The air is becoming suffocatingly pungent with the incense of pious indignation from the art world concerning Congress’ reaction to the way the National Endowment for the Arts is spending taxpayers’ money.
What is taking place is yet another perverse manipulation of the public by the contemporary art establishment. The public, through its instrument, Congress, has reacted to the baiting and taunting of its sense of decency by the art world through its instrument, the NEA. Underneath its outrage, the art world can barely contain its secret delight at this publicity bonanza featuring a heroic scenario of free spirits versus troglodytes.
What eludes the public is the current philosophy and practice of art, which not only delights in but thrives on a belief system of deliberate contempt for the public. In order to understand this, you have to understand the values of art today and how contemporary art is intellectually packaged for the marketplace. To grasp this is also to grasp the sorry moral condition of art today and how this is shriveling art, making it less and less a meaningful endeavor.
Since the beginning of bohemianism in art in the late nineteenth century, rejection by the public has become the traditional hallmark of what comes to be regarded as great art. An offended public is a critical necessity for the attainment of credentials by any artist. The idea that art and artist must be initially misunderstood and rejected has become doctrine in the mythology of great art, and consequently it has become one of the primary criteria in evaluating the historical importance of a given artist. The art world embraced this fable in the late nineteenth century and has been running hard with it ever since.
There is, however, a critical difference between then and now. Life in the late nineteenth century was heavily regimented by strict societal mores: the public expression of emotion and sexuality was severely repressed. When art and literature broke through those layers of repression, people were offended, outraged, and ill at ease about the truths they discovered about themselves. But we live in a different world. Today, “repression” is a bad word. Nothing is ever, ever repressed. Everything is discussed, analyzed, and ventilated by people ranging from Phil Donahue in the morning to Larry King at night, day in and day out. It’s gotten damned hard if not almost impossible to offend anyone anymore.
But art persists. Every artist worth his salt yearns to create works of art that are (mistakenly perceived, of course) so offensive, so insulting to the public as to earn him a clear judgment of genius for his success at being misunderstood.
It has become the intense pastime of contemporary art to pursue controversy, the bigger the better, as a form of art. But the artist has had to reach farther and deeper to find some new twist with which to offend. A simple-minded little sophomoric gimmick of making people walk on the flag to make a cute point arouses vast passion and national controversy—for which artist and art world pat each other on the back.
What is really going on is the cynical aggrandizement of art and artist at the expense of sacred public sentiments—profound sentiments embodied by symbols, such as the flag or the crucifix, which the public has a right and a duty to treasure and protect.
When one looks back at the majestic sweep of art in history and its awesome and magnificent accomplishments, how nasty and midget-like are so many of the products and so much of the philosophy of contemporary art by comparison. Once, art served society rather than biting at its heels while demanding unequivocal financial support. 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.
Look about you. The artlessness of contemporary life has come about because of a breakdown in the fundamental philosophy of art and who it is created for. 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 so bullied intellectually by the proponents of contemporary art that it has wearily resigned itself to just about any idiocy that is put before it and calls itself art. But the common man has his limits, and they are reached when some of these things emerge from the sanctuary of the padded cells of galleries and museums and are put in public places, where the public is forced to live with them and pay for them.
If one visited a town or a city in Renaissance Italy, the motive of art and its resulting products would come off entirely differently. Art was not then thought of as an end in itself but as 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, as Dante called sculpture, “visible speech.” It was not created for art’s sake but for his sake.
The measure of achievement in art was determined by the degree to which that art was considered ennobling. Art and society had achieved a wonderful responsibility for each other. Art summarized, with masterful visual eloquence born of a sense of beauty, the striving of civilization to find order and purpose in the universe. This service to truth was more important than the endeavor of art itself. And it was this dedication to service that gave art its moral authority.
This moral authority is the critical element by which a society regards art either as an essential and meaningful part of life, as in Renaissance Italy or, as today, a superfluous bit of fluff, mainly indulged in by a small snobbish minority. Art is regarded by contemporary society much the same way architects now regard art—not as an essence, but as a high-rent amenity.
The most touching and noble impulse toward “visible speech” in recent times was the short-lived creation of the Statue of Democracy in Tiananmen Square. Naively executed, it was nonetheless a wonderful display of the unique ability of art to embody and enhance concisely and movingly a deeply felt public yearning for an ideal of a just society. The profound meaning the statue had for tens of millions of people gives the art a value and moral authority of profound significance.
In ancient Greece, which generated 2,500 years of Western art, there existed no distinction between aesthetics and ethics in the judgment of a work of art. Works of art achieved greatness by embodying great ideas, as well as by sheer mastery of the medium. The inspiration and the motivation for that mastery were in the nobility of the ideas pursued.
It is the contemporary renunciation of the moral responsibility of art that is the source of the recent hostilities between art and public. The cutback of funds by Congress is a graphic display of the public’s declining conviction of the importance of art, caused by a self-absorbed art that has lost all sense of obligation to the public good and the betterment of man. It is possible to live without art, and if the nourishment provided by art continues to be so nauseating, life without art will become, for some, desirable.
If art is to flourish in the twenty-first century, it must renew its moral authority by philosophically and fundamentally rededicating itself to life rather than art. Art must again touch our lives, our fears and cares. It must evoke our dreams and give hope to the darkness.