“Social mobilism,” or the anti-Americanism of modern American art *UPDATED*

Back in December, I went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (“LACMA”) to see an exhibit entitled “Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915.”  Historic European and American fashion has always been something of a hobby of mine, so I was excited when I first heard about the exhibit.  I wasn’t disappointed.  The exhibit contained a very large, beautifully displayed, well-explained collection of European fashions from 1700-1915.  It was a lovely reminder of a time when clothes, at least clothes for the middle classes and wealthy, were hand-made, with exquisite attention to detail and decoration.  In other words, the clothes were a perfect example of the decorative arts.

Since we were at LACMA, after admiring the clothes, we wandered about a bit, and found ourselves in vast space housing a collection funded by Eli and Edythe Broad.  It was very modern.  There was a giant fish tank, filled with clear acrylic, in which there appeared to be floating three half submerged basketballs.  Next to it was a glass display case with three shelves, each containing several electric floor polishers, all resting horizontally.  There was a giant, maroon, shiny egg, broken in two pieces, as if a metallic lizard had recently hatched.  There were several pieces of wood, not quite as big as 2 x 4s, nailed together in a seemingly random pattern.  There was a chain link fence with metal sculptures mounted upon it, each of which was skillfully crafted to look like a child’s plastic pool toy.

There was also a very lovely young woman there, a museum employee (or, perhaps, a volunteer) who was happy to explain what all this stuff meant.  She told us that it illustrated “social mobilism.”  That was a conversation stopper.  By the time we’d processed this bit of linguistic nonsense, she was speaking to other people, and it would have been rude to interrupt to seek further enlightenment.

The more I thought about it, though, the more intrigued I became by that silly phrase.  In the past, art served three purposes:  it glorified the rich and powerful; it glorified God, and, in a pre-photographic era, it recorded the world around us.  To be worthy of artistic respect, all three of those goals required skill and elegance.  Nowadays, though, art is the equivalent of a lost soul.  God is dead (at least in the art world); the rich and power live on television and in glossy magazines; and every cell phone enables us to record our world with almost nauseating frequency.

For those who have graphic skills, money resides, not in cozying up to power brokers (as did the artists who served the Medicis, the Popes, or the various European monarchs), but in providing commercial images, whether for movies, magazines, posters, or anything else.  We may admire the craftperson’s skill, but we don’t call it “art.”

Because the modern world imposes severe limitations on what was once the artist’s purview, the only thing left for the person with genuine artistic talent — or mere artistic pretension — is to produce things that make the critics happy.  If you can’t have wealth, at least you can have praise from a rarefied class of academics and “art” magazine journalists.  It won’t pay the rent, but it will make you feel good about yourself.

These critics, living in or coming from academia, all hew Left.  To them, it’s only art if it challenges what they perceive as America’s failings:  her religiosity; her crass commercialism; her grim, depressing people; and her sexual perversions.  Art, in other words, is anti-American.

Of course, one can’t say that out loud, because Americans, who are generous people and interested in self-improvement, might baulk at being told that they’re spending their money to be denigrated and ridiculed.  So the art world comes up with lovely phrases such as “social mobilism,” which not only serve as a cover for a deep cultural animosity, but also make the self-styled art class feel special.

Keeping in mind the art world’s deep hostility to America, it’s hardly surprising that one of the most recent exhibits to hit the art world celebrates graffiti or, as some of us still call it, vandalism.  In City Journal, Heather MacDonald takes a look at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s newest exhibit, Art in the Streets — or to cut through the euphemism, Scrawls on Walls that Destroy Communities:

There is no clearer example of the power of graffiti to corrode a public space than the fall and rebirth of New York’s subways. Starting in the late 1960s, an epidemic of graffiti vandalism hit the New York transit system, covering every subway with “tags” (runic lettering of the vandal’s nickname) and large, colored murals known as “pieces.” Mayor John Lindsay, an unequivocal champion of the urban poor, detested graffiti with a white-hot passion, but he was unable to stem the cancer. The city’s failure to control graffiti signaled that the thugs had won. Passengers fled the subways and kept going, right out of the city. To the nation, the graffiti onslaught marked New York’s seemingly irreversible descent into anarchy.

Yet in the late 1980s, the city vanquished the subterranean blight by refusing to allow scarred cars onto the tracks. That victory was a necessary precondition for the Big Apple’s renewal in the following decade; it was the first sign in years that New York could govern itself. Riders flooded back—by 2006, 2 million more passengers each day than in the eighties. The subway’s rising ridership was a barometer of the city’s rising fortunes.

What could be more artistic than something that doesn’t just mock America, but that actually hurts her? That’s social mobilism in a nutshell.

Cross-posted at Right Wing News.

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UPDATEThis will help you understand the academic world that breeds the critics and museum curators.

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  • Charles Martel

    Book, here’s a story that will resonate with you in particular, although others here will certainly see the general point.

    I used to write occasional feature articles for the Pacific Sun, Marin County’s leftist alternative weekly. In 1994 I took on an assignment to write about graffiti in the county, which was becoming a new plague. My tack was pretty simple: Talk to the businesspeople and residents affected by it, then talk to some people outside of Marin who had led successful clean-up efforts, and had lessons and advice to share.
     on how to eradicate it.

    I was pretty far along in my research when I had to drop the assignment for personal reasons. So I wrote up my extensive notes and handed them over to the new reporter that the Sun had just hired. When her story appeared, I realized that she had not used an iota of my research. Instead she had focused on one graffitist as a misunderstood artist, following him to a place in San Anselmo where she witnessed him deface a beloved old bridge with his “art.” It was obvious that her take was that graffiti was some sort of underdog activity conducted by brave young souls in defiance of society’s uptight norms about self-expression. There was no commentary from people whose property had been defaced by her hero, and no tone in the piece that was anything but admiring.

    Oh, wait, there was one short graf acknowledging that some people were offended by the stuff. It read like one of those “apologies” where somebody says he’s sorry “if somebody was hurt and took my words the wrong way.”

    I was already pretty far along the road to terminal disgust with the left by then, and her story was one big whopping brass nail in the coffin lid of my former sympathies for it. Just as much as art has power to move people, so does crud masquerading as art.

  • jj

    I don’t mean to be unkind to the descendants of the flower children or anything, but a run through five dictionaries – two online – fails to reveal ‘mobilism,’ from which I conclude that there is very probably no such word.  This disposes me to conclude I have no time for the young idiot.  While ‘social mobility’ is a recognizable phrase in English; regrettably, ‘social’ – or any other kind of – ‘mobilism’ is not.  So, having told you nothing, she has… told you nothing.

  • e-girl

    I was chatting with a friend recently about art and fame.  She paints and sculpts and is really very good at both.  Some of the people she has taught have gone on to win awards and open galleries.
    Our conversation turned to fame and recognition.  She entered some finely detailed sculptures into a exhibit at a gallery.  Meanwhile, the headline exhibitor displayed crudely fashioned figures with the faces of children, but the posing and outfit of sexual provocative women – and stuck a hefty price tag on them.
    Then one of her friends bought a painting for a large amount of money.  This painting was composed of nothing more than the forward and back swipe with a roller dipped in colour at one end.  Her friend thought the high price meant it was art.
    Neither of could figure out what merited fame these days.  We seem to live in an achievement-free generation.  Practically everything in our lives existed before I was born and has only been refined, albeit often remarkably, since.  We are a strange point:  far enough advanced to amuse ourselves with the trivial without cease, and yet missing the spark that makes us attempt something truly new.
    Random question:  is there a link between these periods of technological and cultural ennui and preoccupations with catastrophes such as Armageddon or global warming?

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    Art, discomfort, and dehumanization, with some thoughts from novelist Mark Helprin

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    e-girl: “Is there a link between these periods of technological and cultural ennui and preoccupations with catastrophes such as Armageddon or global warming?” Almost certainly, yes.
    “The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for them, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they – this garden Earth, civilized and knowing, to be torn apart again that man might hope again in wretched darkness.”
    –Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz

  • Danny Lemieux

    Very insightful comments thus far. David Foster just reminded me that I need to re-read “A Canticle for Liebowitz”, a book for these times.

  • Cheesestick

    e-girl This painting was composed of nothing more than the forward and back swipe with a roller dipped in colour at one end.  Her friend thought the high price meant it was art.
    This type of “art” always makes me chuckle.  I cannot draw a decent looking smiley face myself, so when I look at a piece of “art” and determine that I could easily recreate it with some simple materials, then it is not really art at all. (No matter the price or the semi-famous name that created it.)

  • Leah

    I wish I had known you were at LACMA, I’m a docent there, although I avoid the Broad building like a plague. We have wonderful art from Japan, Korea and Latin America that are sooo much better than the modern crap in the BCAM building. Even the museums holdings of modern art (not owned by Broad) are much better.
    FYI, I’ve seen the numbers for museum visitors per exhibit, exhibits like the Fashion show always attract a lot more visitors than the contemporary art. Museums can have as many of these cutting edge exhibits as they like, the public always flocks to the more ‘crafty’ ones, the ones where the artists handwork is apparent. People prefer fashion, glass or ceramic work over the ‘cutting edge’ modern art category.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    I have seen the artwork made in Japan and it is great. Undiluted by Leftist clap trap, it couldn’t be any worse than mediocre.

    The Left has destroyed artwork and beauty in America. All part of the plan to corrupt the youth and to rule over Americans as the New Aristocracy.

  • Charles Martel

    One thing that caught me when I was reading up on Picasso was that he reserved part of the day to head down to the beach and sit under an umbrella with art materials at hand. There he’d produce several quick sketches, all of them slightly different, in his signature style. When his morning by the water was done, he’d bring his sketches up to the house to be named, catalogued and later sold to anybody with the cash and desire for an original Picasso.

    When he died in 1973, his estate was valued at $900 million.

    The point, I guess, is that there has been a disconnect between art and quality/effort for a long time. For e-girl’s friend of a friend, price alone made the painting worthy art. For the people who bought Picasso’s mass-produced scribbles, his name is what made them art.

  • Leah

    Dali did the same thing, simply churned out a lot of crap. He like Picasso was a talented artist but once he got name recognition he simply churned out a lot of crap and made a mint.
    I often think our culture puts way too much importance on ‘ART’, there is a lot of wonderful creativity out in the world that gives as much pleasure as the officially sanctioned type.
    These days with so much graphic input available to all of us, Art as a unique product just doesn’t matter as much.

  • Charles Martel

    “These days with so much graphic input available to all of us, Art as a unique product just doesn’t matter as much.”

    Leah, I think you put your finger on something important. I remember a discussion between some art critics about why the quality of contemporary art was so bad these days, referring specifically to deficient artistic skills, such as the inability to draw, or the poor use of materials. One of the critics said that what has happened is that the second raters, the not-so-good artists, have been able to get into museums because they have been willing to play the pomo game where art is transgressive, boundary-stretching, truth-to-power-speaking, yadda yadda. (Not to mention the deeper, far more cynical game of getting credulous art lovers to buy their swill and pay for their drinks.) 

    One of the things that let the second raters gain entry is that a lot of good young artists abandoned the traditional forms, like pianting and sculpture, not only because they hated the mockery that the gallery and museum world has made of art, but because they wanted to go play with intriguing new tools, like CGI. That’s why, as you note above, we have so much graphic content available to us. And much of it is incredibly artful, even beautiful. The level of design we enjoy now compared to 50 years ago is incredible.

    The problem for the elite art world, though, is that the first raters a.) won’t play the game, b.) don’t work in established media, and c.) produce quotidian objects that cannot be art because they haven’t been produced with that end in mind. Never mind that much of the art we treasure from earlier eras is daily objects, raised to art because of their incredible craftsmanship and inherent beauty. This is an era when the elites hold craftsmanship in contempt because it somehow represses the inner creative genius. They are too shortsighted to see how future generations will laugh at the crap that showed up at events like the Whitney Biennial but ooh and ahh over objects and media whose uniqueness and beauty we were too close to in 2011 to see. 

  • jj

    Some of that tossed off stuff was useful, though.
    One of the great dangers facing network TV people is that sometimes they forget to work to remember what and who they are.  When, for example, you were a Regional Director, responsible for a portion of the country, your job, basically, was to hob-nob.  Back in the old days, before corporations owned most of the stations, they were generally owned by the wealthiest people in whatever town or city you were visiting.  As a rule these people, like the wealthiest people anywhere, lived well.  You hob-nobbed with very rich people.  On network business you stayed in the best hotel in wherever-you-were, and if the airline lost your bag you went into the best store in town and replaced your wardrobe quick, no questions asked by the network (that owned the credit card you used) because a big part of your job was to socialize and to hold up the network’s end with these people.  They had to feel they were dealing with people to whom they could relate, to stay happy in their affiliate relationship.  (Fairly or unfairly you did not send somebody with a gawdawful Brooklyn accent to spend a few days with the family that owned your affiliate in Memphis.  You just didn’t – it wouldn’t have worked.)  You took the boss and his family, and general manager – whoever he wanted to take – to dinner at the best restaurant in whatever city you were in, and paid with the network credit card, and often enough this was a three or four thousand dollar evening-long dinner (and booze) for ten or twelve people.  If there was a problem on the road to the airport getting out of town and you missed your flight, at the end of which there was an important meeting somewhere you needed to make, you called the network and told them what you needed to do, they said okay, and you went and chartered a Lear for yourself.  (The Iron Butterfly traveled the country far more extensively than I ever did, for well over a decade in that position, and the network did not ever once ask her a question about a bill.  Not one time.  She was in that position, and having risen to that position, was trusted.  Period.)
    But it’s dangerous.  You occasionally have to work to remember who you really are.  When you spend three weeks on the road and never once eat a meal that costs less than a hundred dollars, or stay in a suite that costs less than five hundred a night, or take a taxi when you can be met and dropped off by a limo – it can skew you if you’re not careful.  When you get back to home plate and go have dinner that night at “21” – you have to remember that this particular expensive dinner will be on you – not the network.  Maybe you don’t order the hundred-fifty dollar bottle of 1972 Lafite that the station owner in Louisville introduced you to.
    So – what it all has to do with art, even tossed-off art.  A story that I have been assured more times than I can remember over the years is true.  The 1968 Olympics in Grenoble were carried by ABC.  As usual, everyone lives well.  The network has to account for the time change, has to keep their people alert, rested, and fresh, etc., etc. – but there are rules.  one evening toward the end a group of young fellows from the network took themselves out to dinner at the finest restaurant in Grenoble, filled with film stars, royalty in town for the games, etc.  They spent, as you do, hours over a long, well lubricated, very enjoyable dinner featuring the best and most exclusive of French cuisine.  They pretty broadly forgot themselves, and five hours later they were presented with a bill of – I have heard different totals – several thousand dollars for six guys.  (Multi-hundred dollar bottles of wine will do that for you.  Quick.  Trust me on this.)  They sobered up very quickly staring at this slip of paper, and realized they were in large trouble.  They were not in the group that can just do this, without there being awkward questions.
    And from this point you may have heard the story.  A little old bald guy was at a nearby table, watching this with a dry smile – and knew exactly what had happened: these guys, in those surroundings, forgot themselves.  They thought those surroundings were their accustomed surroundings.  So he beckoned to the waiter, the waiter brought him a linen napkin and a pen, he scribbled something on the napkin, signed it, and gave it to the waiter, who bowed, went to the boy’s table and picked up the bill, telling them; “it’s paid.”
    Well, of course the little old bald guy was Picasso,and he did this every now and then.  He occasionally wandered into expensive joints with empty pockets, and paid many a dinner bill all over Europe with a thirty-second scribble.  he did a lot of thirty-second scribbles.

  • Charles Martel

    I think “social mobilism” refers to the parties Alex Calder would throw where he’d invite his pieces to drop by and hang out.

  • Leah

    Charles, You are correct. Humans have always had a need to decorate their surrounding. It’s not enough to simply make tools, in every culture they made them esthetically pleasing.
    Years ago I worked in the textile industry with a woman who had her MA in art. The only reason to have an MA program in art is in order for universities to make money on those students, who if they are lucky, will be able to teach another generation of aspiring artist how not to create art – but to please a cadre of elites that what they do is ‘important’.
    Btw, these same people get incensed when faced with all the wonderful art sponsored by Churches. They don’t feel that way about Hindu or Buddhist art – that for some reason has nothing to do with religion. But the fact that some of the most beautiful art and music has been created for Christianity just steams them.

  • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

    Charles (#14):  I’m still laughing.  And laughing.  Oh, now there’s a giggle or two….

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