Ed Driscoll

Whither the Arts?

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.

Back in January, I remember watching a marathon session of the first season of Prohibition-era Boardwalk Empire series on Blu-Ray as a crash-course to prep for my review of the series at the PJ Lifestyle blog. Blearily wandering out of the den at about 2:30 in the morning, I was thrilled to be back in the 21st century. Then I wandered into the living room and stared at the furniture I had collected over the years, and realized I had never left the 1920s! Almost all of the furniture in the room — the Corbusier sofas, the Mies lounge chairs, the Eileen Gray and Marcel Breuer tables — were from that decade. When you realize that everybody sitting in an apartment or office cubicle in a steel and glass Mies van der Rohe-inspired building is inside of a box also first envisioned almost a century ago, you realize how fixed in place much of what we increasingly ironically call “modernism” has become. In a 1980s-era BBC “Design Classics” segment on Mies’s Barcelona Chair from 1929, one of the critics noted in the episode that with their clean and simple lines and lack of applied decoration, the Bauhaus banished the past. Unwittingly, they somehow banished the future as well.

Couple that with the 21st century left’s ongoing Cargo Cult of the FDR New Deal of the following decade (itself basically Woodrow Wilson’s wartime mindset from WWI applied to the economy of the 1930s), and the now almost century old mindset passed down from Marcel Duchamp that drives transgressive “art” such as Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” and you realize how frozen in time — and domesticated — much of “progressivism” has become.

Or to borrow from one of the leitmotifs of Tom Wolfe’s classic From Bauhaus to Our House – how very bourgeoisie.

Modernism and pop culture can inject new life into hidebound arts and society in general, when they offer a choice between the new forms and the old. But when such countercultural forms are the only game in town, culture as a whole tends to stagnate. Or as Carter notes, technology provides with continuously growing methods of reading, viewing art, watching movies, and listening to the music. Is the content we’re currently pouring into these devices up to the task?

Or to put it another way, where do we go these days for the apples?

Related: Kyle Smith of the New York Post on “The Last picture show: How iPhones destroyed going to the movies — in more ways than one.” Read the whole thing.

(Thumbnail image on PJM homepage by Shutterstock.com.)