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The Spiritual Problem With Modernist Art

"In dreams begin responsibilities."

Not long ago I saw Arthur Miller's play "All My Sons." It's about moral responsibility, and unfolds more fear and guilt than the family seems at first to have. It's a reasonably good play--though I suspect that Miller was less than he appeared--about common people who do unfortunately common things, like lie and cheat.

Then not long after that I opened a book and saw on page six Jackson Pollack's "Number 1," or "Lavender Mist," which looks very much like every other Jackson Pollack, just with slightly different colors.

Did Pollack and MIller agree on this? That is, are the common people, the unfortunate, the unthinking, or is Pollack merely a surrender to the temptation to think of those who disagree with us as somehow "lower" than we are?

This temptation affects most if not all of us. In school I was struck by the writing of Jose Ortega y Gassett, a Spanish Republican and philosopher early in the 20th Century, wrote "Revolt of the Masses" in which he desparaged "the masses" for their lack of taste and thought:
There is one fact which, whether for good or ill, is of utmost importance in the public life of Europe at its present moment. The fact is the accession of the masses to complete social power. As the masses, by definition, neither should nor can direct their own personal existence, and still less rule society in general, this fact means that actually Europe is suffering from the greatest general crisis that can afflict peoples, nations and civilization.

Strictly speaking, the mass, as a psychological fact, can be defined without waiting for individuals to appear in mass formation. In the presence of one individual we can decide whether he is "mass" or not. The mass is all that which sets no value on itself -- good or ill -- based on specific grounds, but which feels itself "just like everybody," and nevertheless is not concerned about it; is, in fact, quite happy to feel itself as one with everybody else.

He held modern art in high esteem and criticized the modern dislike of it as evidence of the masses inability to think. His praise of modern art praised the deliberate choice of modern art to be separate from and inaccessible to the masses. There are two kinds of modern people, he said: "the illustrious and the vulgar."

Apparently Ortega y Gassett did not believe that all people are created equal.

But there is a truth in his words. There usually is. Modern art has quite consciously set itself above and apart from, the majority of people. While some artists (David Sedaris has a sadly funny essay on a performance artist who works mainly with sock monkeys) choose to see themselves as above the average and inaccessible to them because they are so good and high and intellectual no matter how bad their art may be--the point of Sedaris's essay and the blinding sin of pride--there are those who have deliberately chosen a philosophy of art that makes it inaccessible to most people. It is made to "shock" now, to "question" or to "demand," and thus, being art, it is "right" and therefore anyone who disagrees with it or dislikes it is "wrong," or "low" and to be disregarded. It is a philosophy that seems to embrace circular reasoning, but it does so because it justifies its a priori conclusion: we are art, so we are right. If you do not agree, then you are wrong.

While this is put a little baldly, it seems to be the tone and conviction of modern art. But modern artists, to the extent that they think this, are wrong. Most people do not disagree with modern art because of its methods or media. They disagree with it because of its aims and purposes; they disagree with its worldview.

I think by and large that they are right to do so. The story of modern artists' fascination with totalitarianism is cautionary--artists suffer from the same malady of temptation that everyone else (read, "the masses") does. D.H. Lawrence has been called "the major English disciple of Nietzsche," ("The great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write," he said), and thought that another Flood to sweep them all away would be a good thing. Not surprisingly, he was a eugenist. You are inferior, into the gas chamber you go.Yeats, H.G. Wells, Ibsen all thought that the masses were threats to taste and intellection and that the government should do something about it (them).

As a result, many artists decided that they would deliberately make their art too "difficult," too strange, for the masses to understand. In a movement known as modernism, artists decided to exclude the masses from art.

Was this snobbery or hatred?

Granted, this is not true of every artist, but it is true enough of modern art, an art that deliberately cast off the concepts of an Aristotle for those of a Margaret Sanger, that we must be very careful and quite skeptical of it. Why is Dale Chihuly held in esteem in his native corner ofthe country? He is vastly overrated, for he is not much of an artist. I have watched him work--he is an administrator and sketch artist who hands off the drudgery to assistants who turn out his work while he revels in the reputation. A reputation probably once deserved, ,but not today, because he is too self-important to attend to the art of his visions. It does not speak, it does not ennoble, it does not even describe. No wonder he's little known outside of his neighborhood.

If the plot is the heart and soul of fiction, as Aristotle held, voice and characterization is everything else. Dada was interesting in a clinical fashion, but it is not often reread. It does not speak to readers.

Is that why the Harry Potter books--no great literature, but pretty good for Twinkies, I think--are so popular, because that sort of fiction comes along too seldom? Rowling at least is considerate enough to her readers to write for them. She writes more as a Christian than many others have done.

But--and here I think is why many artists choose the inaccessible art they do--to deliberately make puzzling art is to be safe from criticism. Modernism and post-modernism hide behind a shield, safe from standards, and thus is a safe place for trash.

WWJD? Well, we can only guess, but I would bet that reading the classics first would be a good place to start. There are stories of courage and perseverance, of victory--and of course of something to be victorious over--of dedication and selflessness. Many of them point out those qualities by illudtrating their lack, as in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." They nonetheless point out what is noble and right.

Thus, they interpret the reader to themselves as someone worth knowning and writing for--unlike the modernist and postmodernist authors who largely consider those who do not read them as not even worth writing for, thought they are not read by them because they do not write for them.

It's a sneaky and pervasive philosophy, this, finding its way into many places, some of which we know personally.
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