Righty: The art of the past hundred years has been an abomination on a colossal scale: a blatant, in-our-faces celebration of the ugly and the perverse. Nothing has spelled the end of Western civilization more tellingly than the collapse of our artistic standards. How is it that we came to accept these fraudulent doodles as art in the first place? (It wouldn’t have anything to do with the toadying art critics, would it? Could it be that the critics suddenly found themselves indispensable because only they could confer meaning upon all those meaningless scribbles? I’m sure they liked feeling indispensable.) From the crude, flat, incomprehensible daubings of the Cubists to the ghastly shock art of Damien Hirst (he of the maggoty cow heads), modern art has been a cultural disaster from day one. Even worse, the art-loving public has bought it hook, line and sinker. A hundred years of crap! When will the madness end?
Lefty: As usual, Righty rejects anything that won’t conform to his preconceived standards (in this case, what constitutes “art”). He’s too narrow and provincial to appreciate the visionary souls who courageously rejected centuries of uninspired, literal-minded bourgeois art for something more adventurous, provocative and disturbing. Art isn’t about being “pretty.” Just the opposite: it should reflect all the agony and turmoil of the human spirit. I’ve reached the point where I can’t even look at the polished “masterpieces” of Raphael or Vermeer without feeling “Ho-hum, very nice, but where’s the beef?” Modern art is so challenging and innovative that I’m afraid it has spoiled me for anything else. Too bad Righty and his friends will never get it.
The New Moderate:
I have to agree with Righty that too much of modern art is simply about shocking a befuddled bourgeoisie. I detect an element of rapacious adolescent glee in the aesthetic rampages of our cocksure modern artists. Sure, they’ve demolished the cold, glossy marble statues that once held us in thrall. But what have they created in their place?
Is it enough simply to shock, offend and disturb, in the manner of today’s formaldehyde-preserved carcasses and dung-encrusted Virgins? Of course not. Is it enough to put a dead ladybug in a styrofoam cup, as one inspired artiste recently did, and expect it to be enshrined as high art? No again. You need more than a concept to create art; you need artistry.
Artistry seems to be almost irrelevant in the great debate over the merits of modernism. It should be the central issue.
Is Picasso a great artist? Sure, but he’s also an overrated one: a master innovator worshipped as a towering colossus. A few of his works, such as the magisterial Guernica, have a terrifying power and pathos. Numerous others are ingenious, inventive and pleasing to the senses despite their apparent lack of sense. Others are simply glib or ugly or both. At least he mastered his craft before spending the second half of his career promoting himself as a modernist icon.
The same can’t be said for those clever con-artists who place a single horizontal stripe on an empty canvas and receive endless plaudits from the cognoscenti. Come on, are we creating art or macrame wall-hangings? Since we’ve scrapped any objective standards of artistic accomplishment (e.g., the ability to create the illusion of light or depth or perspective), the most asinine dreck now qualifies as art if somebody with a doctorate calls it art. This is where Righty becomes apoplectic, and this is where I sympathize with him.
Where Righty and I go our separate ways is over his inclination to dismiss an entire century of modern art, and everything in it, as a cultural calamity. Much of it has been calamitous, sadly enough, but you have to sift through the rubbish pile for the occasional gems that gleam at us from the heap. A handful of names worth noting: Munch, Vuillard, Braque, Matisse, Miro, Gorky, Segal, and yes, the overrated Picasso. Their work can be dark or whimsical or technically daring or incomprehensible. But almost always you detect evidence of a soul beneath the surface (another prerequisite to calling art “art”).
Reassuringly, much critical and popular attention has turned lately to artists of the modern era whose sensibilities didn’t necessarily coincide with those of their modernist peers. The rising stature of representational artists like Edward Hopper and Frida Kahlo should gladden those who believe art should dazzle our senses and grip our souls.
Summary: Much of modern art has been needlessly destructive, ugly and meaningless, but we should stay open-minded enough to appreciate the occasional gems that redeem it.