An Ascendancy of Ugly and Stupid

 

Many years ago I went to the National Gallery of Art in DC (which I used to do more often) when there was a special exhibit of the works of Morris Lewis. I have to admit I did not get it and still don’t. There were a bunch of strikingly similar large paintings like this one below in which there were some runny painted lines in the bottom corners. The highlight of the trip was smiling and shrugging my shoulders while catching the eye of one of the museum guards, a middle-aged African American man. He was shaking, trying to suppress his laughter, his back against the wall, sliding down slightly until his hat pushed a bit down over his face. I think he was just waiting for someone not to solemnly stare at this stuff and just laugh instead. I felt like we were the only guys in the building who admitted they had just seen the emperor’s naked backside through his new outfit.

Art

I have no problem with a batch of random colors on a canvas or with people hanging it on their wall if they like it. But to put that stuff in a museum in a room next to Renaissance masterpieces or across from one of Jacques Louis David’s rich portraits as if some comparable skill, vision, and pursuit of beauty and truth were involved seems silly.

Figuring I must have missed something, I dutifully went down to the museum book store and opened a copy of the book that accompanied the collection (no, I did not buy it) and looked up the painting that had the fewest lines in the corners of the largely blank canvas.  The book explained that I was wrong to think that the artist was just leaving most of the canvas blank.  Actually, it was “a dramatic use of the white reserve.” The sheer genius of that utterly BS phrase was more impressive than the art.

In the Painted Word, Tom Wolfe explained how in the modern art world, critics are more important and powerful than artists precisely because the art does not really speak for itself, so the critic’s role is magnified. Popes and Italian merchants granted far more artistic license than do modern mandarins of art and architecture who now dictate the mandatorily ugly and offensive crap produced now. An absolutely marvelous take on Modern architecture can be found in this wonderful Current Affairs article. A sample:

The extraordinary fact about architecture over the last century, however, is just how dominant certain tendencies have been. Aesthetic uniformity among architects is remarkably rigid. Contemporary architecture shuns the classical use of multiple symmetries, intentionally refusing to align windows or other design elements, and preferring unusual geometric forms to satisfying and orderly ones. It follows a number of strict taboos: classical domes and arches are forbidden. A column must never be fluted, symmetrical pitched roofs are an impossibility. Forget about cupolas, spires, cornices, arcades, or anything else that recalls pre-modern civilization. Nothing built today must be mistakable for anything built 100 or more years ago. The rupture between our era and those of the past is absolute, and this unbridgeable gap must be made visible and manifest through the things we build. And since things were lovely in the past, they must, of necessity, be ugly now.

[Readers are invited to insert the image of favorite examples of hideous buildings in the comments.]

In so many places we are no longer allowed much less encouraged to expect, seek or try to produce beauty, that irreducible, fiercely subjective yet transcendent, and shared human experience.  We are increasingly forbidden to celebrate tradition and culture where so many valuable ideas and timeless achievements can be found.  All art or architecture is must actively offend the sensibilities and visual appetites of all those who lack the official credentials.  If the bourgeoisie hates it, then it must be art.

I used to laugh at the silly art in the lobby of a couple of nearby office buildings downtown—always too large, always ridiculous standing “sculptures” (or just piles of random stuff glued together).  A common theme in modern art is a guy with lower-middle-class origins who becomes a real estate tycoon or other business success and he and his wife buy what the Experts tell them is Art to thus affirm their (presumably always tenuous) hold on elite status.

In an article related to his Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe quoted an architect who said that it’s bad enough they make him build those glass and metal boxes but then they go and “put a turd in the plaza” meaning the obligatory large stupid blob sculpture that pollutes whatever shared, open space is provided in every office building in America built in the last 70 years. A huge ugly blob or even nothing at all (perhaps a dramatic use of the white reserve?) can be art so long as it is jarring, antagonistic to what every culture in human history would regard as beautiful, and is certified as such by official critics

That bad lobby art display I used to laugh at was kinda funny but I am not laughing much anymore. The large-scale marriage of soulless corporatism to soul-negating “art” and architecture is now merging with the worst of the anti-normal venom of woke culture.  It is as if all the anti-human, anti-beauty, anti-truth forces were joining together against us like some massive evil Orc army.

At this very moment, some fiercely mediocre persons (each with a college degree certifying complete avoidance of the best of western culture) employed in some utterly sterile office buildings are currently commissioning really bad art, funding socially corrosive community action,” planning a hideous new headquarters campus, and/or issuing guidelines to censor any of us kids who might be inclined mention the emperor’s lack of clothes.  The new anti-human, anti-normal codes coalescing all around us are our new rules of living, simultaneously enforced by soulless corporations and soulless government agencies trained by soulless academics and staffed by intentionally unimaginative people.

Millions of badly formed, badly-educated people now have a vested interest in ideological substitutes for competence, talent, and imagination and they are working hard to make sure there are no new Michaelangelos, Mozarts, Shakespeares, or Christopher Wrens (or Thomas Sowells, for that matter) whose creative output might remind people that there can be such a thing as excellence and beauty. And in lieu of creative, insightful, courageous political leadership, we have Joe Biden installed to extinguish all hope of a national renaissance of any kind.  It is frightening how fitting it is that that a vaguely malignant buffoon should preside over a comprehensive war against excellence, beauty, human nature, discovery, and without being conscious of the scope of destruction.

The energy and unparalleled achievement of the American national enterprise was that we were all about individuals not waiting for permission from some self-appointed ruling class to create, invent, build or change. Suddenly, we are a people subject to an “elite” comprised of those who despair of transcendent meaning, who despise all past achievements in our vastly rich shared heritage, and who vehemently insist that we share in that despair and live, think and feel in accordance with increasingly stupid cognitive, aesthetic and moral limitations. How the hell did that happen?

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  1. Caryn Thatcher
    Caryn
    @Caryn

    People started getting away with being lazy, I think.  Good art takes effort, lots of it.  So does good thinking and good government.  Laziness started to pay and, as Reagan said (more or less), the more you pay for something the more of it you get.

    • #1
  2. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    I never got the “Different for the sake of being different” aesthetic.   It seems to me that despite their stated desire to break from the past, adherents to this movement have wedded themselves to it.   That marriage is of a negative nature.   They define their art/architecture / fashion/music not in its own terms but as Not the past. But he past is still central to to their work.  They still allow the past to define the parameters of what they do.    

    I hate to bring politics into this discussion, but it provides a ready example.    I recent years there were a great many voters who only voted because they were anti-Trump or anti-Hillary.  They had no idea what they were for, or where they wanted the country to go, just not this or not that.    

     

    • #2
  3. Marjorie Reynolds Coolidge
    Marjorie Reynolds
    @MarjorieReynolds

    Have you seen Roger Scruton’s documentary Why Beauty Matters? It’s really worth watching. It’s not on YouTube but it’s on Vimeo 

    • #3
  4. Caryn Thatcher
    Caryn
    @Caryn

    Check out this site for some good contemporary art.  And this artist in particular.

    • #4
  5. Caryn Thatcher
    Caryn
    @Caryn

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    Have you seen Roger Scruton’s documentary Why Beauty Matters? It’s really worth watching. It’s not on YouTube but it’s on Vimeo

    Agreed.  Roger Scruton on pretty much anything is excellent.  He also has a book on Beauty.

    • #5
  6. Captain French Moderator
    Captain French
    @AlFrench

    Old Bathos: [Readers are invited to insert the image of favorite examples of hideous buildings in the comments.]

    The Portland Building

    • #6
  7. D.A. Venters Member
    D.A. Venters
    @DAVenters

    I sympathize with you on this.   I can’t say I see a lot of visual art these days, but when I do, it is often completely lost on me.  The celebration of a blank canvas, or nearly blank canvas, just seals it.

    And I’m not one to insist on realistic paintings or poems that rhyme.  I can get behind something abstract every now and then.  I would even agree that deliberate ugliness could be good art (which makes it a thing of beauty in another way).  But when you can’t tell that any effort or thought was put into it, that’s when it loses me.

    I went to college at Miami University (I’m not going to say Miami of Ohio because I shouldn’t have to!  Miami University, located in Oxford, OH,  founded in 1809, was a college when FL was still Spanish Territory.)  It is a beautiful campus, where nearly all the buildings are red-brick colonial style structures, with all kinds of bell towers and steeples.  The one exception?  The freakin’ art museum.  It doesn’t look like a place you might go to and see human achievements in the creation of beauty.  It looks like place you might need to shell for a few hours before attacking with flame-throwers so you can continue your advance through occupied France.

     

    • #7
  8. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    I like this one at the National Gallery.  It reminds me of the music of Paul Hindemith.

    And the title is honest.

    • #8
  9. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Old Bathos: In the Painted Word Tom Wolfe explained how in the modern art world, critics are more important and powerful than artists precisely because the art does not really speak for itself, so the critic’s role is magnified.

    I noticed the importance of art critics and historians when I read The Tsarina’s Lost Treasure, which I reviewed last week. (Click on the link for the review.) One of the book’s arcs was how Gerritt Dou,  the foremost Dutch Master of his day disappeared into obscurity because art critics in the late 19th and early 20th century completely trashed him. At one time one of his paintings was hung next to the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. He was forgotten by the 1960s to the  point where my brother-in-law, an art major, said he had never heard of Dou in his art history classes.

    • #9
  10. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos
    @Kephalithos

    Caryn (View Comment): Check out this site for some good contemporary art. And this artist in particular.

    Ah! Someone, somewhere is making art. That’s good to see.

    • #10
  11. Buckpasser Member
    Buckpasser
    @Buckpasser

    The left and “elite people”  think that art should be about the ugly and not about the beautiful.

    • #11
  12. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Sorry, I just love Morris Louis.  We saw a bunch of his paintings years ago in Seattle, and I have a print of one.  I think his washes of color are very inspiring, and they always make me smile. (you might want to correct the spelling of his name)  His work tends to be very large-scale, so won’t fit in most peoples’ homes.  This is the print I have.

    I agree on modern architecture, though.  A while ago, on my blog I did a photo post about the decoration on old buildings in downtown Seattle.  Please drop by.  

     

    https://rushbabe49.com/2016/07/17/ruffles-and-flourishes-architectural-detail-in-downtown-seattle/

    • #12
  13. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    Sorry, I just love Morris Louis. We saw a bunch of his paintings years ago in Seattle, and I have a print of one. I think his washes of color are very inspiring, and they always make me smile. (you might want to correct the spelling of his name) His work tends to be very large-scale, so won’t fit in most peoples’ homes. This is the print I have.

    I agree on modern architecture, though. A while ago, on my blog I did a photo post about the decoration on old buildings in downtown Seattle. Please drop by.

     

    https://rushbabe49.com/2016/07/17/ruffles-and-flourishes-architectural-detail-in-downtown-seattle/

    My first rule in evaluating art is whether it could have been produced by accident or by someone under 5 years old.

    • #13
  14. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos
    @Kephalithos

    In architecture, any attempt to create something remotely beautiful, edifying, or traditional is inevitably smeared as “inauthentic” ahistorical nonsense or “Disneyfied” nostalgic trash. Traditionalism is acceptable only if it’s done ironically. And the bar for what counts as traditional is shockingly low. (Venturi’s great challenge to modernist architectural orthodoxy was . . . a wonky triangle.)

    Now, to be fair, much revivalism these days is badly done. But it’s badly done because architects and builders have lost the knowledge of how to do it well.  This knowledge — the knowledge of how to build well — can only be recovered by practice. It’ll never be recovered so long as architects stay within the comfortable modernist box.

    • #14
  15. Kelly B Member
    Kelly B
    @KellyB

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    Sorry, I just love Morris Louis. We saw a bunch of his paintings years ago in Seattle, and I have a print of one. I think his washes of color are very inspiring, and they always make me smile. (you might want to correct the spelling of his name) His work tends to be very large-scale, so won’t fit in most peoples’ homes. This is the print I have.

    I agree on modern architecture, though. A while ago, on my blog I did a photo post about the decoration on old buildings in downtown Seattle. Please drop by.

     

    https://rushbabe49.com/2016/07/17/ruffles-and-flourishes-architectural-detail-in-downtown-seattle/

    Filippo Lippi Vergine delle Rocce | Mundabor's Blog

    Compare and contrast. Fra Filippo Lippi’s Vergine delle Rocce.

    • #15
  16. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj


    Old Bathos
    : Many years ago I went to the National Gallery of Art in DC (which I used to do more often)

    Last time the lovely Mrs E and I were there was for the Vermeer exhibit.    That was tremendous.

    Old Bathos:

    [Readers are invited to insert the image of favorite examples of hideous buildings in the comments.]

    There can be no better example than the hellscape that is NYCs Penn Station.   It is a dark, fetid rabbit warren.   They tore down acres of Travertine marble and glass to produce this abomination.  “You arrived in NYC like a god”

    They are now trying to make amends by refurbishing the post office across the street into a new train station…but they can’t replace what was lost.

    • #16
  17. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    Kephalithos (View Comment):

    Caryn (View Comment): Check out this site for some good contemporary art. And this artist in particular.

    Ah! Someone, somewhere is making art. That’s good to see.

    The Seward website shows an artist with a very acute eye, with a talent for bringing personality out from his sitters.  His work is exquisite.  The fact that his portrait is in front of an exquisite Vermeer “The Girl with the Red Hat”, shows where his heart lies.

    The Art Renewal Center seems to be publicizing a lot of kitschy, shallow stuff.

    Good realism.  Poor realism.

    Realistic Art does not mean Good Art.

    • #17
  18. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    Sorry, I just love Morris Louis. We saw a bunch of his paintings years ago in Seattle, and I have a print of one. I think his washes of color are very inspiring, and they always make me smile. (you might want to correct the spelling of his name) His work tends to be very large-scale, so won’t fit in most peoples’ homes. This is the print I have.

    I agree on modern architecture, though. A while ago, on my blog I did a photo post about the decoration on old buildings in downtown Seattle. Please drop by.

     

    https://rushbabe49.com/2016/07/17/ruffles-and-flourishes-architectural-detail-in-downtown-seattle/

    My first rule in evaluating art is whether it could have been produced by accident or by someone under 5 years old.

    Old Bathos, by your first rule, the Louis above, the Lewis in the OP, and the LeWitt that I introduced are all “art”.  Yes?  No?

    • #18
  19. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    The title of this post got me all excited. I thought it meant that my career was about to hit its peak instead of decline.

    • #19
  20. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    Old Bathos: In an article related to his Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe quoted an architect who said that it’s bad enough they make him build those glass and metal boxes but then they go and “put a turd in the plaza” meaning the obligatory large stupid blob sculpture that pollutes whatever shared, open space is provided in every office building in America built in the last 70 years. A huge ugly blob or even nothing at all (perhaps a dramatic use of the white reserve?) can be art so long as it is jarring, antagonistic to what every culture in human history would regard as beautiful, and is certified as such by official critics

    If you haven’t,  read Wolfe’s  “The Painted Word”

    It does for “fine art” what Bauhaus did for architecture.

    My friend son and I visited that gallery when in DC and just laughed uproariously at the “art” inside.

    In particular a Warhol that consisted of an 8mm movie of the Empire State building.

    “Empire is a 1964 black-and-white silent art film by Andy Warhol. When projected according to Warhol’s specifications, it consists of eight hours and five minutes of slow motion footage of an unchanging view of the Empire State Building.”

    *Edit. Sorry I missed your direct reference to The Painted Word.  Mea Culpa.

    • #20
  21. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Old Bathos: The book explained that I was wrong to think that the artist was just leaving most of the canvas blank. Actually, it was “a dramatic use of the white reserve.”

    Can they show me a formulaic use of the white reserve?

    Didn’t think so.

    • #21
  22. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Percival (View Comment):

    Old Bathos: The book explained that I was wrong to think that the artist was just leaving most of the canvas blank. Actually, it was “a dramatic use of the white reserve.”

    Can they show me a formulaic use of the white reserve?

    How about this?

    • #22
  23. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    I’m not sure anything can adequately prepare a person for the first glimpse of Selfridges department store in Birmingham in the UK:

    Selfridges Birmingham, UK

    • #23
  24. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    Kelly B (View Comment):
    Compare and contrast. Fra Filippo Lippi’s Vergine delle Rocce.

    Whenever I come across this early DaVinci, I have a hard time looking away (Ginevra De’Benci). @kellyb

    See the source image

    • #24
  25. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos
    @Kephalithos

    She (View Comment): I’m not sure anything can adequately prepare a person for the first glimpse of Selfridges department store in Birmingham in the UK:

    Egad. I thought I’d seen it all . . .

    • #25
  26. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    [Readers are invited to insert the image of favorite examples of hideous buildings in the comments.]

    The Hubert H. Humphrey HHS building in DC. It even has some “art” right next to it.

    See the source image

    • #26
  27. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    She (View Comment):

    I’m not sure anything can adequately prepare a person for the first glimpse of Selfridges department store in Birmingham in the UK:

    Selfridges Birmingham, UK

    Huh. Looks like a purse. Or maybe a weird steampunk locomotive.

    • #27
  28. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Caryn (View Comment):

    People started getting away with being lazy, I think. Good art takes effort, lots of it. So does good thinking and good government. Laziness started to pay and, as Reagan said (more or less), the more you pay for something the more of it you get.

    Never think harder about a work of art than the artist did.

    • #28
  29. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    I’m not sure anything can adequately prepare a person for the first glimpse of Selfridges department store in Birmingham in the UK:

    Selfridges Birmingham, UK

    Huh. Looks like a purse. Or maybe a weird steampunk locomotive.

    Women’s hospital at Northwestern University in Chicago.

     

    We were told the windows were representative of a portion of a woman’s anatomy….

    • #29
  30. D.A. Venters Member
    D.A. Venters
    @DAVenters

    OldPhil (View Comment):

    [Readers are invited to insert the image of favorite examples of hideous buildings in the comments.]

    The Hubert H. Humphrey HHS building in DC. It even has some “art” right next to it.

    See the source image

    Lovely.  Ya’ gotta love a government building, dedicated to health and human services, whose architecture says, “To live is to suffer, the Earth is intolerable, and we will crush your spirit forever.  You are a drone, a worker bee, and every one of you should be incarcerated in a concrete hive.”

    • #30