Last week a painting at the Detroit Institute of Arts worth $1.5 million was damaged by a twelve-year old on a school field trip. The piece, by Helen Frankenthaler, is entitled "The Bay" and resembles its namesake -- as painted by a nearsighted stalk of broccoli. Unable to appreciate the aesthetic appeal of the work (or maybe just unable to locate a trash can) the lad affixed a piece of gum to the painting.
It's unlikely, but one idly wonders if he was inspired by Pierre Pinoncelli, a French artist who recently made headlines by slightly damaging Marcel Duchamp's renowned piece "Fountain." For those unfamiliar with this masterpiece, it is a factory made urinal signed by Duchamp, one of eight made in 1964 to replace the lost original (circa 1917). Pinoncelli has claimed (correctly) that he was following the true spirit of Duchamp and the Dada movement he led.
This spirit was one of anti-art. The products of the heirs of Duchamp resemble those of a malfunctioning sewage treatment plant -- at times literally. Apparently taking comparisons of their work to dung as a suggestion, modern artists have made bodily excretions a popular medium.
So what? Decrying modern art as a farce is hardly a new insight. Conservatives are generally content to leave the liberal intelligentsia to their amusements; what does modern art have to do with anything? However, there are some who take it seriously; Francis Schaeffer thought Duchamp a man "whom every Christian ought to know about. He could be called the high-priest of destruction. . . He will seek to destroy you from within yourself."
That may seem to be granting too much importance to a man unknown to the vast majority of the citizenry, but conservatives ought to know better than to think so simplistically. We often lament the vulgarity of popular culture, but why did we expect that to stand when the high culture was utterly debased? For conservatives to be blasť about the obliteration of artistic standards is self-contradictory, for surely one of the great treasures we seek to conserve is the best of our cultural heritage.
Sadly, the barbarians have already sacked the citadel of high art, leaving us not only to conserve what remnants survived the pillaging, but setting before us a laborious process of restoration. But before we begin, we must understand what reduced us to this cultural ruin.
Schaeffer's friend, H. R. Rookmaaker, Chair of Art History at the Free University of Amsterdam, wrote a masterful book on the subject, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. Modern art did not spring upon us from a void, but came from a philosophical progression spanning centuries.
During medieval times, art was primarily created to represent the transcendental. It was religious and devotional in nature, with each painting a visual sermon. Such art sought to represent universal truths about God and man; it was not always realistic in its physical representations, but it sought to present spiritual truth.
During the Renaissance, the renewal of interest in the classical tradition led to a great increase in technical proficiency, but the rise of Humanism also inspired a rise in what could be called the portrayal of the ideal. These scenes were not necessarily religious or Christian, but they still sought to portray universals, from heroism to love.
The next step was naturalism, which abandoned ideals for "objective" representation of reality. That is, it painted historically, as though the artist were a camera. There were no more halos on the saints -- indeed, no more saints -- only paintings of events recorded in the Bible, presented as a photograph. Venus was gone, replaced by a myriad of "real" women. The change was momentous, though few Christians today understand why a painting like "Christ in the House of His Parents" by John Everett Millais was considered blasphemous when it first appeared.
Of course, there was a great deal of overlap during these developments, as well as various attempted revolts, such as the Romantic movement. Yet the philosophical inertia would not be denied, and the empirical standards of positivism gave way to subjectivism. Art passed quickly through impressionism to expressionism, and thence to abstraction.
Wrote Rookmaaker, "This deep-felt reaction against the positivism of the nineteenth century. . .led to a completely new type of art, abstract art, and art that was truly and solely art, and at the same time spiritual, conceptual, and 'absolute'." The artist had finally shattered the bonds that portraying physical reality had shackled him with, and was once again able to search for a universal truth. But they did so in a world where God had been declared dead.
The quest for a new absolute proved futile, and it fell to Picasso to take the next step, where he, as Rookmaaker put it, "accepted the failure and took the consequences. There are no universals. The general, the absolute, is non-existent. And if there are no universal principles, if there are no absolutes, then...this world is absurd, nonsensical, and without meaning." Almost as soon as it was born, modern art slipped into the abyss of nihilism.
And the Dada movement mentioned previously grew quickly from this. Rookmaaker explains that "It used all art forms and tried to break all taboos, all norms for art, all sacred or non-sacred traditions. Dada was a nihilistic creed of disintegration, showing the meaninglessness of all western thought, art, morals, traditions." And thus, as Theodore Dalrymple notes, "for the new art criticism, 'disturbing' is an automatic term of approbation."
Like many conservatives, I dislike Ayn Rand, but she deserves credit for her insight on this point. In The Fountainhead, the gloating villain explains that to destroy theater, you declare puerile prattle to be a masterpiece; to destroy architecture, you elevate an incompetent to prominence. And, I would add, to abolish art, you declare a manufactured urinal to be a masterpiece.
A vital part of our cultural heritage has been raped, and most of us are unaware and unconcerned. Modern art is indeed a joke, but it is a bitter jest in a black humor, intended to demolish.
Nathanael Blake is a senior in microbiology at Oregon State University, where he writes for The Daily Barometer and The Liberty. His weekly Townhall.com column explores campus culture and politics generally.
Copyright © 2006 Townhall.com.
Read the entire article on the Town Hall website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the author.