We Can’t Have Nice Things

"Nice things are nicer than nasty ones."
— Kingsley Amis

I thought about organizing this column around Kingsley Amis’ seemingly simple remark. How much forgotten wisdom is contained in those seven short words? And what profound application do they have to a moment in which ugliness has not only triumphed in our culture but is everywhere held up as something one must embrace as attractive? How many more fashion ads featuring hideous “fat-positive” females do we need? 

On second thought, though, I realized that I could give an abbreviated answer to the question implicit in my title in just three words: indifference, capitulation, kitsch. 

Let’s start with the indifference. Conservatives in the West long ago ceded culture to the Left. Culture, they felt, was not really serious. You can’t eat Rembrandt or the Ninth Symphony or Paradise Lost. You can’t make a payroll writing poetry or studying Botticelli or Herodotus. True, in 1780, John Adams wrote that “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy . . . in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” That sounds noble, but who still believes it? Not paid-up members of Conservatism, Inc. Quote that passage to them. Then watch them smile. 

It is the same smile they display when you quote Andrew Breitbart’s observation that “politics is downstream from culture.” They might nod. They might say they agree. But how do they act? More or less like Medea in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “Video meliora,” said that unhappy damsel to herself, “proboque, deteriora sequor”: “I see the better path and approve: I follow the worse.” 

Back in 1973, Irving Kristol wrote an essay called “On Capitalism and the Democratic Idea.” In the course of that essay, Kristol touched upon the conservative indifference to the claims of culture. “For two centuries,” he wrote 

the very important people who managed the affairs of this society could not believe in the importance of ideas—until one day they were shocked to discover that their children, having been captured and shaped by certain ideas, were either rebelling against their authority or seceding from their society. The truth is that ideas are all-important. The massive and seemingly solid institutions of any society—the economic institutions, the political institutions, the religious institutions—are always at the mercy of the ideas in the heads of the people who populate these institutions. The leverage of ideas is so immense that a slight change in the intellectual climate can and will—perhaps slowly but nevertheless inexorably—twist a familiar institution into an unrecognizable shape. 

Kristol was talking more about the humanities than about art. But his point applies equally to the attitude of ‘the very important people’ who manage the affairs of our society regarding art. They didn’t think or care much about art—it was something that went on, as it were, behind their backs. But then one day they woke up and found the art world, and even the formerly staid world of museums, was awash in sexualized garbage and postmodern inanity. Their indifference mutated first into outrage. Then, as they took note of the prices fetched by the garbage, it mutated into capitulation. 

This process did not take place in a vacuum. It was part and parcel of a larger culture rebellion against bourgeois values that got going in earnest with the advent of modernism. In art, as the Australian philosopher David Stove observed, 

Western Europe found that its anti-academy had become its academy ‘even in the twinkling of an eye.’ The galleries were suddenly full of the art of African societies formerly the most despised. Victorian architecture was all at once the object of a universal detestation, or rather horror. Black music began its long and excruciating revenge on the white man. The Jazz Age, in short, had arrived. 

Today, we are living in the aftermath of that avant-garde: all those “adversarial” gestures, poses, ambitions, and tactics that emerged and were legitimized in the 1880s and 1890s, flowered in the first half of the last century, and live a sort of posthumous existence now in the frantic twilight of postmodernism. Regime conservatives have done nothing effective to challenge this. On the contrary, despite little whimpers here and there, they have capitulated to it. 

In part, our present situation, like avant-garde itself, is a complication (not to say a perversion) of our Romantic inheritance. The elevation of art from a didactic pastime to a prime spiritual resource, the self-conscious probing of inherited forms and artistic strictures, the image of the artist as a tortured, oppositional figure: all achieve a first maturity in Romanticism. These themes were exacerbated as the avant-garde developed from an impulse to a movement and finally into a tradition of its own.

“The Card Players,” by Paul Cézanne (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images

An Obtuse Public

The problem is that the avant-garde has become a casualty of its own success. Having won battle after battle, it gradually transformed a recalcitrant bourgeois culture into a willing collaborator in its raids on established taste. But in this victory were the seeds of its own irrelevance, for without credible resistance, its oppositional gestures degenerated into a kind of aesthetic buffoonery. In this sense, the institutionalization of the avant-garde—what the critic Clement Greenberg called “avant-gardism”—spells the death or at least the senility of the avant-garde.

What can be done? For one thing, it is time that we recognize that art need not be adversarial or “transgressive” in order to be good or important. 

In this context, it is worth noting that great damage has been done—above all to artists but also to public taste—by romanticizing the tribulations of the 19th-century avant-garde. Everyone is brought up on stories of how an obtuse public scorned Manet, censored Gauguin, and drove poor Van Gogh to madness and suicide. But the fact that these great talents went unappreciated has had the undesirable effect of encouraging the thought that because one is unappreciated one is therefore a genius. It has also made it extremely difficult to expose fraudulent work as such. For any frank dismissal of art—especially art that cloaks itself in the mantle of the avant-garde—is immediately met by the rejoinder: “Ah, but they made fun of Cézanne, too: they thought that Stravinsky was a charlatan.”

This is the easiest and also the most shallow response to criticism. It has been adopted as much by the Right as the Left. To quote David Stove again, it is yet another version of what he called “The ‘They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus’ Argument.” The idea is that we ought to welcome all innovators (moral, social, artistic, whatever) because all improvements in human life have come about as the result of some such “new beginning.” 

The rub, of course, is that it works the other way, too. As Stove observed, “someone first had to make a new departure for any change for the worse ever to have taken place.” This is perfectly obvious, and is reason enough to regard innovators with caution, to say the least.

If the Columbus Argument is puerile when applied to politics and morals, it is equally puerile when applied to art. In the first place, most artists whom we now associate with the 19th-century avant-garde did not set out to shock or “transgress” moral boundaries: they set out to make art that was true to their experience of the world. Today, the primary—often, it seems, the only—goal of many so-called “cutting edge” artists is to shock and transgress. The art is secondary, a license for bad behavior.

There is also the uncomfortable and unegalitarian truth that in any age, most art is bad or failed art. And in our time, most art is not only bad but also dishonest: a form of therapy or political grumbling masquerading as art. Like everything important in human life, art must be judged on the basis of first-hand experience: no formula can be devised prescribing its assessment, including the formula that what is despised today will be championed as great work tomorrow. The art world today retains little of the idealism that permeated Romanticism, but it remains Romantic in its moralism and hubris about the salvific properties of art.

Ceaseless Play of Novelty

The road to our current impasse began with the “anti-art” movement of Dadaism. For with Dada, the brash energy of the avant-garde was short-circuited, flipped on its head. Dada did not seek to provide yet another fresh answer to the question, “What’s new?” On the contrary, Dada sought to subvert the entire context in which the question gained urgency. That the extreme strategies of Dada, too, were quickly incorporated as part of the metabolism of art.

From this perspective, Dada, and every subsequent innovation, by definition, appears as a variation on an already defined theme: an anti-theme, really, whose very negativity provides a foil for the ceaseless play of novelty. But in fact, the incorporation of Dada into the fabric of the avant-garde did have consequences. For one thing, Dada altered the tenor of the avant-garde. Dada might seek to occupy extreme points, but it did so out of a systematic contrariness: it had no ambition “to attain for an hour that crest of the wave in a tossing sea,” as the French critic Albert Thibaudet put it, because it had given up on the whole idea of art as a spiritual quest. Indeed, Dada was an art form that had given up on art.

Consider: in 1914, Marcel Duchamp dusted off a commercial bottle rack and offered it, tongue firmly in cheek, to the public as art. The public (at least the taste-making part of it) swooned with delighted outrage. In 1917, Duchamp upped the ante. He scrawled the name “R. Mutt” on a urinal, baptized it “Fountain,” and said (in effect) “How about it?” What a delicious scandal ensued. How original! How innovative! But also how destructive of the essential protocols and metabolism of art.

But not, it soon became clear, as destructive as Duchamp had wished. “I threw the bottle rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge,” Duchamp noted contemptuously some years later, “and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.” Oh, dear.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Duchamp had wished not to extend but to subvert, to destroy, the whole category of art and aesthetic delectation. Instead, his antics polluted and trivialized it. How much of contemporary art is essentially tired repetition of gestures inaugurated by Duchamp and his immediate successors? Damien Hirst? Been there. Tracy Emin? Ditto. Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger? Ditto, ditto. As the sage of Ecclesiastes put it, there is nothing new under the sun.

The ironies abound. Today, “Fountain” is (in the words of one reverential commentator) widely considered “a recognizable icon in the history of modern art.” Given Duchamp’s iconoclastic intentions, what do you suppose he would have thought of Pierre Pinoncelli, the chap who has so far availed himself of at least two opportunities to attack this treasure with a hammer?

Now you might be tempted (I certainly was) to applaud this exercise of creativity and innovation as an exemplary instance of emperor’s-new-clothes vandalism. It is part of Duchamp’s legacy, however, that Pinoncelli should (surprise, surprise) style himself an artist, be accepted by the public as an artist, and denominate his little acts of “philosophizing with a hammer” (as Nietzsche said of his own efforts at creative destruction) as signal instances of “performance art.”

Well, whatever the presiding judge thought of Pinoncelli’s artistic efforts, he grasped the principles of private property with sufficient clarity to understand that chipping away without leave at a piece of plumbing valued at $3.4 million (and this, incidentally, for a late version of the blessed pissoir that Duchamp signed in 1964) just wasn’t on. The judge indulged his own innovative creativity and fined Pinoncelli some £140,000 ($173,000, give or take).

These familiar but exemplary episodes from the annals of contemporary art illustrate Marx’s one indisputable contribution to civilization, viz., his observation that important historical events tend to occur twice: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

They also illustrate the cynical truth of Andy Warhol’s observation that “Art is what you can get away with.” Warhol’s own career, and, indeed, a large part of the contemporary art world testify to the power—if not the truth—of that observation. 

The sad fact is that today, anything can not only be put forward but also accepted and celebrated as a work of art. I won’t bother to rehearse examples. The question is: How did we get here? What had to happen that (for example) a bisected Cow in a tank of formaldehyde is accounted an important work of art? Well, that is a complicated question to which there is no short answer. But if one had to sum up volumes in a single word, a good candidate would be the word “beauty”: What the art world is lacking today is an allegiance to beauty.

Allegiance to Beauty

I know that this is both vague and portentous. But surely we are in a very curious situation. Traditionally, the goal or end of fine art was to make beautiful objects. Beauty itself came with a lot of Platonic and Christian metaphysical baggage, some of it indifferent or even positively hostile to art. But art without beauty was, if not exactly a contradiction in terms, at least a description of failed art.

But if large precincts of the art world have jettisoned the traditional link between art and beauty, they have done nothing to disown the social prerogatives of art. We suffer today from a peculiar form of moral anesthesia: an anesthesia based on the delusion that by calling something “art” we thereby purchase for it a blanket exemption from moral criticism—as if being art automatically rendered all moral considerations beside the point.

George Orwell gave classic expression to this point in “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dalí.” Acknowledging the deficiency of the philistine response to Dalí’s work—categorical rejection along with denial that Dalí possessed any talent whatever—Orwell goes on to note that the response of the cultural elites was just as impoverished. Essentially, the elite response to Dalí was the response of l’art pour l’art, of extreme aestheticism. “The artist,” Orwell writes,

is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people. Just pronounce the magic word ‘Art,’ and everything is O.K. Rotting corpses with snails crawling over them are O.K.; kicking little girls in the head is O.K.; even a film like L’Age d’Or [which shows, among other things, detailed shots of a woman defecating] is O.K.

A juror in the obscenity trial in Cincinnati over Robert Mapplethorpe’s notorious photographs of the S&M homosexual underworld memorably summed up the paralyzed attitude Orwell described. Acknowledging that he did not like Mapplethorpe’s rebarbative photographs, the juror nonetheless concluded that “if people say it’s art, then I have to go along with it.”

“If people say it’s art, then I have to go along with it.” It is worth pausing to digest that comment. It is also worth confronting it with a question: Why do so many people feel that if something is regarded as art, they “have to go along with it,” no matter how offensive it might be? Part of the answer has to do with the confusion of art with “free speech.” Another part of the answer has to do with the evolution and what we might call the institutionalization of the avant-garde and its posture of defiance.

You know the drill: black-tie dinners at major museums, tout le monde in attendance, celebrating the latest art-world freak: maybe it’s the Chapman brothers with their pubescent female mannequins festooned with erect penises; maybe it’s Mike Kelley with his mutilated dolls, or Jeff Koons with his pornographic sculptures depicting him and his now-former wife having sex, or Cindy Sherman with her narcissistic feminism, or Jenny Holzer with her political slogans. The list is endless. And so is the tedium. Today in the art world, anything goes but almost nothing happens. As with any collusion of snobbery and artistic nullity, such spectacles have their amusing aspects, as Tom Wolfe, for example, has brilliantly shown. In the end, though, the aftermath of the avant-garde has been the opposite of amusing. It has been a cultural disaster. For one thing, by universalizing the spirit of opposition, it has threatened to transform the practice of art into a purely negative enterprise. In large precincts of the art world today, art is oppositional or it is nothing. Celebrity replaces aesthetic achievement as the goal of art. 

Cindy Sherman’s “Clown Series” (Photo by Marvin Woodyatt/WireImage)

The Right, especially the libertarian Right, has been complicit in this development, first in its indifference, second in its capitulation, third by its embrace of kitsch.

What is kitsch? A lot of ink has been expended in the effort to define this amphibious aesthetic-moral term. Kitsch flirts with idealism, but it is a rancid idealism. It is a version of sentimentality, which is to say manufactured sentiment in the face of a failure of genuine feeling. The novelist Milan Kundera, who devoted many pages to the subject, noted that “Kitsch is the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling.” Kitsch is histrionic, self-dramatizing. Its confections can be sweet: think, for example, of John Currin’s diabetic fantasies. They can also be sour: I would include some of the grimmer fabulations of Odd Nerdrum in this category. 

It is worth noting that technical command is no barrier to, it might even be a facilitator of, kitsch. At its core is a failure of nerve which is also a rejection of truth. Kitsch describes one variety of failed art. But—another thing worth noting—it is also the case that the most ambitious art must have the courage to flirt with kitsch, to negotiate that passage between the Scylla of sterility and the Charybdis of sentimentality. There are no formulas, no dependable navigational aids, for this voyage. The sine qua non is that most demanding but also least definable of gifts, viz, taste. The exercise of taste is what elevates a traditional artistic practice from the quaintly antiquarian to the inescapably pertinent. Success in this realm is not only something that must be won anew daily, it is something about which judgment will often vary or be withheld indefinitely.

The War for Man’s Soul

That said, it is no secret that much, if not most, art in recent decades has abandoned beauty, abandoned the ambition to please the viewer aesthetically. Instead, it seeks to shock, discommode, repulse, proselytize, or startle. Beauty is out of place in any art that systematically discounts the aesthetic.

But “beauty” is by no means an unambiguous term. In degenerate or diluted form, it can mean the merely pretty, and in this sense, beauty really is an enemy of authentic artistic expression. But beauty is not always the “merely pretty” or agreeable. One thinks, for example, of Dostoyevsky’s observation, in The Brothers Karamazov, that “beauty is the battlefield on which God and the devil war for man’s soul.”

The point is that, in its highest sense, beauty speaks with such great immediacy because it touches something deep within us. Understood in this way, beauty is something that absorbs our attention and delivers us, if but momentarily, from the poverty and incompleteness of everyday life. At its most intense, beauty invites us to forget our subjection to time and imparts an intoxicating sense of self-sufficiency.

Art that loses touch with the resources of beauty is bound to be sterile. But it is also true that striving self-consciously to embody beauty is a prescription for artistic failure. This may seem paradoxical. But, like many of the most important things in life, genuine beauty is achieved mainly by indirection. In this sense, beauty resembles happiness as it was described by Aristotle: it is not a possible goal of our actions, but rather the natural accompaniment of actions rightly performed. Striving for happiness in life all but guarantees unhappiness; striving for beauty in art is likely to result in kitsch or some other artistic counterfeit.

The trick, for viewers as well as artists, is not to lose sight of beauty but to concentrate primarily on something seemingly more pedestrian—the making of good works of art. The best guides to this task are to be found not in the work of this season’s art-world darlings but in the great models furnished by the past.

My point is that the serious art of today tends to be a quiet affair. It takes place not at Tate Modern or the Museum of Modern Art, not in the Chelsea or TriBeCa galleries, but off to one side, out of the limelight. This is because real art tends to involve not the latest thing, but permanent things. Permanent things can be new; they can be old; but their relevance is measured less by the buzz they create than by the silences they inspire. In other words, the future of our artistic culture is not in the hands of today’s tastemakers, but those whose talent, patience, and perseverance will ultimately render them the tastemakers of tomorrow.

In the introduction to my book Art’s Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (2003), I noted that most of the really good contemporary art was taking place “out of the limelight.” You didn’t see it in the trendy art emporia. It was not, usually, reviewed by the New York Times or other such organs colluding in the degradation of culture. Serious art today has tended to be a quiet affair, proceeding in an obscure studio in midtown or even out-of-town. It measured its success less by the buzz it created than the silences it inspired. “Tradition” was, for its practitioners, an enabling, not a dirty word.

Boris Horvat/AFP via Getty Images

We live at a time when art is enlisted in all manner of extra-artistic projects, from gender politics to the grim linguistic leftism of neo-Marxists, post-structuralists, gender theorists, and all the other exotic fauna who are congregating in and about the art world and the academy. The subjugation of art—and of cultural life generally—to political ends has been one of the great spiritual tragedies of our age. Among much else, it has made it increasingly difficult to appreciate art on its own terms, as affording its own kinds of insights and satisfactions. This situation has made it imperative for critics who care about art to champion its distinctively aesthetic qualities against attempts to reduce art to a species of propaganda.

At the same time, however, I believe that we lose something important when our conception of art does not have room for an ethical dimension. That is to say, if the politicization of art is constricting, so too, in a different way, is a purely aesthetic conception of art. By the 19th century, art had long been free from serving the ideological needs of religion; and yet the spiritual crisis of the age tended to invest art with ever greater existential burdens—burdens that continue, in various ways, to be felt down to this day. The poet Wallace Stevens articulated one important strand of this phenomenon when he observed that “after one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.”

The idea that poetry—that art generally—should serve as a source—perhaps the primary source—of spiritual sustenance in a secular age is a Romantic notion that continues to resonate powerfully. It helps to explain, for example, the special aura that attaches to art and artists, even now—even, that is, at a time when poseurs like Andres Serrano and Bruce Nauman and Gilbert & George are accounted serious artists by persons one might otherwise have had reason to think were serious people. This Romantic inheritance has also figured, with various permutations in much avant-garde culture. We have come a long way since Dostoyevsky could declare that, “Incredible as it may seem, the day will come when man will quarrel more fiercely about art than about God.” Whether that trek has described a journey of progress is perhaps an open question. 

This much, I think, is clear: without an allegiance to beauty, art degenerates into a caricature of itself; it is beauty that animates aesthetic experience, making it so seductive; but aesthetic experience itself degenerates into a kind of fetish or idol if it is held up as an end in itself, untested by the rest of life. As I have put it elsewhere, the trivialization of outrage leads to a kind of moral and aesthetic anesthesia, not the least of whose symptoms is the outrage of trivialization.

Editor’s Note: This is a version of an essay that will appear in Up from Conservatism: Revitalizing the Right after a Generation of Decay, edited by Arthur Milikh, forthcoming from Encounter Books.

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