introductory lines, the Whitney explains how “artists play a profound role in transforming their time and shaping the future,” but makes no mention of the show having a “focus on progressive movements”: that is a characterization made by Art News.

Art News merely assumes – and as it happens, correctly – that the Whitney or indeed any major museum mounting a show of protest art in the present age will only be displaying “progressive” art. Similarly, because it disagrees with Mr. Warner’s views, Art News characterizes his views as not being “inherently productive or worthwhile.” This is only to be expected from a publication that can run stories such as this with a straight face.

While I can’t say that I agree with all of the underlying assumptions in the National Review article at issue, the art establishment’s reaction to it is highly illustrative. There is an unquestioning, lockstep quality to most art writing, be it news or criticism, that intentionally excludes views from the right. It has been that way for quite a long time now, with no likelihood of the situation changing any time soon.

Fortunately those of us who, in our small way, attempt to continue to educate ourselves about art and share our opinions about it, without simultaneously worshiping at the altar of leftist secularism, are not ruled by the opinions of the art establishment. After all, the art establishment preaches time and again that art is for everybody. That must therefore, by definition, include those who dissent from the messages contained within it.


Tonight: Dropping the Philosophical Bomb on Progressivism

I hope those of my readers in DC will join me tonight at the Catholic Information Center on K Street at 6:30 pm for when Dr. Peter A. Redpath presents “A Not-So-Elementary Christian Metaphysics”.  And for those who cannot join us, I will highly recommend his work to you, even if writers like Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas are not part of your regular conversation or reading.  For this book, as its cover art rather dramatically illustrates, drops a bomb on many of the sacred cows of contemporary, secular philosophy, which have brought about the rather selfish, ignorant culture which, sad to say, we find ourselves mucking about in at present.

Very early on in his book, Dr. Redpath gives a clear indication that he intends to call a philosophical spade a spade.  Metaphysics, as you may recall, is traditionally the area of philosophy which concerns itself with the nature of being and reality.  Unfortunately, over time and under the influence of so-called progressives, it has become such a muddle that even alleged experts can no longer bring themselves to define exactly what it means.  For example, have a look at the contortionist act performed by those who compiled the entry on metaphysics for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and you will rather quickly develop a splitting headache.

Dr. Redpath argues that part of the reason why everything’s gone relative is because modern philosophy, from the time of the Enlightenment through the various branches of socialism and beyond, has adopted a view of human reason which is completely out of touch with reality and morality.  It discounts the individual and the eternal in favor of the collective, and of course the elites who must control that collective.  For example, he points out that socialist propaganda and “secularized fundamentalism” have given birth to a “metaphysical myth in the form of utopian history that the whole of science, philosophy, wisdom, and truth are contained in the story, ‘narrative’, of the birth and development of the practical science of modern physics, which only the socialistically-minded, mathematical physicist, like a shaman, can supposedly comprehend.”

And in case some of you were not already squirming in your seats, he goes on to write that in the case of utopian-socialist, secular humanists:

For their adherents, metaphysics is the epic poetic story, an Enlightened fairy-tale history, about evolution, or emergence, of human consciousness, the universal human spirit (“true science”) from backward states of selfishness and primitive religions like Judaism and Catholicism to that of a new political world order dominated by Enlightened systematic science and the religion of love of humanity, “secular humanism”.  And tolerance is this mythical history’s chief engine of progress, story-telling, and means of reading history.

Dr. Redpath then charts the development of metaphysics in Western philosophy, working his way from the Ancients through to the present day.  While this sounds somewhat like a philosophy survey, and perhaps in some respects it is, it is much more than that, and indeed much more readable than a straight-forward philosophy textbook.  How can you not stop and laugh, and want to read a chapter with the rather eye-catching title, “Plato’s Advice About How to Avoid Becoming a Philosophical Bastard,” for example, which talks about how Socrates tried to keep his students from veering off into sophistry, an illness which has claimed the brains of many modern political commentators and so-called journalists?

In another section, Dr. Redpath explores why it is that the promises of the secularist scientific and philosophical classes contradict themselves.  Some of these, he writes, “tend to glory in the claim that no natural aims or ends exist in reality.  Such a claim is the statement of a fool or ignoramus.  If what they say is true, modern science can contribute nothing to wisdom and moral culture, helping human beings improve their lives, become wiser, happy.  So conceived, modern science is worthless.  If so, why would anyone seek to possess it?”

Of course in saying this Dr. Redpath is not denying the advances that modern science has made in helping us to live longer, physically healthier lives.  Rather, he is questioning whether this advancement, alone, without any other meaning, is enough on which to base an entire philosophy, or indeed an entire civilization.  “I do not deny – I celebrate – the many marvels of modern mathematics, mathematical physics, and modern technology as real human goods that have immeasurably improved my life,” he writes, “and I am convinced that many of the practitioners of these studies engage in their work with the best of intentions (while simultaneously not realizing the behavioral contradiction they practice when claiming that science has no real end or good that, by nature, it pursues.)”

He gives a rather apt example of the progressive’s meaningless view of the universe, which personally I found rather devastatingly funny.  “To me,” he writes, “this situation resembles that of a marvelous chef who, at times, can create culinary masterpieces and, at times, can only destroy meals.  All the while this poor soul cooks, he has no idea of what he is doing or why; nor can he tell anyone else.”

In countering this understanding of the “why” behind our human efforts, Dr. Redpath reminds us that Aquinas,  Plato, and many others always held that these types of advances actually do have a purpose.  It is through the imagination and creativity in the sciences, in art, in music, and so on, that human beings have always come to understand that there are immaterial realities which can be known, rather than natural phenomena simply reacted to in terror.  Through these ways of knowing mankind liberated itself, rather than remaining enslaved to ignorance, as secular humanists and moral relativists would have us believe.  Meanwhile, so-called progressives from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Karl Marx to Peter Singer are more intent on returning us to a primitive, dog-eat-dog world, even while clothing that anarchy in the trappings of a supposedly more enlightened and humane way of being.

The broad appeal of this book is the fact that it was written at this particular time in which we live, when so many of the authorities which dominate our governments, universities, and institutions are so opposed to human reason in their embrace of secular, “progressive” philosophy couched as virtue.  Works such as these provide us with the opportunity to ask questions about where we are going as a culture, which many of the present elites do not want us to ask.  Do yourself a favor, then, and read Dr. Redpath’s excellent book, so that you can ask them.

If you are someone who has never picked up a philosophy book, gentle reader, or have not done so in quite a long time, there is much to enjoy and to learn in this volume.  At the same time, those who regularly return to thinkers like Boethius or Kant will, I suspect, discover much to think about within these pages to challenge some of their long-held notions.  And of course if you are not sure it is for you, and happen to be in the Washington D.C. area, then come along tonight to hear the man himself – and be sure to snag me at the reception afterwards and say hello.