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What is art? "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like."

I tend to think of Art as including not only the graphic medium, but sound and writing as well. But because I discuss the latter forms elsewhere, in this dicussion I'll stick to talking about "art" as it's commonly understood: visual fine art.

Even in this limited form, art is worth study. As a communicated representation of internal beliefs, art can provoke, inspire, uplift, degrade, disgust, glorify, and enlighten... and anything capable of inciting such a range of reaction is worthy of examination.

My Views

I'll say it right up front: I prefer Realism. While I can admire Cubism and Surrealism and Impressionism and so on for experimenting in new forms of expression, if forced to choose I'll take a Vermeer over a Mondrian any day of the week.

Fine art over the past few centuries seems to have gone through three phases. In the first phase, the goal of art was to be a reflection of reality. The only "message" was explicit in the work's subject.

In the second phase (whose origin I mark roughly at the early 1800s) art began to have a symbolic subtext. Rather than being a direct communication of a subject to the viewer, valued on the basis of how accurately the subject was rendered, artists started to play games with the viewer. They invited him to replace his objective view of the work with a subjective view, in which the message was implicit in how the subject was presented, rather than explicit in the subject itself. The subject still mattered, but the self-conscious and self-referential aspects of the work produced ambiguity in the viewer's mind about the meaning of the work. The Impressionists led the way, followed in a highly conscious manner by Rene Magritte and others.

In the quest to expand the subjects of art from the real to the abstract, new forms of representation were required. To put it less politely, style began to replace substance.

By the first third of the twentieth century we saw examples of the third stage, in which the message is neither explicitly nor implicitly about the subject at all: modern art is about the artist. Rather than a communication intended to stimulate thought or evoke feeling in the viewer (even if only of uncertainty), the mainstream of today's art is inward-looking, self-absorbed, and scornful of itself and its viewers.

The first two words of The Who's rock anthem "Tommy" say it all: "See me."

Curiously, this personalization of art leads to two extremes of interpretation of the function of art. In one view, style is immaterial; in the other, style is all there is.

In the latter case, exemplified by the droppings of Jackson Pollock, the trippy airbrush art of Peter Max, and the deliberately banal output of Andy Warhol, the style itself is the subject. To concentrate solely on style expresses the artist's nihilistic opinion that content is pointless because all subjects are worthless.

In the more serious case where style is completely abandoned, it is rejected in order to concentrate attention on the true subject: the artist. No representational metier is thought to have intrinsic value; all styles are equally useless because they all take attention away from the artist. A style is borrowed or invented only long enough to express the artist's opinion, then it is discarded as a distraction.

The result of this personalization of art is to make it impossible to speak about art itself. If you criticize a work, you are not simply stating an opinion about the expression of that work, you are attacking the artist. If you question spending tax money on art, you are worse than a philistine; you are engaging in hate speech.

This leads naturally to the fourth and final stage of art as predicted by Spengler. If art cannot be criticized, then art will be conscripted by the State because the State does not wish to be criticized. Art becomes a tool of propaganda. From this comes the final decline into triumphalism and gigantic display, both substance and style stripped of any power to enlighten.

I'm hoping Spengler was wrong. But I wouldn't bet on it.



The Smart-Ass Guide to Art-- an accessible look at some artists

Yahoo WebMuseum-- a collection of art from various cultures

Artifacts from Mao's Cultural Revolution-- what happens to art when it becomes politicized

Non-Western Art History Timeline-- a nice overview of the progress of art

Art Movements and Periods-- a short art history dictionary

"Know Your Enemies"-- the Electronic Frontier Foundation's "Enemies List" of organizations it accuses of trying to defend Western culture

The National Endowment for the Arts-- hear their side of censorship/decency issue (if you can find it)

Findlaw.Com-- the text of the recent Supreme Court decision (NEA v. Finley) upholding the Congressional requirement that the NEA consider "decency" in using tax money to fund art. Includes yet another of Justice Scalia's classic sensible (and wryly funny) opinions.

Americans for the Arts-- a torturous misinterpretation of the Finley decision. (Interestingly, this opinion was written by a lawyer who filed an amicus brief with the Court on behalf of People for the American Way and other fellow travelers. Equally interesting, it is published on-line by "Americans for the Arts," a group whose Web page is prominently linked to by the NEA on its own home page, and described as one of its "Public Partners.")

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