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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.
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?Published in