Thinking aboutthis Camille Paglia story for a a few days. I usually like her essays, and even when I disagree I enjoy the disagreement.
. . . visual arts have been in slow decline for nearly 40 years. No major figure of profound influence has emerged in painting or sculpture since the waning of Pop Art and the birth of Minimalism in the early 1970s.
Yet work of bold originality and stunning beauty continues to be done in architecture, a frankly commercial field. Outstanding examples are Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, Rem Koolhaas's CCTV headquarters in Beijing and Zaha Hadid's London Aquatic Center for the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Well, no, but we'll get to that. Let's just say "not entirely" for the architecture point.
What has sapped artistic creativity and innovation in the arts? Two major causes can be identified, one relating to an expansion of form and the other to a contraction of ideology.
Painting was the prestige genre in the fine arts from the Renaissance on. But painting was dethroned by the brash multimedia revolution of the 1960s and '70s. Permanence faded as a goal of art-making.
But there is a larger question: What do contemporary artists have to say, and to whom are they saying it? Unfortunately, too many artists have lost touch with the general audience and have retreated to an airless echo chamber. The art world, like humanities faculties, suffers from a monolithic political orthodoxy—an upper-middle-class liberalism far from the fiery antiestablishment leftism of the 1960s. (I am speaking as a libertarian Democrat who voted for Barack Obama in 2008.)
A few thoughts.
1. So modern art has dead-ended, and has no aspirational qualities or connections to tradition that ground it in the shared experience of 2000 years of culture? You don’t say.
2. Is it really necessary nowadays to tell people who you voted for in order to reassure them that you're criticizing art from the proper perspective?
Young people today are avidly immersed in this hyper-technological environment, where their primary aesthetic experiences are derived from beautifully engineered industrial design. Personalized hand-held devices are their letters, diaries, telephones and newspapers, as well as their round-the-clock conduits for music, videos and movies. But there is no spiritual dimension to an iPhone, as there is to great works of art.
3. The idea that Kids Today find art in designed objects like the iPhone seems incomplete. No one looks at an iPhone as an object d’art; it’s a tool - and it’s quite a creative tool as well, one that forces the user to use the old vocabulary: pictures that make sense, reflective of an individual sensibility. There is no spiritual dimension to a canvas or brush or a palette. It's what you do with the tool.
As for architecture: The other night at the Dinner Party with my old art history prof the conversation turned to architecture; our host was an architect with some impressive local projects under his belt, and he drizzled contempt on the current crop of starchitects whose banal, inhumane designs are fawned over by civic leaders whose lack of taste is equaled only by their gullibility. Hence the new Guthrie, which ignores the visual language of its surroundings, has public spaces with the charm of barren airport concourses, and shuns the magnificent river outside its walls, except for a silly protrusion that either looks like a shuttlecraft docking, or a giant robot tongue petulantly extended towards the river.
It’s no fun to love an art form and live in an age where it’s degraded into cartoons and pranks.
Update on the Lunch Situation: this morning my wife informed me that I was hampering my daughter’s development by making her lunch. She’s 12; she can make her own. She’s right, of course. Probably a reflection of her own upbringing, which, as I understand it, involved shooting, skinning, and roasting a squirrel at daybreak to make the school lunch. Me, I ate at school, where they provided caramel rolls the size of ottomans, and pizza squares with the dimensions of linoleum tiles. (Hence, Fat Me.) But there’s no reason my daughter can’t fend for herself, and learn the art of packing a bag.
“But it’s just one more indication of my day-to-day irrelevance,” I said. “Can’t I keep her in an infantile state for a while longer?” Or words to that effect.
Anyway, daughter comes down for breakfast, has some pumpkin bread and milk, then repacks the bag I’d made with a hunk of bread from yesterday’s baguette. Reseals the tape. Grabs her stuff, makes sure her phone is charged, then out the door.
An hour later my wife is doing a puzzle at the dining room table. Why? Because she is out of work. That would be bad if there wasn’t another job starting up in a few weeks, a wonderful job. For the first week on her own she cleaned out a closet, had someone in to suggest paints, and hired someone to sand and finish the poor, battered floors in the kitchen. Planted bulbs, put in some mums. As I may have noted, I expected to find her on the roof hammering loose shingles. Yesterday I said “why don’t you do a puzzle?” and ping! the light went off. So she got out a 500,000,000 piece Sistine Chapel jigsaw puzzle, and has been bent over it for 16 hours, taking a break to run ten miles and give the dog an hour-and-a-half walk and regrout the tub.
Kidding. She regrouted the tub last Friday.
Not kidding about that.
So I come downstairs after writing some stuff for the Strib Blog, which you should really read, if you read this. I note that the red lunch bag is on the kitchen table. Daughter forgot it.
Wife now goes from pioneer-lady fix yer own vittles mood to Instant Mom: my child is without sustenance!
Her: maybe we should take it to the school.
Me: first of all, you’ll embarrass her by demonstrating to the other kids that you exist, and because she forgot her lunch. Second, there’s a table of stuff the kids share. Third, there’s a cafeteria. Fourth, she can beg from her friends; they take from her, I hear. Fifth, it’s a good lesson.
Sixth, thought in silence: vindication, somehow, but I’m not sure why.
While driving around today I had my choice between talk radio, discussing things about which I was pretty sure I had an opinion already; the BBC, which was doing an audio documentary on a museum in Croatia that collects mementos of sundered love affairs; the clean comedy channel, which was playing a Bob Newhart skit I can repeat from memory; the filthy comedy channel, which was playing an idiot screaming nonsense to whooping drunks; the collection of Old Radio on my iPhone, which I want to save for moments when I need it; the music channels, which were playing nothing I liked at all at the moment; the Old Time Radio channel, which is useless if you don’t start at the top.
But. The show was THE ADVENTURES O. Hmm. See, my display doesn’t scrolll. So I have to figure it out. Wasn’t Marlowe; wasn’t Sam Spade. It was a cheap adventure show with an organ for a soundtrack, and a square-jawed adventurer hero. Then someone said RACE! and I remembered: there was a show called Frank Race. He was on a ship in a storm. The storm hit a reef. Water, waves, wind, commotion. Race told someone to go to the radio shack, which resulted in the most jarring thing I’d heard all day:
Okay. that might have been slang at the time, but it was slang out of things like movie and radio. Especially radio. You’d think you wouldn’t want to call attention to the medium like that.
Now, what's this about?
Blowups from a big ad in Life magazine for Westinghouse radios. I love old radios, post ’35 or so; no love for the woody old Cathedrals. I love the sleek models of the 40s, the endless variations of 50s plastic models. They start to get ugly in the 60s, and it’s all hideous horrors by the seventies, with wood-grained plastic and “mod” designs. The golden age of radio design is probably behind us. In our house we have a Bose Wave, which seems to be based on Grace Jones’ haircut; that’s fine. A docking station / radio in the bedroom with 4752 functions - serviceable, but nothing to make you stop and admire its lines. At Target all the radios are for the bedroom, with clocks and alarms, and all have big LEDs - at this point! LEDs, in 2012! A few Crosley revival sets, which are lovely, if ersatz.
Let’s see what was popular in ’56.
Okay, well, no. Just Say No to Plaid Radio. The SONORAMIC has some style, though; you can just picture Steve Squarejaw snapping it on to hear the news report about the meteorite that landed outside the Scientific Institute of Science.
"What does it mean, Steve?" asks Ann, the lovely single scientist lady whose father, kindly Dr. Father, is the head of the Institute.
"I don't know," Steve says, staring into the corner. "But it might have something to do with that signal we picked up."
"You mean - the signal from space?"
"Exactly, Ann. From Space itself."
Milady shall have pink chronographs wherever she may go:
That’s not a radio. That’s a cubist pig. Well, no, you’re right, there’s no reason it can’t be both.
Distinctive and completely different!
"Modern styling" means the face reminds you of TV and the letters are elongated to the point of absurdity. The Deluxe model "shuts music off and on again," which might be the earliest description of a snooze alarm.
Oh. MY. God:
That's the radio you'd want to listen to X-Minus One on, hands down.
Durable, powerful, personal, and gay:
Again, there doesn't seem to be a difference between the fun-giving Peter Pan, and the Little Jewel, except you're paying five bucks for the finish.
I'm just scratching the surface. I've lots more.
But we'll get around to those later. Today: some WNAX, if you care. Strib blog up at noon or so; tumblr in the afternoon; Twitter here and there.