Story by Keith Martin-Smith
Art struggles in our post-modern world, where genius has been pronounced dead and mediocrity and irony congratulate one another on their empty existence.
A trip to a modern museum of art leaves most of us scratching our heads in confusion. Cutting-edge art and literature have lost their power over our collective imaginations because they can no longer speak for us in any meaningful way. Avante-garde art and literature have sadly been relegated to PhD’s and ever-narrowing groups of intellectuals who “get it,” never bothering to ask if it’s worthy of being gotten in the first place.
Art has become an inside joke about an inside joke that fewer and fewer people are interested in hearing.
The post-modern movement is nearly dead, strangled to death on its own smug irony. In its place comes something that once again believes art can be grand, inspirational, magnificent, emergent and capable of speaking to most people, not just the hyper-educated elite. A new movement that believes the artist needs not be an angry social outcast or critic, or indifferent raconteur, but once again a revolutionary. This has been — and still is — the birthright of every great artist.
The entire edifice of post-modern art has rotted itself so completely from the inside out that it has nearly crumbled to dust. Let us turn the page, discover what post-modern art achieved and where it has utterly failed, and learn what we can build on its foundation. Standards of judgment, not based in an absolute, and not fixed, must nevertheless be used to once again pass judgment on art. “High” art, “Low” art, “good” and “bad” must once again be brought into the lexicon of art criticism, but without repeating the mistakes of the past that marginalized important voices outside of the mainstream.
The question “what is art?” is both more simple and more complex than it might seem at first glance. Marshall McCluhan, philosopher of media theory, said in the heyday of 1960s Pop Art, “Art is whatever you can get away with.”
Is it? His observation raises some interesting questions: How does one go about judging a work of art as “good,” “bad” or “better than” something else? What standards are used? Is something shocking, like a New York City artist who recently put vials filled with her menstrual fluids on display, art? Or is such a display really something else? For those that defend such displays as art, what exactly do they see that the rest of us are missing?
Art criticism and the fine arts in general have fallen on strange times, which is why so many of us end up going through museums of modern art with either a roll of our eyes or a confused expression on our faces.
Poetry and literature have not fared much better, and the reasons lay in the adoption of a particular kind of post-modern approach to criticism, “deconstructive post-modernism.” Art and its critics, many of whom probably are not even familiar with post-modernism as a movement, have nevertheless been under the influence of deconstructive post-modern philosophy since the days of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, an ordinary white porcelain urinal signed by Duchamp, put on display in 1917 as “serious artwork.” Its display caused a sensation, and critics, the public and other art-ists argued strenuously about the work, coming only to the conclusion that it was hugely controversial. But Duchamp was clearly onto something, for in 2004, 500 leaders in the art world voted it “the most influential work of modern art,” beating out Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and Guernica. How is it that a signed toilet is viewed with such reverence, and without a knowing wink? Is a signed toilet really art? If so, to whom and for what reasons? What about a photograph of a crucifix sitting in urine, as in Serrano’s Piss Christ, or menstrual fluids in beakers nailed to a wall — are these art?
Fountain and Piss Christ have roots that go back hundreds of years. To make this task less daunting, let’s start with Gothic art in pre-Renaissance Western Europe, and take a quick tour through the territory that brought us into the 20th century, where works such as Fountain and Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup labels have become accepted as “legitimate” art.
Like just about everything else, art evolves and changes through time, building upon the success, insights, mistakes and innovations of what came before. In pre-Renais-sance Western Europe, there was a single church based out of Rome. Educated people were educated by the Church for the Church, and the first Western university, in Bolo-gna, was founded in the 14th century to serve the Church, not to challenge it. “Science” basically consisted of reproving Aristotle’s ideas and integrating them into Church doctrine.
“Philosophy” as we know it today did not exist — theologians of various kinds all worked to integrate ancient knowledge with biblical “truths,” but those biblical truths were not questioned.
Another way of saying this is that intellectuals and artists of the day were largely fused with the ideas of the Church and bible — there was no reflection on whether or not the bible was true, there was only reflection on how to integrate both ancient knowledge and new knowledge with the absolute certainty of biblical truth.
You could say that today there are three grand areas of study: art, morality and science — the Big Three according to American philosopher Ken Wilber. These three now-separated areas of human study were actually fused into a single truth for much of the early to late Middle Ages — at least until the Renaissance began to pry them into separate spheres of understanding and study. (I will come back to this to explain it more fully in a moment.)
Art, as anyone who has visited a pre-Renaissance wing of any museum has seen first-hand, was done exclusively to glorify God, the saints and biblical truths. The art is often unsigned, and there is no deviation from the theme of God, saints and Bible until the 15th century. Art was not an expression of an artist’s experience, or their version of truth, or their subjective take on Church truth. It was simply fused with the absolute certainty of biblical truth as expressed by the Roman Cath-olic Church. Art was done to glorify God, and for no other purpose.
Scientific truths also had to reflect the mythological Christian understanding of the world. Physical ailments, for example, were considered caused by spiritual deficiencies, and so Western “medicine” progressed little if at all for more than a thousand years. The body, as presented by the Bible, was considered a hindrance to the liberation of the spirit. One needed to deny bodily impulses like lust if one was to get to heaven, and the earth itself was considered a corruption compared to the bliss and perfection of heav-en. This fusion of science and mythic religion can be best seen, perhaps, when Galileo told the Inquisitors that all they needed to do was look through his telescope to see for themselves that moons orbited Jupiter — demonstrable proof that the Earth could not be the center of the universe. The Inquisitors famously replied something along the lines of, “We do not need to look, for we already know what is there.” They knew because the “truth” of the Roman Catholic dogma was absolute for them, and any “fact” that contradicted Church teaching had to be wrong. So in pre-Renaissance Europe, science and art were either derived from, or forced to, conform to religious truth.
Morality also existed only as it applied to the bible. All moral and ethical truths were traced back to the bible for justification; as a result, things like slavery, capital punishment, vicious corporal punishment, torture and rape had a solid moral foundation.
It is important to note that in pre-Renaissance Europe there was not a grand conspiracy in which the Church suppressed thought and brain-washed people into believing a certain way active suppression of scientists like Galileo and philos-ophers like Bruno did not occur until the Renaissance was well under way centuries after Gothic art had faded into the hyper-realistic artwork and the larger-than-life artists who made it. Suppression only began when people and cultures began to drift away from a fusion with the Roman Catholic’s version of “truth,” which began softly in the 14th century before turning into a roar 100 years later.
A truism: Art reflects the culture and the worldview of the person who makes it. Fourteenth century Gothic art in the West, showing 2-D saints and other religious figures with elongated faces and bodies, were meant to portray certain religious truths symbolically. Fourteenth century Europe only had a worldview capable of seeing that kind of art — something like Duchamp’s Fountain or Picasso’s Guernica would make absolutely no sense and, far from being condemned, would have simply been ignored. To be understood, those works demanded a level of differentiation that simply was not present at that time. The reason was the Big Three (art, science, morality) served God, and God was, in essence, the Church.
By the 15th century, the thinkers were beginning to question the assumptions of the Church and to differentiate art, science and morality. It was during the early 15th century that Leon Alberti Battista and Filippo Brunelleschi “invented” perspective in painting, changing art forever. Suddenly, the viewer was at the center of the work, and within 100 years of this Martin Luther, John Calvin and Henry VIII were all using newly differentiated ideas of nation and religion and morality to radically challenge the Church. Christian Humanism, starting with Petrarch in the 1300s, quickly became the dominant philosophy driving the differentiation of art and science away from religion and morality.
This culminated with the great discovers and insights of the Renaissance, which supplanted the mythically bound logic and science of the High Middle Ages with the beginnings of a true revolution in human thought. Within the span of a single ge-neration, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael produced their masterworks. Poly-phonic music, tragedy and comedy, poetry, painting, architecture and sculpture all achieved new levels of complexity and beauty.
Keith Martin-Smith is a published author and professional freelance writer. His collection of 12 short stories has been published by O-Boos and is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.