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In Defense of Modern Art

September 3, 2012

As a staunch defender of the Common Man (and Woman) I am generally skeptical about much of what is termed “modern art.” There was a certain point in art history when the artists lurched ahead to new mediums and styles that left the general public scratching their heads and thinking, “the person who created this is probably drunk or high.” Picasso confuses most people. The average person looks at Rothko and Kandinsky and is reminded of something that their daughter drew in kindergarten. James Lileks, the apostle of subversive common sense, thanks modern art for liberating us from the tyranny of “Things that Look Like Things We Might Recognize.” Most of the normal person’s reaction to modern art can be summed up in “that’s just ugly.”

In many ways this is true. Modern artists and aesthetes have often, whether unconsciously or consciously, left out the consideration of  the audience of non “artsy” people. Many artists make their art for a select group of initiates who know the jargon and follow the fashionably Left-wing dogma of the pretentious “intellectual crowd.” Art becomes a sort of secret code used to communicate the superiority of the viewer who “gets” it. “Billy Bob is such a rube. How could he not see that this piece of paper with a sweat-stain on it is a postmodern masterpiece? I bet he watches Fox News,” etc. The pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is jettisoned in favor of conforming to whatever is fashionable at the moment.

This, however, is not the entire story of Modern Art. There is more to modern art than these negative trends, and  there are many Modern Artists who still pursue Truth, Goodness and Beauty. The new paintings may not look like the Mona Lisa or Starry Night; a few of them might not look like anything at all, but they can still express beauty to the eyes of an uninitiated viewer. I will briefly look at a few problematic aspects of modern art and demonstrate some positive ways that they can be used.

1. Modern Art is very self-centric: instead of focusing on expression of a communal standard of beauty, goodness, etc., it simply expresses the artist’s personal emotions and thoughts. (Most of which we would rather not know.)  This is a very serious criticism of Modern Art. Art of the Dutch Masters or of the painters of the Byzantine Icons was made for viewers who possessed the same sort of cultural consciousness. It was trying to express some universal, or at the very least communal, values and sentiments. The “keys” it required to unlock its meaning were possessed by any of its viewers. Modern art, on the other hand, is intensely personal and even solipsistic. Knowing the context of a work in a painter’s life became a requirement for understanding the painting. It is very hard to “get” Picasso’s Guernica or Rothko Chapel without knowing something about the respective artist’s and their lives. We often see this personal expression gone to seed in the morbidly introspective “art” and “poetry” of self-conscious high-school students whining about their privileged lives.

However, this personal focus does not have to become pretentious navel-gazing. For one, a greater focus on expression of personality can keep artists from becoming slaves to one particular fashion or another. Granted, this is not often the case, but it is a possibility. Also, artists can focus on their own personality without being provincial. Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen and Faulkner all wrote about their own world using their own words, but they revealed and described universal truths, what Faulkner called “the old verities.” Great art is incarnational-it houses universal truth within a particular setting, “giving airy nothings a local habitation and a name.” It should mirror the universal God becoming a particular man–Jesus Christ. If artists are seeking Truth, Goodness and Beauty, then they will be able to express them personally.

2. Modern Art is not representational, or, it looks like nothing ever seen before, or, it looks like my four-year-old daughter could do it.. This, too, is a legitimate criticism. There are modern artists who mask their lack of talent by adding pretentious messages to subpar works. Often, the abstract, surreal, or even cartoonish aspects of modern art have turned off people who want art to look like something real. To most people, a portrait is art. A jumble of geometric shapes, or some blotches of paint on a canvas is not art. The criticism at its very best assumes that art should be a mirror of reality, a mode of knowledge of the world.

I myself wrestled with this line of thought. I quoted the Lileks line about “Things that Look Like Things We Might Recognize” to my Art Professor, Dr. Milliner. He was amused, but also countered with a line of thought that went something like this: “Yes, but what about ancient icons that don’t look like things we recognize? Those have artistic value.”  I eventually realized the truth that art, like literature, does not show reality “as it is,” but instead shows a distortion of reality to portray a greater truth. Just as whenever a writer writes a story he creates an alternate world, likewise when a painter paints a picture he creates an alternate world. Rembrant’s Crucifixion, where he paints himself as the man nailing Jesus to the cross, he is not portraying a “real” place, but he using unrealism to portray a greater truth. Art is a mirror that reflects and refracts reality. (Or, maybe, reality is a distortion of the truth seen in art?) As Flannery O’Connor pointed out, art shows “men like trees, walking.”

This is not to excuse any lack of effort on the part of the artists. Aspiring artists should learn all the techniques of traditional, representational art, just as all serious musicians should learn the principles of music theory. The best modern artists, like Picasso and Dali, knew how to draw representationally. You have to know the rules by heart before you can break them; otherwise, your rebellion is a cheap and petty thing.

3. Modern Art is Ugly. And it is. Sliced cows, desiccated pizzas, fake vomit, bloodstained canvases and autographed urinals are all part of our glorious cultural artistic community. (And those are some of the more appropriate examples.) Look for art on a college campus and you’re likely to find a photo of someone’s feet, a painting that looks like blotches on a piece of paper (Untitled #2), and a sculpture that looks like it was stolen from alien’s playground. Cubism made everyone look like a dodecahedron, Pop Art made everyone look like a comic book, and Dada just make everyone look really, really stupid. (The Dadaists were proud of this achievement.) Modern Art is highly guilty of making the world, and especially America, an uglier place than before, and it is high time someone took this case before a court.

Though Modern Art is often repugnant and annoying, its grotesqueness may be its saving grace. Simply put, Modern Art cannot take autonomous man seriously. There is a deep sense of the comic that underlies modern art, no matter how much some artists may try suppress it. Even in its darkest moments, Modern Art assumes that the world is a place that is not quite as serious as it seems, and that art is not quite the quasi-religious endeavor that some make it. A cubist man with two noses and one eye may or may not be a postmodern masterpiece. But a cubist man with two noses and one eye is definitely funny. The wrath of heathen man used to be something grand and glorious, like the Iliad. Now it’s just silly. Christians should not run from the comic and grotesque strain in modern art–on the contrary, they should embrace it. The grotesqueness of modern art should mirror the grotesqueness of the Christian story, the story that makes the savior of the world a screaming and crying Jewish baby born in a cave with some cows and sheep.

To the modern pagan, the urinal with Duchamp’s signature is a deep commentary on the nature of life, a quasi-icon even. To a Christian, it’s just funny. C.S. Lewis writes, “The Christian will take literature a little less seriously than the cultured Pagan…The unbeliever is always apt to make a kind of religion of his aesthetic experiences…and he commonly wishes to maintain his superiority to the great mass of mankind who turn to books for mere recreation. But the Christian knows from the outset that the salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world: and as for superiority, he knows that the vulgar since they include most of the poor probably include most of the superiors.” The Christian can appreciate Picasso’s three-faced people, Lichtenstein’s comic-book replicas, and Dali’s who-knows-whats without becoming hagiographical. Only the salt of the world can take the world with a grain of salt.

Current Listenings: “A Weary Horse Can Hide The Pain,” The Low Anthem, “Abandoned Masquerade,” Diana Krall

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 4, 2012 3:21 am

    Stunned and bubbling over with agreement. Of course, I am the dad, and a failed modern artist.

  2. September 5, 2012 1:43 am

    You got in my quotes. Twice.

  3. September 5, 2012 11:21 am

    You left me with much to think about. Thanks for the education as you get an education.

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