I am aware from the outset that this post has the possibility to very quickly descend into a bit of a rant so with that in mind I will endeavour to at least underpin it with a little bit of theory. This week I have re-watched the excellent documentary The Mona Lisa Curse featuring Australian art critic Robert Hughes who links the current horrific state of the plastic arts with the cult of the celebrity, a process he suggests began with the tour of the Mona Lisa to the United States in the 1960s.
For Hughes art has just become a business. With the removal of any aesthetic hierarchy, which postmodernism wishes to sweep away, we are left with a world where all self declared art is seen as equally valid. Duchamp was making a very astute point about the role of the artist and the business of art with his piece The Fountain in 1917. When Tracey Emin’s My Bed is short listed for the 1999 Turner prize for a much less radical form of ready made art over eighty years later you begin to wonder what has happened to art. Simply put the problem has become that without any aesthetic criteria the market and the media take over. Damien Hirst has proven it doesn’t matter whether the work has any artistic merit, if it is popular and people want to pay for it then it is worthy of the title ‘Art‘. His work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living proves this terrible reality in a most graphic way.
The problem of course has moved beyond the world of visual arts. There is no such categories as ‘high art’ and ‘popular art’ in our fabulously deconstructed world. All perspectives are equally valid. All is Art. The media, and I include the art media in this, no longer differentiate between populist and artistic. Cecelia Ahern and Cormac McCarthy are both novelist, the fact one creates art and the other produces something to distract you while on a sun bed is irrelevant. In the public sphere they are held to be doing the same thing and are held in the same esteem. It is the equivalent of comparing Gary Larson and Francis Bacon; they both use pictures to communicate their message, but the later creates art the former does not.
Virginia Woolf in her essay The Narrow Bridge of Art states of the term ‘the novel’;
We shall be forced to invent new names for the different books which masquerade under this one heading (907).
She was right but not in the way she thought, anticipating a further flourishing of experimental forms of prose writing. Instead we have Chick-lit, Hen-lit, and YA novels. All worthy of equal consideration, apparently.
Mrs. Brown’s Boys winning an award for television excellence from the British Academy of Film and Television of course has nothing to do with its viewing figures. The fact that it is an awful example of what the television sit com has become is irrelevant.
To introduce some balance I acknowledge that populist artistic forms can indeed create interesting art but it is rare. I believe Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins and Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley have done more to help the Irish people understand their own past than all the history book published since 1916. It is a shame such impact is not more common. Postmodernism of course wouldn’t make these distinction that I have. For the postmodernist it is all equally valid.
So where does that leave us? Well Modernism has often been accused of being elitist in its approach to the arts but why not? Postmodernism with its obsession on the validity of any individualistic expression, regardless of quality, has generated a world for us within which the very pursuit of art has been degraded to such a point that it has no meaning. Mentors on The X-Factor refer to the reality TV shows contestants as ‘their artists.’ If participants in a karaoke competition are now ‘artists’ then the word is simply an attempt tag anyone can appropriate to inject some creditability into whatever money making activity they are engaged in. The very pursuit of art becomes pointless, a worthless endeavour which is simply a waste of time.
So why do we, those of us who wish to create what we see as true art persevere? There is a simply answer to this. Postmodernism, while maybe not completely dead, is dying. There is always an audience for authentic artistic endeavour. At the present moment being heard above the mountain of mass media drivel may be difficult, but those true artists know the difference between being an artist and not. A small but appreciative audience know the difference too. Time while pass, post-modern fashions will change but high art will always remain high art. The challenge of Modernism will remain.
Woolf, Virginia. ‘The Narrow Bridge of Art.’ Modernism: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2010. Print. (903-9).
Business of Art ( Mona Lisa Curse)- Robert Hughes. Youtube.com. 20 Jan. 2009. Web. 2 Feb. 2013.