As a mirror for society, art often tells us things we'd rather not know. What big picture are artists painting of Western society? In today's landscape, two features are screamingly evident: spectacle and speculation.
Both rely on flashy style more than substance. But all is not lost. Artists must return to personally making personal objects, rather than turning out "signature" works fabricated by a hundred assistants. Glitz and glamour are as ephemeral as fireflies. Art that endures is serious, hard-hitting, deep, and mature. It requires viewers who are equally committed to decipher it.
Reflecting America's show-biz culture, quiet, contemplative art is overshadowed by art straining to be cinematic or sensationalist. "The requirement that great art be serious and have a message and give aesthetic delight has gone largely by the board because so much art is subsumed as entertainment," says cultural commentator Matthew Gurewitsch.
Art as spectacle was on display in the Brooklyn Museum's aptly named "Sensation" exhibition in 1999. It featured shocking works by the so-called Young British Artists (YBAs). Marc Quinn's self-portrait bust was made from his frozen blood. Damien Hirst's "A Thousand Years" consisted of a box with maggots swarming over a rotting cow's head. Both works score points for originality by updating the traditional "vanitas" genre that reminds us of mortality. Yet the YBAs too often seek to shock more than enlighten.
In a culture obsessed with celebrity and novelty, it's no surprise that artists' works become more strident to win attention. In a society saturated by the entertainment industry – and with digital tools galore – art has developed parallels to panoramic, Technicolor cinema. Photographers such as Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson exhibit wall-sized, staged photographs, digitally manipulated, in dazzling color and detail. Video artists such as Bill Viola turn out Hollywood-style, "wow!" art works.
If every age gets the art it deserves, the other trait – speculation – suggests rampant materialism. Works sell at auction for astronomical sums, as hedge-fund billionaires and oil moguls compete to acquire collections of contemporary art and the sheen of high culture. Many lament this "irrational exuberance" as a pernicious influence. "It's a fallacy to equate a higher price with a better work of art," says the well-respected artist John Baldessari.
Insanely high prices turn art into a commodity with buzz. Fads and hype trump quality and critical judgment. Gallerygoers flock to see name-brand artists whose works garner the highest prices. Often, they leave disappointed and skeptical.
The good news? There is a cure for the epidemic of obesity that inflates art in monetary value and cinematic aspirations. It begins with encouraging art dealers who believe in their artists more than in the power of the purse. "What we need are visionary dealers," says CBS's Morley Safer. He cites the example of Ambroise Vollard, who supported "unknowns" such as Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh.
It also requires media to make a better commitment to quality arts journalism. That means going beyond coverage of blockbuster exhibitions and eschewing PR hype.
The next generation of artists, meanwhile, shows signs of returning to classic ideals. Lowery Sims, a curator at New York's Museum of Arts and Design who teaches college courses in contemporary art, cites the "total revolt" by her students when she explains post-modern art practices such as appropriating banal, found imagery. Ms. Sims says her students exhibit "an extraordinary kind of old-fashioned idealism."
The final component of the cure lies with the viewers of art themselves. Hordes of museumgoers spend a minute or two in front of each work, as audioguides instruct them how to see and think. But doesn't that preempt direct experience?
"To see" as Henri Matisse said, "is itself a creative operation, requiring an effort." It's OK not to like the art or not like what it suggests. But grant the respect of trying to understand what the work is saying. Art is communication, requiring connection between artist and viewer. It should make us see with someone else's eyes.
Teaching children to appreciate art – not just create their own – is vital to this effort. That means we need to challenge the attitude that arts education is optional.
Interpreting contemporary art is an acquired skill. We can't all be connoisseurs but we can participate in the creative triangle linking object, artist, and viewer. Knowledge of art history – and of how an artist upholds or diverges from it – helps, but you should trust your personal reaction. It's about questions, not answers. To be smart about art means opening your head and heart.
• Carol Strickland is the author of "The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to Post-Modern." This is the third of a three-part series.