Occasionally, by a fortuitous confluence of the blind forces of evolution, there arises an individual of such superior genetics as to unite beauty, talent, and intellect in happy plenty.
As luck would have it, in my generation, I am not that individual. For instance, I have always longed to have a nice singing voice, as opposed to the hoarse, atonal croaking that I am apt to produce when cruel occasion demands it, causing nearby plants to wilt and strong men to wince in a pained manner.
It was wise fate, however, that destined me for mediocrity. I hail from a family with a stubborn pragmatic streak that sees no merit in starving artists. This is perhaps best illustrated by my mother’s disapproving remark while watching the sublime Cirque du Soleil together some years ago, “What kind of people become acrobats?” – the unspoken answer being, only degenerates and ingrates with no regard for the just aspirations of their devoted mothers. This sort of thing cannot fail to be jarring to even the most staunchly poetic soul.
While acutely alive to the difficulties inherent in pursuing an artistic vocation, I am considerably less sympathetic to other aspects of the modern artistic condition.
Let me elaborate.
A good place to begin is the summer issue of a periodical called The Hedgehog Review (Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture) entitled The Fate of the Arts – which, I may add, evoked some critical reflections of my own.
Reading some of the articles in this issue, one regrettably concludes that so-called academic writing is justly ridiculed for abstruse theories couched in jargon so opaque it might excusably be mistaken for a naval cipher. One critically reflects that those who have lampooned such dense, impenetrable prose have done so with a stunning sagacity that is to be commended.
Claiming to explore the proposition that art is in decline, The Fate of the Arts opens with an unabashedly Marxist essay by one Terry Eagleton, billed immodestly as the “world’s leading literary critic”. One must dig through his article to mine the occasional nugget of sense, as shown in this illustrative sample:
“What is autotelic, self-grounding, self-originating, self-determining, generating itself up ceaselessly from its own marvelously unfathomable depths without the indignity of depending on any heteronomous law? You could surely answer either the bourgeois subject, or the work of art.”
Just so. If this meaningless sequence of individually recognizable words seemingly strung together randomly is what we can expect from the leading luminary of literary criticism, one positively shudders to contemplate the sort of drivel all the dimmer bulbs of literary criticism are in the habit of producing.
Pushing along, we encounter an article by “a leading poet of the Polish New Wave”, who grandly proclaims (and indisputably he would know) that artists “have access to a special knowledge… a wisdom different from any other learning”.
One intuitively balks at this special status, this divine dispensation awarded to the artist. Our instinctive sense of egalitarianism is rightly offended. The universe is blithely indifferent to him, and the notion of artist serving as vessel in the unfolding of some grand cosmic scheme is arrogant and self-serving nonsense.
Nor has modern art escaped the taint of haughty, elitist inaccessibility that plagues much of the discourse on modern art.
One need look no further than that perennial favorite, Cinderella – she who, it is said, has lost her slipper. So goes, anyway, the English translation of last season’s Grands Ballets Canadiens production of Cendrillon – Celle qui, dit-on, aurait perdu sa chaussure.
In this modern rendering of a timeless fairy tale classic, Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters are no longer evil, but simply “dysfunctional”, in the words of the playbill – pirouetting, one imagines, over to the local psychoanalyst for a prescription for Prozac. One was relieved at first glance to find that political correctness had not dispensed with their legendary ugliness, until it became apparent that the dancers twitching and jerking gracelessly, and generally doing violent injustice to the Prokofiev score, were, in fact, men. The unexpected apparition somewhere in the first act of white-clad golfers was the next indication that this wasn’t your mother’s Cinderella.
What insufferable conceit, one asks while making a hurried exit at first intermission, led the perpetrators of this artistic travesty to vest themselves with the mission of improving upon this venerable old tale? Surely, one feels while donning one’s coat and gloves, it has endured due to the timeless appeal of wronged beauty vindicated by the triumph of love over evil. Had the Brothers Grimm originally opted for a Cinderella and Prince learning to “confront their personal demons” in a struggle against the “values of [an] artificial society”, as the playbill puts it, one surmises the tale would long since have been condemned to irrelevance. While one appreciates the delicate nuances, it is undeniably less snappy. Dysfunction, I feel, I can observe for free. Evil – now that’s worth paying for.
One could argue that Cendrillon was a self-styled contemporary ballet, which label alone should have sufficed to warn off the savvy theatergoer who, arguably, should know better. But contemporary and neo-classical have been rendered almost virtually indistinguishable, converging toward a choreographic style more aptly described as seizure set to symphony. It seems to me there is a general movement afoot to supplant beauty with bleakness – what we could call the scorched-earth school of set and costume design. The same season’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, for instance, inexplicably included a gas mask and television, and the set of this season’s Romeo and Juliet was bare of all but a gently sloping ramp, suggestive more of wheelchair accessibility than tragic romance. This sort of radical revisionism takes the “classical” right out of the “neo-classical”, you might say, and leaves little recognizable behind.
Call me hopelessly antiquated, but when I go to see the ballet I expect to find men in tight pants who, when they are not tossing around lissome ballerinas with effortless grace, are engaging them in an intricate yet elegantly fluid pas de deux. I am not generally a fussy person, but if instead I encounter dancers whose jerky movements suggest they have recently been spirited from the set of I, Robot, in front of a backdrop that looks like something transmitted back from a Martian probe, I am liable to feel cruelly disappointed.
You could argue that maybe I just don't understand modern art, and, incidentally, you would be right. But why should art demand of its audience any special learning in order to be accessible?
So much of modern art seems to me mired in mundane triviality, seeking to instruct where it should entertain, and oppress where it should elevate.
There is some art so beautiful that every fiber in one’s being throbs and swells and shivers in contemplative delight. And then there is some art so dreary and lifeless and uninspired that one is left flatly indifferent.
It is my undeniably bourgeois opinion, to use a term favored by Mr. Eagleton, that the ambitious artwork should aspire to occupy more than merely a narrow, fleeting window in the timeframe of universal human concerns. Unlike Mr. Eagleton, I have no pretensions to expertise on the matter, but my general feeling is that what distinguishes so-called “good” art is that which evokes the kind of awe one feels in contemplating something grand and mysterious, like the structure of the universe or the behavior of a quantum particle – the contemplation of the infinite, rather than the contemplation of the infinitely dull.
To talk of the purpose of art, as The Fate of the Arts does in sometimes frustratingly incomprehensible detail, is to speak of a ceaselessly shifting construct superimposed on it by an evolving society. In anthropological terms, art is the expression of its maker’s skill, a display of its crafter’s virtuosity. As a reflection of the artist's mastery of the medium, it confers distinction upon him (artists historically having been, up to the present, overwhelmingly male). This is why a general rule of thumb is that if the artwork can be mistaken for the product of a singularly untalented child of twelve, it can probably not be considered “good” art.
The classics of our Western canon (to name some of my favorites) range in content and tone from the unabashedly sentimental (Tennyson’s Maud or Gray’s Elegy), to the irrepressibly optimistic (Rossini’s Barber of Seville), all the way to the stylishly satirical (the novels of Jane Austen). What these widely varying works have in common is the indisputable stamp of their creators’ expertise.
It is no coincidence that all the works cited in the foregoing were created well before the onset of last century. It would be instructive to examine the basis of their enduring appeal with a view to applying those principles to the creation of today’s art. Too often we see instead an almost wholesale rejection of the practical lessons of the past in favor of what is philosophically fashionable at the moment.
Some of the articles in The Fate of the Arts decry the increasing influence of commercialism in modern fine art. Fine art, unlike popular art, is funded by a combination of private and public means, and is thus free to evolve in remote isolation, airily unconcerned with popular taste. But what is so wrong about subjecting art to the dictates of the free market? I have a wholesome trust in the tastes of the masses. If the masses yearn to see crucifixes immersed in a medium euphemistically described as “esoteric”, or conceive wild longings for replicas of urinals, then so be it – but if their tastes prove to run in a less scatological direction, then we should cease public funding of such infantilism masquerading as art.
Maybe, if modern art is indeed in decline (a proposition I am not yet prepared to endorse), it is due to its execrable lack of consideration for the aesthetic senses of those it claims to edify. Artists would do well to remember that appreciation of art is primarily a sensual, and not an intellectual, exercise. History, I fear, will judge harshly the wretched excesses of contemporary fine art, and justly castigate them as the knobby, desiccated fruits of an imaginatively barren landscape.