We live in a coarse age. In many ways, big and small, the graces of life are being undermined and diminished. A prime example is the world of art where lovely and inspiring canvases have been replaced with . . . we’ll get to that soon. Let’s start with a disclaimer — I am not an art expert. I took the Art History survey in college and enjoy the occasional Sunday afternoon at the museum, but I have no special training in art. However, that’s never stopped me from having an opinion before – so, here goes!
It seems to me that art exists to express beauty and help us find truth. Beauty exalts the human spirit, shows us things beyond our small life, gives our soul rest from difficulties, and brings us closer to God. Truth is necessary because it is real, substantial, and just. When truth and beauty are united in a work of art, especially if they point to the eternal, we are ennobled and satisfied.
There are many examples of art that embody the idea of beauty and truth. A few that come to mind are Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, Renoir’s On the Terrace, and da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
These pieces have much in common despite their disparate subject matter, media, and time of creation. First, in all three, the detail is rich and the use of color and shadow is both complex and pleasing to the eye. There is also notable symmetry and balance in all of the works. The themes are deep and meaningful — the last supper of Christ, mother and child, and an inspiring place of worship. Most simply (and profoundly), they are a joy to look at. I’ve had the privilege to view two of these works in person, and it is a transcendent experience.
Contrast the harmony, beauty and meaning of these works with some examples from today’s art scene (known as “Contemporary Art”) — each of these are from artsy.net’s “Ten Artworks Tell the Story of Contemporary Art” list:
The best thing I can say about these works is that they are somewhat playful and whimsical. Other than that, it is hard to find meaning or value. The Artist is Present and Rhein II seem intentionally designed to strip away any notion of significance. They certainly invite the viewer in — however, the invitation is to nothingness. Huffy Howler defies all attempts to divine a message — it appears to be a collection of junk thrown together at the last minute. According to the artsy.com review, that actually is the point. Apparently, the artist was looking to contrast the modesty of her work against larger scale “monumental” projects. I guess she succeeded at that, but not much else.
As for values like symmetry, beauty, coherence and eternal significance, the Contemporary Art pieces have little to recommend them. They do not seek to elevate or inspire. At best, they are social commentaries on the world around them. In order to understand what those commentaries are, one has to research the back story. For example, it turns out that the Rhein II artist digitally removed all things from the scene except for the river itself. He explains: “Paradoxically, this view of the Rhine cannot be obtained in situ, a fictitious construction was required to provide an accurate image of a modern river.” This is interesting as an intellectual matter, but does not add value to the work of art as a visual or sensory experience.
In the end, Contemporary Art is an expression of the boredom and lack of meaning that pervades modern life. Western civilization, especially in the high culture realm, is both exhausted and has lost its nerve. Thankfully, the cultural heritage left by our forbears is still available to us. We can still view the works I reference above, read Jane Austen, listen to a concerto by Bach, or see a play by Shakespeare. Also, if you would like to read an academic treatment by an author who largely shares my view of the failings of Contemporary Art, but does so in a much more rich and thoughtful way, check out Michele Marder Kamhi’s Reflections on Art, Pseudo Art, Art Education & Theory.
Over the next few weeks, I challenge you to step outside of our mean and vulgar art landscape. Instead, take in some of the world’s great culture. It will please your eye, raise your spirits, and take you to a different and better place.