The Death of Art

I’m sure that this one won’t go over well with some people. I know there may be some who strongly disagree with my conclusions. I’m all right with that.

My generation is killing art. Not only are we killing it, we’re sinking our thumbs deeply into its carotid artery and slowly watching it die by our hands. The saddest part is that we’re like a drunk who’s gone stark mad on a rampage and don’t even realize what it is that we’re doing.

We’ve been raised to “challenge” everything, from morals to the concept of common causes. Along the way, the concept of art is being based solely on a sliding scale. We don’t need your rules, man. Art is what I like and what I like is art.

Well, that’s a bunch of horse crap.

Art is something that is difficult to achieve, rare to witness and beautiful to behold. It’s something that strikes deeply at the core of your soul with a thunderclap that leaves you breathless, or makes you feel like the world was fresh and new before you again as it was when you first appreciated a spring day. Even if you hate it, you can still see it for what it is.

Art must be lasting. This is the great irony; only in retrospect can great art be recognized and only after the moment of discovery can true art be appreciated. By that definition, art is not something that speaks only to the moment. It’s something that must speak across the moments.

For example, if a piece of art is a political statement, it is about a political idea that is not restrained to the time at hand. If I were to make a painting today about how I feel about Barack Obama in specific, it’s not art no matter how much I claim it to be. The reason is that once Barack Obama is out of office, and once his time on Earth itself is at a close (be it by ascendance or riding light beams back to his wondrous planet) my work stops being relevant. However, if I make a painting that uses Barack Obama to symbolize a set of ideals and how I feel about those ideals, then he’s consigned forever to the boundless prison of art.

My generation was taught by their forebears (hippies), the media and our teachers that no one’s judgment is valid except our own. As a result we’ve tossed out definitions of art. Heck, we’ve tossed out a lot of definitions.

But we need definitions and limits. I recognize that they’ll change over time. Every so often we’ll get a true genius like Picasso or Frank Lloyd Wright who will blow open our understandings of form and function; but still there must be definitions. Otherwise, we’ve just got a set of individual standards that don’t help anyone but ourselves.

This lack of standards has led to many of the more questionable pieces of “art” over the years; let’s take everyone’s favorite poster child for non-art, that abominable photo of a crucifix in urine. You couldn’t criticize it, we were told (and I was a kid at the time, in art classes, freaking out that it wasn’t art) because the artist was saying something and that made it art. No, all the artist was saying was, “I want attention.” Also, I suspect based on the subject matter that he had a problem with religion and possibly a urinary tract infection.

Again, making a statement is nothing more than making a statement. Under the rules of free speech (and I’ll write about how we’re all screwing ourselves out of that one later) you have every right to do it. I’m in no way saying that it should be limited.

But don’t try to sell me on the idea that it’s art unless it meets the proper criteria. Otherwise, every half-witted, poorly written blog entry is art (hey, wait a minute…score!) and I want my endowment check from a benefactor, be it either Uncle Sam (you can afford it) or some wealthy patron desperate to attach their name to something that will make people like them (I’m cheap, if that’s any added incentive).

So what about Andy Warhol? Was he an artist? Actually, yes he was, very much so. His work was not just a statement, it had form and function and spoke beyond the specific time. He asked questions that transcended the period in which they were asked; after all, we all still ask after peoples’ 15 minutes of fame, don’t we?

The most difficult part of my own argument, and the piece which leaves me open to having my mind changed (there are maybe two or three people who could do it), is that as I’ve admitted, standards do change. When you enter a new era in a society what is deemed art is invariably different and open to growth, otherwise we wouldn’t have had the Cubists or even the Impressionists.

But I still maintain that there have to be some set of standards by which we communally judge if something is art. Those works didn’t occur in a vacuum.

To call everything art – or at least leave it open to the idea that everything can be – is not helping anything and in reality just cheapens our understanding of what truly is. Without a clear definition of what *is* art, we can’t hope to define what *isn’t*. And I think none of us want to open the field enough to declare that GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra is art. Because that’s where we’ve gone. Then you’ll be trying to tell me that Cormac McCarthy can write worth a damn.

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14 thoughts on “The Death of Art

  1. “The picture a mother’s son does in jail hangs on her wall as proof that beauty is possible even in the most wretched. And this is a much different idea than the fancier notion that art is a scam and a ripoff. But you could never explain to someone who uses God’s gift to enslave that you have used God’s gift to be free.”

    – Rene Ricard, Art Forum, 1981

  2. Correction: the actual quote reads:

    My experience has shown me that the artist is a person much respected by the poor because they have circumvented the need to exert the body, even of time, to live off what appears to be the simplest bodily act.

    This is an honest way to rise out of the slum, using one’s sheer self as the medium, the money earned rather a proof pure and simple of the value of that individual, The Artist. This is a basic class distinction in the perception of art where a picture your son did in jail hangs on your wall as a proof that beauty is possible even in the most wretched; that someone who can make a beautiful thing can’t be all bad; and that beauty has an ability to lift people as a Vermeer copy done in a tenement is surely the same as the greatest mural by some MFA. An object of art is an honest way of making a living, and this is much a different idea from the fancier notion that art is a scam and a ripoff. The bourgeoisie have, after all, made it a scam. But you could never explain to someone who uses God’s gift to enslave that you have used God’s gift to be free.

  3. I’d disagree on the Warhol analysis, but otherwise agree with your point.

    I would go so far as to say that many things are art, but fail to be recognized as such until a MUCH later time (but not G.I. Joe. That wasn’t art. not by any real definition).

    The desire to make a statement is all well and good, but misses terribly if you have to explain what the statement was in the first place. Art requires no explanation, and can “speak” for itself, and to the audience, not AT them.

    Sometimes art can be very subtle requiring the audience to think about it, other times gross, with an obviousness that is apparent because of shared experience.

    I think that if an artist restricts himself only to what he likes, as Warhol did, the attempt at art suffers somewhat. A statement intended for, or based upon one person’s experience suffers because of a lack of appeal (due to a lack of mutual experience), and the statement is either lost, or becomes meaningless.

    1. All I can say is that I would have agreed with you on Warhol until a few years ago. Guy was ahead of his time, sort of the Tyler Durden of the art world. I’ve always been a fan of Theatre of the Absurd and Warhol was sort of a visual extension of that – at least by my take.

      As far as a statement intended for or based on one’s own experiences, I’m not sure that any artist really breaks free from that, just some occasionally strike gold and hit something that’s in the general milieu. Even science fiction is based on the artist’s own experiences on the thematic level; when something is composed outside of a person’s realm of experience it can smack inauthentic.

      David Mamet wrote a great essay, though, and I can’t find it for the life of me right now, about how writing is suffering because unlike writers of the past, writers of the present aren’t writing from life experiences they have had on their own. Tangential thought, probably related to this line of reasoning.

      Like I said, I’m not 100% with the definitions, because as an artist myself (true!) I struggle with it at the margins. The biggest question may be, does it need to be successful art in order to be art? Just because you make a bad car doesn’t mean it’s not a car, right? Do you have to live life as an artist to be an artist? Some of the greatest works have been by those who did it in addition to what kept them housed and fed.

  4. One man’s art is another’s soup can painting.

    I usually think of art in two ways: universal and subjective.

    Universal would be something like Monet, Michelangelo, and though I dislike the style, Picasso. Subjective would be more like Warhol, or in the extreme, any of the crop of “artists” in our generation, who seem to think there needs to be a message in everything they do, and if you can’t see it, to hell with you.

    The subjective stuff will always be around, and cause questions as to what art really is.

    1. So at what point does it vault from subjective to objective? Because I’m sure that somewhere along the way, someone thought even Michaelangelo stunk on ice. :o)

  5. I’m sure you’ll be able to find someone who hates the work of Michelangelo. It’d take a bit of searching, I’m sure, but you could find someone.

    The jump from objective to subjective comes from what message the artist is trying to convey, and how it is explained in the art.

    The cliched “man’s inhumanity to man” for instance has been used to explain “art” ranging from paint randomly spattered on a canvas to a blank canvas with a single red dot on it.

    The greater an explanation a work of art needs, the greater the subjectivity in it’s reception.

    1. I wasn’t saying someone who hated Michelangelo today. I meant some people *at the time* probably regarded him as a middling talent.

      I don’t necessarily disagree with this thought: “The greater an explanation a work of art needs, the greater the subjectivity in it’s reception.” but question whether that removes the opportunity for transcendent work that seems to be recognized as possible in art.

    2. I guess that raises a question.

      How can you judge a current, or even recent artist’s work as “transcendent”?

      Kinda of difficult to see lasting impact from an “in-the-moment” perspective, isn’t it?

      1. I don’t know. I think that there are definite times you can look at something an artist does in the moment and find transcendanxe. But as I said in the post, by and large art is understood after the fact.

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