October 10, 1999
Rotting rabbits, and a homeless woman living in a box—such is the face of modern art in the late 20th century. Whether these and other such works are intrinsically artistic is not important, since our political culture treats aesthetic considerations as largely irrelevant when weighed against an artist’s right to unfettered self-expression.
Certainly, self-expression is necessary for any artist—without it, creativity becomes stifled, and art becomes didactic and sterile—but even it has to be disciplined and cultivated, or so you’d think.
Defenders of modern, or even (shudder!) “post-modern” art, levy the charge of didactic banality against the religious art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. They argue, with some justification, that the profusion of repetitious Jesus ’n’ Mary-type art was little more than church propaganda.
Nevertheless, much of this propaganda is artistically breathtaking. Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Michelangelo’s Pietà and biblical allegories on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and Correggio’s The Nativity are masterpieces by any definition. Regardless of how one feels about the subject matter, these and other works are manifestations of great talent, which rightly have honoured places in our cultural pantheon of great art.
At the other end, much contemporary art is hailed as innovative, yet artistic sense is all but absent. The reason is that the artist has become largely irrelevant. In some cases all he does is assemble the pieces. Thus, the “art” becomes its own artist, left to communicate a message to the viewer directly, though what that could be nobody knows, since the average viewer isn’t a mind reader
So, to make such an opaque work intelligible, it has to be accompanied by a long-winded, pretentious artspeak-riddled exposition that describes in words the feelings, passions and ideas that the artist was too incompetent to convey.
In Squat, for example, “artist” Bruce Barber put a homeless woman in a black box complete with bed, desk and computer. This installation at the Banff Centre for the Arts was intended to show how the woman exercised power by turning off the camera or leaving the box whenever she wanted. Who really cares? At no time is the viewer’s rational mind disengaged to permit an aesthetic experience, which is just as well, since the only artistic merit of this piece lies in the “artist’s” inflated opinion of his own talent.
The aesthetic failure of much modern art can be traced to its underlying purpose. Rather than inspire, it seeks to lecture. It appeals not to feeling, but to understanding.
In a wooded area in Winnipeg, Diana Thorneycroft hung a dozen dolled-up rabbit carcasses to decay. The aim, she said, is to celebrate “the gloriousness of putrefaction.”
Since putrefaction is a natural process, this piece merely depicts nature, but then nature cannot create art. It has no consciousness. It merely is. Only a self-aware being can create art, because it requires judgment and sensibility, which can only be created through a synthesis between mind and object. To pass off nature as art is idiotic.
At the end of Prêt à Porter, Robert Altman’s masterful satire about the fashion industry, models walk down the runway wearing the latest clothes—their birthday suits. Even the ditzy, sycophantic fashion “journalist” played by Kim Basinger couldn’t bring herself to justify it, but I suspect some “artist” somewhere could.
We are told to accept non-art as art because our obsessively democratic culture is too craven to acknowledge that artistic standards should exist. Art is whatever an artist says it is, whether that be a Renaissance fresco or hasenpfeffer al fresco. Anyone who dares challenge this nihilistic dogma is anathematized as élitist, yet art is inherently an élitist enterprise.
The artist conceives the world in a unique way, and conveys that uniqueness through painting, sculpture, movies, etc. Yet today, an “installation” of unused paints, brushes and canvas is as artistically defensible as any synthesis that might be created out of these elements. Sometimes, though, a painting isn’t much better.
In 1959, French painter Yves Klein covered a 55 x 47-inch canvas in a single customized colour called International Klein Blue. The accompanying notes to IKB 79, state that the painting’s power lies in its ability to invade the viewer’s sensibilities and exert a strong meditative influence.
First, the power of colour to influence mood is well known, so the claim for this painting is gratuitous; second, ascribing aesthetic merit to IKB 79 amounts to equating fine art with house painting; and third, the claim of strong meditative influence is no more useful than saying that a fire invades the viewer’s sensibilities and exerts a strong thermal influence.
Yes, I can hear the chorus of castigation tuning up—“Van Gogh was mocked in his time and now we think he’s a genius, so who are you to criticize… blah, blah, de friggin’ blah?!” This knee-jerk excuse overlooks the fact that Van Gogh did create art, regardless of how it was received in his day. Today, as the above examples show, art is more likely to be a gimmick masquerading as profound insight.
I recognize that artists must seek new means of expression to remain vibrant and relevant, and that censoring bad art will only make matters worse, but the bar of what is classified as art has been lowered so much that anything, no matter how moving or mindless, is treated equally.
The fault lies less with these “artists” than with the politically motivated ignoramuses who allow such work to be funded.