Art has reached its final destination and is now meaningless. Modernism’s reaction to prior aesthetic standards liberated artists to push the boundaries of art. But these boundaries have been expanded to the point of obliteration. As Leon Battista Alberti would tell us in “On Painting,” art used to be an attempt to reflect the harmony within the natural world. Alberti writes that “painting contributes to the most honorable delights of the soul and to the dignified beauty of things.” In the modern era, as Francis Bacon put it, “painting has now become, or all art has now become completely a game, by which man distracts himself.” It’s certainly a strange distraction that Bacon paints, as the blurred face of a man peers out from a lacerated bloody carcass. This progression from Peter Paul Rubens’ “Garden of Love” to Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” is not only an aesthetic one but also a conceptual one.
Ever since Marcel Duchamp famously submitted a men’s urinal to an art exhibition in 1917, the idea of what constitutes a work of art has been lost. If we believe the postmodern conventionalist critique of art, almost everything can be considered an artistic expression. As Harold Rosenberg elucidated, if household objects can count as art by virtue of their location in a museum, then geographical place is the driving determinant of art. At this point, when Joseph Beuys’ suit gains the status of art because the hanger is hung on a different hook in a fancier building, art is in trouble. More specifically, art loses all of its meaning, since the realm of artistic expression no longer has standards that define its own limits.
Bacon was half right. In an era that gives us a crucifix placed in urine, a bright-eyed masturbating cowboy, a naked woman hugging a dead pig, and an exhibition of possible animal torture, art is a shell game. Shock value has replaced technical skill, pornography has been substituted for anatomical accuracy, and offense has replaced a desire for that which resonates with the human soul. Art used to be prized for its ability to raise the human spirit, but now all it does is raise controversy. Art is an enterprise marked by frenzied disturbance. If you are looking for meaning, all you’ll find is smoke and mirrors. Whichever shell you pick in the modernist game, there’s no reward to be discovered.
But, the inclusion of this hysterical display of repugnance into the legitimate boundaries of artistic expression comes at a high cost. A work of art can be produced by anyone without technical skill, appreciation of art, or desire for coherence. The discipline of art has died with its definition. As a type of artistic relativism ascended, the basis upon which viewers could value Michelangelo’s “Pietà” above Chris Ofili’s similar subject accompanied by elephant dung was lost to the orthodoxy that all is art.
There are myriad ways to be offensive and perhaps an equal number of ways to be useless. I too can hang my polos and khakis in the Sackler, but that doesn’t make me an artist, a visionary, or even mildly talented. For those who seek to manufacture offense, the ease with which this goal is now achieved in the modern world speaks less to the world’s overly sensitive viewpoint and more to the lack of audacity in the artistic world. It’s no longer brave to disturb others who still hold to the sacred. In a realm of ideas in which all offenses are permitted, the last frontier is the type and magnitude of the violation. The real creative spirit has been lost, and a desire to validate all transgressions by placing them in the realm of artistic expression is all that’s left. Bravery comes from having an ideal to defend, not an indiscriminate wish to desecrate.
Some still hold to the controversial position that some attempts at artistic expression are not of value, even if displayed at The Museum of Modern Art. The possible accusation of being resistant to change is ultimately worth the risk. In taking this judgmental step, the limits of art can be preserved, and a sense of beauty can be reclaimed.
Gregory A. DiBella ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government and philosophy concentrator in Mather House.