Friday, February 08, 2008

Why Art Turned Ugly

An interesting and illuminating essay by a philosophy professor found via LGF links, on Why Art Became Ugly:
For a long time critics of modern and postmodern art have relied on the "Isn't that disgusting" strategy. By that I mean the strategy of pointing out that given works of art are ugly, trivial, or in bad taste, that "a five-year-old could have made them," and so on. And they have mostly left it at that. The points have often been true, but they have also been tiresome and unconvincing—and the art world has been entirely unmoved. Of course, the major works of the twentieth-century art world are ugly. Of course, many are offensive. Of course, a five-year old could in many cases have made an indistinguishable product. Those points are not arguable—and they are entirely beside the main question. The important question is: Why has the art world of the twentieth-century adopted the ugly and the offensive? Why has it poured its creative energies and cleverness into the trivial and the self-proclaimedly meaningless?
Where could art go after death of modernism? Postmodernism did not go, and has not gone, far. It needed some content and some new forms, but it did not want to go back to classicism, romanticism, or traditional realism.

As it had at the end of the nineteenth century, the art world reached out and drew upon the broader intellectual and cultural context of the late 1960s and 1970s. It absorbed the trendiness of Existentialism's absurd universe, the failure of Positivism's reductionism, and the collapse of socialism's New Left. It connected to intellectual heavyweights such as Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, and it took its cue from their abstract themes of antirealism, deconstruction, and their heightened adversarial stance to Western culture. From those themes, postmodernism introduced four variations on modernism.

First, postmodernism re-introduced content—but only self-referential and ironic content. As with philosophical postmodernism, artistic postmodernism rejected any form of realism and became anti-realist. Art cannot be about reality or nature—because, according to postmodernism, "reality" and "nature" are merely social constructs. All we have are the social world and its social constructs, one of those constructs being the world of art. So, we may have content in our art as long as we talk self-referentially about the social world of art.

Secondly, postmodernism set itself to a more ruthless deconstruction of traditional categories that the modernists had not fully eliminated. Modernism had been reductionist, but some artistic targets remained.
Saint Phalle's Venus links us to the third postmodern strategy. Postmodernism allows one to make content statements as long as they are about social reality and not about an alleged natural or objective reality and—here is the variation—as long as they are narrower race/class/sex statements rather than pretentious, universalist claims about something called The Human Condition. Postmodernism rejects a universal human nature and substitutes the claim that we are all constructed into competing groups by our racial, economic, ethnic, and sexual circumstances. Applied to art, this postmodern claim implies that there are no artists, only hyphenated artists: black-artists, woman-artists, homosexual-artists, poor-Hispanic-artists, and so on.
The fourth and final postmodern variation on modernism is a more ruthless nihilism. The above, while focused on the negative, are still dealing with important themes of power, wealth, and justice toward women. How can we eliminate more thoroughly any positivity in art? As relentlessly negative as modern art has been, what has not been done?
The heyday of postmodernism in art was the 1980s and 90s. Modernism had become stale by the 1970s, and I suggest that postmodernism has reached a similar dead-end, a What next? stage. Postmodern art was a game that played out within a narrow range of assumptions, and we are weary of the same old, same old, with only minor variations. The gross-outs have become mechanical and repetitive, and they no longer gross us out.

So, what next?

It is helpful to remember that modernism in art came out of a very specific intellectual culture of the late nineteenth century, and that it has remained loyally stuck in those themes. But those are not the only themes open to artists, and much has happened since the end of the nineteenth century.

We would not know from the world of modern art that average life expectancy has doubled since Edvard Munch screamed. We would not know that diseases that routinely killed hundreds of thousands of newborns each year have been eliminated. Nor would we know anything about the rising standards of living, the spread of democratic liberalism, and emerging markets.

We are brutally aware of the horrible disasters of National Socialism and international Communism, and art has a role in keeping us aware of them. But we would never know from the world of art the equally important fact that those battles were won and brutality was defeated.

And entering even more exotic territory, if we knew only the contemporary art world we would never get a glimmer of the excitement in evolutionary psychology, Big Bang cosmology, genetic engineering, the beauty of fractal mathematics—and the awesome fact that humans are the kind of being that can do all those exciting things.

Artists and the art world should be at the edge. The art world is now marginalized, in-bred, and conservative. It is being left behind, and for any self-respecting artist there should be nothing more demeaning than being left behind.
The point is not that there are no negatives out there in the world for art to confront, or that art cannot be a means of criticism. There are negatives and art should never shrink from them. My argument is with the uniform negativity and destructiveness of the art world. When has art in the twentieth century said anything encouraging about human relations, about mankind's potential for dignity, and courage, about the sheer positive passion of being in the world?

Artistic revolutions are made by a few key individuals. At the heart of every revolution is an artist who achieves originality. A novel theme, a fresh subject, or the inventive use of composition, figure, or color marks the beginning of a new era. Artists truly are gods: they create a world in their work, and they contribute to the creation of our cultural world.
The point is not to return to the 1800s or to turn art into the making of pretty postcards. The point is about being a human being who looks at the world afresh. In each generation there are only a few who do that at the highest level. That is always the challenge of art and its highest calling.
See the whole thing for examples and further development of that thesis.


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