The trouble with Western art today
Contemporary art isn't just shocking. Much of it fails to appeal to both heart and head.
People don't generally lose sleep over what's wrong with Western art today. But maybe they should.Skip to next paragraph
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Western art, after all, is the most tangible representation of Western thought – its dreams, fears, politics, and core values. "The artist," as the American poet Ezra Pound said, "is the antenna of the race," picking up cultural currents via supersensitivity. If that's true, much of what Western artists are picking up is cause for sleepless nights.
Contemporary art isn't just shocking people's taste or leaving them cold. It's also dehumanizing and divisive, because too much of it appeals to only half of our mental faculties.
By targeting either our senses or our mind – but not both simultaneously – much of contemporary art has lost the "whole-man" concept that appeals to us physically, intellectually, morally, and spiritually. To get back on track, artists need to create art that shows and tells. In practice, this means creating art with significant form that communicates ideas and emotions to the heart, mind, and spirit.
In the past 50 years, all genres, materials, subjects, and methods of production have been up for grabs. To stand out in this explosion of possibility, artists stake out extreme positions, seeking attention through transgressive content that defies conventional taste. Consider:
•In 1961, Piero Manzoni sold cans of his own excrement labeled "Merda d'artista" as art.
•In the 1980s, Jeff Koons, commodity broker-turned-wunderkind artist, displayed "Equilibrium," three basketballs floating in tanks of distilled water. In a controversial "60 Minutes" segment broadcast in 1993 called, "Yes, but is it art?," Mr. Koons told Morley Safer that this work connoted "a definition of life and death." Mr. Safer wryly replied that it also gave new meaning to the term "slam-dunk."
•In 2001, Martin Creed won the prestigious Turner Prize in London. His work, "The Lights Going On and Off," consists of – yes – light bulbs going on and off in an empty gallery every five seconds.
Responding to highly hyped works of this nature, gallery-goers may feel like dim bulbs themselves, unable to decipher the works' meanings. "It's conceptual art that makes the so-called general public nervous about going to contemporary art shows," says David McFadden, senior curator at New York's Museum of Arts and Design. "If I go to exhibitions of highly conceptual pieces, I'm at a loss," he admits, adding, "and I've spent my whole life looking at objects."
Museums are crowded as viewers do their best to take in the cultural superstars. But increasingly, the works are less than nourishing. Instead of a complex stew of hints and tints and imaginative magic, the public is being served a thin gruel.
What's wrong with contemporary art? By staking out the extremes of artistic practice, it excludes much of the core, and thus excludes our ability to react and connect with our eyes, our hearts, our gut, and our minds. Emily Dickinson defined art's visceral effect this way: "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."
Contemporary art is increasingly one-note rather than symphonic, emphasizing either cerebral or formal appeal. Instead of taking your head off, it'll have you nodding off or shaking your head in dismay.
A cardinal rule that applies to all art forms seeking to be evocative – not just provocative – is "show, don't tell." Too much contemporary art is a no-show, relying on content to tell the viewer a take-away message. And then there's the other polarity of art loaded toward sensual, formal appeal, which is all show and no tell. What I'd like to see is show and tell.
Two retrospectives currently in New York display the warring tendencies.
At the Museum of Modern Art, Martin Puryear's semiabstract, wooden sculptures appeal to the eye with their tactile, curved surfaces, yet their message is mute. They show the craftsman's ability to create innovative forms, but they tell us nothing explicitly.