By Robert F. Beaudine
Originally posted at the Statesman Sentinel
“By their fruits you shall know them.”
In 2004, a group of five hundred artists, critics, curators, and dealers got together in England before the Turner Prize was awarded. They voted on what they thought was the most influential modern artwork of all time.
The winning work has been unfortunately lost. Only photographs and replicas remain. In 1917, this conceptual work of art had been rejected from its first and only exhibition in New York City and was most likely thrown out as garbage not long thereafter. Sponsored by the Society of Independent Artists, this open exhibition rejected no other work.
This special display has become a source of irony that has lead to countless discussions on its meaning and relevance. The center of discussion, the most influential award-winning artwork was a mass-produced urinal titled, “Fountain,” submitted by Marcel Duchamp under an alias.
Righting this wrong of the past gives us a sense of sophistication today and betrays much about our spirituality.
In the olden days, art was crafted to glorify the heroic – kings, their noblemen and women, warriors, and their gods. Some cultures thought nature divine; others elevated humanity. Every culture that flourished produced artwork that expressed their cultural beliefs, desires, attitudes, and spiritual development.
When the Assyriologists unearthed the ruins and artifacts of ancient Assyria, they brought to life an empire that relied on continuous warfare to terrorize their neighboring nations. The Assyrians rose to power through plunder and tribute. Their artwork was reflective and instilled terror in their foes.
Their nation originally followed tradition and crafted steles – commemorative reliefs typically sculptured on stone – for their temples. But as they gained prosperity, they sculpted steles primarily for the king’s palace and those of their conquered nations. A few depict royal lion hunts, but the majority portray battle scenes. The most terrifying show the impalements of entire villages or royal scribes counting the decapitated heads of their enemies.
A rare statue – that of King Ashurnasirpal the second – was discovered in the Temple of Ishtar presumably to show the piety of the king. With a sickle in his right hand and a mace in his left, his features are arrogant, as cold as the stone it was made of.
Hundreds of years later, another type of art flourished in another land, ancient Athens, a culture both ingenious and competitive in all aspects of life. Even their dramatic arts were developed for competition. They produced epic and lyric poetry, tragic drama, and sculptures renowned for their beauty, craftsmanship, and emotive ability.
Their pantheistic religion was a dominating feature. Their temples were their largest and most beautiful buildings. The magnificence of the Parthenon – a temple to Athena – still retains some of its grandeur from over two millennia ago.
The dramatic art of Plato was innovative and has inspired some of the greatest thinkers throughout history. He wrote narrative dialogues that examined the fundamentals of a broad range of lofty subjects, including the arts, education, philosophy, and politics.
Plato was also a heretic who wanted to censor their poets. Even with Homer, he wanted to strike out whole passages to protect the undeveloped young minds of their children. He thought it logical that children should not be exposed through their arts to any despicable behavior, especially those of their gods.
This culture was the flowering seed that blossomed time and again throughout the best of our Western civilization’s heritage. It’s a shame so few of us enjoy its sustenance.
The art of Ancient Israel, a nation called in antiquity “the People of the Book,” reveals a culture rooted in a radically different religion that gave them a strange perspective on life. Their Book was also unique. Besides their histories – and humanity’s beginnings – this Book contained psalms of praise and thanksgiving to their Creator, proverbs of wisdom, hymns of joy, poetic supplications for blessings, grace, and divine protection. Even their prophecies were many times written in a poetic style and used poetic imagery.
This society didn’t rely upon intellect or physical strength to sustain their lives and freedom. They didn’t worship idols crafted by men. Instead, they relied on a higher authority for their protection and well-being – the unseen God of heaven and earth. And they produced art that glorified their deity.
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The descriptions of Solomon’s temple display the wealth this small fertile nation had accumulated. Two great brass pillars stood in front of the porch. Inside, the hewn stone walls were inlaid with cedar, then carved with images of cherubims, palm trees, and flowers, and then overlaid with gold.
The floors and ceilings were also overlaid with gold. Within the Holy of Holies, two colossal cherubims spanned this inner chamber. Crafted from the wood of olive trees, they were then overlaid with gold. Behind them, the altar was overlaid with gold. They valued their gold as true treasure when used in the glorification of their God.
In comparison, our architecture has become primarily utilitarian. In our cities, the rectangular box-like buildings are monuments that divulge a barren spirit. But the rest of our modern art is a flagrant betrayal of our culture-wide debauchery. We seem unaware, desensitized by its growing perversity.
Whether “modernism” was a natural development of a culture in decline, or a deliberate plot to undermine our spirituality and hasten our destruction, the result remains the same. In the past, the genius of society sat on the shoulders of past giants. Today, modernism in all its forms rejects the past and refuses to follow the traditional fundamentals of artistic expression in favor of an innovative approach that is anti-spiritual. It is brazen, distorting, nihilistic, and dehumanizing.
Modern music has now become central to the human experience. Technology has enabled it to be enjoyed at will. Because of its prevalence, many believe it is natural – and far preferable – to never allow a quiet moment. They start their car and immediately turn on the music. They work in their yard or jog along with their i-Pod on.
As Allan Bloom wrote in his comprehensive polemic, The Closing of the American Mind, “But as long as they have the Walkman on, they cannot hear what the great tradition has to say. And, after its prolonged use, when they take it off, they find they are deaf.”
That explains why many of us can’t stand a quiet moment of reflection. We have lost the capacity to contemplate the deeper issues of life, and the great tradition of the great books from the olden days is covered in dust.
Plato warned long ago of the dangers of musical innovations, that this always changes the fundamental laws of the State. Because he’s rarely studied today, his warning is unheard. And so, an entire generation – the youth of the 1960’s – reveled in their new music called Rock and Roll, as they rebelled against their elders and railed against their traditions and institutions.
Allan Bloom noted that this innovative music was the first art form to be directed entirely at our youth. He wrote, “The result is nothing less than parents’ loss of control over their children’s moral education at a time when no one else is seriously concerned with it.”
Bloom rationalized this development as a result of perfect capitalism. As our county prospered after WWII, children received a substantial disposable income in the form of allowances, and big business saw an opportunity.
This doesn’t explain why our youth were soon obsessed by this particular phenomenon. When you consider the condition of the rest of our arts, it seems more likely the result of a deliberate attempt to liberate our youth from all authority. In 1960, Gus Hall, the general secretary of the Communist Party USA, had predicted that America’s youth was going to be alienated and radicalized. He never publicly mentioned how.
In the sixties, our youth were radicalized and their music reinforced their rebellion against everything America stood for – prosperity derived from American ingenuity, an innovative system of government, and its application of Capitalism.
Their music announced a new morality in opposition to their parents and freed them from all restraints. They claimed this was the ultimate freedom as they partook in free love, mind-numbing drugs, and the music that glorified – and legitimized – these pursuits. Eventually, they became indignant and raged against “the system.”
Plato explained that there would be no harm, “were it not that little by little this spirit of license, finding a home, imperceptibly penetrates into manners and customs; whence, issuing with greater force, it invades contracts between man and man, and from contracts goes on to laws and constitutions, in utter recklessness, ending at last, Socrates, by an overthrow of all rights, private as well as public.”
Bloom surmised, “It may well be that society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself.”
This marked the beginning of that most tragic and modern circumstance called the generation gap, an onset of alienation within the family which has now become a modern feature of life. Every generation has their own music, and within that generation there are many wonderful choices. It seems our musicians push the boundary further every time the obscene becomes acceptable.
The Seeds of Modernism
The roots of modernism were nourished by the genius of William Wordsworth. In the late 18th Century, Wordsworth toiled against the Establishment in England and replaced the decorum of Neo-Classical verse with a new style, new subjects, and a new language. He wrote poetic portraits of simple country folk in their common language. In this way, he revolutionized poetry, elevated low art, and set the precedence for the anti-heroic.
At first, he was widely criticized, but a new breed of critics arose and soon established his reputation. Today, many rank his poetry behind only John Milton and William Shakespeare. Wordsworth wrote wonderful lyrical poetry, but there is nothing heroic, unlike his predecessors.
During the 19th Century, the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen enjoyed international acclaim as one of the founders of modernism in the theatre. Feminists adored Ibsen, with his suggestion that marriage is legalized prostitution. This idea had been expressed by the early French socialists. With Ibsen, it reached a larger – and unsuspecting – audience.
Ibsen’s A Doll’s House promoted another cause of feminism and socialism – the emancipation of women. The progressives assumed this freedom would lead toward a socialistic utopia by abolishing the family. Ghosts was widely considered obscene. When it was printed, its early readers preferred to conceal it from their guests. Hedda Gabler was notable for its despicable protagonist whose last act was suicide.
Not surprisingly, Ibsen’s plays scandalized many of his contemporaries, but his output was prodigious. Over time, his reputation became established. Today, some consider him behind only William Shakespeare in dramatic brilliance.
In his capacity as a drama critic, the Irishman George Bernard Shaw helped popularize Ibsen for his English audience. Ibsen likely inspired Shaw to write plays. Ibsen had proved the theatre’s value as a platform for propaganda. He showed that a great playwright can succeed commercially and spread progressive ideas.
Shaw was a Fabian Socialist, a sect that rejected revolutionary socialism. Named after the Roman General, Fabius Maximus, who preferred to weaken their opponent through harassing skirmishes rather than a full pitched battle, the Fabians favored this methodical and patient approach.
Shaw’s influence as a critic wasn’t limited to the stage. He was also an art and music critic. Gilbert K. Chesterton summed up Shaw’s approach, “In all three, he fought for the newest style and the most revolutionary school.”
Shaw continued Ibsen’s tradition and used the theatre for his own agenda. He helped England along the road to Socialism. He also inspired another generation of writers and revolutionaries to carry his ideas and methods to many shores.
He confessed, “I AM not an ordinary playwright in general practice. I am a specialist in immoral and heretical plays. My reputation has been gained by my persistent struggle to force the public to reconsider its morals. In particular I regard much current morality as to economic and sexual relations as disastrously wrong; and I regard certain doctrines of the Christian religion as understood in England today with abhorrence. I write plays with the deliberate object of converting the nation to my opinions in these matters.”
There is nothing noble in Shaw’s work. He mocks bourgeois beliefs and honor. His first five novels were dismal failures. Most of his early plays were censored or simply not produced. But as time passed and societal changes crept along, new critics arose who honored his work. In 1925, Shaw received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Irish writer, James Joyce, revolutionized the modern novel when he introduced a new narrative form – the “stream of consciousness.” This attempts to reproduce the scattered thoughts and emotions in a character’s mind. Modernism had infected literature. The babblings of a disordered mind do little to elevate thought.
Joyce’s first major work, Ulysses, was originally censored as obscene. Later, the word “obscene” was redefined. Ulysses eventually became widely acclaimed. In 1999, The Modern Library released its internal poll of the greatest English-language novels of the 20th Century. Ulysses took the top honor. Like the Nobel Prize of today, this award does not confer true honor.
Joyce had a huge influence on William Faulkner. Faulkner considered The Sound and the Fury his own greatest masterpiece. The title comes from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
The Sound and the Fury teaches us nothing because it is a convoluted thought-story told by an idiot through a babbling “stream of consciousness.” Yet, this tale is revered and studied by many of our youth in our public educational system. In 1949, Faulkner received his Nobel Prize.
The playwright Eugene O’Neill won his Nobel Prize in 1936. His output and the self-destructive manner in which he lived does nothing to affirm life. His theatre is populated with dreary landscapes of lives near ruin and godless examples of characters on the fringes of society. Yet, his influence lives on.
The plays of Tennessee Williams perpetuate modernism as he exposes the failures of Capitalism and the family structure. Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire was ahead of her time. She was fired as a teacher for having sex with a seventeen year old student. Baby Doll’s eroticism doesn’t startle us today, but it should, and it would if we hadn’t been pushed so far past the appropriate and become desensitized to the gradual increase of perversity, year by year, decade after decade.
Our Nobel Prize winning novelists are masters of their craft, but few teach us positive lessons about life. Sinclair Lewis (Nobel Prize 1930), Ernest Hemingway (Nobel Prize 1954), and John Steinbeck (Nobel Prize 1962), to name a few, neither enlighten us nor expose us to the truly heroic. Along with celebrated writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, and all their progeny, their stories are filled with alienation, melancholy, disillusionment, drunkenness, and despair. As they bring to life their dissolute characters, they lay bare all of humanity’s baser behaviors, emotions, and thoughts, and bring us into their dismal world.
Many modern critics claim that art shouldn’t affirm life. Rather, it should confront us and expose our weaknesses. This, they claim, will lead to positive changes. This absurd notion hides the opposing truth. As our art gets more perverse, our culture marches lockstep behind it, which creates more widespread weaknesses for our artists to explore. These weaknesses have always existed on the bottom rung of society, but now they are showcased to the public, which helps proliferate these behaviors until they become accepted.
Television and Movies
Our popular writers and playwrights established the tradition that now thrives in Hollywood. As our screen writers push the boundaries of obscenity, they inflame our prurient desires and ambush our senses with vulgar and violent images. They desensitize and dehumanize us, or lull us to sleep with pure escapism.
Television pervades our culture. It has been used as both a babysitter and a teacher. By the time our youth reach fifteen years of age, they’ve typically watched 15,000 hours of this stuff. Naturally, they imitate what they see and parrot the pop-slogans they hear. This behavior also leads them to believe that leisure time can be wasted without consequence, which only undermines their spirituality.
Much has been written on television’s culture-wide affect. Any study of the themes and hidden messages reveals the truth that progressive ideas prevail. This platform for propaganda is more powerful than a thousand stages. Future historians will only wonder why we allowed it to dominate our lives. Never before has an entire culture wasted their leisure hours living vicariously on a couch.
Wise parents teach their children to be careful with whom they associate, that by repetitive association, they will acquire some of their friend’s language and behavior. But even the wise let their children associate with a wide variety of strangers through television. Few have any idea who writes their shows. These dramatic writers remain hidden behind the scenes, as an actor entertains them and becomes their hero.
Modern painting illustrates the great divide between our sophisticated masters and the common people. In 1925, the philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset predicted this permanent separation in his essay, “The Dehumanization of Art.” The title seems to imply a polemic, but Ortega actually praised the new art. He claimed the masses would dislike and reject the new art because of a lack of understanding.
Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp are widely considered the gods of modern art. Their reputations are extraordinary, their influence worldwide. When the auction houses offer up their work for bid, the obscene prices further establish their fame and preeminence.
Picasso was at the forefront of many revolutions in modern painting. He teaches us that art can be strange, delusional, and frightening. Picasso’s art is incomprehensible to the uncouth masses, but a source of countless discussions and eureka moments to our cultured elite.
Perhaps the most important lesson Picasso teaches us is what happens when genius is perverted. His art reveals the workings of a darkened mind. Yet, Picasso proliferated with over 50,000 works of art – paintings, ceramics, sculptures, drawings, prints, tapestries, and rugs. His output and influence has helped change our world.
Ideally, the market place determines good art from bad. But when the super-rich become collectors and bid millions of dollars at the auction houses, they decide art’s value and win the debate on what constitutes great art. The top ten collectors have accumulated over half a billion dollars worth of artwork, predominated by modernism.
The art critics and museum curators should be safeguards against bad art. But the same titans of industry who collect art also sit on the board of directors of the most prestigious museums. The role of public museums is public instruction, but they seem bent on our spiritual destruction.
Our art critics have become hand-picked cherries by the various publishers to promote their own progressive agenda. The adoring critics and their artists are like the credit rating agencies and Wall Street. They were supposed to validate or invalidate but they have both failed in their moral duties.
The Russian mystic and painter, Oleg Korolev, indicated the presence of a cabal when he wrote, “We must remember that through this, the Modernist’s slaughter-house destroyed generations of artists!” Modernism has become the only path if an artist desires commercial and critical success. It is tragic that so many painters can’t earn a living practicing the uplifting traditions of their great masters. Those who try are marginalized as “kitsch.”
Modernism also dominates our sculptural, conceptual, and performance arts. Books popularize these with erudition on meaning and other meaningless babble and praise. But this author has had enough of this damaging nonsense and refuses to go any deeper.
Art as Propaganda
Throughout history art has been abused as propaganda by the State. Nazi Germany provides a prominent example. The Soviet Union significantly created the world’s second film school.
On August 10th 2009, the Obama Administration betrayed its agenda for the arts during a lengthy conference call to about seventy-five artists and other opinion makers. Patrick Courrielche received an invite from the National Endowment for the Arts and taped the call. In an exposé, he wrote, “Obama has a strong arts agenda, we were told, and has been very supportive of both using and supporting the arts in creative ways to talk about the issues facing the country.”
Several speakers reminded them how they “shape the lives” of their communities through their art. They referenced Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster and will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” music video as factors in President Obama’s election. The purpose of the call was to recruit them to use their talents for the greater good as defined by the Obama Administration, to focus on health care, energy, the environment, and education, and reinforce the President’s call for service.
Courrielche was outraged. In an exposé in Big Hollywood, he wrote, “It just goes against my core beliefs to sit quietly while the art community is used by the NEA and the administration to push an agenda other than the one for which it was created. It is not within the National Endowment for the Arts’ original charter to initiate, organize, and tap into the art community to help bring awareness to health care, or energy & environmental issues for that matter; and especially not at a time when it is being vehemently debated. Artists shouldn’t be used as tools of the state to help create a climate amenable to their positions, which is what appears to be happening in this instance. If the art community wants to tackle those issues on its own then fine. But tackling them shouldn’t come as an encouragement from the NEA to those they potentially fund at this coincidental time.”
We now know that President Obama is using the arts in creative ways, but more alarming may be his creative methods of its support. Or perhaps it’s a coincidence that two days after the call, twenty-one art organizations endorsed ObamaCare and that sixteen had received grant money within the five months preceding the call.
The NEA has denied that the call promoted any legislative agenda, which prompted the Washington Times to title their follow-up article, “The NEA lies again.” A deeper concern rests with the NEA’s threefold mission: To support excellence in the arts, to enable all Americans to enjoy the arts, and to provide leadership in arts education. When they fail in their first duty and support aberrant rather than excellent art – as their countless controversies testify – their other two duties only perpetuate the perversity.
Modernism or the Road Less Traveled?
A vibrant culture discusses their arts. Today we give little thought to art, as it dominates our lives through television and music. If we analyzed the arts we take for granted, we might finally perceive the danger. Art is a powerful tool in the hands of a tyrant, whether he be a king, a dictator, or a committee under his direction. Art expresses a culture’s condition, but art also conditions a culture. It can change people’s perspective and perception.
The Greatest Artist who ever lived practiced the craft of storytelling using parables to convey a moral. His followers have continued that tradition. They’ve shown that the highest art imitates, illustrates, or expresses the Scriptural truths.
We have been blessed with a number of artists who practice this higher form of art, one that glorifies our Creator and enlightens His noblest creation, humanity. But these artists are not promoted by our purveyors of modern art. Their influence is dim because the bright lights entice us toward the exotic offerings of pop-art.
Our modern artists reject the higher road. They reject the past and refuse to sit on the shoulders of anybody. As they’ve pushed the envelope of innovation, they’ve perverted art’s noble beauty, drained our vitality, and carried us along their darkened paths. Future historians will lament our increasing blindness if we continue this journey fraught with the daily artistic assaults on our spirituality. They know that path descends ever steeper toward cultural suicide.
Or did we take a detour in time toward the strait and narrow, a road that returns to our Lord with full purpose of heart? This path opens our eyes to the waste of time and spiritual harm of our trivial pursuits. This should motivate us to turn off the television and the insidious music, and enjoy those arts that enlighten the mind, inspire purpose, relevance, and a higher meaning of life, art that elevates the soul toward the truly divine.
In the olden days, musical entertainment wasn’t taken for granted. Television was unheard of. The people lived simpler lives. When they had the opportunity to enjoy the arts through a rare exhibit, or literature, or lyrical music, their expectations were higher than ours. More likely, they were edified and blessed. If only more of us were discerning in our choice of arts, we would not be so exposed to the anti-heroic and the cultural urinal that enlivens us.
Copyright 2011 – Robert F. Beaudine. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.