Modern Art — rebelling against aesthetics, taste, God, America, and basic drafting standards

Virgin and Child by Jan van EyckMy graphic artistic skill doesn’t extend much beyond stick figures and daisies, and my rather limited visual sense means that my home was designed more with an eye to utility than aesthetics.  Despite my personal limitations, I’m actually very fond of, and quite knowledgeable about, art.

More specifically, I’m fond of and knowledgeable about art through the early 20th century. I’ve taken numerous art history classes and can discuss with some sophistication all manner and times of sculpture and painting. I’ve been to most of the great museums in the Western world,* and bored my children silly by dragging them through the galleries and trying to instill in them some appreciation for technique and symbolism.  (I think the kids were a bit taken aback when I, who never cry, actually got all teary-eyed in the Louvre at the sight of Van Eyck’s Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, a detail of which heads this post.)

Because I am passionate and knowledgeable about classic art, I have very strong feelings about modern art. Some of it is clever, some of it is visually appealing, and the best of it shows technical mastery combined with a strong aesthetic sense.  The artist who springs most readily to my mind when I think of exquisite craftsmanship and rare beauty is Dale Chilhuly, the master glass craftsman.  You’ll see some his most beautiful pieces, not in museums, but in casinos, most notably at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.  (Chilhuly’s own website has some beautiful photographs, if you haven’t seen his work before.)

Too much modern art, though, exhibits neither aesthetic appeal nor craftsmanship.  It’s cheap and ugly.  Before I became politically aware, I thought that modern art’s decline was traceable to only two things: the rise of photography and the fall of God. The first made technical mastery seem redundant, while the second destroyed the impulse to dedicate ones highest skills to the greater glory of God and his creations (including mankind).

I’ve since expanded my original theory about photography’s and atheism’s effects on art.  I now also see that an anti-American, anti-capitalist, anti-Enlightenment ideology also drives modern art. I expanded on that theory in 2011, after a visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and I’ll quote here the relevant passages from that earlier post:

[At the museum] 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.

Thanks to a new Prager University video, I need to expand even more my list of trends and beliefs that have destroyed “art” and left in its place nothing more than a mess, enlivened by occasional works of aesthetic delight (see Chilhuly, above). According to Robert Florczak, a distinguished artist and art educator, the 20th century devotion to “relativism” has also destroyed art. If no one is allowed to define art or beauty or skill or technique, “art” is at the mercy of every viewer’s opinion — or, more to the point, it’s at the mercy of every cant-spouting, Left-leaning art critic, who maintains his position in the art world by opining whether something is, or is not, art. Think of the critics as being the little girl in this famous New Yorker cartoon from 1925:

I say it's spinach

Substitute “art” for spinach, and — voila! — you’ve got a critic.

Oh, and here’s the Prager U video:

*I really have been to some great museums, in addition to San Francisco’s own de Young (with its spectacular Americana collection) and the Legion of Honor. Over the years, I’ve been privileged to visit the Met, MOMA, the Frick Museum, SFMOMA, the Tate Gallery, both America’s and England’s National Galleries, the Louvre, the Vatican collection, the Uffizi Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Hermitage, as well as so many smaller, specialty museums along the way that I can’t even summon all the names to mind. I am not exaggerating when I say I know art.

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  • lee

    Not a Chihuly fan: 1) He doesn’t seem to know that “glass bits dangling from above” for not a “chandelier” make; a glass mobile, perhaps, but with no light source, it is NOT a “chandelier.” And 2) He doesn’t do it himself. He stands over other people, and tells them what to do. Someone I know made the analogy to a directory of a movie. But as someone who is a bit of an artist, and who does know a lot about glass, I think it’s more like someone telling someone else where to put the paint on a canvas. The artistry is not only in the final appearence, but also in the technique used to achieve it.

    It’s the anonymous uncredited people who work for Chihuly who are the real artists.

    • Bookworm

      I agree about the factory nature of his work, but I also remind myself that the top Renaissance artists also did factory work.

      I can’t explain why I like Chilhuly’s art. it just makes me happy.

      • Indigo Red

        Interesting, BW. Your reason for liking Chilhuly’s work is what Robert Florczak is railing against.

        I’ve been to many of the world’s great museums, too, and have a useless university degree in fine art.

        I would trade a thousand Mona Lisas for a single Pollock. Mona Lisa is drab, small, boring, and terribly overrated. Mona Lisa doesn’t make me happy.

        A genuine Pollock is marvelously complex with level after level of paint. They make me happy.

        I like Chihuly’s work, especially “Jerusalem Cylinders”.

        • Bookworm

          I agree, Indigo Red. For me, Chilhuly’s just visually attractive and, almost as important, inoffensive. I’d like one of his pieces in my home — a lot more than a piece of decorative elephant dung.

  • Jose

    “In the late 1980s {Camille} Paglia taught an introductory art-history course called Arts and Civilization to freshmen. When it came time to cover the Renaissance, Paglia decided to introduce her students to Michelangelo’s two-part panel from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Temptation and Expulsion From the Garden. After Paglia’s lecture on this scene from the Book of Genesis, a student approached the professor. In Paglia’s telling, this student “cheerfully said that she was so happy to learn about that because she had always heard about Adam and Eve but never knew what they referred to!”

    More recently, in the early 2000s, Paglia was teaching a course that she founded in the 1980s, Art of Song Lyrics, which was directed at musicians and included a spiritual called “Go Down, Moses.” But she said few recognized who Moses was or knew his story well. “If you are an artist and you don’t recognize the name of Moses,” she says, “then the West is dead. It’s over. It has committed suicide.”

  • Libby

    We have a delightful Chihuly exhibit currently at the Denver Botanic Gardens – and his sculptures work so well amidst the trees, flowers, and ponds:
    * * *
    Years ago hubby & I made a weekend trip to Western MA where we fit in visits to two museums. First we visited the Clark Museum (Williamstown) and stumbled upon a visiting exhibit containing many of Sargent’s well-known portraits, such as Madame X. Posted by each one were two reviews of the painting from when it first came out, one positive one negative. It was fascinating to see what the initial reaction was to each of these classics.

    We also visited Mass MoCA and saw almost nothing but ugliness and absurdity. The saddest was the art of Jarvis Rockwell, son of Norman Rockwell. His work included fish-tank sized dioramas of ewoks at at cocktail party and a huge pyramid of various dolls and action figures. How far the apple fell from the tree:

  • jj

    Always suspicious of people who do things like “Smythe” for “Smith” – and, sadly, “Edythe” for “Edith.” Edith would recognize, and probably know how to use, a floor polisher. Edythe would not.

  • March Hare

    Every spring, the UC Berkeley Museum of Modern Art hosted an exhibit of the work done by the current graduates of their MFA program. Since admission was free for students, I would wander in. One year, a candidate had taken three pieces of graph paper. He or she had taken a RIapidograph pen and carefully “X” in the boxes to fill a rectangle in one sheet, did the second sheet with “O”, and then did “X” and “O” in the same square to make a rectangle of them in the third sheet. This piece of art was carefully matted, framed, and mounted.

    I remember standing there, open-mouthed. I had similar examples of this “art” in my binder, but MY professors considered it “doodling.” (I had a Rapidograph pen because my Cytology Lab–my two hour a week, 1 credit class–required that we use it to draw what we saw in the microscope. I enjoyed using the precise point so much that I also used it for notetaking.)

    Many years later I told this story to a family friend, who is an artist. She said, “Of course it’s art! The purpose of art is to get people talking and you’re still talking about it!”

    I was dumbfounded. I could come up with no adequate response to her “logic.”

    BTW, the same virus that has infected modern art has also infected modern literature and poetry. The more obscure, the higher the praise from the “professoriate” and “literariate”.

    • Bookworm

      How very Berkeley!

    • Charles Martel

      With apologies to March Hare: “When I was an undergraduate at University X, I attended an art exhibit there where a student had taken a plastic-encased cow patty, festooned it with a column of whipped cream, and mounted it on a horizontal drywall slab as her senior art project. I was flabbergasted.

      “Years later I mentioned my astonishment and doubt about the installation’s claim to be art to my cousin, a graduate ceramics major, She replied, ‘Of course it’s art, you’re still talking about it!'”

      • March Hare


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  • nuqlv9ol7u

    Philosophy has rotted, and because aesthetics is a branch of philosophy, art has rotted also. Metaphysics and epistemology provide the foundation, and logic ties everything together. Without this foundation, aesthetics and politics go asunder.

    The fall of God is more than simply atheism. It is a corrosive nihilism, and I believe it is narcissistically based. The Greek concept of an ideal man was a godless concept, but it aspired to greatness.

    The narcissist looked into the void, and seeing nothing, he created the modern ideal man based upon himself. He keeps trying to refine this ideal man, but the process is like inbreeding. They bad qualities are inadvertently enhanced, and with each successive iteration, the modern ideal man becomes more of a monster.

    The Greeks looked into the same void, and they also saw nothing. Unlike modern man, they decided they were not the ideal, and they strove for something better. This is the philosophy you see reflected in the classical artwork.

    There is a common thread through the politics and art, and both support and reinforce one another.

    • Bookworm

      Hear, hear, nuqlv9ol7u!

  • qr4j

    Jose: That people grow to adulthood and do not know basic stories of the Bible is a HUGE reason I do Christian education with kids on Sunday mornings. I want children to know the stories of the Bible. They are important to our cultural history. There are other reasons, too, of course. Knowing the stories of the Bible gives them choices. Ignorance removes choices. My hope is that they are so compelled by the love of God shown in the Bible that they will choose to follow God’s path of justice, mercy, and peace.

    Bookworm: I wish you could see the oil paintings my best friend paints. He is working on pieces for a February 2015 that will feature flowers and gardens. He wants to bring life and cheer to us stuck in the drudgery of winter!

    • Bookworm

      Feel free to send me a link to his webpage, if he has one. I like art that feeds the soul (or spirit, or whatever one calls it).

    • Jose

      Paglia’s comments are more interesting due to the fact that she is a very liberal feminist and atheist. But she recognizes the debt our culture owes to Judeo-Christian beliefs.

  • JKB

    Seems to all fit in what I came to call “modern” architecture, Mid-century Ugly. But they have public funding to place ugly art around cities as an affront to the People.

    It is wrong to not consider the work of those in the useful arts as “art”. One of the finest pieces of modern art in the 20th century is the 1911 (.45 handgun).

    Perhaps you can explain Andy Warhol to me? I can only see that he was the flavor of the month and after, few of those who want to stay in the in crowd can muster the courage to admit their childish fascination.

    • Indigo Red

      That “Mid-Century Ugly” as you correctly call it, JKB, is officially known as “Brutalist Architecture.” It’s still ugly.

      • JKB

        I have found it sad that so many of the buildings in and around DC, NYC, Chicago, etc. built after WWII took on the Soviet style. I suppose it is appropriate in the apartment blocks where the heating is centrally controlled and so often inadequate. Plus, they offered no means for air conditioning leaving the buildings pockmarked with window units.

        • Charles Martel

          A lot of the architectural sensibility you see in “Commie Blocks,” both Soviet and western, comes down from Le Courbusier, the arrogant French neo-Hun who proposed bulldozing Paris and replacing its old buildings with mile after mile of flat-topped high-rises (I won’t dignify his the squalid products of his imagination with the moniker “skyscraper”). Typical “let’s destroy the past and replace it with a monument to my [lack of] talent.”

          There is hope, however. Most modern architects have rejected the brutalist notions of the 60s. It’s a safe bet that if/when Boston comes to its senses, it will raze its brutalist 1960s city hall long before it does the old building it replaced. If you look at the new skyscrapers going up in Manhattan and San Francisco, they show a fascination with geometry, color, skin, and shape that utterly exceeds the chimp-level imaginations of the Soviets and public housing modernists.

  • Ymarsakar

    I don’t really look at Western art. It’s patronizing a very extreme community. It’s like terrorists for charities. There’s no guarantee the money is going to the right people.

  • raymondjelli

    Brooklyn, NY has a so called arts scene. Unless you talk to gallery owners. The stuff produced can’t be sold. It shouldn’t be sold and it won’t be sold. Hipster art is not art at all. It is simply excuses for the “scene”. Everyone paints art school trash and why shouldn’t the.? It is all about the scene. It is all about an extended college life and nothing more. The gallery owners who know this “art” won’t sell enjoy the scene themselves but they have to pay rent and the falseness of it all comes through to them.

    It all belies the battle cry of the untalented artist “It’s not what the establishment wants” . Their art is not what ANY establishment wants.

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  • Kathy from Kansas

    Bookworm, you posted a couple of weeks ago about Dean Koontz. You might be interested to know that Koontz loathes most modern art. In several books, this is a major theme; in others, he doesn’t miss a chance to get in some tangential digs at it. Just one more reason I love Koontz!

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  • Larry Linn

    Robert Florczak is a magazine quality illustrator. It
    appears that he is frustrated because he is not rightfully accepted as a fine
    artist. In his feeble opinion, Florczak defines Modern Art as starting with the
    Impressionists. Yet, in critiquing Modern Art, he does not even mention Van Gouge,
    Gauguin, let alone Picasso or Warhol. At the Getty Museum, there are many
    pieces of art from the era which Florczak praised, but many more which let me