A piece of glass can be a mirror or a window. It makes all the difference to what one sees.
The visual arts can be a mirror or a window. Many critics have warned of art’s demise. Artist Ted Mikulski has written of American’s failure to appreciate the visual arts in his book, Art is Dead. Sociologist Philip Rieff described contemporary artists as purveyors of an anti-culture, in effect a deathwork. He claims that contemporary artists’ goal is to celebrate the transgressive ideal—through sexual exhibitionism or religious sacrilege—to undermine the dynamics of cultural authority. It is nihilism visually expressed, or aesthetic profanity.
My son is an artist, working at both the Guggenheim Museum and the International Gazette. His recent fame has come through his association with noted graffiti artist Don Rimx. So it was with real interest that I read Camille Paglia’s Wall Street Journal article (October 6, 2012), “How Capitalism Can Save Art.”
Paglia, University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, is no stranger to controversy or hyperbole. She acknowledges that the transgressive nature of contemporary art has effectively led it into a no exit cul de sac, a creative endgame. She writes, “It’s high time for the art world to admit that the avant-garde is dead.” The reasons she explains are two-fold: an expansion of form and a contraction of ideology. Current vitality of artistic creativity is found in the applied arts, particularly in industrial design. One can think of the artistic valorization of Apple products or the celebration of design in business publications such as Fast Company or by business consultants like Tom Peters.
But there is something lacking in a culture that prizes industrial design but fails to appreciate the value of a painting or a sculpture. “Young people,” Paglia writes, “are avidly immersed in this hyper-technological environment, where their primary aesthetic experiences are derived from beautifully engineered industrial design . . . But there is no spiritual dimension to an iPhone, as there is to great works of art.” The iPhone lacks an iconic dimension—it fails to call one into a world beyond itself. Instead, it mirrors the self-serving narcissism that makes everything all about me. As such this avant-garde cul de sac is a hall of mirrors made of cool brands we wear on our wrists or products we place in our purses.
Paglia concludes, “Is it any wonder that our fine arts have become a wasteland?”
Perhaps it is time to sit up and pay attention. Have we cut ourselves off from the sources of cultural renewal, both aesthetically and spiritually?
The iPhone 5 TV ad suggests that the laws of physics are merely good suggestions, which is itself a postmodern transgressive observation. Planes do not fly on the basis of good suggestions, nor do lives so flourish.
There is in great art as in human sexuality something that calls us beyond ourselves. True art is a window not a mirror. Surely there is a way out of this hall of mirrors for those with eyes to see.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning reminds us, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God: and only he who sees, takes off his shoes.”
Ours is a world in need of the barefoot artist.