A Contraction of Ideology
Cinema & New Media Arts | On Feb 07, 2013
Camille Paglia writes about capitalism and art in the Wall Street Journal.
Does art have a future? Performance genres like opera, theater, music and dance are thriving all over the world, but the visual arts have been in slow decline for nearly 40 years. No major figure of profound influence has emerged in painting or sculpture since the waning of Pop Art and the birth of Minimalism in the early 1970s.
Yet work of bold originality and stunning beauty continues to be done in architecture, a frankly commercial field. Outstanding examples are Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters in Beijing and Zaha Hadid’s London Aquatic Center for the 2012 Summer Olympics.
What has sapped artistic creativity and innovation in the arts? Two major causes can be identified, one relating to an expansion of form and the other to a contraction of ideology.
Painting was the prestige genre in the fine arts from the Renaissance on. But painting was dethroned by the brash multimedia revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Permanence faded as a goal of art-making.
But there is a larger question: What do contemporary artists have to say, and to whom are they saying it? Unfortunately, too many artists have lost touch with the general audience and have retreated to an airless echo chamber. The art world, like humanities faculties, suffers from a monolithic political orthodoxy—an upper-middle-class liberalism far from the fiery antiestablishment leftism of the 1960s. (I am speaking as a libertarian Democrat who voted for Barack Obama in 2008.)
Today’s blasé liberal secularism also departs from the respectful exploration of world religions that characterized the 1960s. Artists can now win attention by imitating once-risky shock gestures of sexual exhibitionism or sacrilege. This trend began over two decades ago with Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” a photograph of a plastic crucifix in a jar of the artist’s urine, and was typified more recently by Cosimo Cavallaro’s “My Sweet Lord,” a life-size nude statue of the crucified Christ sculpted from chocolate, intended for a street-level gallery window in Manhattan during Holy Week. However, museums and galleries would never tolerate equally satirical treatment of Judaism or Islam.
It’s high time for the art world to admit that the avant-garde is dead. It was killed by my hero, Andy Warhol, who incorporated into his art all the gaudy commercial imagery of capitalism (like Campbell’s soup cans) that most artists had stubbornly scorned.
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Young people today are avidly immersed in this hyper-technological environment, where their primary aesthetic experiences are derived from beautifully engineered industrial design. Personalized hand-held devices are their letters, diaries, telephones and newspapers, as well as their round-the-clock conduits for music, videos and movies. But there is no spiritual dimension to an iPhone, as there is to great works of art.
Thus we live in a strange and contradictory culture, where the most talented college students are ideologically indoctrinated with contempt for the economic system that made their freedom, comforts and privileges possible. In the realm of arts and letters, religion is dismissed as reactionary and unhip. The spiritual language even of major abstract artists like Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko is ignored or suppressed.
Thus young artists have been betrayed and stunted by their elders before their careers have even begun. Is it any wonder that our fine arts have become a wasteland?