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.

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.

Eyebrow-raising pieces

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.

At the opposite extreme is conceptual art pioneer Lawrence Weiner's exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, consisting of pithy slogans stenciled on the walls, seemingly more verbal than visual art. Words alone express an image or idea (for example: "BUILT TO SEE OVER THE EDGE"), with no object to seduce the eye or arouse an emotional response.

Donald Kuspit, professor of philosophy and art history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, calls austere conceptual art "a total disaster." Idea-based or one-liner art is "so narcissistically involuted, very much for a small group of cognoscenti, that it's become inaccessible except for the self-styled happy few." Between off-putting conceptual art and the tendency of political art to harangue viewers, it's no wonder the public feels intimidated, alienated, and confused.

Reason to hope

How can we reestablish a dialogue so the public can relate to and judge value in today's art? Fortunately, what Mr. McFadden calls a "new materiality" is infusing conceptual art. You see it in another exhibition at the Whitney by the artist Kara Walker, which merges show and tell, form and idea. Ms. Walker pastes cut out black silhouettes on white walls, depicting stereotypical scenes from the antebellum South that excoriate racism with what Safer calls "gallows humor."

Her work, "My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love," suggests the African-American artist's love/hate relationship with white society. The black voids of the silhouettes surrounded by enveloping white space enlist the format to convey her message. As Susan Davidson, senior curator at the Guggenheim Museum puts it, "The adage 'a picture speaks a thousand words' is embraced in her work." Walker's art appeals to my head and my heart.

A cure for the public's malaise with contemporary art is this combination of resonant form with emotional depth and accessible intellectual content. Not that interpreting art is supposed to be easy. "Back in the late '60s and '70s, the prevailing attitude was sort of 'screw the bourgeoisie,' " admits eminent conceptual art innovator John Baldessari, who adds, "I thought art was supposed to make people uncomfortable."

Art can throw us a lifeline after it pushes us over the edge of our comfort zone. "It's how you get material and form together to have an aesthetic effect and satisfy what Erich Fromm calls 'existential needs' that's desperately needed in our society," says Professor Kuspit. "There's a need for an art that becomes a model for integration and maturity, an art that speaks to adults with subtle reflectiveness."

Much recent art is pervaded by juvenile jokiness, cynicism, and commerce, like Koons's kitsch transformation of an inflated Mylar bunny into a gleaming, stainless-steel object of collectors' desire. Or Takashi Murakami's Pop figures that look like alien Disney 'toons. Mr. Murakami even plasters his infantilized imagery on Louis Vuitton handbags.

"How much more fashionable can you get?" asks cultural commentator Matthew Gurewitsch, a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, "and how much less can there be?" Even knowing the conceptual background about how Murakami (a hot artist in Japan and the US) is responding to Japan's postwar trauma, "it might be more persuasive if the art were less junky," he notes.

Art operates in a pendulum swing, as artists continually look forward and backward. For the moment, a return to metaphorically rich, hand-made objects – a reaction against digital dominance – beckons us to fuse mind and body in responding to art.

Our "us-versus-them" world seems fragmented – politically, socially, and economically. "These objects," says curator McFadden, "made with passion by someone's hands to be enjoyed by someone else, with a subliminal layer of meaning, remind us we all have this essential humanity that's often forgotten when you look at the international political scene."

English novelist E.M. Forster may have been giving advice to artists today when he wrote: "Only connect."

• Carol Strickland is an art correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and the author of "The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to Post-Modern." This is the first of a three-part series.

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