Art and the Academy

Posted by lex, on April 17, 2008


If, like me, you have a residual image of art as something transcendently beautiful, something full of joy and wonder that inspires our finest sensibilities, something brought forth through special talent and great effort, then you are – like me – apparently out of mainstream academic thought.

Wikipedia helps to limn the philosophical edges:

Traditionally the term art was used to refer to any skill or mastery, a concept which altered during the Romantic period, when art came to be seen as “a special faculty of the human mind to be classified with religion and science”.[1] Generally art is a (product of) human activity, made with the intention of stimulating the human senses as well as the human mind; by transmitting emotions and/or ideas. Beyond this description, there is no general agreed-upon definition of art. Art is also able to illustrate abstract thought and its expressions can elicit previously hidden emotions in its audience.

There are all kinds of emotions, of course: Joy is offset by sadness, exultation by outrage. When grown-up artists created their “Piss Christ” and “Dung Mary” oeuvres the art world spoke in high-minded terms of the sanctity of the form – and the importance of public support to “struggling” artists – while secretly sniggering behind their hands at all the outraged godbotherers who just didn’t “get it.” Bitterly clinging to their religion, and so on.

But ours is a restless society, and so exuberantly do we race towards our brave, new, culturally relative Gomorrah these days that each new outrage instantly becomes not a line in the sand but merely a way marker to all-the-way-down. Art may have once meant beauty to most people, but for the art world – and most especially for those who would teach it – it has come to also mean those things which shock us out of our silly, bourgeois value set. Finally it has come to this: Art may not merely also shock us, but it is explicitly required only to do so. Up has become down, black become white, art is ugliness.

At the University of Maine, an “artist” carefully crafted a canvas of American flags to walk upon in the student union. Only think of the effort that went into such an act, the creative genius not only in conception but of execution. The sheer labor, the vaulting excellence. And there’s no call to grumble there, old man: After all, according to the university provost, the flag is “only a piece of cloth,” it has no symbolism or meaning. It doesn’t stand for you and me, or liberty and freedom, or hope and democracy, nor yet for all the legions that went down to their death to give it that meaning. Might as well have been McDonald’s wrappers laying there. Or Korans, theoretically, at least if such “efforts” were ever to require real courage.

Meanwhile at Yale, another daring artist induced a series of pregnancies by artificially inseminating herself, and then engineered a series of partnering abortions to terminate those pregnancies, all in the name of “art”. You aren’t meant to be scandalized apparently, and if we accept the absolute right of a woman to untrammeled control over her own body you’ve nothing but aesthetic objections left to you. No one ever said that an artistic presentation of the detritus of human miscarriage was everyone’s cup of tea. For your own part, you may have Rembrandt, you clod.

Update: The Yale thing is a hoax it seems – “performance art”. It was kind of fun to troll the other side of the blogosphere and see the dedicated partisans thoughtfully admit that while they wouldn’t personally have done such a thing, the young woman had a perfect right to do so.

Soon there will be nothing left to condemn, and no one left to shock. Everything will be equally anything, with no room left for discernment or taste. What a brave new world that will be, full of exciting possibilities for those who value the good by what is best for themselves.

The term “art” of course, will by then be totally meaningless. If it isn’t already.

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