Today I want to talk about modern art. Fair warning, though: I am a geek. I write computer programs for a living. I am neither schooled in art, nor an avid fan of it. My encounters with art are mostly of the casual and unplanned type. If you are an artist, consider this a dispatch from the frontiers of your world, where serious art occasionally intrudes upon the lives of the ignorant masses.
Unschooled I may be, but even the most casual observer can notice that something has happened to art in the past hundred years or so. Somehow I grew up thinking that Art (be sure to capitalize it) was about creating timeless expressions of Truth and Beauty (be sure to capitalize them, too). I was woefully behind the times. In our impoverished contemporary culture, truth and beauty have been deconstructed to the point of disappearance. What values do the artists of today hold dear? From what I have seen of their work, I would say there are only two: novelty and shock value.
For the thoroughly modern artist, novelty takes the place of beauty. This is a tremendous boon to the aspiring auteur. It takes skill to create beauty, but mere cleverness is all one needs to achieve novelty. Of course, there are only so many novel ideas out there, so when you come up with one you need to milk it for all it’s worth. In practice, this means that artists tend to come up with some gimmick and then execute endless variations on the theme. It’s as if they’re practicing to get the Motel 6 starving artist contract. So what constitutes a good gimmick? Well, Jackson Pollock dripped paint. That was a good one. How many different gizmos can you rig up to drip paint on a canvas?
I went to MIT in the 70’s. There was an art gallery in the Humanities Building I often passed on the way to class. (Yes, at MIT they had all the Humanities in a single building. You laugh, but then how many small liberal arts colleges have one Science Building?) Anyway, I remember seeing some pretty silly exhibits in that art gallery. One guy’s gimmick was making India ink drawings of eggplants! Fat ones, skinny ones, large ones, small ones: all down the long corridor it was just one eggplant picture after another. I wonder if that guy ever came up with another gimmick, or did he just retire when all the eggplants started looking the same?
If novelty takes the place of beauty, then surely shock value has taken the place of truth. The old masters tried to create works that reflect some deep truth about life in a way that is profound and moving. The modern artist believes he is performing a great service to humanity if only he can transgress some social taboo in a way that offends the bourgeoisie. Or maybe he doesn’t really believe he’s performing a public service, but it’s a good way to generate some publicity, right? The problem with this notion is that year by year there are fewer taboos that have not been transgressed. Year by year the bourgeoisie grow accustomed to outrageous assaults on their values and respond only to more and more extreme examples. This is the trend that gave us, in the past few years, crucifixes soaking in urine and images of the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung and pornographic cutouts.
Not all artists have gone down this road, but far too many have. By adopting such impoverished values, these artists have marginalized themselves to an ever increasing degree over the past few decades. When they finally have something to say that society finds worth hearing, and when they recover the ability to express themselves in an appealing aesthetic, they might just regain an audience for their work. In the meantime we’ll just keep watching TV.