So much distasteful rubbish is foisted upon us today in the name of culture that it is easy to fall prey to despondency and think: “The game’s up! Our culture is rotten to the core. Cyril Connolly was right when he complained that it was `Closing time in the gardens of the West.’” It’s easy, but it’s mistaken. Really, if you look, there are plenty (well, some) bright spots in our culture. And if it is important to expose the rotten bits (and that is important), it is also important to celebrate the good, the salubrious, the vital, the hopeful. It’s not just that despair is a sin, as the Doctors of the Church remind us: it’s also that there really are plenty of things worth admiring if only we have the patience to see them.
To that end, I herewith inaugurate an occasional series of musings I shall denominate Bright Spots: good things, promising things in our culture that have been unfairly neglected or are as yet insufficiently known. My first offering is The Harlem Studio of Art, a classically-oriented art school and atelier in the upper reaches of Manhattan. Directed by Andrea J. Smith, the Harlem Studio offers students something almost unheard of today:
rigorous training in modeling, one-point perspective, cast drawing, and all the other technical aspects of art that, based in Renaissance practice, one used to assume would be part of an artist’s training but, for at least the last five or six decades, have gone the way of good manners and other accoutrements of civilization. It is a small atelier, with only a handful of students, but it makes a big impression and has already begun to attract a number of talented students and artists interested in continuing rather than destroying the tradition of our artistic heritage.
I had never heard of the Harlem Studio until last night, when I went to their annual party. I was asked by the school’s Dean, Judy Pond Kudlow, to say a few words.
The idea was that I would say something about my book The Rape of the Masters, which has a few tart observations about what has happened to the teaching of art history, but since there were so many artists present, I decided to offer a few reflections about another unhappy subject: what has happened to the contemporary art scene. What follows is a digest of those remarks.
It was Andy Warhol, I think, who, when asked to define art, said that “Art is what you can get away with.” Warhol’s own career, and, indeed, a large part 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 be not only be put forward but also and accepted and celebrated as a work of art. I won’t bother to rehearse examples: everyone here knows what I am talking about: Jeff Koons, Robert Mapplethore, Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Matthew Barney: the very names conjure up a cultural disaster zone.
The question is: How did did we get here? 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.
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.
It is no secret that much art today 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.
Of course, “beauty” itself 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 artists, then, 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. The Harlem Studio takes as its motto an observation of Leonardo’s: “Those who fall in love with practice without science, are like a sailor who enters a ship without a helm or compass, and who never can be certain whither he is going . . .” Technique is not enough, but it is, for most artists, a conditio sine qua non of aesthetic accomplishment. Although this lesson is rejected and ridiculed by the art world today, it is something that the tradition affirms again and again.
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-struturalists, gender theorists, and all the other exotic fauna who are congregating in and about the art world and the university. 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 anyone who cares 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 politicizing the aesthetic poses a serious threat to the integrity of art, the isolation of the aesthetic from other dimensions of life represents a different sort of threat. As a society, 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. A juror in the trial over Robert Mapplethorpe’s infmaous photographs of the S&M homosexual underworld unwittingly provided a good example of the moral paralysis that follows from this view. Acknowledging that he did not at all like Mapplethorpe’s photographs, he nonetheless concluded that “if people say it’s art, then I have to go along with it.” Let me pause while you digest that terrifying comment.
The point is that if the politicization of art is constricting, so too in a different way is a purely aesthetic conception of art.
Taken together, these developments have led many people to despair of contemporary art, to conclude that valuable art is something that mostly took place in the past. As Franz Kafka put it in another context: “There is hope, but not for us.”
I understand that sentiment, but I think it is misguided. There is plenty of vigorous, appealing, accomplished art being produced today. It just tends not to be the art you see paraded about at the Chelsea galleries or the Whitney. It’s not the sort of thing you find celebrated in the pages of The New York Times or featured in the trendier precincts of the art world.
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--at The Harlem Studio, for example. 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 taste makers, but those whose talent, patience, and perseverance will ultimately render them the taste makers of tomorrow. I mean, of course, that the future is up to artists like those who congregate around the Harlem Studio and other such outposts of civilization.