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ART TIMES Sept/ Oct 2009

AS TIME PASSES and the denigration and derision of academic principles in art are now de rigueur, it seems as if we get farther and farther away from any traces of beauty in much of contemporary art. Anger, outrage, and ridicule rule the day, art being used as either a tool to bludgeon the public into political correctness or as snide commentary on those still committed to craftsmanship. Crudeness, ugliness, brutality, coarseness, garishness, silliness — all are lavishly and gleefully laid on in an effort to shock, to make us take notice, to cause us to reconsider our wayward courses. “Gasp!” “Cringe!” “Shudder!” “Groan!” “Recoil!” “Cower!” are the orders of the day. Oh, I know that serving a political or social agenda had been practiced by the old masters — but what makes Michelangelo’s art ‘live’ today has little to do with his arguments with the Pope, and what makes Shakespeare’s tragedies continue to be relevant has little to do with his feelings about Elizabethan rule — and need we mention the Greek poets of the second half of the 8th century BCE who can still stir our souls? Do not Homer or Hesiod or Solon or Xenophanes continue to speak to us, human to human, in poetry written over twenty-five centuries ago? We can list such examples ad infinitum, but you get the point — these works of art are revered today precisely because they rose above the creator’s life and times. In his new book,* a condensed philosophical treatise on the history of beauty, Roger Scruton notes in his chapter entitled ‘The Flight from Beauty’ (pg. 169) that, according to ‘The modernist apology’, “The repudiation of beauty gains strength from a particular vision of modern art and its history. According to many critics writing today a work of art justifies itself by announcing itself as a visitor from the future. The value of art is a shock value: to remind us of the ceaseless change which is the only permanent thing in human nature.” OK. But then, why do we need cable news channels if we have to resort to art to undermine our peace of mind, to constantly bring to our attention that we live in a despicable world full of despicable people? And how about the tabloids? Aren’t they filling us enough with despair? So wait a minute, Mr. Steiner, don’t you want to know what the world is coming to? Why choose to be the ostrich with his head in the sand? Don’t you care? Well, yes, I do — but then what is the use of those oh, so many channels that can fill my head from morning ‘till night with doom and gloom? Besides, does shock in itself deliver anything other than sound and fury that signifies nothing? Is it the case — as I often fear when I view such art — that, to tweak McLuhan, the message is little else than the message? Because, if that’s all there is, my love, then let’s keep dancin’ — for even that’s better than gasping, recoiling, cringing and groaning. If it may be argued that this new ‘art’ is meant to make us aware, it seems a far cry from the ‘enlightenment’ expected from art in days of yore. What of those who look longingly back to those days of Bernard Berenson’s “life enhancing” art? Are they to be completely ignored, their tastes and preferences re-tooled to reflect current idiom? What happened to “a word to the wise, etc.” instead of a deafening barrage of crudity and outrage bombarding our senses? Granted that we are not all wise — but when has mankind ever been so? Elsewhere in his book, Scruton revisits those times when ‘Beauty’ used to be equated with ‘Truth’ and “Goodness’. Have we really traveled so far in sophistication that we no longer need such outdated notions in our lives? As for me, ‘stuck in time’ as I may be, I dearly miss feeling uplifted by art. I want my soul — as soiled as it may be by the times I live in — because it is so soiled — to soar, to be ‘enhanced’, to be cleansed by an inkling of something beyond the everyday.
*Beauty by Roger Scruton. Oxford University Press, 2009.