January 29, 2007

To Reckon What We've Lost

The opinionated and interesting Tilman Spengler, who writes for the Asia Times, expatiates on modern art, in a piece entitled "Admit It--You Really Hate Modern Art."
Modern art is ideological, as its proponents are the first to admit. It was the ideologues, namely the critics, who made the reputation of the abstract impressionists, most famously Clement Greenberg's sponsorship of Jackson Pollack in The Partisan Review. It is not supposed to "please" the senses on first glance, after the manner of a Raphael or an Ingres, but to challenge the viewer to think and consider.

Why is it that the audience for modern art is quite happy to take in the ideological message of modernism while strolling through an art gallery, but loath to hear the same message in the concert hall? It is rather like communism, which once was fashionable among Western intellectuals. They were happy to admire communism from a distance, but reluctant to live under communism.

When you view an abstract expressionist canvas, time is in your control. You may spend as much or as little time as you like, click your tongue, attempt to say something sensible and, if you are sufficiently pretentious, quote something from the Wikipedia write-up on the artist that you consulted before arriving at the gallery. When you listen to atonal music, for example Schoenberg, you are stuck in your seat for a quarter of an hour that feels like many hours in a dentist's chair. You cannot escape. You do not admire the abstraction from a distance. You are actually living inside it. You are in the position of the fashionably left-wing intellectual of the 1930s who made the mistake of actually moving to Moscow, rather than admiring it at a safe distance.

That is why at least some modern artists come into very serious money, but not a single one of the abstract composers can earn a living from his music.
Spengler seems to be saying that modern art is essentially ugly and its purpose is to destroy our sense of beauty. He cites an article in Wikipedia for the proposition that Picassos "Les Demoiselle D'Avignon," a portrait of five Barcelona whores, is full of allusions to El Greco's work, usually referred to as "The Breaking of the Seal" or "The Opening of the Fifth Seal." But, says Spengler, the allusion is not a tribute, but an assault:
Many critics maintain that Picasso's famous painting originally named "The Bordello at Avignon" (Les Demoiselles d'Avignon) was the single most influential modernist statement. In this painting Picasso lampooned El Greco's great work The Vision of St John. Picasso reduces the horror of the opening of the Fifth Seal in the Book of Revelation to a display of female flesh in a whorehouse. Picasso is trying to "take back" El Greco, by corrupting our capacity to see the original.

By inflicting sufficient ugliness upon us, the modern artists believe, they will wear down our capacity to see beauty.
I dunno. My mother was first a painter, then a sculptor, and although she flirted with abstraction, she was much more interested in the figure. I grew up with modern art. As a kid, I took art classes at the Museum of Modern Art, and Picasso's "Three Musicians" and the Douanier Rousseau's "Sleeping Gypsy" were as common place to me as Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington is to generations of public school students who saw it on the wall every day.

I sat through arguments between my mother and her father, who either didn't get it, or just enjoyed a good matching of wits. Modern art holds no strangeness or horrors for me, even if it is a product of a pewter age.

Spengler's larger picture, of course, has some truth in it. The moderns' efforts to deconstruct art, to strip it of bourgeois illusions and reduce it to structural elements like colors and planes, or to mock its social location (as in Dada) was analytical and destructive, and although modernist images retain their place in commercial art as well as in the museum world, the average man still prefers his landscapes, and most of the trends in modernism are played out by now.

The deconstruction done, where is shelter? Perhaps, "now," as the wanker Portnoy's shrink says, "ve can begin."

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