The End of Art as we Know it
"The First Man was an Artist," proclaimed the abstract-expressionist artist Barnett Newman in one of those Manifestoes of the Inane which were so popular in the middle years of the twentieth century. "Speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication. Original man, shouting his consonants, did so with yells of anger at his tragic state, at his own self-awareness and at his helplessness before the void."
("And ran up a hell of a dentist's bill," said another, less abstract, expressionist.)
It is easy to make fun of Barnett Newman, whose readings in cabalistic literature, according to one of the high priests of his cult, surrounded his mental operations "not with an organized outlook but a kind of metaphysical hum." But the absurdities of any time or culture, its moments of daring reckless mindless extravagance, may be just as revealing as, and sometimes more entertaining than, its more conventional glories and triumphs. And the particular physiological absurdity of Newman's yelling consonants (though in themselves no more remarkable and certainly less intriguing than the Comte de Lautréamont's long chaste and hideous copulation with a shark back in the oldfashioned 19th century), can be taken to mark the crest of that great wave of Art-as-we-know-it which is identified by most educated people today as Modern Art.
Such a crest appears when the natural arrogance of the creative artists of any particular period rises to the point where it takes total leave of the vile earth of common-sense reality from which it sprung, takes off into the hum and dazzle of metaphysical space before it falls back into the familiar dirty old launching-pad. A moment like that in 1284 when the architects of the cathedral of Beauvais, convinced that they could raise their pointed arches to any point short of heaven, raised them to the point where the whole nave of the cathedral came crashing down around their ears.
A crested wave is always on this earth followed by a crashing wave. And from its inception, whatever date you choose for its inception, there has never been a lack of prophecies of the approaching doom of Modern Art. Again and again serious critics have maintained, have proved, that after the latest outrage the mountebanks couldn't go any further into the night, that sanity and good sense and beauty must come back soon and prevail. They said it when Manet painted a naked woman having lunch in a city park; when Van Gogh sent a hunting-pack of stars chasing over the skies of Provence; when Picasso took a sledge-hammer to flatten out Mother Nature in what came to be called Cubism; when Marcel Duchamp took a stock urinal out of a hardware shop, put a pseudonymous signature on it and hung it on a gallery wall; when Jackson Pollock added the force of gravity to the tools of the painter; when Jean Tinguély blew up a useless piece of machinery in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in the presence of the cream of New York society (though the pure creative anarchy of the act was somewhat tarnished by the great mass of humdrum rational calculations which have must have gone into drawing up the plans which would prevent any fragment of the machine from falling into the lap of an attendant Rockefeller); when the same museum invited us all to a screening of a work of another Swiss artist; a movie which consisted on one long running shot of a woman proudly marching down a street in Zurich smashing the windows of automobiles (I did not go to see the movie, so I cannot tell you if there were people inside the cars) in a powerful statement of disgust with the mechanized corporatized society which has robbed us of our freedom and our dignity; when Michael Heizer dug up 240,000 cubic feet of soil and rock to create two parallel scratches in the skin of Mother Earth on a mesa northeast of Las Vegas; when an artist lined up on a tabletop several vials of his own urine collected at different stages of his current disease. They will say it again when they read the bulletin I have just received from MOMA (September 8, 2005) describing a "suspended video projection that shows the artist with a metal comb in one hand and a metal brush in the other, aggressively combing and brushing her hair while continuously repeating, 'art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful,' until she injures both her hair and face" (and leaving it, I assume, to the beholder to decide if the face is more or less beautiful after the heroic injury).
But these doomsday prophets have, at least up to now, all been proven wrong. As George Eliot once observed, "among all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most gratuitous." And every prophecy of the quick demise of Art-as-we-know-it-today has been followed by some new deviation, new discovery, new bursting of the boundaries of art. You can see them all on the walls of the Modern, of the Pompidou, of the Guggenheims, all the regal museums of the modern world, through which you can see hordes of conscientious art-lovers shuffling past one mighty explosion, one revolution, one new way of seeing the world, one yell of outraged consonants after another: luminism, futurism - the futurists, you will remember, advocated tearing down all the palaces and museums of Venice and filling the canals with the rubbish - constructivism, deconstructivism, action painting, minimalism, conceptualism, pop art, raw art, anti-art, postmodern art, contemporary art, junk art, punk art, naughty-schoolboy art, the art of next Wednesday. They are all classics. They all hang limply on museum walls, or lie flat in coffee-table books, like so many Mona Lisas..
It is entirely possible that Art-as-we know-it-now will go on for some indefinite time into the future. In all places and in all ages, there have been talented artists available to work in and refine and sometimes radically alter the prevailing styles. Barring some catastrophic change in the society that produces and nourishes the artists, they may go on indefinitely the way they are going now. On the other hand, it is true that for those who look for them, there are plenty of premonitory signs that a great age is coming to an end, as so many have before it. For all the bustle in the galleries, and all the record prices being set every few weeks in the auction houses, it is clear that the great revolutionary fire that swept the art world through so much of the twentieth century has lost some of its intensity and sparkle, its impishness and daredeviltry as well as its portentous metaphysicality. It is a long time since any new school has created an outburst of joy, or even an outburst of indignation. When a prominent composer suggested that the 9/11 jetplane attack on the World Trade Center was a triumph of modern art, summarizing in one mighty symbolic blow all the suppressed fury of instinctual Man against the padded strait-jacket in which a commercialized culture has been throttling him, it was treated even by that culture's bitterest foes not as inspired insight but as bad taste, while upholders of the culture shrugged it off as just one more yell from the loony bin..
It is surely significant that the Art world has gone on for quite a while now without any Great Names. In any other civilized society of which we have records, everyone -- meaning of course not the milkmaids and swineherds but the people who set the tone of life in court or café or salon or university, the connoisseurs and critics and collectors - was aware of some transcendent artists, colossi who bestrode the earth. Every one in 5th century Athens knew of Praxiteles as everyone one in 16th century Italy knew of Michelangelo and Leonardo. With the globalization of the world in the last few centuries, such fame has been world wide. Everyone in Japan and Argentina knew of Picasso whether they liked him or not. But what have we had since Picasso? Jackson Pollock. Andy Warhol. Not an ascending scale. And since Warhol, zero.
But that doesn't mean the end is necessarily near. Architects of the school that produced the cathedral of Beauvais did not give up, for all their failure there. They went on regarding themselves as the avant-garde, the cutting edge of the collective style called Ars moderna which had been introduced in the Ile de France a century or so before they were born and quickly changed the artistic landscape of most of western Europe. Ars moderna went on uttering its cries of lofty ecstasy long afterwards. It was only in the 16th century that the new archaizing style of Renaissance Italy began to take over the whole continent, and ars moderna would henceforth be known to cultivated people only with the most derogatory epithet they could find for it, Gothic.
Only two generalizations on this subject can be made with any degree of confidence. Art-as-we- know- it- today will some day give way to Art-as- it-will-be-known-tomorrow. But art itself, which is simply, that is to say gloriously, a skill, a craft, a technique, an ability to do something superbly well, will last forever, or more properly, as long as the species homo sapiens sapiens, our species, remains in existence.
For we are the only species so far as I know which regularly takes pleasure in, and admires and judges and rewards, actions performed by its members, not for the physical titillation or material advantages they provide but for the skill and mastery with which they are performed. Like inflected language, this would seem to be one of the unique gifts which separate us from our cousins the beasts. The lion which has just killed a fine fleshy wildebeest may well be greeted by purrs of delight by the little ones gathered to suck the bones, but would never dream of receiving congratulations from them for the grace and power and litheness with which the prey was marked out and run down and slaughtered, the way a triumphant matador might turn to Ernest Hemingway to be told that he had become one with the bull.
"Art as we know it" is something else again. Roughly, it can be defined as the kind of Art (spelled this time with a capital letter) that we, in our particular place, at our particular moment of time, admire, or more precisely, that we are willing to say in public that we admire.
A desire or a taste for art may be immutably embedded in our genes, but the forms and features of Art-as-we-know-it are immutably dependent on who "we" may be - paleolithic hunters or Renaissance cardinals or consumer-society connoisseurs or whoever.
There is almost no kind of human activity which cannot be, and at one time or other has not been, experienced and judged and evaluated as a work of Art.
There is an Art of the fugue which could only have been born in medieval Italy, as there is an Art of playing third-base which could only have been born on American playing fields of the 1890's.
There is an Art of making bodily love which was definitely an Art as the Roman poet Ovid knew it, and was definitely not an Art as Queen Victoria knew it. Nor, as a matter of fact, as Ovid's patron the Emperor Augustus knew it: he sent the poet into perpetual exile in a miserable village on the Black Sea for having written, among other things. Odi concubitus qui non utrumque resolvunt, meaning that he could not enjoy sex if his partner did not enjoy it too. For the Emperor Augustus, this was a blasphemous insult to the family values of Roman man (vir) whose manhood (virtus, from which we derived our word "virtue") was derived from male ejaculation pure and simple, without any sentimental slop attached to it.
There was once an Art of tossing newborn boy babies into an oven which was performed as a solemn religious rite by the highly cultivated Carthaginians and the barbarous Kings of Israel in the first millennium BC, but which is regarded as monstrous savagery when practiced by Nazi rednecks in Auschwitz in the twentieth century AD.
There is an Art of killing bulls; as there is an Art of preaching holy wars like Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and Osama bin Laden; or of seducing White House interns like Bill Clinton; or of selling Marlboro Lite cigarettes; or of spreading the word of God. (which, as Moses remarks regretfully in his Book of Exodus, his brother Aaron was better at than he was).
Since we are ever-changing figures making our way in ever-changing physical social and spiritual worlds, the art of distinguishing Art-as-we-know it from Non-Art is subject to changes that can sometimes take place at the flick of a finger. A convenient example:
The abbé Breuil, who first revealed to the modern world the glories of paleolithic painting by exploring the caves of Altamira in Spain in the last days of the nineteenth century was still heroically climbing and crawling his way into uncharted caves in the middle of the twentieth. He found some fascinating paintings in caves in what was then called Southwest Africa, but he had trouble getting any financial support from the local authorities who considered that the childish scrawls of benighted Bushmen showing little black figures cavorting at random on rock walls were of no possible interest to civilized people. Then he discovered a stately female figure painted all in white with vaguely European features, he called her the White Lady of the Brandberg and he speculated that she might have been a queen or a goddess of the Phoenician traders who sailed around Africa some three millennia ago, and may have, along with their corded bales, brought with them some of the techniques and themes and magical spells of Mediterranean painting.
This White Lady had a magical effect when the abbé made a copy of her and showed it to the local authorities "This is different," they shouted in their beery guttural way, "this isn't Hottentot garbage. This is Art." And they agreed to fund the good abbé's further explorations.
Of course all civilized people today would regard the attitude of these colonialist racist exclusionist authorities as morally repellant, but if they are honest they will have to admit that they can have very similar feelings on occasion themselves. An animal rights activist will adamantly refuse to allow the word Art to be used in connection with bull-fighting or fox-hunting though to their devotees these activities have all the disciplined grace and exhilaration and emotional profundity of a classical ballet. Ruskin called Whistler's painting a bucket of paint thrown in the public's face. Harry Truman compared the painting style now considered by museum curators as the official American art form of the mid-twentieth-century to ham and eggs. William Blake said of the paintings of Rembrandt and Rubens that "if you have seen one of them, you have seen them all." (Being William Blake, he has been excused on the grounds that he knew these painters only through inferior reproductions. No such excuses were found for Ronald Reagan when he made an identical comment about the giant redwoods of California.)
About a century ago there was created in New York City a new art-form of story-telling in which the characters involved in the tale were sketched in successive frames of what was called a comic strip, with balloons coming out of their mouths revealing their thoughts or their speech, an immensely popular form of entertainment available to the masses, along with news from the war fronts and the ballfields and Wall Street and advice to the lovelorn. for a couple of cents. Everyone but the most obstinate snobs enjoyed these strips, every one had a favorite, but it took half a century or so for another artist from New York City, to transfer one frame from such a strip to paint on a heroic-size canvas, and promptly create a new capitalized Art: Pop Art. And museums hurried to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of hanging examples of it on their walls. .
There used to be an active Art of street theater, which won critical acclaim, in which the unspoken resentments of the disfranchised masses of America, could find their voice, by burning draft cards or American flags or brassieres in public thoroughfares.. Would you have dared to tell the pioneers of this Art that they were heirs to a long-established tradition of American street theater, in the form of the lynching bee, and it was more gutsily dramatic than their own performances because what the lynchers burned had more meaningful substance than mere paper or cloth?
The long and short of it is, that civilized people have standards, and though the word is in disfavor in these days when dissent, subversion, disrespect, deconstruction are fashionable terms of commendation in aesthetic criticism, no civilized society or indeed any kind of society can exist without some sort of standardized values, even if advanced thinkers these days in the name of their own principles call them anti-values..
It is generally accepted that, for the pure artist, the act of forging a pure work of art in the smithy of his soul is a totally personal experience, like an orgasm, in which no outsider can hope to fully share. But to become Art-as-we-know-it, it has to have an audience, and the audience will judge it by standards which, as Pascal noted three and a half centuries ago, change with every few degrees of latitude and, as he might have added, with every passing century, or, in our day, decade or new TV season.. This does not diminish the intensity and the authenticity of our feelings. But it does not hurt to be aware that, just because we happen to be living in the twenty-first century, we do not yet have all the answers..
We civilized and pseudo-civilized peoples live in a world of perpetual changes. It is only in terribly conservative convention-bound societies like that of the Australian aboriginals, that Art-as-they-know-it can proceed along traditional lines with only minimal changes for thousands of years. In our more dynamic civilized societies, the changes may happen virtually overnight when a conquering imperial power like the Macedonians or the Romans or the Aztecs imposes on previous regional or tribal communities its own standards of what may and may not be judged beautiful when produced in paint or stone.
It takes more time within a reasonably stable civilization. The style of the High Renaissance, Raphael and Leonardo and such, was Art-as-we-knew it for several hundred years, then it too became old-fashioned, and is now dismissed in cultivated circles as "illusionist," meaning that it pretends that inert masses of pigment or marble can be precise renditions of what the artist sees in front of his eyes. Much of today's Art-as-we-know it is based on the opposite-but-equal illusion that inert masses of pigment and heaps of rusting steel can be precise renditions of what the artist saw or heard or felt in the depths of his or her own brain or soul or hormones at the moment of creation.
When all the flush and fury of today's Art-as-we-know-it comes to an end, even the most churlish critics will have to admit that it was great fun while it lasted. No one can deny that the twentieth century (which of course includes substantial parts of the nineteenth and the ongoing years to date of the twenty-first), has been the liveliest, the most variegated, as well as the most successful in terms of fame and fortune for its practitioners, century in the history of human art.
This is all to the credit of the much-maligned commercial consumerized self-indulgent modern world with its amazing tolerance, openness and taste for innovation and improvement. Never have so many totally dissimilar or mutually hostile styles and attitudes been so accepted, even embraced, and encouraged to compete with one another. Never has so much honor and respect been so generously paid to alien kinds of Art-as-other-people-know-it, to the work of peoples once despised or patronized as primitive, to the work of cultures long disintegrated because they could not cope with the world changing around them, to the work of outsiders - children, madmen, hippies - incapable of fitting into normal adult society..
Never have there been more museums, never have museum doors opened wider, never has art been more universally revered on more diverse pedestals.
And every one who says that he or she is an artist is accepted as an artist. There is no longer a necessity to prove one's skill in order to be accepted into a guild of skilled craftsmen (as in Quattrocento Florence, where meticulous authorities in the city hall counted 216 painters and 48 butchers). Never have there been more artists, never have they been paid so much, never have their works been more universally placarded. And never have the materials and the tools of Art been more universally available at low prices: the painter who not so long ago had to create an industrial enterprise that was part chemical laboratory and part sweat-shop before he could produce his works now buys his prefabricated paints over the counter and labors alone without apprentices in his loft or cell .And never before have so many talented artists, and even more untalented ones, been able to make respectable incomes and live in a comfort and luxury unknown to Phidias or Michelangelo while disregarding and openly spitting on traditional authority and traditional principles and following their own wilful individual bents.
This is perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Art-as-we-know-it today. The artist has taken as his own Gauguin's motto, Tout est permis, or as Cole Porter more elegantly put it Anything goes, and has followed in every direction that his conscious or unconscious desires or needs for self-expression have taken him.
This is something that Barnett Newman's Original Man, or any other kind of man we know of, could never have dreamed of till the day before yesterday.
Of course those of us who have no metaphysical hum to keep us in tune with the infinite cannot expect to know for sure what Mr. Original Man had in his mind, for there were no art critics around to interview him, and if there had been there would have been no way for them to transmit their discoveries before the invention of language and the art of writing.
The same goes for those paleolithic cave painters whose works astound us and who are as close, chronologically speaking, as we can get to the mind and feelings of Mr. Original Man. Just what were the criteria of Art-as-Aurignacian-Man-knew- it? I think it can be safely assumed that the rock-painters did not do their work just for the fun of it, still less to yell their anger against the void. If that was all they wanted to do, all they had to do was to go to the nearest hilltop and yell. Why in the world should they have gone to all the trouble of arduously searching out all the precious materials they needed, the colored earths and crushed stones, the animal fats for the lamps to give some flickering light to the dark cold holes and crannies they had to crawl into to work in for sunless hours and days at a time when every able-bodied male was presumably on permanent call to hunt down and slaughter the animals whose meat kept their community alive? The official academic version seems much more plausible, which holds that these cave paintings were strictly utilitarian work, magical images of beasts which were expected to influence whatever unseen powers were up above to produce enough flesh-and-blood beasts in the world of light to ensure that the whole cave community could sit down to dinner regularly.
Did that mean that if the game did not turn up on schedule the artists would be slaughtered, like the 450 prophets of Baal who failed to make rain for King Ahab in the Bible? Lacking all documentary evidence of what kind of social organization existed in those days, it is hard to envision what precise role the artists played in it. Were they priests and prophets controlling the souls of the people, or were they simply artisans carrying out the orders of the priests and prophets? Did they get special rewards for their work in the form of extra rations of buffalo meat, or were they content to work for the spiritual rewards of the kind that come in advanced societies to a Beethoven and a Steven Spielberg when they have finished what they know is a tremendously important work? Did the ordinary cave folk ever creep in to see what was being done for them, or did they put their full faith in the thing unseen? Did the artists ever fret that they were insufficiently appreciated by the vulgar, did they ever feel a pang of regret, knowing that the works on which had spent all their suffering lives would be painted over in future years by other artists possessing a more up-to-date technique for summoning animals out of the beyond?
There are no answers, but it is at least plausible that these first Old Masters set the pattern for the professional lives of artists in all the ensuing thousands of years. They were obviously skilled workmen, they must have spent years learning the traditional techniques of a difficult craft, training their eyes and their hands to a precision few if any of their successors have equaled: they could see, and reproduce on a rock surface the tiny fraction of a second in which a galloping horse's four hooves are all off the ground, a phenomenon not known to succeeding artists and scientists until the invention of slow-motion photography twenty or so thousand years later. Surely such men had to be recognized as valued members of the family or clan to which they belonged, they must have had an honored place in the cave society,
Social forms and standards would necessarily change as paleolithic hunters turned into neolithic herdsmen and farmers, and families and clans merged into tribes and then into kingdoms and city-states and naton-states and empires. They would all in their various ways have their artists, working for the official apparatus by carving the cherubim to spread their wings over the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple of Jerusalem or the spoils of conquest for the Arches of Triumph of successful Caesars in Rome or painting portraits and landscapes and historical or allegorical scenes for the aesthetic or spiritual or social-climbing delights of upperclass families.
The artists, alternately traditional or innovative or archaizing, have always had their fixed place in the changing order of things, sometimes an exalted place as in Ancient Greece and Renaissance Florence, but always bound by certain more or less strict rules of technique and subject matter. If artists like Goya were drawn to dangerous thoughts and subversive themes, they kept them private in their homes or studios. Mischievous medieval monks and students might put mustaches or other improper features on portraits of abbesses and queens. But these were considered schoolboy pranks, and no one thought of marketing them under the label of Surrealism.
In advanced and prosperous civilizations, when there were great amounts of leisure time available to successful land-owners and merchants, when social bonds were loosened enough so that everyone did not have to devote all his labor to God or to King Assur-Bani-pal, artists in Old Kingdom Egypt, in Periclean Athens, in Renaissance Italy, or 17th-century Amsterdam, might be allowed considerable leeway in experimenting with new techniques like foreshortening and chiaroscuro, or finding new unofficial subject matter like landscapes or still-lifes, They might dine with kings and receive titles of nobility. They might be assured by poets and philosophers that they were endowed with supernatural powers, that they could, as Vasari said of Michelangelo, "surpass Nature by far in every thought."
But when it came down to the actual business of producing works for public display, their room for maneuver was really very small. The artist did what he was ordered to do, paid to do, by his patrons, the popes and kings and rich noblemen and eventually rich politicians and businessmen. "I," said Pope Sixtus IV one day, "want God creating Adam on the ceiling of my chapel, Michelangelo." "I," said the Duke of Urbino one day, "want a masturbating Venus for a wall in my bedroom, Titian."
Potentates and collectors might shower the Old Masters with rich rewards and richer compliments for following such orders. They would do the same for their cooks. Indeed the Old Masters sometimes participated in the cooking: the Van Eycks and van der Weydens and all the other great names of Flanders not only painted spiritual Lambs of God for the delectation of the eyes of their employers the Dukes of Burgundy, the richest men in Europe at that time, they also designed the colossal pies in which physical lambs pheasants and wild boars were served up for the delectation of their stomachs.(They also painted sails for the ducal warships.)
For they lived in more or less ordered societies, and they accepted their societies' priorities as a matter of course. Listen to Leonardo da Vinci asking the Duke of Milan for a job: "I am able to build very light, sturdy and portable bridges, to pursue and when necessary to rout the enemy, I can build others which are fire- and attack-resistant, and easy to raise and take down. And I can actually burn and destroy those of the enemy. ..I can also construct underground tunnels and secret passage-ways noiselessly to arrive at a designated location, even if these have to be dug under ditches or rivers...Where cannon cannot be used, I can build catapults, and other marvelously efficient little-known engines." Adding as an afterthought, "I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze or clay...The monumental bronzed horse you wish for may be taken in hand, which is to be the immortal glory and eternal honor of the prince your father of happy memory, and of the illustrious house of Sforza."
Clearly there are some important differences between the practitioners of Art-as-we-knew it in the sixteenth century and those who do their practice in our twenty-first. The over-riding difference is that the artist has become a free agent, choosing whatever subject matter and style he sees fit and selling his work to the highest bidder. He may, if the fancy strikes him or he feels strongly enough about the matter, turn out a piece of war propaganda like Picasso's Guernica, or religious propaganda like Rothko's stained-glass windows in a chapel in Houston. But in general his art has lost almost all its social context, he constructs it for his private pleasure or private rapture, it is concerned only with what is contained in the narrow confines of his skull, and he performs what Rothko called a "risky and unfeeling act" when he sends it out into the world, where "how often must it be impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend their affliction universally." Baziotes put it even more arrogantly: 'I have a horror of being easily understood. For the modern artist, an easy understanding - and easy acceptance - would be a sensation akin to those great waving movements of the hand on the seismograph as it heralds the coming of death."
The least that can be said about Baziotes is that he picked an odd century to complain about. For, in what other century would he and his friends have acquired the total autonomy they enjoyed?
Indeed it is much more than autonomy. From autonomy, given the arrogance that is built into the soul of the artist, it is only a step to omniscience, and why not omnipotence.
""Does a firm perswasion that a thing is so," asked William Blake of prophet Isaiah at dinner one evening, "make it so?"And Isaiah assured him that "all poets believe that it does."
Or as Mussolini who, according to his admirers like Ezra Pound was as much an artist as Isaiah, put it, "Contradiction only raises doubts in my mind and diverts me from what I know to be the right path, whereas my own animal instincts are always right."
Modern artists have been taught to regard their works as not just works of art in the old-fashioned sense, they are also Statements, often very hostile Statements about the world the artists have to live in. They have taken to heart the precepts of Emerson and Picasso that they must transcend (dépasser) nature. In the full flush of independent creation they set out to define, or re-define, not only themselves but the universe. "Every one of the thirty-eight paintings on these walls," said the poet Yvan Goll in my hearing one day at the opening of a Picasso show in a Paris gallery, "is a new heaven and a new earth."
And to an amazing extent the artists have succeeded in getting their message across. They might all have joined in with James Joyce when he went capering dead drunk down a Paris street after the appearance of Ulysses chanting I made them take it. Artistic values, meaning the values of the artists and their publicity agents in periodicals and museums, have, in well-educated circles, superseded or at least edged aside the old-fashioned values of church and state.
Most living artists will violently disagree with this statement. Even when they live in baronial estates in East Hampton and have epic movies devoted to their lives and achievements, they still see themselves as a beleaguered minority, huddling on a darkling plain amid the taunts and gibes and slings and arrows of philistines. And many of them have painful memories to prove it.
But consider how the attitudes of this philistine world have changed in an extraordinarily short period of time.
In 1930 Diego Rivera was commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller for what was then an enormous fee of twenty-one thousand dollars to paint mural decorations for a monumental wall in the great monument built on Fifth Avenue in honor of his grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, the richest man who had ever lived on earth up to that point. The grandson discovered rather late in the day that the artist was putting in a place of honor on this wall a portrait of his own spiritual forebear, Vladimir I. Lenin. When Rivera scornfully rejected a polite request that he take it out, young Rockefeller tore up the contract and whitewashed the painting.
There was a chorus of indignation, no words were harsh enough for a crass businessman who had assumed the right to destroy a work of art just because he had paid for it. The fury of the civilized classes was expressed in a poem written by E. B. White, one of the witty sardonic New Yorker writers who set the tone of American intellectual life in those years, a poem which neatly sums up the conflict between good and evil in its last three lines of dialogue between booby billionaire and inspired artist. Says the odious Nelson:
"And after all,
It's my wall."
And lightning strikes down forthwith from Parnassus:
"We'll see if it is, said Rivera."
For a while there seemed to be no question whose wall it was. A few years after the Rivera incident, a Mr. Clark, known to fame as the heir to one-eighth of the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, who was president of the board of directors of the Museum of Modern Art, walked in one day and on his way to his office found prominently displayed as an example of Naive or People's Art a painting which Alfred Barr, founding father and Director of the Museum, had been charmed by as he passed a bootblack stand on his way to work. This isn't Art, trumpeted Mr. Clark, it is childish trash. And he called Alfred Barr into his office and demoted him to the menial job of Librarian,
Mr Clark did not realize that the world was changing under his feet. His contemporary Mrs John D Rockefeller jr had once been forced to hang her Picasso in her private bathroom, where her husband never entered, in their eight-story house on E54th Street just down the street from what was to become MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art, of which she was one of the three founding mothers and which was to become a virtual Supreme Court deciding which works of art are authentically modern. And which has been heavily subsidized by the Rockefeller family, including the very Nelson who was so cruel to Rivera. Indeed when in the 1950's MOMA sent out traveling shows of the newest and most revolutionary of American painters, shows which turned the international art world topsy-turvy, a fundamentalist Marxist critic in England denounced the whole thing as a monstrous joint Rockefeller-CIA propaganda weapon for the American military-industrial complex to distract the working masses from the true issues of the Cold War.
And Mr. Clark lived to see his museum exhibit a mural painting showing John D. Rockefeller sr, J. P. Morgan and Al Capone standing side by side firing machine guns on the working masses, and there was not a murmur from the general public, let alone the Rockefeller, Morgan and Capone families.
Such episodes may seem today like merely picturesque anecdotes.
But try to imagine them happening anywhere in the world at any time before our own.
Imagine if you can how Pope Sixtus would have reacted had Michelangelo put the face of Mohammed, or the face of Martin Luther, in a place of honor on a wall of the papal chapel; or how I. V. Stalin would have reacted if Rivera had put the face of Trotsky on a wall he had been commissioned to paint in an entrance hall of the Kremlin.
Of course neither Pope Sixtus nor Stalin rate very high by today's standards, but look at Cosmo de Medici, a highly civilized and cultured man (though his family, like Nelson Rockefeller's, had got its start in trade) and an art-lover if there ever was one. When in 1435, he regained control of the city of Florence after a brief hiatus, he discovered that Felice Brancacci, the head of a rival family, had done deeds which justified declaring his being sent into perpetual exile. He had also commissioned the painter Masaccio to decorate the walls of a chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Carmine with a group of paintings which from that day to this have been considered among the summits of the art of Renaissance Italy and indeed of the world. One of these paintings represented the Resurrection of the Son of Theophilus by Saint Peter, and the painter had put in the crowd witnessing the resurrection a number of faces of Brancacci supporters, Cosmo immediately ordered these offending features to be scratched out, and so they remained until some fifty years later when Filippino Lippi was commissioned to put in a new set of faces in the style of Masaccio, this time portraits of loyal servants of the Medici.
Nobody found this unusual or reprehensible. Masaccio went on painting other walls of the chapel till he left for Rome where he died without, so far as is known, ever painting another head of a Brancacci partisan. Nor have any such appeared on any Florentine wall in these last six centuries.
Try to imagine any artist whose works light up MOMA's walls picking up the phone to say, "Yes, Mr. Rumsfeld, I promise you a really sensational design for a rocket-propelled lasso for rounding up al-Qaeda operatives in the mountains under the most unfavorable atmospheric conditions. And I will be happy to do a few portraits of your grandchildren as well to help perpetuate the glorious name of Rumsfeld."
Another characteristic of olden days that has gone by the board was their contempt for, if not the hatred of, works of art once honored and revered but no longer fashionable, no longer living up to the standards of new and better times.
The early Christians routinely chopped up the sculptural masterpieces of old Greece when they happened to represent false gods on the losing side, just as the early Hebrews destroyed the "high places" which were the shrines of the Canaanitisn gods and which must have contained thousands of works by idolatrous craftsmen which would be catalogued as priceless prizes in any museum today.
It was considered perfectly normal for Cromwell in 1647 to order his troops to "take away, utterly extinct and destroy all shrines, tables, candlesticks, and so no memory remains in the same walls, glass windows" of the churches of England because they were idolatrous, just as a century later it was perfectly normal for the ecclesiastical authorities of France to destroy the stained- glass windows in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris because they wanted their church to be flooded with the light of heaven and not crouch in medieval gloom. French revolutionaries a few years later decapitated the stone Kings of Israel on the facade of the same cathedral in the mistaken belief that they were kings of France.
The art-loving Venetians had no compunction about using the Parthenon in Athens as an ammunition dump and when, after the explosion, Lord Elgin saved some of its statues by carting them off to the British Museum in London, no one but a few eccentrics like Lord Byron uttered a word of protest.
In 1915, when the French army felt no compunction about using the towers of the Cathedral of Rheims as observation platforms to guide the fire of its guns on the advancing Germans, a German general ordered the fire to be returned, badly damaging the towers, and announced for all the world to hear that all the cathedrals in France were not worth the life of a single German grenadier, and he kept up the bombardment till the center of battle shifted away from Rheims.
Twenty-eight years later the atmosphere was different. When, at the demand of the fighting troops in Italy who felt they were being spied on from the Abbey of Monte Cassino, Allied aircraft pulverized the building, the public outcry was so great that it reached to the floor of the House of Commons, where the appropriate Minister found no better way to defend the action than by saying that the Monastery had been built in one of the less distinguished periods of Italian architecture, the seventeenth century. This salved the consciences of the House of Commons though some members grumbled that Christopher Wren's St Paul's Cathedral in London, which every one in Parliament accepted as a supreme work of Art, was also built in the seventeenth century.
In the year 2000 there was a general outcry when the crusading zealots of the Taliban, making a literal reading of certain verses of the Koran (as well as of the Second of the Ten Commandments), blew up a gigantic statue of the Buddha which had been smiling for centuries down on Afghanistan. Three years later there was an even greater outcry when American troops storming Baghdad neglected to take quick action to keep looters from making off with priceless antiquities from the national museum. They had, however, taken energetic measures to keep the Iraqi oil fields from being set on fire, thus revealing the priorities of the hooligans currently running things in Washington. The hooligans might have argued that the destruction of the oil wells would have been a colossal human and ecological catastrophe, and if priorities had to be set, which is a hard enough thing to do in the rapidly changing circumstances of war, human lives should outweigh even six-thousand-year-old Sumerian vases. After all Alberto Giacometti received wide acclaim when he said that if he had the choice of rescuing a Rembrandt or a cat from a burning room, he would choose the cat. But no such considerations tempered the storm of abuse, any more than the discovery that the Museum staff had prudently moved its most valuable possession to a safe location at the start of hostilities.
We are all properly horrified in our days to see unprincipled ruffians like Goering carting off art treasures that belonged to defeated nations or inferior races. No one was horrified a mere two centuries ago when the Revolutionary and Napoleonic armies of a triumphant France looted the churches and palaces of Italy and Spain to help, among other things, make the Louvre in Paris the crown jewel of the world's museums.
It might be thought that artists would be happy to live in a world where such barbarities are no longer tolerated, a world so loosely constructed that it is possible for anyone who so desires to live in comfort and circulate freely in the interstices of the great machine that keeps things going. But many, if not most, artists I know think that the current order is rotten, vulgar, commercialized and doomed, and they can't wait to see it replaced.
I remember an article I read in a newspaper back in the antediluvian 1970's, telling of how a distinguished painter and a distinguished writer used "by predilection and derision to go for long walks in those highly symbolic centers of contemporary civilization, the town dumps." The painter would go home and make paintings of dumps because "the 20th century deserves no other treatment." There is something touching in the thought of these two elderly men, born in modest circumstances but now living out the immemorial bourgeois dream of a country home and an honored name, directing their sad steps to these symbolic shrines. It would take a younger fresher generation to realize that they could create mini-junkheaps of their own, call them assemblages or installations, and sell them for fancy prices.
Mention of fancy prices bring us back with a sudden jolt from the transcendental sphere of Art-as-we-know-it-today to the drab reality of life in and out of town dumps. As Melville said,
Found a family, build a state,
The pledged event is still the same.
Matter in end will never abate
Its ancient brutal claim.
For though Art-as-we-know-it may have transcended Nature as Emerson and Picasso demanded, it has never managed to break loose entirely from that ancient brutal claim. Artists have to earn the money to pay for their food and their rent and their pot and their brushes and spray-guns and the machines required to move 450000 cubic feet of earth. In short, they need patrons and collectors. And that means they must conform, yes, conform, to the standards of the society which has allowed those patrons and collectors to acquire the power and cash they need to be able to patronize and to collect..
"Conformity" has been a dirty word in artistic circles at least since the time of Baudelaire, who had a French word for it, indeed two words: bourgeois and belge.. How painful it is to realize that Art-as-we-Know-it- today is inconceivable outside of the liberal bourgeois-Belgian free-enterprise world in which we are condemned to live.
Individual art collectors in the past may have had very catholic tastes. Philip II of Spain would pay any price for either a Titian or a Hieronymus Bosch. Jean de Berri collected both the miniatures of the Limbourg brothers and teeth of Charlemagne and drops of the Virgin Mary's milk. No one found these tastes strange, they fit into the pattern of what was deemed collectible in their time and place. Neither of them would have dreamed of putting out good money for African fetishes or Coca-cola bottles. And if someone had convinced them that, as some modern critics have suggested, that Bosch was a closet Calvinist and that the Limbourgs' scenes of rural poverty were a call for a peasants' revolt; they would have burned those works without hesitation or compunction..
The deplorable fact remains that our own greedy grasping cacophonous contemporary society is the only one yet devised which would permit and subsidize the wild rich variety of clashing contradictory standards which make up Art-as-we-know-it today. Or which would provide not only junkyards (for genuinely poor people do not throw anything away) but spacious sanitized well-policed junkyards in which artists can stroll in the cool of the evening, like God in his Garden of Eden, and bemoan their fate.
Our century of course has been also rich in projects for alternative social structures which would condemn our present one to the oblivion it deserves.
We have had Lenin, we have had Hitler, we have had Mao, we now have Osama bin Laden. What they all have had in common is a fierce intolerance for anything that does not conform to the very strict and narrow sectarian formulas which comprise their standards of values. Mao, it is true, once came out in favor of letting a thousand flowers bloom, but it was only a crafty device to get the flowers into beds where he could mow them all down.
André Breton, founder of Surrealism, and Leon Trotsky, co-founder of the workers' paradise, issued a joint manifesto in 1938, Manifesto towards a free revolutionary art (for political reasons, the name "Leon Trotsky" was replaced by "Diego Rivera" when it was first printed) proposing a future socialist society which would be under a "centralized control" but which would allow an "anarchist regime of individual liberty" for artists. Totalitarian anarchy, in short. Both Breton and Trotsky thought of themselves as artists, which may explain the extraordinary naivete of their proposal.
For, in the real world in which we have to pass our lives, the rulers in charge of centralized control have never seen any reason to make any exception for artists when it comes to enforcing the universal obedience which makes their control possible. Their attitude was perhaps best expressed by the Ayatollah Khomeini who told an Italian journalist, when, in the course of an interview, she cited to him such sacred names of western civilization as Mozart and Beethoven, that these names were unfamiliar to him but if they composed airs which could inflame young men to die as martyrs in holy wars, he was all for them.
Does our future lie with some future Khomeini?
Or will the present flawed system go limping on indefinitely?
Of all the forms of mistake, prophecy is the most gratuitous.
©2005 Robert Wernick