ARTICLE: How Art Became Irrelevant


Chris Burden takes a bullet-but is it art?

PARASITIC ELITISTS KILL THE HOST: Article on “How Art Became Irrelevant” by Michael J Lewis

It’s been a long standing observation of mine that contemporary art is undergoing a crisis of relevance. The self indulgence and baseless superiority complex that informs the establishment art industry has alienated the general audience, and made the art world a tiny bubble of elitist pedants pandering to other elitist pedants.

I wish there was a better commonly understood word than “elitist” to describe to presumptuous  bureaucratic  power players that are such a plague in our society. It’s not just the arts, all of our institutions are infected with entitled control freaks that feel they are too special to have any accountability for the results of their agendas. There’s nothing elite about them. They mess up every field of endeavor they get involved in, because all they are really concerned with is their own status and privileges.

The author of the article traces the decline, using the NEA 4 debacle as the contemporary tipping point:

And the American public—left with an impressionistic vision in which urine, bullwhips, and a naked but chocolate-streaked Karen Finley figured largely—drew the fatal conclusion that contemporary art had nothing to offer them. Fatal, because the moment the public disengages itself collectively from art, even to refrain from criticizing it, art becomes irrelevant.

This essay proposes that such a disengagement has already taken place, and that its consequences are dire. The fine arts and the performing arts have indeed ceased to matter in Western culture, other than in honorific or pecuniary terms, and they no longer shape in meaningful ways our image of ourselves or define our collective values. This collapse in the prestige and consequence of art is the central cultural phenomenon of our day…

Such art…offered no coordinates from which society could navigate to find a higher purpose. Rather, it fulfilled the definition of what the late Philip Rieff called a “deathwork,” a work of art that poses “an all-out assault upon something vital to the established culture.”

Given this art’s flagrantly, deliberately transgressive nature, it is remarkable how surprised and bewildered its creators were when they felt the full measure of public disapproval, which came to a climax with the effort to defund the National Endowment for the Arts. After all, having been properly vetted and feted at every step by curators and journalists, academics and bureaucrats, these artists quite reasonably assumed that they were beyond reproach. That there was yet another actor out there in the mists, a public upon whose judgment their fate might depend—a public that might act to withdraw state funding of projects that were expressly intended to transgress its values—seems not to have crossed their minds.

The current caretakers of our culture have been careless. They are blinded by ideology and reactionary hatred for the great traditions of  Western culture. They want to tear it all down and rebuild civilization in their own corrupted image, where they, as the well-connected, will rule.

Humorist James Lileks made his own commentary on the Lewis article, and pokes holes in some of the central dogmas of the arts establishment:

The primary feeling, of course, would be anger (at war, at hypocrisy, at whatever faults in Western Civ consumed the artist at the moment) and sentimental longing, a forward-facing nostalgia, for the Utopia that would result from burning down the accumulated storehouse. (After it had been looted, of course, and the more interesting pieces put up on their mantles.)

How did the atom bomb make the artists think it was pointless to preserve the traditions? Because their use would do away with things, I suppose, but the end result was a culture pre-exhausted for your convenience, one that had assumed the end was nigh and spent its time making grotesque faces in the mirror. It would have been just as potent a response – more so – if they had embraced the positive history of Western Civ and exalted its possibilities, but they were a joyless lot, and the joyless feel judged in the presence of beauty.

Lewis summarizes the outcome of scorched earth march SJWs have made on the arts:

This estrangement has been a disaster for the arts, which need to draw inspiration from the society and culture that is its substrate. It is a myth that an art withdrawn from the realm of public inspection and disapproval is a freer and superior art. The impulse to evade censure can inspire raptures of ingenuity. (The passage of the prim Hays Code in 1932, which led to four decades of censorship in Hollywood, increased the sophistication and wit of American films by a magnitude.) We hear much about art enriching the human experience, which is an agreeable platitude. But it is the other way round. The human experience is needed to enrich art, and without a meaningful living connection to the society that nurtures it, art is a plucked flower.

Chris Burden could never repeat the stunt that made him famous, for the trick about breaking taboos is that you can do it only once. After that, all you can do is endlessly reenact the breaking long after the taboos have gone.

And all that remains is what is broken.

Lileks offers his own conclusions:

I think that museums thrived because going to a museum signified that you were a cultured person, an interesting person, a person open to new things, or at least a person who read the Style section in the newspaper. Having an opinion that was other than laudatory was judgmental, but could be excused if you demonstrated that you understood the artist’s intentions.

You can read what he concludes, but I keep coming back to the same things: it’s not that art is irrelevant, or that people are indifferent to Art, Period, but that High Art has removed itself from a conversation with the culture, and now lectures from barren cul-de-sacs to acolytes in sack-cloths. The art of movies can be much more impressive than a silly video installation of disembodied lips moving in poor sync to a Brazillian folk song to indicate something poverty something Catholocism; the art of contemporary music engages where the abstractions of post-Romantic pain-inducing shriekfests just makes people feel like they’ve stuck their head in a blender full of broken glass.

The students in the author’s class have strong opinions about art. Just not the stuff that’s insulated from criticism because the artist occupies the realm of the permissably pedantic.

I’m more with Lileks here. I have great hope for the future. The fact that the elitist cultural industries have degenerated into such  isolated, unappealing train wrecks would be a profound tragedy…if that was the only option we had. But the failures of the establishment art world is an opportunity for those who have not been corrupted by their short sighted and limited concerns.

The art world is as really as big as humanity itself. In my experience everyone gets excited by good art when they see it, it’s just so much of what the elitist culture presents is not really art at all.

Those who actually understand what art is, what it is for, and what it does well, are stepping into the vacuum created by establishment mismanagement. The sick system of partisan cronyism is dying, and as a new network of communication outside of their tainted hierarchies is developed, their influence will be ultimately destroyed.

Great things are coming, once we clear aside the ruinous rubble of elitist mistakes.