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The Arty Party


February 11, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next
 

The current state of affairs may be wonderful, weird, or woeful depending on your position, but few can argue that it is cohesive. In fact, many of our current conceptions of art are more than just in tension -- they’re nearly contradictory. Consider the classical conception of art, where a metaphysical realism undergirds a style of art that values balance, accuracy and beauty.

Nature as it reflects both the human and the divine is the primary, but not sole, object of this art style. This mode of art is still alive and well today. Classical music, although certainly not ascendant, is still played in orchestras throughout the nation; masterpieces by Van Gogh or Leonardo draw throngs when they tour; and the name "Rembrandt" is still synonymous with "artist."

However, the dominant aesthetic posture of contemporary American society is not Classical. It is without a doubt a kind of mainstream Romanticism provided by Rock ‘n Roll. Rock’s penetration into the American consciousness is almost total. No artistic spirit has had a more effective ambassador than Romanticism has had with Rock.

The emphasis on energy, emotion, rebellion, and individualism has transcended the lyrics to become the everyday culture. The message of rock can be heard while shopping for groceries; it’s not just Iggy Pop but also Carnival Cruise Lines that have a lust for life; and Cadillac, along with The Doors and William Blake, can help you break on through to the other side.

The idea of the small, 1950s town that is awakened from its dogmatic slumber by the transformative powers of dancing and rock 'n roll has become a sort of national myth -- a defining narrative where everyone gets to be a rebel.

Yet consider how rock and classical -- or more accurately, symphonic -- music are almost diametrically opposed on key philosophical issues. Both art forms are quite snobbish, for instance, but on the same axis with different criteria. Symphonic music values qualities like patience, sensitivity, subtlety and harmony. It takes training or education to truly appreciate great symphonic music, and some might go so far as to say it requires proper breeding to truly be open to it.

Rock’s snobbishness, on the other hand, despises so-called good breeding, and places all emphasis on authenticity to the Romantic credo. Rock is committed to energy, vitality, youth, the celebration of the self, where the only possible sin is the not being true to your authentic self. One need only flip through the pages of any rock magazine to see the sneers the artists, journalists and audience have for commercial sellouts.

But perhaps nowhere is our deep divide about art clearer than in the strange lines of contemporary painting. The current film My Kid Could Paint That is only the most recent version of a century-long debate on what painting is to become in an age of photography and film. To some, the film’s 4-year-old star is a prodigy, the kind of artistic genius that visits us once in a lifetime.

To others, she is the latest reductio ad absurdum of an artistic expression that is almost indistinguishable from gibberish. And it’s not just the philistines who cry foul. As Tom Wolfe pointed out in The Painted Word, you’re going to need a theory in order to make sense of Pollock, De Kooning or Rothko.


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