“On or about December 1910, human character changed,” wrote Virginia Woolf. She was referring to the effects on culture of the controversial exhibition, “Manet and the Post-Impressionists,” organized by her friend and fellow modernist, Roger Fry. Woolf’s statement gives some credence to the argument made by Michael Lind in this journal in which he describes an irreparable change that he believes happened in the world of art at a particular point in time. He locates this change earlier than Woolf: in the beginning of the 19th century, when, he says, rich capitalists began to replace elite representatives of church and state as patrons of the arts. He also condemns the change, where Woolf doesn’t (she, after all, was central to it). Indeed, Lind’s essay is a tantrum on the subject.
I’ve had such tantrums myself, so I understand where he’s coming from. But that doesn’t mean I think he’s right. Maybe it’s because I’ve been teaching undergraduates for over 30 years and have gone through all the phases — irritation, disappointment, anger, disgust — at the benightedness of youth and the crassness of contemporary culture. I’ve come out on the other side with something akin to a perspective. I get how Lind feels — but I think he’s wrong.
Lind believes that his art history courses in college misled him about the nature of art, given that work that he was taught was driven by elevated values and a sense of continuity, seems now to be dictated by greedy capitalists interested in sensationalism and resale. He doesn’t like contemporary art and the contemporary art scene, and this makes him feel cheated by the lessons he learned in his art history classes. He says he wants his money back.
To refute him, I will first take issue with his notion that the church and state that once supported art were somehow worthy in a way that a system driven by capitalist interests is not. Patrons like the Medici may have had good taste (though even here, one could say that this taste was taught to us by our art history profs in college). But good taste or not, these early patrons were certainly self-serving and self-aggrandizing above all else, no purer in their interests than those of the capitalists that buy art today.
Second, I take issue with Lind’s view that his art history courses taught him a false continuity. Didn’t the guild culture of the early Renaissance emerge out of the middle ages, and the city states of Renaissance Italy coalesce into the modern industrial nation? If history has continuity, why should the art that it produces not have it too? I lugged around my Janson’s History of Art in college and listened to the great Vincent Scully intone about the art historical tradition. Scully was a rock star of an art history prof when I had him — and he continued to be one when my children had him a generation later. I never felt that either Janson or Scully were oblivious to the social contexts that changed art. Lind’s claim that there now exists a new artless art is in keeping with the kind of disruptive originality that art always tries for but which depends on its predecessor as an antagonist (this is true, by the way, of Lind’s argument, where historical continuity, elevated values, and a certain kind of knowingness are his antagonists.) Didn’t the early Renaissance artists who painted their patrons’ faces onto the faces of saints scandalize an older generation used to seeing only generic saints? Aren’t Warhol’s Brillo Boxes a critique of the consumer culture that Lind says has destroyed art? Isn’t the white canvas that he disparages a challenge to discriminate among shades of white much as the cloaks of the medieval madonnas encouraged us to discriminate among shades of blue?
It would be too fatiguing to go on with such comparisons. Art, by definition, does not lend itself to exact analogy, and bad art exists not only in the present but in the past — though some of us are as entranced by the patina of age as our philistine peers are by the dollar signs of the marketplace.
In Response To...
“The fine arts don’t matter any more to most educated people. This is not a statement of opinion; it is a statement of fact.”
When Lind says that young people don’t care about art nowadays, I must also take issue. He has decided to dismiss works as trivial or simplistically political that can be nuanced, interesting, and indeed profoundly artful. Yes, much of this art has become more popular — or, rather, has returned to being popular (religious art of the middle ages and state art of the Renaissance was popular, even as it did double duty elevating its personal or institutional patrons). The distinction between high and low was very much part of the art history industry that Lind decries as having sold him a bill of goods. (By the same token, an argument could be made that many HBO series are a new high art — the production values are certainly high enough and the price of premium cable guarantees an elite audience).
If the patrons of yesteryear put their work on display in churches and palazzos, our postmodern entrepreneurs put theirs on display in museums — or on the internet. And if no one cares about art, why then did I have to elbow my way through the crowds at the Sargent exhibit last weekend at the Met? Of course, Sargent, for all his debt to Velasquez, was profoundly linked to the marketplace, his “Madame X” nothing if not a sensational fashion artifact.
Moreover, not caring about art isn’t new. Those dinner parties that Lind recalls happened when he and his pals were fresh out of college and still besotted by their art history courses. He was, I suspect, a member of a select group — “the humanities major” — of which there may be fewer nowadays but which never predominated outside of the most elite institutions. One can say that the time when everyone knew the latest exhibit at MOMA and drank from the well of the Italian Renaissance is like the fabled Golden Age. Even when I was in college, a large swath of my peers didn’t have a clue about the difference between Raphael and Michelangelo, and certainly didn’t attend gallery shows or Whitney Biennials.
The fact is that kids still talk about art, if not the art of Raphael and Michelangelo or even Yoko Ono at the Met (though I’ve heard some talk about these things, too). They talk about music (could one have imagined that rap and hip-hop, so maligned by us old fogies, would turn up in a fabulous new musical about our founding fathers?); they talk about graphic novels; video games ; and television. Why is knowing the name of Martha Graham more art-worthy than knowing the name of David Simon, the auteur of The Wire?
Lind has chosen to define new kinds of creative expression in such a way as to make them seem laughable as art. But of course, there’s another perspective: graphic art can be a sumptuous and surprising admixture of words and pictures — no need to trivialize it as Marvel comics; video games, still in their infancy as an art form, are a potential interactive cinema; and the new television is a long-form narrative that can do things with character development never before achieved. Game of Thrones is a favorite in the genre for reasons I hope to discuss in a subsequent essay, but it is , for all its interest, far from the best television that kids are watching. It’s the product of a very accomplished but perhaps not very inspired workshop (Insofar as TV series require great armies of creative workers they resemble Renaissance Master workshops).
As for Lind’s denigration of art as fashion, I would retort that fashion is now recognized as art for valid reasons. I may never be able to afford a Hermes Birkin bag or a Chanel suit, but I appreciate the classic beauty and craftsmanship of these items, as I do the startling originality of Alexander McQueen’s unwearable garments. Fashion has become art, I propose, because women have been allowed to have a say in what art is, which they didn’t in the period that Lind regrets has passed.
It is true and not unrelated to this fact that there is now more of a tendency to link art to its social and political context. But this has to do with the natural evolution of art itself. When Virginia Woolf made that comment about the change in human character in 1910, she could have been referring to the beginning of narrative film, occurring around this time. Five years later, The Birth of a Nation premiered — a box office hit, a brilliant cinematic achievement, and a profoundly racist work. Movies like The Birth of a Nation were popular and political in a way that no previous art form had been because they melded dynamic visual realism to narrative form. Literature always had a narrative component, but fine art, by being static and visual, had largely remained aloof from it. With film, that separation evaporated, ushering in a new era in which art could more closely mimic reality and where literacy was no longer required: Hence an art form that could shape the popular imagination more radically than ever before.
I agree that some pleasures are lost when so much context, political and otherwise, is brought to bear in viewing a work of art. One experiences less of that sacred reverence that earlier art — or, more correctly, earlier art criticism — encouraged. But art has always happened in the context of social, cultural, and economic interests. The art forms in circulation now simply bring that to the fore, and this tends to demystify their sacred status.
I think that Michael Lind — like myself — is nostalgic for his youth, for the exhilaration he felt in those art history courses long ago and at those dinner parties with his newly launched compeers, heady with a sense of creative possibility as they swaggered into galleries and museums. The world lay all before him then. It seemed beautiful. He’s angry that that beauty didn’t turn out to coincide, as neatly as it once seemed, with truth. •