Cologne-Cathedral.jpg

Whither The Arts?

It isn’t often that stone steps inspire chills, but to walk where centuries of human feet have literally worn down the stone is to simultaneously become part of history and to realize one’s utter insignificance to it.  Walking up the steps and into the magnificent structure, the eye is drawn inexorably from the stones below, upward, high beyond the massive columns, up further where the very walls seem to tilt toward each other and meet at dark, dizzying heights.  It was 1989, and I was standing inside the massive cathedral in Cologne, Germany. 

I had just finished reading a biography of German WWI ace Barron Manfred von Richthofen in which he described his very first airplane ride as a student pilot.  As the plane rolled out for takeoff, the prop wash blew Richthofen’s leather helmet off, along with his goggles and scarf.  As the plane rose, and his gloves were also lost to the blast of wind from the propellor, his attention turned to that of viewing the landscape from the air for the very first time.   And he wrote of his astonishment at seeing the spires of the Cologne Cathedral from a great distance. 

The-Interior-Of-Cologne-Cathedral.pngThat Cathedral had been there over 600 years when The Red Barron’s canvass and wood plane did battle in the First World War.  Those old stone steps were as old as the US Constitution by the time Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World.  And yet there we stood in 1989, struck dumb it seemed, trying desperately to comprehend the sheer size and endless intricacies of this colossal structure which literally dwarfed everything around it.  To view it from the outside is to feel rather like an ant contemplating a redwood.  Shrine-of-the-Three-Kings.jpgTo venture inside and see The Shrine of the Three Holy Kings (purported to hold the crowned skulls of the Three Wise Men), or the Gero Cross which dates back to 976, or the legions of statues, is to become virtually intoxicated with the divine devotion that conceived and constructed such a solemn place.  

Where is there anything in modernity to compare?  Camille Paglia poses just such a question, asking (and answering) the question of why so much of our fine arts have devolved into a “wasteland.”  “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,” writes Paglia, who then zeros in on a central point:  “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.”  

It’s a chamber where the avant-garde first yielded to iconoclasm, which in turn has yielded to unimaginative and vulgar conformity.  One need look no further than the artist who submerses a crucifix in urine, and then congratulates himself for bravely giving the finger to orthodoxy, all while carefully avoiding a cartoon of Mohammed so as to avoid getting his head chopped off.  So much for breaking new ground. 

So where do we now turn for art?  Snoop Dog? Our smartphones?   I use my smartphone constantly.  Thanks to technological wizardry, I can have a conversation with the thing (it even says, “Who’s there?” when I say, “Knock knock”), but art it isn’t.  Among my personal effects is an old pocket watch that belonged to my great grandfather.  A functional piece, it retains just enough ornate decoration to hearken back to another time and place.  As long as that old watch is around, I feel grounded somehow, which is a feeling that so much of what passes for art fails to elicit.  Now, am I channeling my inner fuddy-duddy, or is society losing something?  Where art once celebrated eternal truths, what is its point today?  To rail against the culture and system that enables it?  Again from Paglia:  

Capitalism has its weaknesses. But it is capitalism that ended the stranglehold of the hereditary aristocracies, raised the standard of living for most of the world and enabled the emancipation of women.  The routine defamation of capitalism by the armchair leftists in academe and the mainstream media has cut young artists and thinkers off from the authentic cultural energies of our time.

“We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation, a Jewish nation, or Muslim nation,” said President Obama, adding, “We consider ourselves a nation of citizens.”  This ideology that seeks to disconnect an entire people from their heritage and culture is the same ideology that teaches students to ridicule and scorn the very system that has afforded them a standard of living and a wealth of knowledge that previous generations could never have imagined.  To defeat that ideology is to make possible the day when abiding truths are celebrated and the arts again, as in the past, lift the human spirit up, up toward the Author of all that is truly beautiful. 

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  1. CoolHand

    I think that those of you who find modern life devoid of beauty and artistry are simply looking at the wrong mediums.

    Painting is dead, for the most part, as is traditional sculpture.  As you’ve all said, their works now appeal only to themselves.

    However, things of beauty are still made every day by extremely talented artists (who  may be more properly called “Artisans”).

    People who form armor from sheet steel or forge fine knives and axes from raw stock are doing what sculptors did hundreds of years ago, but doing them one better in the process.  When they are done, their beautiful object is also useful.

    People are making exquisitely crafted firearms now, better than anything ever made.  More useful and more beautiful than any before them, and made from stronger materials which means more accurate and longer lived to boot.

    Same thing with hotrods and sports cars.  There are men and women out there right now hand forming some of the most beautiful automobiles that have ever been built.  Faster and better handling than before, while also being easier to maintain and enjoy.  Again, useful.

    The beauty is there, you just have to know where to look.

  2. Carver

    I am with Foxfier. The idea that you can move characters around in an ever evolving interactive picture is completely remarkable. The environments rendered are amazing. The great masters would no doubt be astonished – even without all the blowing stuff up.

    It seems to me that art historians looking back from a couple of hundred years from now will find Warner Brothers, Disney, Pixar, Bungie, NCsoft, etc to have been the great art producers of the era. Attribution is problematic because there are multiple artists, creative directors, and programmer’s code (which may reach the level of art by itself – only another programmer could know right?). Does art have to have signatures?

    There is plenty of great art in the traditional artistic mediums being produced currently and ever since the Modern Art movements got momentum.  Much of it is poo-pooed by the avant garde. Even some of those movements produced beautiful images and quality work. These orifice obsessed noodle heads, their apologists, and supporters should be ignored (except for ridicule).

    Katievs, look a little closer. There are more artistic images in one trip to the store than a medieval pilgrim saw in a year. We take it for granted.

  3. Douglas
    CoolHand: I think that those of you who find modern life devoid of beauty and artistry are simply looking at the wrong mediums.

    Painting is dead, for the most part, as is traditional sculpture. 

    Uh no, it isn’t. It’s just not celebrated by the right people. To hell with the right people, though. 

    Traditional sculpture and painting continue to this day, and there seems to be a return to more traditional statues after the spasm of ugly sculpture in the 60′s and 70′s. If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the Eisenhower Memorial scandal, you’ll find that a majority of people seem to be tired of having silly concept art crammed down our throats when a good statue is called for.

  4. dash

    That same year you were climbing those marble steps, I was returning from a business meeting near Chartres, where we had discussed the myriad details of the utterly forgettable consumer product which I was designing, and that is now the stuff of landfills and flea markets. 

    Driving through an old stone village, suddenly the not-quite-twin spires of the cathedral rose up, over miles of flat fields and farmlands, lit obliquely by the setting sun. I realized that I was witnessing precisely the same sight as that of the peasants over 800 years, looking up from the plow as Vespers tolled. It was an awesome sight, incongruous and inspirational.

    On that evening, at that moment I felt an ineluctable desire to turn my talents to a higher purpose, but like those peasants, by necessity, I returned to my lowly toil.

  5. Douglas
    Percival: Art speaks to the individual, but only if it has something to say.

    I was in an art museum some years back when I came across a Pollack in one of the halls, and this lady walked up with a friend and started into this artsy monologue that sounded like something from a National Lampoon parody of white liberals. She went on and on about how it just  didn’t “haunt her” like the previous piece she was looking at. I turned to her and said “Lady, it’s a dropcloth. Come on”. The look she shot me…. LOL. Apostate! Philistine! Barbarian! She huffed and sighed with an expression of “Oh, the nerve!”. I walked off and laughed, and proceeded to view real artistic talent with some Albrect Duhrer works.

    Never, ever let these people get away with the fiction that they’re smarter than you or have better taste. It’s a lie. 

  6. GirlWithAPearl

    Excellent post as usual, Dave. I am with you. Our culture is so diseased and crass. It is almost abusive to people with any modesty left.

    And yet.

    And yet, people can avail themselves of different choices. There is a virtual ton of culture/arts/music available now to anyone with a computer. Much of it at no cost. No one forces us to buy Gaga over Bruckner. No one forces us to pay for cable TV. etc. etc. etc.

    Another point: some endeavors do cost money, as well they should. Example: we love to go to the Nashville Symphony as often as possible, usually 3-4 times per year. But this year we can’t afford it. Which brings to mind an interview I heard on the Michael Medved program during the RNC convention. A group of artists including actors, dancers, and singers were in attendance. Medved spoke to them and they realized the failing economy was directly affecting their livelihoods. Which made them start thinking, and eventually led them to the Republican party, and led them to begin speaking out.

  7. Arahant
    Douglas  …I turned to her and said “Lady, it’s a dropcloth. Come on”. The look she shot me…. LOL. Apostate! Philistine! Barbarian! She huffed and sighed with an expression of “Oh, the nerve!”. I walked off and laughed, and proceeded to viewreal artistic talent with some Albrect Duhrer works.

    I am not disagreeing with your central premise in saying this, but sometimes people really don’t know as much as another who is appreciating a piece of art.  I was at a degree show for graduating MFAs, and I laughed to see a piece entitled “Villanelle.”  It was made from concrete strips in varying lengths mounted to the wall.  The artist had letters pressed into the strips, but not full words or sentences.  As I saw the name of the piece, I looked at it all again.  It did have the form of a villanelle.

    Two middle-aged sisters came up to look at the piece and their comments indicated they had no idea what a villanelle was or how the piece resembled one.  I was able to explain it to them and opened their eyes to the work.

    But nobody has ever “explained” Pollock to me.

  8. Mel Foil

    North Rose Window, Notre Dame Cathedral, 1260 AD

    northrose1.jpg

    northrose2.jpg

    northrose3.jpg

  9. katievs
    Carver: Katievs, look a little closer. There are more artistic images in one trip to the store than a medieval pilgrim saw in a year. We take it for granted. 

    Carver, how can you say that?  

    Those medieval pilgrims were walking through scenery beautiful enough to break your heart, unspoiled by noise and pollution, past fields and farms and lovely villages made of stone.  Have you seen them?

    French-countryside.jpg

    This is a picture of Walmart, which, you get to by traveling through traffic, past billboards and strip malls and parking lots.

    walmart.jpg

    And that’s  not to mention the contrast in soundscape.

    One of the worst things about the modern loss of public art and architecture is the deprivation it represents of the poor.  The poor of medieval Europe “owned” magnificent churches and public squares, etc.  Today, for the most part, great art is only for the rich.

  10. Foxfier
    katievs

    Those medieval pilgrims were walking through scenery beautiful enough to break your heart, unspoiled by noise and pollution, past fields and farms and lovely villages made of stone.

    It would have had open sewers, piles of cow manure, bugs in the “pretty” stone houses… even in your top picture, the reason it’s zoomed so far back is because that lets you see the beauty without the real but ugly points being as obvious.  Animals and people do make noise, and the smoke from the fires you need to cook or not freeze is also not to be discounted.

    Comparing an idealized notion of “unspoiled, beautiful agriculture” from a perspective that hasn’t had to deal with unaided agriculture, vs a deliberately unflattering shot of a store that is on the low end of the scale is definitely unfair.  You may as well compare a late-night calf pulling– before the calf is cleaned– to a properly staged shot of B&N’s reading corners.

    In that Walmart picture, I can see clothing that would have boggled their minds, coke bottles– which are lovely, even in plastic– and an elegant little bench of bent iron.

  11. Aaron Miller

    Something interesting about that window, Mel Foil, is that the top picture represents how most people will see it most of the time, yet the artist(s) detailed it anyway.

    In regard to sculpture, most great works have reflected local interests and influences. Egyptians columns have lotus blossoms or papyrus. Greek statues focus on Greek mythology and Greek women. Roman statues are often Roman statesmen.

    In America, people of modest incomes often appreciate local themes, but upper-middle-class buyers are more likely to look for replicas of centuries-old European sculptures than works which reflect America. It’s difficult to anticipate what American art will be preserved for centuries to come, because no nation have had such an influential middle class. Art has traditionally been driven by the interests of the upper class. Chainsaw sculptures can be excellent, and are distinctly American, but will they endure?

    I agree that we take much for granted. The films and paintings sold at a typical Wal-Mart might be 90% mediocre, but there are some gems in there which would have impressed the masters of previous times. Norman Rockwell and John Williams are worthy of remembrance.

  12. dogsbody

    We have come a long way down since then.  But just before you posted, Dave, I was listening to something modern that still lifts the spirit towards its Author:  

    Morten Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium  
  13. Foxfier

    There’s a thriving business in oil paintings– real ones, lovely ones.  Tim Jones, the “spray paint” guys that did street art when I last visited Vegas (on canvas– it’s simple, but I like the bold colors), sailors (those well known art lovers) buy the paintings that are sold on the street in South Korea like there’s no tomorrow, flipping Kinkade has mall outlet stores, the range of options for window treatments is breathtaking.

    My daughter can be dressed in a velvet gown for simple fun.  Anyone with ten dollars can buy a plastic version of stained glass– and if they save up for a few months, real stained glass, or go to an art store and make their own.

    No, we don’t have generation-spanning works where the entire community got  together and worked to make a single, huge AMEN to God.  Then again, three hundred years ago, nobody was building with cut stone where I sit, either.  Doesn’t mean my parish isn’t lovely, even with the windows only being alternating colors and it mostly being polished oak-stained wood and white paint, with only a single stained glass…two stories tall.

  14. AUMom

    I miss beautiful things — architecture, paintings, and poetry. I am afraid we have swapped utility, technology, and speed for pieces that last. 

    Yes, I am happy to have the internet. Yes, I am thrilled that medical care (for the time being) is great. But I don’t want to trade virtual communication for face to face or loveliness to be practical. 

    Good post, Dave. Thanks for the validation as well. I didn’t know anyone else read Camille Paglia. She asks good questions.

  15. Aaron Miller

    Waterford crystal is an example of master craftsmanship accessible even to the relatively poor. That it is mass produced does not make it less appealing.

    Does exclusivity, and not just aesthetic disinction, affect whether or not a work is appreciated centuries later?

  16. Arahant
    Foxfier  In that Walmart picture, I can see clothing that would have boggled their minds, coke bottles– which are lovely, even in plastic– and an elegant little bench of bent iron. · 14 minutes ago

    Not even mentioning the simple plenitude and cleanliness.

    It may not be traditional beauty, but it would have been wondrous to thirteenth century peasants or even their noble overlords.

  17. Brian Watt

    Since I was very young I always had a talent for drawing. I was particularly good at accurately rendering human faces. I took life drawing and oil painting classes in college. It was during a critique in a life drawing class that I became a bit incensed. I had drawn what I considered a very accurate and well done piece. Another student, with little to no skill offered up a work that I could have done had I been drunk or on some hallucinogen using my right hand instead of my left. Our instructor, an abstract/pop artist with an obsession for painting bananas heaped volumes of praise on the questionable work of the other student and then proceeded to trash my work as “too good”. This was the mid-70′s when abstract expressionism was all the rage and art magazines devoted entire issues devoted to bizarre work the gushing praise that was incoherent and undecipherable to the common man. I had been used as an example of early political correctness, a leveling of the artistic playing field. I turned to the more utilitarian field of graphic design. Maybe as I get older I’ll take up painting again.

  18. Foxfier

    I almost forgot: Less expensive than originals, there are prints; if you can’t afford a print of an oil painting, you can even go to Deviant Art and find something you like.  

    *EDIT*

    This one, too.

  19. Steven Jones

    I have stood in that cathedral. It is an aw-inspiring structure. It’s survival is close to miraculous as well; much of the city surrounding it was leveled by Allied bombers during WWII. You may have noticed damage to the outside walls as you approached the building.

    To the point of your post, Dave, modern art is indeed a wasteland, and increasingly irrelevant. Artists of past ages made their living from commissions of wealthy patrons. An artist who did not please the customer did not survive long. The modern view of the artist’s personal vision results, as you and Paglia have stated, in art for the narrowest of audiences: only the artist himself is truly inspired.

  20. Dave Carter
    C
    Steven Jones: I have stood in that cathedral. It is an aw-inspiring structure. It’s survival is close to miraculous as well; much of the city surrounding it was leveled by Allied bombers during WWII. You may have noticed damage to the outside walls as you approached the building.

    allied-soldiers-in-cathedral-at-cologne.jpgMy understanding is that after the Nazis attacked the Parliament, Winston Churchill ordered the bombing of the cathedral.  When I was there in ’89, they were still taking donations for the restoration, and the scaffolding was still up as work was in progress.  

    In this photo, allied soldiers gather to pray inside the Cathedral after the bombing: