June 15, 2012
I am a regular but silent reader. Your passing reference to the cult of ugliness struck a chord today. As it happened, I read the post just after returning from a docent-led tour at the Corcoran Gallery. The docent was an delightful older woman (probably well into her 70s) who skillfully mixed “textbook” art history with her own personal take on the pieces. The gallery is in a spectacular Beaux Arts building and is largely dedicated to early American art and European art from the same period. But it also has one section that houses modern and contemporary art. The docent told us that she would take us through the collection chronologically so we could observe the development of styles over time. Then she said, “Personally, I prefer the old works. Much of the modern art is ugly, and I doubt I am the only one here to share that view. However, we must not blame the artists. As you will see, in any age, art is a merely a reflection of the culture and times. And we are living in ugly times.” Indeed.
Many, or most, of the volunteers conducting tours in art museums are older, elegant housewives whose children are grown.
So much for Allan Bloom’s contention in The Closing ot the American Mind that the family cannot be restored – and thus the habits and traditions of learning dependent on it cannot be restored – because women have nothing to do once their children are grown.
In some ways, all of Western civilization rests on the shoulders of women who supposedly have nothing to do.
—- Comments —-
My wife of 45 years is a docent at the National Gallery of Art. She’s been at it for 20 years, and works as hard as any paid Gallery employee. She and her colleagues are mostly older women who took it up after their children were grown. They perform a valuable service, and I’m sure my wife will appreciate the comments here.
The docent said, “…However, we must not blame the artists…”
Not to take anything away from the docent and the good job she is doing, but her comment that we must not blame the artists needs to be explored. Follow the career of but one artist at the turn of the 20th century – Marcel Duchamp and his involvement with, among others, the Dada movement; his influence as a collector and on collectors such as Peggy Guggenheim; his groundbreaking creation of “readymade” art (his first being an autographed urinal) etc. etc. – and one can see that indeed the artists themselves, in responding to the ugliness and chaos of the world, failed to help restore culture, to lift it back up; on the contrary, they made it only more ugly and chaotic by fully uprooting artistic tradition, scandalizing the public and driving collectors to pay great sums for , and in the process immortalizing, degraded works. Living in ugly times was taken as an excuse for self-indulgence and wallowing; an excuse to experiment, resulting in the eventual deconstruction not just of artistic and literary traditions but of society itself. They contributed in no small way to the breakdown of the very culture they claimed to mourn the loss of. Instead of correcting the chaos they helped intensify it, by failing as artists to anchor tradition and allow it to flourish and stabilize society as it always has and should.
The artist’s task is to defend beauty, to find it and understand it. If we can’t blame artists for their glorification of ugliness, then we can’t praise artists who have created great works.
Beauty can be disturbing and unsettling. The point isn’t that every artwork should be pretty or easy to grasp. But modern artists revel in ugliness and their works are nihilistic and glib. Take for example the work of Phyllida Barlow at the New Museum, particularly her installation titled “Seige 2012.” Utter pretentiousness. How does one walk through that museum unless one’s mind has been so saturated in ugliness that one doesn’t feel comfortable in the presence of beauty?
This comment is in regard to the docent and her lack of appreciation for modern art. (And God bless her!) I’m up in years now, but when I was about 12 years old my dad, who was in the Army, was stationed at Walter Reed Hospital and we were living in Washington, D.C. One day my mother took me to an art museusm. It may have been the Corcoran, but I’m not sure. Anyway, we came upon a piece of modern art that was called “Two Circles.” It was a large rectangular canvas painted white with two big black circles side by side. I remember looking at it and wondering, “Why is this in a museum? Anyone with a canvas, some paint and a compass could do the same thing.”
Even at the age of twelve I knew that it was a bunch of nonsense.