Contemporary Art: Unbaffling the public

Once, during the preparation of a “new music” broadcast on the BBC London Third Programme, the well-known German-born British music critic Hans Keller decided to do an experiment. He and a couple of fellow conspirators stepped into a studio, turned on the recording equipment, and proceeded to make some random noises, banging on metal tubes, plucking strings, and doing some heavy breathing and groaning. The sounds were then broadcast, along with some “authentic” avant-garde music, and were subsequently reviewed without much enthusiasm, but in a serious enough vein, by the London Times music critic. As Keller pointed out, the interesting thing here was not that the Times critic gave the music some credence but that he accepted it as music at all. There was plenty of bad music in the past, Keller noted, but at least in the age of Haydn, or even of Mahler, one could tell the difference between what was music and what was not. Now the difference seems to have dissolved; almost anything is music if you say it is, or present it in an accepted context of musical performance. This problem, of course, applies to all the arts –in fact, since the Keller experiment some decades ago we have entered a phase of full-blown postmodernism that makes it even more difficult to tell the difference between “art” and “non-art” or between art and a leg-pulling or aesthetic swindle. Many of the public – a public that in Canada is acutely conscious it is paying some of the artist’s tab – find themselves moved to anger and cynicism at being asked to accept some of the new music, some of today’s conceptual and environmental art. Many have not even caught up with the movement of painting away from representation, or with the shift of music away from traditional harmonies and formal structures; they balk at fiction that denies them a conventional involvement in “story,” while most modern poetry with its ellipses, arcane references, self-conscious brutalities and banalities, baffles them altogether.

If we look at these responses more closely, many of them can be attributed to those two good old enduring qualities of human nature which, for all the wonders of modern technology, we are in no danger of losing, namely, ignorance and sheer laziness. Much art manipulates what is familiar in ways that we are culturally conditioned to accept, but some art has always pushed us to the boundaries. When that happens, those who take the trouble to learn what is going on are able to make judgements that are more than visceral, or in which the visceral is wedded to the intellectual in a useful and creative way. Not that informed people are always right; many of the best-informed critics in history have made ridiculous judgements about art. Blindness, a tendency to the parti pris, can afflict even the most perspicacious analyst. That, however, does not invalidate the principle that to be well-informed is, in general, to be better able to judge and perceive. The fact that even the well-informed can make mistakes shouldn’t lead us to the cynical conclusion that all judgements are equally valid, or that none are. In art, as in other areas, even though knowledge isn’t everything, it does help to know what one is talking about.

When I encounter people who are suspicious of and hostile to modern art, I often notice that their unease occurs because of a hidden assumption that good art must speak to them directly, without any effort on their part, and that if it fails to do so, then the art itself is at fault. Their reasoning tells them that their judgements, however uninformed, are just as valid as the judgement of the person who has taken the trouble to learn about the work in question. This attitude is surely the kind those brought up on the clichés of “democracy” are particularly prone to; they assume that even in matters of art one person’s vote is as good as another’s–an absurd assumption. Presumably the same people would not like to have this method used if they were on an operating table facing major surgery; in that case they would prefer that the skilled doctor do his or her work without seeking a consensus from people who happened to be passing in the hall outside. Democracy in art, like all democracy, only works well if the participants take the trouble to educate themselves; there is no innate wisdom, no mystical power, in people merely shooting their mouths off.

Having made this point, one is still confronted by the issue raised by Hans Keller, namely, that sometime in the past one hundred years Western society reached a turning point, a point at which our power to define and separate “art” from other aspects of reality seems to have been lost. It is not only that old ideas of beauty and formal excellence have been questioned, resulting in such phenomena as nonrepresentational painting, 12-tone music, and surrealist poetry, but that the very boundaries and definitions of art itself have been cast in doubt. We now have music that to many people sounds like random noise; we have conceptual art that offers us displays of tuna-fish sandwiches, vacuum cleaners or sanitary napkins; and we have films that run for hours recording the wonder of an unmade bed or a dripping water tap. Famous buildings are wrapped in bright-coloured plastic, displays in galleries re-create old garages stuffed with junk, and books are written that go out of their way to undermine the reader’s efforts to sink into a good old-fashioned story. And even if they do not confound our sense of what art is, or should be, exhibitions, concerts, publications, film, and video works seem to have lost all contact with beauty. Instead, they harangue us with messages about the failures of our society; they insist on the political dimension at all costs; they seldom allow us a margin of comfort, or any way of transforming the grinding reality of our everyday lives.

It is no surprise that our age has become, above all, an age of nostalgia in which so many people seek out the icons of the past as a refuge from this incessant thrusting forward by artists of the seemingly trivial, the ugly, and the incoherent. Nor is it astonishing that Romantic music (including romantic music written by our contemporaries) and old-fashioned opera are having such a revival; that many people prefer mystery stories to the latest avant-garde novel; that The Phantom of the Opera and Cats make millions; that people rush to collect every kind of “antique,” including those that are only a few decades old; and that there are fads focusing on Jane Austen or Maxfield Parrish.

The older definitions set limits on what might be accepted as art. Medieval philosophy suggested that art was simply that which is well–made. Eighteenth-century neoclassical views asserted that art was a sharpened, heightened reflection of reality. The Romantics, however, began to change the rules of the game when they related art to the creative unconscious. Many of them saw the unconscious as being in touch with higher or deeper truth. Great art, they affirmed, would reveal the Ultimate Reality. And even after modern skepticism had denied the possibility of such a immanent-transcendent Reality, the notion of the “inspired” work held centre focus. God might be dead, but the notion of the godlike artist remained alive and well. While in prose fiction canons of realism persisted in many forms from the first decades of the nineteenth century almost to the present, the important criterion of a poet’s, painter’s, or composer’s success became his or her power to render the deepest insights of Goethe’s, Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s “deep mind.” Western culture, for many complex reasons, fully accepted the notion of the “inspired artist” as a central channel to psychological, social, or cosmic truth. Anything the great artist touched was deemed to have a kind of power, and art works became the independent children of the creator, objects of spiritual mana in their own right. In modern times the canon of greatness, of iconic status in western culture, derives from the artist’s claim to originality, stylistic uniqueness, and revelatory insight.

Artists of today profit from this cloak of authority, even when they use it to promote an angry or esoteric vision. Their anger is understandable. The impact of two world wars, the un-greening of the planet, the systematic inhumanities of so many modern political and social systems –these have encouraged artistic protest and rage rather than celebration. The old aesthetic of beauty, which even James Joyce (in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1914 ) could still sanction, seemed to wither away. Joyce’s canons of harmony, wholeness, and radiance seem hardly to apply to post–modem art. The contemporary artist no longer necessarily seeks to enhance the pleasure of the spectator, or to induce a catharsis that might result in a purification of thought. The old ideal of inducing in the reader, viewer, or listener some ultimate moment of pleasure, a peak of “aesthetic arrest,” has disappeared. Shock, alienation, anger, or indifference seem to be the reactions of many to post-modern art. Nor do its perpetrators often wish for more; they console themselves with the plaudits of their fellow artists, or busy themselves making out applications for their next government grant, to be awarded in most cases by those with a stake in perpetuating such a system. Post-modern criticism, situating all art in a specific social context, and anxious to slay the old dragon of elitism, has opened the doors to much that is dreary and unsatisfying in art.

Indeed, our civilization has finally evolved to the point where almost anything can be art. Contrary to some views, however, the breaking of the frame, of the boundaries that signaled the domain of the traditional artwork, has been a very dubious “liberation.” The revolutionary artists who created “modern art” –Cezanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, PIcasso, Matisse, Bonnard, Kandinsky–clung to notions of beauty that were tranformations, not utter rejections of the traditional ideas of beauty. More recent, “unboundaried” art, however, has come about as part of a reaction against traditional hierarchies, not merely the hierarchies of the “establishments,” but against the very notion that “quality” can be associated only with beauty, complexity and superior skill, vision, and insight. The old Platonic idea of beauty has been overturned in favour of a kind of ultimate worldliness and democracy. The found poem, the found object, an installation of seemingly trivial objects, random sounds, tuna fish lunches, actors stripped and posed for the audience, women’s dresses made of animal flesh, all these are given the dignity of art, made relevant, one supposes, by the vision of the creator. But this vision is in fact validated by the testimony of a few experts who are part of an elite bureaucracy that makes its living by “interpreting” art for the poor uninformed masses, if supposedly on their behalf!
With such a system in effect, no wonder the public is indifferent, or suspicious! And if we object that all this is (literally and figuratively) a put-up job, we are shot down as antiquarians or elitists, whereas the real antiquarians are those who substitute collections of provocative bric-a-brac for original creative material. T. S. Eliot wrote of fragments “shored against the ruins,” the Dadaists made a necessary leap into the absurd and mocked the pretensions of a played-out system, but how far can artists go in the direction of mere ad-hoc display, of bricolage in the name of “outrage? One way the artist may push away the public is by the use of esoteric or special symbolism, by a too rarefied aesthetic. Another way is by throwing the familiar back at us and refusing to give it boundaries or to specify meanings, while telling us it is to our benefit to see things anew.

In music, during this century the rigid and rather esoteric musical language of Arnold Schönberg kept the public away, until by the 1950s this kind of accepted musical composition had become the provenance of a new and sterile elite who had lost the power to communicate with audiences. At the same time, Charles Ives’s importation of all-inclusive everyday sounds into music threatened to bury the public in a briocolage of random unaesthetic noise–except that Ives used his new ideas judiciously, sparingly, and often with startling creativity. Only recently has a true broadening occurred in musical composition, traditional beauty of sound is not scorned, nor familiar formal styles, while experimentation of all kinds exists, and is accepted as part of many of the newest works. This is surely to the benefit of both creator and audience. For how is a creative society to maintain itself in the face of a huge chasm between artist and public?

In the past artworks were often the cohesive force that held society together, the spiritual ramparts that, however hard to climb, could give a view, sometimes breathtaking, sometimes bleak, of human nature and destiny. Most art throughout history has worked to console, to enlighten, to resolve contradictions in reality, to carry human minds and hearts beyond the daily round of getting and spending. What kind of future is there for an art that declares itself serious but that so often indulges in the trivial, that excises the mystery from the art-work and therefore drives audiences to nostalgia or to the lowest kinds of popular culture where they feel at home and are entertained? I do not share the historicist notion that we must sanction what is simply because it is. Is no better relation possible between artist and public than one in which the artist has no interest in creating beauty or stimulating a vision of life that feeds the spirit, inspiring us to dream dreams and see visions? Is it really necessary to accept the modern breakdown of artistic boundaries, and the resulting confusion and alienation of the broad public? Must we take for granted that the only way we can salvage the energies of art for society is to declare that “anything goes” Is this not just another form of debasement, akin to the straitjacket of some overriding social or political system? Our new artistic freedom has cast out beauty in the name of “democracy,” in other words in the name of “reflecting our contemporary society, the way we live now.” Do we have to continue to affirm the art that panders to populism by sacrificing the old notions of beauty in favour of mere shock and satire, or casual amusement, or to endure constant affirmations of the everyday in the name of a concealed but ultimately stultifying ideological imperative?

Although conceptual installations of the kind I mostly refer to here seldom interest me, I have visited many. Recently, I dropped in on the Pop Art show at the National Gallery of Canada. In one room sat two attractive blonde young women, dressed exactly alike. They sat beneath a painting of “dualities” by a contemporary British artist, and were part of the art. We spoke briefly to them and found out that they had volunteered to do this and were paid a small fee by the gallery. As we walked away my wife said to me: “That’s the first time I’ve ever had a conversation with a work of art.” Here is fun, and useful boundary-breaking, but surely the experience (although interesting) has little to do with an encounter with a Vermeer, Monet, Gauguin, Picasso, Kandinsky, or the work of any other great artist of the “boundaried” tradition. With the latter there is a much deeper, more personal, more introspective, more “spiritual” experience (activating the spirit in oneself, reaching out to new dimensions of meaning). That is one of the things lost when galleries focus too heavily on the new conceptual art.

We do need new art but we need it in a deeper context, and this only education can provide. Excellent education in the arts should be a priority—and from the earliest grades. As a university teacher, I have been astonished at how little exposure most students get to history, poetry, and classical music – to name three of the greatest lacks. A solid background makes critical discussion at any level more fruitful. Students should realize that the arts are not simply “self-expression,” that they involve technical skills and mastery of material, and that such mastery is achieved in terms of a tradition of expertise and values that one can participate in with real delight. The notion that “anything” is art is here a very destructive notion; much better to encourage the idea that expertise is an essential, but only the first, component of a real knowledge of art It would be useful, too, to redefine and re-establish the credibility of the emotional and aesthetic sides of art. Art has much to do with politics, but it has more to do with pleasure, beauty, and the power of vision that rises beyond the contending ideologies of the moment.

We might begin to question, too, the notion that art is without boundaries, and suggest that collections of junk from the attic, cast-off condoms, wrapped buildings, and random noise-making, while valid for those who wish to promote them, bear the same relation to vital art that sitting on pillars or systematic self-flagellation does to a vital sanctity in religion. In connection with this assertion, it might be a good idea to stop funding really far-out art from government sources. One way to accomplish this goal would be to put more members of the general public on awards juries. The in-group mutual stroking, the cliques that perpetuate themselves, must be undermined, and if sensible well-educated members of the public were involved in the granting process (which they ought to be, since they are paying the bill), there would be better, more sensible decisions. Mistakes there still might be, but the links between artists and audience would be strengthened and self-indulgent narrowness would diminish.

While I think it is extremely important to defend the idea of artistic freedom, and I would be outraged to see even the craziest art suppressed in any way, I think the notion of an avant-garde supported and promoted by the state is intrinsically absurd. The avant-garde should be independent, free to pursue its own devices and to attract the curious and the fanatical as it may. It should not have government support to accomplish this aim.

Once we begin to have a public that is at least minimally educated in the arts, a participating audience, we can even let drop a hint or two that not all artists who proclaim themselves exciting innovators are worthy of our attention, that some of them are, in fact, charlatans. In truth this is something a public better educated in the arts will soon discover for itself, for the present gap between the knowing elite and the doubtful majority is one of the main causes of artistic opportunism.

There are those who will find the preceding discussion narrow or even sinister; others might see it as quixotic. Either they are part of “the scene” and take the public’s alienation and suspicion for granted, or else they are part of that public and expect only the worst kind of bafflement when they encounter anything disturbingly trendy. There are those, too, who might see the foregoing as irrelevant; they anticipate a dissolving of all boundaries and believe that the new century is beginning with an increasingly rich amalgamation of popular culture and high art. The really important artists today, they assume, are those who blend the two, who move easily between levels of meaning and expression; as for forms like opera, these are part of a “museum culture” that will never be important for any but a small elite.

Surely there are more choices for the future than the perpetuation of a “museum culture” on the one hand and a wantonly self-indulgent avant-garde on the other, with a doubtful public wishing a plague on both houses and whiling away its time with the rubbish of television culture. The breakdown of the boundaries between art and reality has not brought the artist closer to the people, and it has confused rather than clarified the role of art in society. Art is much more than self-expression; it exists as much to unify humanity as it does to express the vision of the artist. Now it may be time to set up some boundaries, or to redefine them, if for no other reason than to give both the public and the artist a common vision of what may come out of art which, as the critic Robert Hughes stated in an article in The New Yorker, “is the creation of mutuality, the passage from feeling into shared meaning.” Taken in that sense art can do much for the community, and the community can gain infinitely from the free expression of the artist.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in my book Ideas of North, and subsequently, in the Toronto Star.)

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