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. Profile Photo Inactive

    I don’t know if others will think it will compare, but I’ve seen modern architecture that’s impressed me; the BOK Center in Tulsa, designed by César Pelli. Maybe I’m just a philistine, but I don’t understand why one couldn’t take that sporting venue as a sign that we’re still capable of all that had come before.

    • #31
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    Arahant: And Foxfier, let’s not forget those velvet Elvis paintings. · 26 minutes ago

    You have seen those Greek and Roman statues restored to what they were originally supposed to look like, right?

    • #32
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    “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.” – Pauline Kael after the 1972 presidential election

    • #33
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    Beautiful essay.  

    I’ve never seen the Cologne Cathedral, but a few years ago, I had the privilege of standing inside the Cathedral in Toledo, Spain.  It was awe-inspiring.  Not in the mundane way we use the word “awesome,” but it truly created feeling of “awe.”


    Toledo-interior.jpgI’m not a Catholic, but I felt deeply that it was a sacred place and a work of art built to honor God.  Within that sacred building were several paintings by El Greco, smaller works of art that were animated by the same spirit.

    Compare the great cathedrals to the ugly, de-humanized architecture of the twentieth century (epitomized by the horrendous work of Le Corbusier).  [I’m on a Tom Wolfe kick, and am in the midst of From Bauhaus to Our House, which documents the nihilism and sheer stupidity underlying modernist architecture].  Modern architecture was supposed to be functional, but it didn’t even meet that standard.  It was only ugly.

    I wouldn’t trade the Toledo Cathedral for all the butt-ugly (that’s an artistic term) buildings inspired by Le Corbusier and his ilk.  

    I may be simplistic, but if it ain’t beautiful, it ain’t art.

    • #34
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    There’s still beauty– it just tends to be little things, instead of huge, awe-inspiring buildings.

    It sounds silly, but some of the most beautiful art I’ve seen in the last decade was in video games— the new Guild Wars II even has it built into gameplay, with getting to “vistas” so you can see a slow pan of the lovely place they put so much work into.  Most computers won’t manage it, true, but even on my machine… wow.

    Related, some design details show signs of putting loving work into their making, so it’s both lovely and functional.  Even my browser has “skins” to make it prettier!

    • #35
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    Oh, yes.  ;^D

    Also, I love the baby dragon with the Tabasco bottle rigged with the nipple.

    • #36
  7. Profile Photo Member

    Glad I’m not alone in reading a column by Paglia….

    As a professional artist I can confidently say she’s both right and wrong: right in that the modern art movement is a vast echo chamber of defunct avante garde ideas, with students unwilling to expose themselves professionally to the marketplace.  She is wrong however, in assuming that the premise extends to all art.

    The incentive system the art world has established is similar to the world of professional sports – a very small percentage end up in the highest ranks.  But unlike sport, the art world moves on subjective values.

    The image of a starving artist, selling his/her wares on a street corner is a well-known cliche’. But unlike professional sports, there may very well be great worth in work produced that doesn’t get lauded in the NYTimes.  We just may be too short-sighted to see it at the time.

    • #37
  8. Profile Photo Member

    Gorgeous photos and word-smithing, Dave…Trust you to find the good in Ms. Paglia’s thought.  Many thanks!  Praying for you and yours, as well.

    • #38
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    When I visited York in 2006 (BTW, the York Minster is the largest cathedral north of the Alps), my tour guide illustrated a point that is all too easy to lose sight of:

    The York Minster as it now stands took over 250 years to build — from 1220 for the foundation to consecration in 1472 .  Average generation was 20 years, and average lifetime wasn’t much more than 50 through the whole period.  So there were folks whose grandfathers had been born while the building was under construction and whose grandchildren would never see it finished.

    Can you even imagine our fickle generation, or our parents’, or even our grandparents’, having the patience to persevere on a project that would take five lifetimes to complete?  Our country hasn’t even managed to last as long as construction on that cathedral took.

    • #39
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    Its funny you should mention that Amy since after my GRE tutoring section, I went to the local mall and into the Apple Store (I love Apple stuff) but it was an entire store of people being distracted by shiny objects.  That being said, I don’t know if there even is a project that would take that kind of commitment these days since our parents/grandparents managed to put a man on the moon in 10 years (an achievement that has yet to be equaled)But, you are correct.  It is amazing to think of the commitment of people to a project they must have known they would never see it to completion.  The idea that one’s work would be eternally rewarded must be quite a motivating factor.
    • #40
  11. Profile Photo Member

    Some related thoughts from novelist Mark Helprin, excerpted here.

    • #41
  12. Profile Photo Inactive

    Dave, you have expressed why I suffer in box stores and malls and all the soulless, ugly, utilitarian places that crowd the modern world.

    The human spirit is made for beauty.  

    Culture is a barometer of our souls.  Clearly, we are not well.

    BUT, on the other hand, I do see lots of what John Paul II called “signs of the new spring”.  I think a renewal is coming.

    • #42
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    Nanda Panjandrum: Trust you to find the good in Ms. Paglia’s thought.

    Maybe I’m misreading what you’re saying here, but Ms. Paglia often has gems.  She is not closed off and wedded to the liberal theology as is the case with too many in her circle.  She definitely thinks for herself and is usually worth reading.

    • #43
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    You are an artist.  As I started to read, I immediately thought of Ms. Paglia’s column, which I had read earlier.  But your introduction to it was masterful.

    • #44
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    It’s also worth noting that libraries and museums were once initiated and payed for by wealthy donors, rather than public funds, which is why the older buildings are more impressive. Nothing kills artistic fervor like bureaucracy.

    • #45
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    Simply brilliant, Dave. As the West has grown increasingly atheistic and secular, the arts have increasingly reflected the petulance and self-absorption of modern man. Here’s to hoping we might someday get art reflecting something larger than ourselves.

    • #46
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    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…

    Foxifier, I am here responding to a definite claim by Carver, viz. that the Walmart shopper sees more beauty in one trip to Walmart than a medieval pilgrim saw in a year, which having lived 8 years in Europe and having seen many of the villages and churches they passed through, I think scandalously false.  The pictures I posted were no in way idealized or exaggerated.  They are both simply representative.  The pilgrim approached such villages from a distance.  Even up close, they are beautiful.

    I am not an antimodernist.  I don’t at all deny that there is beauty to be found in today’s world.  But there’s a awful lot of ugliness in it too.  Piles of manure can’t touch it.

    • #47
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    Architecturally speaking, I think there are many structures of the modern era that are awe-inspiring. I largely agree with Paglia’s piece, but I do think her argument that “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” is troubling. First, it implies that there has been no art deemed significant since Pop Art or Minimalism. Significant to whom? I admire many artists, painters especially, that have done tremendous work since. The bigger culprit in this is academia. Being liberal and anti-religion were almost prerequisites when I studied painting. For nearly 100 years, there’s has been definitive push in the art world to declare what has gone before to be derivative and staid, and relevant, modern art must be provocative. The preferred way to achieve this is to make the profane sacred, and the sacred profane. The Dadaists, Futurists, Surrealists, etc, set the stage for this, and it has been cultivated by art schools. Art, like education, politics, and journalism have been hijacked by the Left, and subsequently ruined. 

    • #48
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    Oh…how you can touch a soul with words!

    In that church you are part of a whole, not the center of the universe, as you can be in many old structures that people built with their hands and their hearts.  It represents the enormous skill of the workman to define his view of the world.

    We have lost an appreciation of craftsmanship because of mass production.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with mass production.  But rare are the lofty goals of raising an edifice to God in an attempt to get closer to heaven.  We fail to appreciate the time and effort that goes into crafting something that is special and unique, that can be shared by many, that attempts to praise workmanship for the glory of God

    This is not only about buidings…it is about building a life as well.  Working as hard as we can to better ourselves and our families by living good lives.  It is also an attempt to get closer to God.  It too is good craftmanship. and takes many years to build. 

    • #49
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    Driving once through Spain, when our oldest daughter was about 3, we passed fields being sprayed with manure.  Our daughter was appalled, “Peee yew!”  My husband, who had grown up in farming village in the Netherlands, said, “I love that smell.”  Daughter fell into shocked silence.  An hour later, we approached a toll booth.  As my husband rolled down his window to pay, daughter leaned forward and begged, “Daddy, please don’t tell that man you like the smell of manure!”

    • #50
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    For folks wondering what we’re talking about with the old statues– the Smithsonian has an article here with some good pictures.

    Some are kinda awesome.  Some are…um… a matter of taste.

    (More so than the baby dragon with his Tabasco bottle.^.^ )

    • #51
  22. Profile Photo Member

    By the way, my wife works at a studio arts school that awards MFA and Master of Architecture degrees.  I see a lot of work by current and up-and-coming artists.  Every once in a while, someone goes and impresses me despite the environment and culture of the art world.

    I remember one metalsmith named Smith who was making furniture in which he incorporated landscapes or aspects of certain landscapes.  It was not immediately striking, but when one realized what he had done, it enhanced the works.  It was functional and conceptual.

    • #52
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    I’m a church freak. I love them. In the mid-1980s, I studied a semester in Mannheim, (then West) Germany. That meant I was in easy traveling distance to the great churches of Heidelberg, Mainz, and several others. Cologne was a weekend trip, which I enjoyed immensely. Later, they let me vacation in Munich, Austria, and then a week in Rome. It was a church tour.

    But I must recount my first trip, to the Cathedral in Worms. On first entering the church, you go into a narrow entrance, almost a tunnel. It then expands, gradually, into the huge interior. It’s almost a birth experience, entering into a separate world.

    While walking around this new interior world, treating it like a tourist trap, a wedding party came in.  They had a wedding, while we tourists wandered around. Later, a set of monks came into the back choir and prayed the Liturgy of the Hours.

    It occurred to me that this was a “working” cathedral. It was a “working” spiritual space, integral to the people who live there. It was art-in-life, and life-in-art. 

    “Modern” art is navel-gazing. Real art must be entwined in life.

    • #53
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    A very insightful short book that is germane to Dave’s magisterial insights in this post, is George Weigel’s “The Cube and the Cathedral.” Easily readable in a day or two (it’s really more of an extended essay), highly recommended.

    • #54
  25. Profile Photo Member

    One other thing on architecture, someone mentioned César Pelli.  If you’re ever in the newer section of Washington National Airport, look up.  The place is a modern cathedral.  If you’re just walking around looking at people, you’ll miss it.

    • #55
  26. Profile Photo Member

    For quite a while, a significant proportion of artists have come through the university system. And the art programs have been influenced by the same culture that imbues the entire rest of the liberal arts curriculum. I think I’ve said it before here, but it wasn’t long ago that if your “artist statement” or reviews of your work did not include the words “transgressive” or “challenges the dominant cultural paradigm”, you were pretty much dismissed as not a “real” artist.

    Artists read Paglia – and they can’t dismiss her. Their artistic response will be interesting to see.

    • #56
  27. Profile Photo Inactive

    Before we disparage the contemporary art scene as a wasteland when compared to the Gothic wonder that is the Cologne Cathedral, let us remember that the term “Gothic” itself was used by Italian contemporaries to express how barbaric and unworthy they found the style.

    It is a cliche to ask, but how many of the works we now count as timeless masterpieces were met with absolute derision during their time?  How many now-celebrated composers died bitter paupers, because their work would not be appreciated for another 50 years?

    I shudder to think that our grandchildren will revere the artwork being produced today, but it is probably inevitable.

    • #57
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    In addition to Weigel’s book, if you can spare an hour, do please watch this magnificent BBC production with Roger Scruton: Why Beauty Matters.

    • #58
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    Steven Jones:  It’s survival is close to miraculous as well; much of the city surrounding it was leveled by Allied bombers during WWII.

    A similar miracle was the survival of the Cathedral in Freiburg: every surrounding house was hit, it received nary a scratch:


    • #59
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    AUMom: I miss beautiful things — architecture, paintings, and poetry. I am afraid we have swapped utility, technology, and speed for pieces that last. 

    A beautiful building used to be the Chrysler Building or Independence Hall. Now it’s glass monstrosities like “the Freedom Tower” and the Seagram Building. Read Tom Wolfe’s short-but-insightful book From Bauhaus to Our House. The fathers of “modern architecture”… Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, etc, intentially destroyed architectural beauty as a “bourgeois value” in their Marxist-inspired quest to start society “from zero”. Amazing that van der Rohe was made rich by capitalist dollars while he mocked his clients with every building he made. Only in America are we such suckers to reward the very people that loathe us.

    • #60
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