Thursday, February 6, 2014

Can Art and Art Schools Be Saved from the Pretentious and the Bureaucratic? - Paul Adams

The parody posted below of pretentious indie films, like all good parodies, calls for some more serious reflection on the state of affairs it mocks.  Here's another parody of the pretentious, in this case an art student using every contemporary cliche to explain what he is doing with his artistic efforts.

As my daughter, an art school graduate, pointed out in response, "The thing is, though, that you can't just present a piece for critique and be like, 'I just thought this would look cool...' So you have to pull something like this out of…."

She has a point.  Certainly you can be a great jazz pianist or painter or sculptor without being able to talk coherently about what you are doing.  They are different skills.  It is in the nature of art that it cannot be reduced without loss to some other form of expression, poetry to prose, Jane Austen's novels to analytical philosophy.  That was Tolstoy's point in seeing parable as the essence of art.  Good art, as opposed to kitsch, is true.  But it says what it says, shows what it shows, precisely as parable.  You can take much longer, as homilists necessarily do, to expound on a parable's 'meaning', but not without some loss.  Should the art student even be expected to jump through those hoops that reduce his work to clich√©, even if it is better than that?  And my daughter is surely right to point out, as she goes on to do, that students in other fields in the humanities and social sciences are also given to pretentiousness. But students do vary enormously in their capacity to make a reasoned argument (not a strength of social workers, I'm afraid, who also claim "other strengths").  Of course, as the parody of indie films shows, the cliches can be in the art itself, not just the artist's explanation of it.

But there is something about the arts in modern times that makes them particularly hard to talk about.  Made harder still by what German writer Martin Mosebach calls the senile avantgardism of the last century that aims even in its aging practitioners to shock, √©pater les bourgeois, like permanent adolescents.  Here's what he says in his book on the destruction in Europe of liturgy, altars, sacred music, art, and architecture over the past 40 years, The Heresy of Formlessness:
The 20th century cult of youth culminates in a cruel curse: while the aging process cannot be stopped, the aging human being is not allowed to mature. and is condemned, until his life's end, to play the long-dead games of his youth. This is most clearly seen in the world of art--which is so closely related to religion--where the avantgardisms of 1905 are still being repeated again and again, as an ossified ritual, a hundred years later. And, with her famous aggiornamento, the Church thinks that, in order to survive, she needs to 'open herself' to these senile avantgardisms!" (pp.81-82).
Look at this piece of silliness recently installed at a prestigious women's college.  Note how the museum director defends or explains the sculpture not as good, true, or beautiful, but as "provoking dialogue" or "starting discussion."  On the flip side of that same coin, there is this deadening tendency to destroy art by bureaucratizing or deconstructing it, or bureaucratizing deconstruction: See this piece by one of my favorite essayists, Anthony Esolen, on the Common Core Curriculum and how it destroys literature and the capacity to appreciate it.

On the other hand, here is a piece (posted on this site January 21, 2014) by my friend, the artist Cornelius Sullivan, who is able both to write about and practice art.  He bemoans the lack of a department of sacred art in any Catholic university.  People have sent his essay to college presidents, provosts, and trustees (ours anyway).  After reading Esolen on what happens to art in the hands of educational bureaucrats, as well as Cornelius's own comments on the Reformation-like iconoclasm in Catholic colleges and the self-referential elitism of modern art, I wonder if Cornelius shouldn't be careful what he wishes for.  I am sure he would agree, we need not only departments of sacred art at our centers of Catholic learning and culture, but ones that reflect the understanding of and sensitivity to art, and sacred art in particular, that he offers here and that is in such short supply - according to the parody above - in the art schools and art students of our time.

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