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Democracy Is Killing Art

Post #1760 • September 30, 2015, 2:03 PM • 4 Comments

Since the summer of last year, four essays have appeared claiming that art is either dead or dying. Each author cites different reasons, but the real causes of the decline are more entrenched than any of them realize. They are principles held dear by (in the broadest sense) liberally minded people who will sooner give up on art than sacrifice them.

Proceeding in order of worst to best explanations, I begin with Michael Lind's Artless: Why do intelligent people no longer care about art? from The Smart Set in June. The fine arts don't matter any more to most educated people. This is not a statement of opinion; it is a statement of fact." He admits, "There is still an art world, to be sure, in New York and London and Paris and elsewhere. But it is as insular and marginal as the fashion world, with a similar constituency of rich buyers interacting with producers seeking to sell their wares and establish their brands. Members of the twenty-first century educated elite, even members of the professoriate, will not embarrass themselves if they have never heard of the Venice Biennale.

As far as I can tell, very few college-educated people under the age of 50 pay any attention to the old fine arts at all, he says. As far as I can tell he's correct. This is my demographic and I'm more likely to bond with my peers over technology, food, music, whiskey, gaming, politics, or travel. To a great degree this is even true of my art-world friends. Paula Marantz Cohen tried to refute Lind by moving Marvel Comics and Game of Thrones into the category of art, but it only proved him right. Hardly anyone outside of academia cares whether long-form television is art, least of all the people who make and enjoy long-form television. Whether comics are art is irrelevant to the question of whether a given work is good as comics. This is just expanding the category to accommodate general indifference to the narrower, traditional version. The indifference is still there.

Lind blames the lack of interest on capitalism. Markets tend to prize fashionable novelty over continuity. The shocking and sensational get more attention than subtle variations on traditional conventions and themes. Capitalism, applied to the fine arts, created the arms race that led to increasingly drastic departures from premodern artistic tradition, until finally, by the late 20th century, 'art' could be everything and therefore nothing.

This is easy to dismiss. Unless there's something different about the capitalist milieu that gave us Rembrandt from the one that gave us Picasso, which Lind does not and ought not suggest, nothing about markets explains how they produced both the revered tradition and the modern departures. His explanation ignores the internal pressures of art to innovate. Even Leonardo opined that it was a poor student who didn't surpass his master. With the advent of modernism, what it meant to surpass your master became a difficult question and grew ever more complicated over the next century and a half. But the impulse to advance art is perennial, and has many times caused artists to lose markets.

William S. Smith, writing for Art in America about the Superscript conference at the Walker Art Center in May, struck a similar chord. The common texts (or exhibitions, or artworks) that hold together a monolithic art world are not always very interesting. Noting correctly that the difficulty of making a living at art writing cuts down on the demographic diversity of writers, he concludes, Lack of diversity is often described as a part of a crisis of art criticism or a crisis in publishing. But I wonder if we should be asking if this is really a crisis for art. If the system is skewed in such a way that writers who are equipped to comment on diverse modes of cultural production have no investment in the visual arts and find the life of writing about it unsustainable, then the visual arts will no longer be a credible public forum for exchanging ideas. It will instead whither [sic] into an elite game, a subculture for elderly white people interested in private aesthetic experience and a narrow view of social prestige. In the long term, that hardly sounds like a sustainable business model for anyone.

The author thinks that private aesthetic experience is a trifle, and approves when LA Times critic Christopher Knight says earlier in the piece, My aim is to enfold the power of art within the larger dynamic of power relationships in society. That aesthetic experiences ultimately connect people despite their private nature, and Marxist pantomimes perhaps do not, never occur to such people. Between Smith and Lind we can see a common egalitarian complaint about the trajectory of art. Smith, who seems to think that art could yet be saved, wants it to become even more inclusive. The exchange of ideas, in his conception, is crucial to art's survival. But these are precisely the desiderata embraced by the institutions since 1970, resulting in scholarly and museological work of increasingly egalitarian tenor. What if the old white people, at least the ones in the art world, believe in them as much as anyone, and furthermore have the means to support them? Because that does, in fact, appear to be the case, which is how we got the situation we're in.

It's interesting that Michael J. Lewis, whose politics and aesthetics don't much resemble Smith's or Lind's, came to such a similar conclusion about the state of art. In July, Commentary published his essay entitled How Art Became Irrelevant. A basic familiarity with the ideas of the leading artists and architects is no longer part of the essential cultural equipment of an informed citizen. Fifty years ago, educated people could be expected to identify the likes of Saul Bellow, Buckminster Fuller, and Jackson Pollock. Today one is expected to know about the human genome and the debate over global warming, but nobody is thought ignorant for being unable to identify the architect of the Freedom Tower or name a single winner of the Tate Prize...

Lewis makes a keen observation about the symptoms: The last time that artists were part of the national conversation was a generation ago.... And the American public—left with an impressionistic vision in which urine, bullwhips, and a naked but chocolate-streaked Karen Finley figured largely—drew the fatal conclusion that contemporary art had nothing to offer them. Fatal, because the moment the public disengages itself collectively from art, even to refrain from criticizing it, art becomes irrelevant.

Lewis blames the decline of the very idea of civilization, which holds more explanatory power than the previous examples.

After World War II and the introduction of the atom bomb, it seemed pointless to try to preserve the confused traditions of a civilization that had brought the world to the ledge of oblivion.... It is easy to see why an artistic culture unwilling to champion even the abstract concept of Western culture would feel resentful toward a modernism that sought to do just that and would try to cut it down to size.... Without a sincere concept of the meaning of civilization, one cannot explain why a masterpiece of Egyptian New Kingdom art counts for more than a creation of 1960s industrial design (other than in dollar value). If one cannot do even that, it is hard to see how one might set out to make serious and lasting art. To make such art—art that refracts the world back to people in some meaningful way, and that illuminates human nature with sympathy and insight... it is necessary to have some sort of larger system of belief, a larger structure of continuity that permits works of art to speak across time. Without such a belief system, all that one can hope for is short-term gain, in the coin of celebrity or notoriety, if not actual coins.

Here we have to confront the possibility that an egalitarianism which accepts multiple systems of belief is incompatible with a sense of civilization—not as an abstraction, but as a particular belief system to which one can ascribe and thus belong. I am not talking about belonging to civilization, but belonging to a civilization. Equality, democracy, social or economic justice of the remedial varieties, relativism, inclusiveness, and participation ultimately contradict that larger structure of continuity.

Jed Perl nearly admitted as much when last summer he wrote Liberals Are Killing Art for The New Republic. He said that the liberal insistence—though not that of his own liberalism—to view art through a political lens was threatening art itself. [A]mong the greatest enemies of the arts are the enemies that lie within, in the arts community's seemingly liberal demand that all discourse be reasonable, disciplined, purposeful, useful. He doesn't say conformant, but the examples he gives throughout the essay are of complaints that other writers have made about the illiberal political sympathies of the artists under examination. He arrives at this difficult conclusion:

In his essay on Henry James's The Princess Casamassima, Lionel Trilling argues that James—much like the novel's radical hero, Hyacinth Robinson—came to accept the troubling fact that despotic, cruel, rapacious societies have produced some of humankind's richest and noblest expression. While James surely does not believe that despotic societies are the only ones that have produced truly great art, I do think he wants to suggest that the artistic imagination is characterized by its own kinds of despotism and rapacity—what he famously called the madness of art. This is something from which liberal sensibilities all too easily recoil.

Perl and Lewis came close to echoing Hans-Hermann Hoppe in a 2013 interview.

Democratic state government systematically promotes egalitarianism and relativism. In the field of human interaction, it leads to the subversion and ultimately disappearance of the idea of eternal and universal principles of justice.... In the field of the arts and of aesthetic judgment, democracy leads to the subversion and ultimately disappearance of the notion of beauty and universal standards of beauty.

Hoppe is the author of Democracy: The God That Failed, in which he argues that a monarchy is more likely to protect individual liberties and generally behave itself than a democracy. (David Gordon elucidated the argument.) The above claim is essentially Lewis's assertion expressed by someone who repudiates the legitimacy of states. Hoppe has not delved into aesthetics, not even his own. He admits in that interview, I am not an artsy person. But I am an artsy person, and to my eye he described what has happened to art in an astute and devastating summary.

It may be that the ideal conditions for art are culturally homogenous, hierarchical, classist, territorially expansive, capitalist monarchies. Think Rembrandt's Holland. Republics with active markets and monarchist hangovers are pretty good, such as Monet's France. The worst are anti-capitalist, collectivist dictatorships in which the hierarchy of social, political, and financial power is flat except for the spike occupied by the despot and his circle, and the ditch into which he throws the undesirables. Think the Reichskulturkammer. Concentrated political power has no societal advantages if you're running a prison state with bad resource allocation.

Excellent work was created earlier, but American art didn't ascend to worldwide triumph until after World War II, which produced an economic boom and the closest thing America ever saw to monarchic levels of nationalist pride. The high lasted from Pollock to Warhol. Then there was a proliferation of egalitarianism in the 1960s, and while civic good resulted, no artist ever again became a household name. As you would expect under egalitarianism, everyone went off to go work within his choice of belief system. Overarching artistic conventions began to be regarded with suspicion. Over the decades, audiences drifted off and gathered around mediums that celebrate their conventions, such as comics and long-form television. Art was left to flail.

Artistic good and civic good are not the same kinds of good. That they overlap, or should, is a baseless conceit, in both the literary and personal senses. David Mamet wrote in The Three Uses of the Knife, Dramatists who aim to change the world assume a moral superiority to the audience and allow the auidence to assume a moral superiority to those people in the play who don't accept the views of the hero.

J. Rebecca Trueblood, an abstract painter in Boston who publishes a list of visual arts news and opportunities, noted recently,

I despair to say it, but from the thousands of calls for art I see and the trends in museums, I have to coin a term that makes me shudder: inclusivism. There seems to be a desperation to bend art to make it socially relevant and interactive, to the point where it starts to give me flashbacks to kindergarten and getting lectured about sharing. Over and over I see: Tell us how your your work lends itself to the social good and the community, addresses issues of climate change, and basically envelop all who may encounter it with a sensation that by their mere presence, they are contributing; they are, themselves, the art, and therefore not just floating specks but crucial and important. Maybe people are tired of feeling bullied by art, and tolerance levels for hurt feelings have sunk to record lows. It's all weird and so I have opted out of the games.

These trends are also trying to expand the category of art to accommodate indifference. People don't really care about art, but they care about climate change, so let's have an exhibition of art about climate change, so the thinking goes. The euphemism for this is relevance. Likewise for the activities that go on in the name of participation and interaction. But the democratic attitude is causing the indifference in the first place. It corrodes the conventions that enable art, and it fractures the sense of having a civilization for which we would make art to begin with.

Now that egalitarian collectivism has been institutionalized—you can even earn an MFA in Social Practice if you want one—the conditions for art are destined to worsen. Those of us who want to create in defiance of them are, somehow, going to have to figure out how to establish a monarchy of the imagination in their midst.



Martin Mugar

September 30, 2015, 3:33 PM

Thanks for keeping this topic alive. I have been writing on the same subject for several years and have addressed Perl's contribution to the issues you cover, here and here. In his latest piece in the New York Review of Books he suggests that Trilling's notions of authenticity and sincerity could help change the way we think about art and how we practice it.


Alan Pocaro

September 30, 2015, 9:38 PM

This post reminds me of an argument I was trying to make over at abstract critical a year or two ago about the demise of great abstraction. In a nutshell, I suggested that the lifeblood of abstraction (maybe all art?) is a kind of individualism, a unique aesthetic and stylistic vision asserted against a backdrop of cultural-aesthetic conformity, a vision no longer possible to assert in our current climate where the dominant paradigm is one of individualistic materialism.

The over 2000-year development of a Western culture held loosely together by a Greco-Roman patrimony and shared Christian values is long gone, replaced by an atomized society of competing interest groups with little in common but the desire to satiate want after want. I would argue, and I expect that you might disagree, that this cultural shift has been caused primarily by two things: The widespread adoption of materialistic consumption as the chief aim of life – brought about by a capitalism that no longer just efficiently satisfies needs, but rather stimulates a bevy of dubious want which its all to eager to provide for, and two, a widely held scientism which has banished all things immaterial (spirit, soul, God,) to the realm of historical fantasy.

Of course previously marginalized groups of all kinds finding their share of social justice and a seat at the democratic table (which most sensible individuals support) portends even more cultural disunity and social atomization. Atomic science may have brought us the bomb, but it also vastly improved the efficacy of medical care. Sadly we cannot extract the good from the bad, and I’m afraid that short of a national religious revival, aliens landing on the White House lawn, or a fascist dictator coming to power, the cultural conditions for social unity and a shared aesthetic framework aren’t likely to return.


Alan Singer

October 1, 2015, 9:24 AM

Trends in art in the mid-20th century appeared to go one way, but it is never as simple as that. I've never viewed the art audience as monolithic. There have always been factions that supported one kind of art over another. It is true that artists sometimes feel the need to innovate - they are no different than the rest of the country that has that bit of an entrepreneurial spirit. The Internet has opened the eyes of many people to all kinds of possibilities, so it comes as no surprise that a fragmented society takes off and goes its own way. Even in repressive societies, people feel the call to go against the grain and they should. The flow of money has warped the process, there can be no doubt of that. It would be a mistake to consider that all that money could create great art. It all boils down to the individual with a vision and how strong and dedicated that person will be, and also how resilient, because there is a lot of rejection to deal with. Democracy is not killing the arts, there is still a lot of joy in the arts, and in being an artist, just don't get in it for the wrong reasons.


Mark Plant

October 23, 2015, 6:54 PM

Art isn't even remotely dying out. There are more people earning a living by making things that are valued solely for being attractive or interesting than ever. I would say that homes have more works of art than ever. That's hard to prove, but certainly there seem to be more shops selling art than there ever used to be. People still want pretty things. And the modern taste is to buy originals too, rather than copies or "in the style of" old masters.

It's only the pretention that it means anything that is dying. The "art" of professors and critics and their prey is on the slide in terms of general interest. Who would actually decorate their home with the sort of unattractive, and often deliberately repulsive, work that passes for "meaningful"? People don't care how much the luvvies admire Tracey Emin, they wouldn't want it in their homes. I'm happy to have a painting of some colour blocks like those of Albers in my home. What I won't do is pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to invest those blocks in any meaning beyond being interesting blocks of colour.

So for most of us the overblown rhetoric of "art" is long played out and getting increasingly tedious in its impenetrability and self-referential onanism. Modern museum art is dying, sure. Democratic art, as in the art that the people want, is doing very well indeed. It's a return to what it was. Rembrandt painted for houses and places people worked and met, after all, not museums. His pictures are no nicer for having had centuries of critics pore over them either. The modern art world is the aberration, not the norm.

No doubt many here will write me off as a Philistine. But you can't be concerned that art is falling out of the normal range of topics of interest for educated people, and then label anyone who points this out as being unable to bear the intellectual weight of "good" art. Educated people have decided, in general, that the verbiage that goes with modern art is not interesting. So they are no longer interested in it.



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