“‘Charles,’ said Cordelia, ‘Modern Art is all bosh, isn’t it?'”
— Brideshead Revisited
You needn’t be quite so blithe as Evelyn Waugh’s Charles Ryder to know that visual art has gone far astray in the past 100 years. While the works of individual geniuses still arrest us with their idiosyncratic beauty — painters like di Chirico, Chagall, and Schiele come to mind — in the vast bulk of what has been accepted as worthy, “interesting” art by critics, teachers, galleries, and collectors, beauty is beside the point. Indeed, the very word is sneered at, conflated with mere prettiness, and disdained as the sort of thing that philistine, bourgeois dunderheads look at and nod, saying: “I don’t know much about art, you know, but I do know what I like!” “Beauty” is relegated to beauty magazines and the 19th-century prints that seventh-grade girls put up on their walls. The great tradition of representational painting, which we trace in the West back to Greece and Rome via the Renaissance and the Baroque, is conflated lazily with paintings of weepy clowns, droopy sunsets, and poker-playing dogs.
Instead, contemporary art features piles of trash laid out on the floor of art galleries (one such “installation” by Damien Hirst was accidentally cleared away by the janitor, God bless him), bisected sheep carcasses preserved in embalming fluid, and works like the following, described by Roger Kimball in his witty, immensely informative Art’s Prospect:
Consider Matthew Barney, a hot young artist whose oeuvre consists of things like Field Dressing (Orifill), a video that depicts the artist “naked climbing up a pole and cables and applying dollops of Vaseline to his orifices.” That description comes from Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for The New York Times, who recently declared Barney “the most important American artist of his generation.”
I went to college with Barney, and I never saw him climbing any of our flagpoles. Maybe you need an MFA to learn about that.
This isn’t the place for a learned essay on how Christian theology came to renounce the iconoclasm of Moses and baptize the Classical tradition of representational art, first via simple graffiti pictures of Jesus as the Shepherd, or statues of Apollo rechristened as Christ. Suffice it to say that the Church’s insistence on the goodness and orderliness of Creation, reaffirmed by the Incarnation of Christ, created a culture that valued visual beauty and didn’t feel guilty about it. The dignity of the human form reflected man’s creation in God’s image, and even the grotesqueries of extreme suffering might be elevated by comparison with Christ’s. So Western art had room alike for the tranquil Annunciations of Fra Angelico, and the war-induced nightmares of Goya. To assert that a tradition this rich and flexible is too constricting for a modern artist’s vision is itself an act of philistine pig-ignorance that only the graduate of an expensive art school could commit.
A happy exception is the Boston School tradition, whose painters actually did train other painters in . . . how to paint. Carrying on the legacy of John Singer Sargent, they provided formal training in classical realism to a small number of artists, who passed it along to others. Most of them make their living painting portraits, although an increasing number are now being hired to illuminate neo-traditional churches.
The great rebels against the Tradition, beginning with the Impressionists, themselves had first been forced to master figurative drawing — so that their departures from it might, and often did, mean something. But their influence on art education meant that the next generation never learned the techniques of Renaissance and Baroque painting, so the chain of craftsmanship was effectively broken.
Indeed, most contemporary artists come of age never learning how to draw. Sharp young art critic James Panero quotes Randall Jarrell’s novelized memoir of teaching art at Sarah Lawrence College way back in the 1940s (Jarrell calls it “Benton”):
If you had given a Benton student a pencil and a piece of paper, and asked her to draw something, she would have looked at you in helpless astonishment: it would have been plain to her that you knew nothing about art.
In his hilarious dismissal of the whole of modern art, The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe makes the case that ideologies of various sorts have replaced Creation as the subject matter of art in our time. One no longer paints portraits of the poor, like Millet’s, or even of suffering workers, as Diego Rivera did. Instead, the truly modern (or postmodern) artist depicts ideas or ideological constructs such as “suffering,” “struggle,” or even “the Dialectic.” The next step in the artist’s secession from external reality comes when his own struggle becomes the subject of the art. A lingering Romantic myth of the artist not as a patient craftsmen but a genius possessed, a tortured Promethean rebel, helped fuel in the 1950s the fascination with “action” painters like Jackson Pollock.
Of course, there really is nothing intrinsically interesting about a single tortured soul — except perhaps as the object of our compassion. If the artist, not the art, is now the point, then why not choose, instead of anguish, irony? Painters such as Roy Liechtenstein crafted on enormous canvases recreations of strips from comic books, and the critics and collectors lined up to jack up the prices of his paintings — as reflected in the ever-reliable Art Market Index, which I’ll note always outperforms the Standard & Poor’s. So instead of the infinitely complex, visually demanding world of man in nature, the subject matter of art became the jaded sensibility of the artist.
Enter Andy Warhol. Born in working-class Pittsburgh the son of a Byzantine Catholic coal miner, Warhol was a sickly, effeminate child. He took refuge from bullying and ostracism in an obsession with Hollywood movie stars and other trinkets of popular culture. Trained as a commercial illustrator, Warhol had a little more practice drawing actual objects than the graduates of Jarrell’s Benton, although his skills ran to pictures of products rather than people. So it’s not surprising that when he made his strategic move into the addled world of Art, those things are what he chose to draw. They are also very easy to draw, and Warhol never pretended to spend much time on the work he exhibited. Indeed, what quickly made a media sensation was not so much his banal reproductions of soup cans, Coke bottles, and silkscreen portraits of Mao as his unique persona — the languid, affectless dispenser of ironic, iconic quips, such as:
- “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”
- “Fantasy love is much better than reality love. Never doing it is very exciting. The most exciting attractions are between two opposites that never meet.”
- “I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re so beautiful. Everything’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.”
- “Just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”
- “I suppose I have a really loose interpretation of ‘work,’ because I think that just being alive is so much work at something you don’t always want to do. The machinery is always going. Even when you sleep.”
- “Art is what you can get away with.”
Warhol’s Instamatic success reminds one of Oscar Wilde’s premature fame, which came before he’d produced much work of note, as the fruit of his campy public appearances and acerbic commentaries on current events. (The difference, of course, being that Wilde was a tireless craftsman; it takes a lot of work to look that effortless — at least, it did in Wilde’s time.)
It’s dreary to recount the parade of celebrities and hangers-on who trooped through Warhol’s art “Factory” in search of fame, sexual hook-ups, or a better grade of dope. What matters is Warhol’s attitude toward art, which he made clear with his series of urine paintings, made by oxidizing a canvas so it would react with body fluids, then taking turns with his epicene male companions in relieving themselves on it.
And the critics drank it up. In an essay that really, really should be the last word on the subject, “Drunk on Andy Warhol,” Kimball pays a long visit to the vast and expensive Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, sorting through the garish ephemera of Warhol’s lifelong production. This alone is worth the purchase price of Art’s Prospect, but then Kimball opens the museum’s catalog:
One essay is by the American philosopher Arthur Danto, who for many years has been a champion of Andy Warhol, both as an artist and — a more provocative claim — as a thinker. In the essay he contributed to the catalog, Professor Danto reaffirms his high opinion. It all started in 1964 when he saw the exhibition of Warhol’s Brillo Boxes at the Stable Gallery in New York. Since then, he writes, he has felt that Warhol possessed “a philosophical intelligence of an intoxicatingly high order.”
Andy Warhol got away with it. A manipulative sexual voyeur of minimal talent who never worked very hard, he grabbed the imagination of a deeply confused, postwar cultural world, and for three decades lived at the pinnacle of society. His paintings — often consigned, dismissively, to be actually crafted by his assistants — still sell for millions. Two separate museums are dedicated to him, a bridge in Pittsburgh is named for him, and there is actually something called the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, to help prospective speculators on the Art Market Index ascertain that their soup cans really are by Andy, instead of Campbell’s.
There are even some well-meaning, addled Catholics desperate for secular validation trying to claim Warhol as a postmodern Catholic artist — citing the fact that the deeply superstitious Warhol sometimes attended Mass, and in his later years scrawled some cringeworthy, cartoonish imitations of DaVinci’s The Last Supper. And the Warhol Industry encourages them. Kimball notes how the museum catalog sprinkles its philosophical elaborations on Warhol’s deadpan pranks with Catholic terminology. Citing along the way the titles of two of Warhol’s cinéma vérité efforts, which I’ll coyly here render as Bl** Job and F***, Kimball quotes the effusions of chief curator Mark Francis, who said that Warhol’s urine paintings
continued to refer to his preoccupations with the human body, the exchange of value between money and objects, and what can only be described as a religious desire for communion and human interaction. . . . The Oxidations are metaphors for transubstantiation, the transformation of base metals into precious objects.
And despite his blasphemous rhetoric, Francis is right. No man in history, not even P. T. Barnum, could equal Andy Warhol for turning crap into cash.