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Modern Art: Friend or Foe? | Joseph Pearce | From Literary Giants, Literary Catholics

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Is modern art merely a load of old rubbish--or, rather, a load of old new rubbish? Certainly much that passes as "art" in our muddled modern world is not worthy of the name. Take, for instance, the garbage posing as art during an exhibition of the shortlisted "artists" for the 2004 Beck's Futures Prize at London's Institute of Contemporary Art. Among the finalists for the £20,000 prize was a British "artist" who had produced a video of two Cilla Black impersonators singing the star's first big hit, Anyone Who Had a Heart. Another finalist, who described himself as an avid train spotter, had produced a twenty-seven-minute video of a freight train. The winner, however, was a Brazilian "artist" who specialized in making sculptures of animals by scraping fluff from new carpets.

Meanwhile, in Cardiff, the Artes Mundi prize, worth £40,000, was won by a Chinese "artist" who had gathered dust from the ruins of the World Trade Center and had scattered it on the floor before tracing a short verse about dust in the dust. Works of "art" honored with major prizes in previous years include piles of bricks, soiled nappies (or soiled diapers for our American readers), an unmade bed decorated with debris such as condoms, dead animals, "sculptures" made by urinating in snow, and the work of an "artist" who specialized in sewing things to the soles of his feet. Et cetera ad nauseam.

The exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) opened a few hours before the millionaire collector and patron of modern art", Charles Saatchi, threw a celebrity-thronged party at his private gallery to launch a new exhibition, titled New Blood, which also professed to champion the avant-garde. The exhibition was greeted with howls of derision by Saatchi's rivals at the ICA. "We're showing the new blood. Saatchi's got old blood", sneered a spokesman for the ICA. Philip Dodd, the ICA's director, added that "the nicest thing to say about Charles is that several artists in his show were in our Beck's exhibition a year ago." In dismissing his rival, Dodd had also unwittingly dismissed himself, and the so-called "art" he promotes, to the dustbin of history. As his comments make abundantly clear, this sort of self-styled modern "art" is not about quality but novelty. It's not about how good it is but how new it is. This year's artists are better than last year's artists purely because they are this year's artists. Last year's artists are already passé. It is, therefore, easy to dismiss this sort of "art" as nothing but dust and fluff that will be blown away by the winds of fashion. After all, as C. S. Lewis quipped, fashions are always coming and going ... but mostly going.

So much for fashion and the false "art" it promotes. What about real modern art? What about art that is truly modern and truly art? Is such art a friend or foe of the Faith? Should Christians be suspicious of such art? Should we trust it?

Such questions cannot be answered-and should not even be asked- until we have asked and answered the more fundamental and radical question What is modern art? And, as is so often the case, it is best to begin by asking what a thing is not before we proceed to a discussion of what it is.

The first thing to be understood is that modern art is not particularly "modern". In the same way that modern history begins several centuries ago, modern art is already many centuries old. It is, in fact, impossible to point definitively to a particular moment when art became modern. The departure from iconography was "modern"; the science of perspective was "modern". Giotto was "modern" in the fourteenth century; Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael were "modern" in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. If "modern" means up-to-date or innovative within the context of one's own time, these artists qualify in every respect as "modern". Paradoxically, they are permanently modern, in the sense that the freshness of their vision is perennial. Their art is fresh because it is incorruptible. One can hardly say the same of soiled nappies, condom-strewn beds or carpet fluff. In this sense, Giotto, Leonardo and Raphael have far more claim to being modern than have the nameless and soon-to-be-forgotten "artists" of today. And, of course, they have a far better claim to being artists.

If we move our discussion of modern art to the nineteenth century, we can see the paradoxes and the tensions at the heart of any discussion of art and modernity. Impressionism, for instance, was perceived as very avant-garde, even dangerously so. According to G. K. Chesterton, a critic who should never be taken lightly, impressionism was the product of philosophical relativism, the absence of definition in the former being the result of the absence of definitive objectivity in the latter. One can see Chesterton's point, and even agree with it, but are we to conclude that there was no good impressionist art? Surely not. Pace Chesterton, we cannot see Monet's masterful vision of Rouen Cathedral in full sunlight as anything but sublime. Similarly, the pro- to impressionism of J.M.W. Turner was truly "modern" in the sense of being avant-garde or ahead of its time. Although one critic dismissed a particularly monochromatic Turner seascape as nothing but "soap-suds", it is the artist and not the critic who has stood the test of time or, more correctly, the test of timelessness. It is indeed a paradox worthy of note that Turner's greatest champion among his contemporaries was John Ruskin, who, as both artist and critic, is better known as a neomedievalist who championed Gothic "tradition" than as an advocate of modern concepts of "impressionism". It is, in fact, an even greater paradox that Ruskin's championing of another artistic movement, the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, exhibited the surprising fact that even tradition can be modern

The Pre-Raphaelites, as their name suggests, sought a return to the purity of a medieval vision of art. In contradistinction to the pastel haze of the impressionists, the Pre-Raphaelites painted in the bold daylight of primary splendor. Their subjects were often taken from literature and myth and were imbued with neomedievalist romanticism. It is a medieval victory over Victorianism, and yet it is also medievalism modified and modernized by Victorianism. And herein lies the dynamism of the paradox. Neomedievalism is both new and medieval. It is the light of tradition seen through the telescope of modernity.

And so to the twentieth century.

Arguably, of all centuries, the last was the worst-at least in terms of the divorce of modernity from tradition. And if this is true of culture in general, it is certainly true of art in particular.

Perhaps Pablo Picasso is more culpable than most for the divorce. He was certainly guilty of adultery, in the sense of the adulteration of the gifts he was given. Unlike many of the modern "artists" who followed his example, Picasso could paint beautifully. The problem is that he ceased to do so. Having established a solid reputation, he sullied himself with inferior "primitive" experiments utterly unworthy of his talent. This, in itself, might not have mattered too much except for the fact that a legion of disciples who, unlike their master, could not paint, crept wormlike through the crevices of credulity that the weight of Picasso's fallen talent had caused. The result was an artistic revolution as nihilistic and destructive as were the political revolutions of the century. The cubist castration of art heralded the omnipotence of impotence made manifest in the dust and fluff of today's artless moderns.

It is not all bad news, however. Much art of real stature has emerged in the twentieth century. The art of Otto Dix is as gruesome as Grünewald in its graphic depiction of the ugliness of sin, and the surrealist symbolism of Salvador Dali has more in common with the artistic vision of Hieronymus Bosch than with the heinous bosh of "postmodern" pretentiousness. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Dali and Dix have retained the critical connection with tradition that is essential to all true art. Their art is the product of the marriage of tradition and modernity and, in consequence, will survive alongside the modern art of previous centuries. The rest of the ephemera masquerading as "art" will decay in the putridness of its own corruption. Will anyone remember the nameless Brazilian artist who creates "art" from fluff in a century or so, or next year for that matter? Of course not. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust ... Will genuine art, modern or otherwise, survive the test of timelessness? Of course it will. Vincit omnia veritas.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
The Measure of Literary Giants | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
The Quintessential--And Last--Modern Poet | Fr. George William Rutler

British author Joseph Pearce has firmly established himself as the premier literary biographer of our time, especially in interpreting the spiritual depths of the Catholic literary tradition. In his book, Literary Giants, Literary Catholics, Pearce examines a plethora of authors, taking the reader through a dazzling tour of the creative landscape of Catholic prose and poetry. Literary Giants, Literary Catholics covers the vast terrain from Dante to Tolkien, from Shakespeare to Waugh.

Focusing on the literary revival of the 20th century, Pearce touches on well-known authors like G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien, but also introduces readers to lesser-known writers like Roy Campell, Maurice Baring, and Owen Barfield. Anyone who appreciates English literature will be entranced by the wealth and depth of this masterpiece.

For more about Pearce and his books, visit his IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page.

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