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Ed Driscoll

Whither the Arts?

October 8th, 2012 - 12:17 am

At Ricochet, Dave Carter links to Camille Paglia’s essay in the Wall Street Journal on the decline of the art world with a reminder of the wonders of the 700-year old Cologne Cathedral and writes:

To venture inside and see The Shrine of the Three Holy Kings (purported to hold the crowned skulls of the Three Wise Men), or the Gero Cross which dates back to 976, or the legions of statues, is to become virtually intoxicated with the divine devotion that conceived and constructed such a solemn place.

Where is there anything in modernity to compare?  Camille Paglia poses just such a question, asking (and answering) the question of why so much of our fine arts have devolved into a “wasteland.”  “Painting was the prestige genre in the fine arts from the Renaissance on.  But painting was dethroned by the brash multimedia revolution of the 1960s and ’70s,” writes Paglia, who then zeros in on a central point:  “What do contemporary artists have to say, and to whom are they saying it?  Unfortunately, too many artists have lost touch with the general audience and have retreated to an airless echo chamber.”

It’s a chamber where the avant-garde first yielded to iconoclasm, which in turn has yielded to unimaginative and vulgar conformity.  One need look no further than the artist who submerses a crucifix in urine, and then congratulates himself for bravely giving the finger to orthodoxy, all while carefully avoiding a cartoon of Mohammed so as to avoid getting his head chopped off.  So much for breaking new ground.

If I’m remembering the history of modernism correctly, as early as the 1960s, modernists were looking back nostalgically at Mondrian, Monet, and other pioneering modernists as a Heroic Era long since passed. In architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright, Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe would all be dead by the end of the decade. In pop culture, by the end of the 1960s, the “Easy Riders/Raging Bulls” crowd of Young Turks would slam the door shut on Hollywood’s golden era, cheered on by critics such as Pauline Kael.

About that last development, in 2008, Robert Fulford wrote in Canada’s National Post, in a description that was applicable to much of what was going on the rest of pop culture in the late 1960s, as liberals spontaneously declared the postwar Middlebrow era dead: 

[Kael] announced no less than a revolution in taste that she sensed in the air. Movie audiences, she said, were going beyond “good taste,” moving into a period of greater freedom and openness. Was it a violent film?

Well, Bonnie and Clyde needed violence. “Violence is its meaning.”

She hated earnest liberalism and critical snobbery. She liked the raw energy in the work of adventurous directors such as Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. She trusted her visceral reactions to movies.

When hired as a regular New Yorker movie critic, she took that doctrine to an audience that proved enthusiastic and loyal. She became the great star among New Yorker critics, then the most influential figure among critics in any field. Books of her reviews, bearing titles such as I Lost it at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and When the Lights Go Down, sold in impressive numbers. Critics across the continent became her followers. Through the 1970s and ’80s, no one in films, except the actual moviemakers, was more often discussed.

It was only in the late stages of her New Yorker career (from which she retired in 1991) that some of her admirers began saying she had sold her point of view too effectively. A year after her death (in 2001) one formerly enthusiastic reader, Paul Schrader, a screenwriter of films such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, wrote: “Cultural history has not been kind to Pauline.”

Kael assumed she was safe to defend the choices of mass audiences because the old standards of taste would always be there. They were, after all, built into the culture. But those standards were swiftly eroding. Schrader argued that she and her admirers won the battle but lost the war. Acceptable taste became mass-audience taste, box-office receipts the ultimate measure of a film’s worth, sometimes the only measure. Traditional, well-written movies without violence or special effects were pushed to the margins. “It was fun watching the applecart being upset,” Schrader said, “but now where do we go for apples?”

And that’s the question modernists in general need to ask themselves. The other question that often remains unexplored in self-described “modern” art is in reality, how ancient it comparatively all is.

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