The Trivialization of Outrage:
The Artworld at the
End of the Millennium
by Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball is Managing Editor of
The New Criterion

An earlier version of this essay was
The Vice-Chancellor's Lecture, delivered at
“The American Century From Afar,”
a conference sponsored by the
Boston, Oxford, Melbourne Conversazioni Society
Melbourne, 16-17 July 1999


Among the many peculiarities affecting our cultural life today, perhaps none is more peculiar, or more fateful for the practice and enjoyment of art, than the fact that virtually anything can be put forward and accepted as a work of art. “Virtually” anything? An unnecessary caution, surely. Let your imagination run riot: whatever grotesquerie you conjure up—from the numbingly banal and commonplace to the repulsively pathological—rest assured that it has been eagerly proffered and just as eagerly embraced as art. And if by some fluke you named something that has not yet done duty as art—no matter: it is merely an oversight and will be corrected within a season or two.

As I write, the Tate Gallery in London is showing something called “Abracadabra: International Contemporary Art.” When I tell you that the “teaser” for this exhibition is a large stuffed horse—yes, it is a real horse—hanging from the ceiling, I have told you all you need to know. Apparently, the curators of the Tate believe that a desecrated equine carcass will prompt the multitudes visiting the Tate to plonk down £7 for the privilege of stepping into the special exhibition where a different order of carcass awaits them—the carcass of contemporary art. There is no pointing in attempting to describe “Abracadabra.” It is beyond, or rather beneath, description. Like so much contemporary art, what it most resembles is the playpen of an incontinent and sadly talentless adolescent.

Chiseled into the stone of the Tate Gallery’s walls are various uplifting inscriptions. One informs viewers that “These galleries were presented to the nation by Lord Duveen of Millbank MCMXXXVII.” Another assures them that a suite of galleries were meant to “renew Henry Tate’s vision.” Really? I wonder what Lord Duveen or Henry Tate would have thought about “Abracadabra.” Actually, I don’t wonder at all. I know they would have abominated it as an obscene blasphemy on art, morality, and public taste. They would have been right, too.

In a way, it is pointless to blame the Tate for this latest excrescence. Its director and curators are simply doing what nearly every museum does these days. They are acting like good sheep. They are playing follow the leader. And the leader, alas, is America.

In 1941, when Henry Luce told the world that this was “The American Century” in his famous Life magazine essay, people thought first of all about America’s economic, technological, and political preeminence. But The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York didn’t go go far wrong when it titled its current two-part smorgasbord “The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000.” True enough, the title is a bit of a misnomer. In the period from 1900-1950, which part one of the Whitney’s exhibition covers, the artistic initiative, at least in the visual arts, by no means belonged to America. It was still firmly rooted Europe, above all in Paris. The focus of artistic activity did not shift to New York until after World War II.

But shift it did, with what can truly be called a vengeance. It pains me to say it, but the triumph of American art is largely a triumph of trash. Let me qualify this immediately and note that America continues to produce good and sometimes excellent art. It always has done. Yet for the most part the best new art is neglected by the institutions that make and break reputations. This itself is a long story. But when we speak about the triumph or—if we want to sound like up-to-date academics—the “hegemony” of American art, what we describe is a peculiar mixture of avant-garde pretense and ferocious commercialization. One of the things that makes it peculiar is that the avant-garde rhetoric is systematically opposed to the bourgeois, capitalist institutions that underlie the commercialization. But if the rhetoric is (in Lionel Trilling’s phrase) “adversarial,” it has turned out that the reality has been only too accommodating. It is an integral, if paradoxical, part of the history of the bourgeoisie that it embraces that which despises it, and this is as true in the realm of culture as it is in the realm of politics.

One often remarked-upon result of the triumph of American art has been homogenization. This, too, is not without irony, since one of the banners under which trendy new art proceeds is “diversity.” But in the art world as in the world of academia, the more frantic is the rhetoric of diversity, the more complete is the demand for conformity. The fact is, so-called cutting-edge art looks the same in London and Berlin, Paris and Sydney, as it does in New York. Indeed, it not only looks the same, it often is the same. The view from afar is eerily similar to the view from at home. Sydney is about as far from New York as it is possible to get. Yet as I write the major exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney is a retrospective of the postmodern photographs of Cindy Sherman, replete, it should be noted, with a warning to parents that the exhibition’s contents might not be suitable for children. Quite right, too—though the deeper question is whether those exercises in pathology are suitable for adults either.

The effect of “globalization” in the art world is uniformity, and it has turned out to be largely a uniformity of rubbish. This result may be disappointing. It may even be repulsive. But it should not be surprising. It is a direct consequence of the fact that anything can be put forward and accepted as a work of art. Not that this situation is new. Indeed, we have been living with the consequences of the vertiginous fact that anything can be art for many years: since the 1960s, certainly, and perhaps, in essentials, since the ’teens, when the Dadaist crusader Marcel Duchamp unveiled his “ready-mades” and impishly offered them to the public as works of art.

But there are some important differences between then and now. Duchamp’s outrageousness oscillated between the banal and the shocking. One day he would come up with an ordinary bottle rack or snow shovel, the next day with a urinal (which, in more innocent days, was thought shocking). Either way, the art public widely considered Duchamp’s activities outrageous. Moreover, Duchamp meant them to be outrageous. We sometimes forget that the professed aim of Dada was not to extend but to explode the category “art.” But something unexpected happened. “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.” 1 Duchamp’s “They” was not the public—not yet—but taste-makers and suitably enfranchised members of that ever-growing congregation, “the art world.” Duchamp’s own motives were, to put it mildly, mixed. But his exasperation is understandable. Looking back at the unfolding drama of avant-garde culture in this century, we see that the remarkable thing was not really the phenomenon of Dada. At bottom, it was just one of many late-Romantic expressions of nihilistic Weltschmerz. What was remarkable was its quick certification as a legitimate form of artistic expression. Who would have thought it possible? A coat rack? A urinal? A moustache on the Mona Lisa? All right as jokes perhaps: but could anyone have predicted such objects would be lovingly absorbed into some of the world’s finest collections of art? And yet it happened. Dada is now an academic and museological topic of impressive pedigree, the subject of exhibitions and monographs and doctoral dissertations.

What happened to Dada set an ominous precedent. Among other things, it demonstrated the extent to which the outrageous can be institutionalized: assimilated into the predictable cycle of museum exhibitions, curatorial safekeeping, and critical commentary. To be sure, every now and then a Robert Mapplethorpe or Andres Serrano, a Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, will come along to inspire a frisson of anxiety and unhappiness. Yet, really, what is most striking about such figures is not how “controversial” they are—or were—but how quickly they are docketed and filed away as certifiable examples of contemporary art—even “great” contemporary art, if we are to believe the encomia of some noteworthy critics. The politically-correct commentary elicited by Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs depicting homosexual sadomasochistic practices provided one vivid example of this phenomenon. Discussing the infamous self-portrait that showed Mapplethorpe with a bullwhip protruding from his rectum, one famous critic dilated on its pleasing “classical” composition.

But my favorite example of critical complicity in the trivialization of outrage is provided by the English so-called artists Gilbert & George. For those fortunate souls unacquainted with Gilbert & George, it is enough to say that they specialize in a kind of scatological Pop Art. They create large, brightly colored square or rectangular photo-montages. Images of the two men, often naked, sometimes in various obscene postures, occupy the foreground of most of the pictures, some of which cover an entire wall. The background usually consists of photographic images of bodily fluids or waste products, magnified beyond recognition except when the waste product is excrement: then the image is merely grotesquely enlarged. Fond of using dirty words, Gilbert & George tend to title their works after the bodily effluvia they portray.

It is part of Gilbert & George’s act to pose as moralists whose art is wrestling with deep existential and religious questions. “We believe our art can form morality, in our time,” George tells us in one typical statement. The critics have been eager to believe it. In the mid-1980s, Simon Wilson wrote that Gilbert & George had “come to be seen as being among the leading artists of their generation” and that the young men who populate their pictures are “equivalents, performing the same function in art, of the classicizing male figures of Michelangelo and Raphael.” In 1995, when Gilbert & George exhibited what they called their “Naked Shit Pictures” in London, Richard Dorment, writing in the London Daily Telegraph, invoked the Isenheim altarpiece as a precedent. John McEwen, in The Sunday Telegraph, spoke of Gilbert & George’s “self-sacrifice for a higher cause, which is purposely moral and indeed Christian.” Not to be outdone, David Sylvester, in The Guardian, wrote that “these pictures have a plenitude, as if they were Renaissance pictures of male nudes in action.” About their last exhibition in New York, the distinguished critic Robert Rosenblum delivered himself of the following:

Brilliantly transforming the visible world into emblems of the spirit, Gilbert & George create from these microscopic facts an unprecedented heraldry that, in a wild mutation of the Stations of the Cross, fuses body and soul, life and death. Once again, they have crossed a new threshold, opening unfamiliar gates of eternity.
To which I will only add, amen.

This situation—a situation in which any object or activity can be baptized as art—makes it difficult to get one’s bearings. Familiarity may not always breed contempt, exactly; but it does tend to inspire a certain complacency. We are tempted to overlook, to take for granted, what has become blatantly familiar, no matter how odd or repugnant it is in itself. Habit dulls us. We look and register the presence of things without really seeing or understanding them. It may be worth pausing, then, to remind ourselves just how much the meaning of the word “art” has mutated over the course of this century. Words like “freedom,” “innovation,” and “originality” have typically accompanied this process of mutation. It is clear that, for many, the expansion of art has been synonymous with some imperative promise of liberation: not only aesthetic liberation, but social, political, and even, it seems, what we might call metaphysical liberation.

Yet here as elsewhere in human affairs there has generally been a gap between promise and fulfillment. From our vantage point at the cusp of the millennium, what might have looked like freedom may now seem like irresponsible license; what struck some as cleverly innovative may now appear merely idiosyncratic or indeed perverse. Consider: is it not odd that, in many quarters, the word “art” has degenerated into a kind of honorific that is bestowed or withheld for reasons that have nothing to do with aesthetic quality or achievement? What does it mean—to take a few contemporary examples—that someone can package his own feces and distribute the result as works of art? Or that someone can have herself videotaped undergoing a series of disfiguring cosmetic surgeries and on that basis be hailed as a bona fide “performance artist”? Or that someone who is ill can successfully designate his hospital room a work of art? Such examples can be multiplied indefinitely, as anyone who has visited a gallery or museum devoted to contemporary art well knows.

The truth is that the prevailing situation is one that is good for cultural hucksters but bad for art—and for artists. It is especially bad for young, unestablished artists, who find themselves scrambling for recognition in an atmosphere in which the last thing that matters is artistic excellence. In one sense, what we have been witnessing is the application of the principle of affirmative action to culture. Art confers prestige, celebrity, wealth; it is a social and economic blessing; therefore, its perquisites must be available to all regardless of talent or accomplishment. The logic is impeccable: only the premise and the consequences are disastrous. If anything can be a work of art, then it follows that anyone can be an artist. Such ideas are not confined to the fringe. They are, in various degrees, a staple of establishment prejudice. One recalls Mr. John Hightower, a Rockefeller apparatchik who was briefly director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the late 1960s. In one memorable effusion, Mr. Hightower publicly delivered himself of the opinion that “I happen to think that everybody is an artist.”

Of course, Mr. Hightower represents something of a special case: it is not often given to us to encounter fatuity so deliciously blank and unadorned. But what matters is the extent to which Mr. Hightower was a bellwether. Perhaps few people in his position would have been so incautious; it surely would have occurred to most museum directors that indiscriminately bestowing the title of “artist” might have undesirable consequences for the status of the collections over which they preside. Yet Mr. Hightower articulated an assumption that, to one degree or another, informs much contemporary thinking about art and culture. It is a quintessentially Sixties assumption—there was a lot of starry-eyed talk about “unleashing creativity” then—but it is not only a Sixties assumption. It continues to resonate. The irony is that it is an assumption that conspires to rob artists of the things that should matter most to them: their talent and their art. There are other ironies, too. There are more artists per square inch in Western society today than ever before. Museums and galleries of contemporary art have sprouted like so many mushrooms across America, Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia. Everywhere one turns there are appeals to “support the arts.” And yet, and yet … is there not also a widespread sense of staleness, futility, disenchantment? And does this not have a lot to do with the character of today’s celebrity art—what we might call “art-world art”?

When we look around at the contemporary art scene, we are struck not only by its promiscuous nature—by the fact that it is a living illustration of the proposition that anything can count as art today—but also by certain telltale symptoms. I believe that these symptoms tells us a great deal not only about the character of contemporary art but also about the character of contemporary culture: about what we value, what we aspire to, who we believe we are as human beings. It is not an altogether flattering portrait.

In the first place there is the issue of novelty. Anyone looking at the art world today cannot fail to be struck by its obsession with novelty. For those in thrall to the imperatives of the art world, the first question to be asked of a given work is not whether it is any good but whether it represents something discernibly new or different. Of course, the search for novelty has long since condemned its devotees to the undignified position of naïvely re-circulating various clichés: how little, really, our “cutting edge” artists have added to the strategies of the Dadaists, the Futurists, the Surrealists. But the appetite for novelty—even if the result is only the illusion of novelty—is apparently stronger than the passion for historical self-awareness. Never mind that the search for novelty is itself one of modernity’s hoariest maneuvers: for susceptible souls its siren call is irresistible.

A second, related, symptom is the art world’s addiction to extremity. This follows as a natural corollary to the obsession with novelty. As the search for something new to say or do becomes ever more desperate, artists push themselves to make extreme gestures simply in order to be noticed. But here, too, an inexorably self-defeating logic has taken hold: at a time when so much art is routinely extreme and audiences have become inured to the most brutal spectacles, extremity itself becomes a commonplace. After one has had oneself nailed to a Volkswagen (as one artist did), what’s left? Without the sustaining, authoritative backdrop of the normal, extreme gestures—stylistic, moral, political—degenerate into a grim species of mannerism. Lacking any guiding aesthetic imperative, such gestures, no matter how shocking or repulsive they may be, are so many exercises in futility.

It is in part to compensate for this encroaching futility that the third symptom, the desire to marry art and politics, has become such a prominent feature of the contemporary art scene. When the artistic significance of art is at a minimum, politics rushes in to fill the void. From the crude political allegories of a Leon Golub or Hans Haacke to the feminist sloganeering of Jenny Holzer, Karen Finley, or Cindy Sherman, much that goes under the name of art today is incomprehensible without reference to its political content. Indeed, in many cases what we see are nothing but political gestures that poach on the prestige of art in order to enhance their authority. Another word for this activity is propaganda, although at a moment when so much of art is given over to propagandizing the word seems inadequate. It goes without saying that the politics in question are as predictable as clockwork. Not only are they standard items on the prevailing tablet of left-wing pieties, they are also cartoon versions of the same. It’s the political version of painting by number: AIDS, the homeless, “gender politics,” the Third World, and the environment line up on one side with white hats, while capitalism, patriarchy, the United States, and traditional morality and religion assemble yonder in black hats.

The trinity of novelty, extremity, and politics—leavened by frantic commercialism and the cult of celebrity—goes a long way toward describing the complexion of the contemporary art world: its faddishness, its constant recourse to lurid images of sex and violence, its tendency to substitute a hectoring politics for artistic ambition. It also helps to put into perspective some of the changes that have taken place in the meaning and goals of art over the last hundred years or so. Closely allied to the search for novelty is a shift of attention away from beauty as the end of art. From the time of Cubism, at least, most “advanced” art (which is not necessarily synonymous with “good” art) has striven not for the beautiful but for more elliptical qualities: above all, perhaps, for the interesting, which in many respects has usurped beauty as the primary category of aesthetic delectation. 2

At the same time, most self-consciously avant-garde artists have displayed considerably less interest in pleasing or delighting their viewers than in startling, shocking, even repelling them. Not for nothing are “challenging” and “transgressive” among the most popular terms of critical praise today. The idea, of course, is that by abjuring beauty and refusing to please the artist is better able to confront deeper, more authentic, more painful realities. And perhaps he is. But one mustn’t overlook the element of posturing that often accompanies such existential divagations. Nor should one forget the many counter-examples and counter-tendencies. In a famous statement from 1908, when he was almost forty, Henri Matisse wrote that he dreamt of “an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the business man as well as the man of letters, … something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” 3 Matisse was one of the greatest and also most innovative painters of the twentieth century. Does this vision of balance and serenity diminish his achievement? To a large extent, the calamities of art today are due to the aftermath of the avant-garde: to all those “adversarial” gestures, poses, ambitions, and tactics that emerged and were legitimized in the 1880s and 1890s, flowered in the first half of this century, and that live a sort of posthumous existence now in the frantic twilight of postmodernism.

In part, our present situation, like the 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 French critic Albert Thibaudet summarized some of the chief features of this burgeoning tradition in his reflections on the Symbolist movement in literature. Writing in 1936, Thibaudet noted that Symbolism “accustomed literature to the idea of indefinite revolution” and inaugurated a “new climate” in French literature: a climate characterized by “the chronic avant-gardism of poetry, the ‘What’s new?’ of the ‘informed’ public, … the proliferation of schools and manifestos,” and the ambition “to occupy that extreme point, to attain for an hour that crest of the wave in a tossing sea. The Symbolist revolution,” Thibaudet concluded, “might perhaps have been definitively the last, because it incorporated the theme of chronic revolution into the normal condition of literature.” 4 Commenting on this passage in his 1972 essay “The Age of the Avant-Garde,” Hilton Kramer observed that

the “new climate” of 1885 has indeed become the “normal condition” of a good deal more than literature. It has become the basis of our entire cultural life. Thibaudet’s “What’s new?” is no longer the exclusive possession of a tiny “informed” public. It is now the daily concern of vast bureaucratic enterprises whose prosperity depends on keeping the question supplied with a steady flow of compelling but perishable answers. 5
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 Clement Greenberg called “avant-gardism”—spells the death or at least the senility of the avant-garde.

The road to this senility really begins with the “anti-art” movement of Dadaism. For with Dada the “chronic revolution” of which Thibaudet spoke is itself revolutionized, turned on its head. In this sense, 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 that “chronic revolution” suggests that Thibaudet may have been justified in identifying the Symbolist revolution as “definitively the last.” 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’s adamant nihilism helped to short-circuit the essential seriousness of art. 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” 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.

In this respect, anyway, Dada appears as a kind of forerunner of Pop Art, the next stop on the itinerary. The architect Philip Johnson once observed that Postmodernism insinuated “the giggle” into architecture. He was, alas, right about that, and the same can be said about Pop Art: it insinuated the giggle into art. If there was a certain grimness about Dada’s insouciance, Pop Art specialized in remaking art in the image of Camp. Pop Art was Dada lite: just as cynical, but without the kind of intellectual scruples that, for example, led Duchamp to abandon art for chess. Pop Art was a smirking form of nihilism, an art whose features compose themselves into a rictus of narcissistic despair while its practitioners eagerly dip their hands into the till of artistic celebrity and commercial success.

Many of these elements came together in that protracted assault on culture we sum up in the epithet “the Sixties.” It was then that the senility of the avant-garde went mainstream: when a generalized liberationist ethos and anti-establishment attitude infiltrated our major cultural institutions and began forming a large component of established taste.

But the problem is not, or not only, numbers. The real issue is not the existence but the widespread celebration of such images and behavior as art. As a society, we suffer today from a peculiar form of moral anesthesia: an anaesthesia 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 Mapplethorpe trial in Cincinnati memorably summed up this attitude. Acknowledging that he did not like Mapplethorpe’s rebarbative photographs, he nonetheless concluded that “if people say it’s art, then I have to go along with it.”

It is worth pausing to digest that terrifying 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.” (More precisely, it has to do with the confusion of art with a debased idea of free speech that supposes any limits on expression are inimical to freedom. In fact, freedom without limits quickly degenerates into a parody of freedom.) 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 all know the drill: black-tie dinners at major museums, tout le monde in attendance, celebrating the latest art-world freak: maybe it’s Damien Hirst with his animal carcasses packed into glass tanks of formaldehyde; 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 of him and his now-former wife having sex or Cindy Sherman with her narcissistic feminism or Jenny Holzer with her political slogans. The list, obviously, 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. Tom Wolfe has made something of a career chronicling such events. 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.

What can be done? For one thing, it is time that we recognized 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 nineteenth-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 mantel 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 is a version of what the Australian philosopher David Stove called “The ‘They All Laughed At Christopher Columbus’ Argument.” 6 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 observes, “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. The question is, Stove asks, “How did an argument so easily answered ever impose itself upon intelligent people?” He answers: “Easily. It was simply a matter of ensuring … a one-sided diet of examples. Mention no past innovators except those who were innovators-for-the-better. … Never mention Lenin or Pol Pot, Marx or Hegel, Robespierre or the Marquis de Sade.”

If the Columbus Argument is puerile when applied to politics and morals, it is equally puerile when applied to art. The truth is that most art is bad. 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.

In one of his many jejune moments, Shelley wrote that poets were “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” This is an ambition that many artists continue, in more mundane ways, to harbor. But as W. H. Auden rightly pointed out “‘The unacknowledged legislators of the world’ describes the secret police, not the poets.” Poetry, Auden said elsewhere, makes nothing happen: its province—like the province of all art—is in the realm of making not doing. An artist, as the word’s history reminds us, is first of all someone who makes something. And just as a table can be well or poorly made, so, too, a poem or a painting can be well or poorly made. This is not the only criterion that we employ to judge a work of art, but it is a fundamental starting point that no disinterested critic can afford to abandon. Similar considerations apply to the ambition to make art “relevant” to contemporary social and political concerns. Of course, art cannot help being of its time and place. But the interesting question to ask about art that deliberately comments on its time is what makes it more than a mere commentary? What makes it art? As Goethe put it, “only the mediocre talent is always the captive of its time and must get its nourishment from the elements that time contains.” The insistence that art reflect the tangled realities of contemporary life is a temptation that most artists should resist, if for no other reason than that giving in to that temptation is a prescription for ephemeralness.

What resources does an artist possess to combat the temptations of relevance? Apart from his talent, perhaps his greatest resource is tradition, for it is through tradition that he has his most palpable link with something that transcends the contingencies of the moment. As T. S. Eliot explained in a famous passage from his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” tradition is not simply “following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes.” “Tradition,” Eliot continued,

is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, … and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. 7
Eliot’s aestheticizing conception of the historical sense may not be the bulwark against arbitrariness that he hoped it would be. But by underscoring the element of transcendence, he reminds us that an embrace of tradition is not the enemy but the condition of genuine innovation. It is in this sense that we should understand the observation made by the German art historian Hans Sedlmayr that “many things that are classified as ‘backward’ … might be the starting-point of real inner progress.” 8 At a moment when the art world has abandoned art for political attitudinizing, the path forward begins with a movement of recuperation. In an age when anything can be a work of art, the question of whether something is art has ceased to be compelling: what matters is whether something is a good work of art, and about this the art world has rendered itself hors de combat.

Should we be pleased with this state of affairs? Or, to put it another way, is the celebrity of people like Damien Hirst or Jenny Holzer a good thing for art? My answer is no: it is a very bad thing. As Rochelle Gurstein observes in her recent book The Repeal of Reticence, “By now it should be obvious that there is something fraudulent, if not perverse, in the endless rehearsal of arguments that were developed to destroy nineteenth-century Victorians in a world where Victorians have long been extinct.” 9 The question remains: Where did we go wrong? What are we missing in the contemporary art world? Yet again, I have touched on a topic of immense complexity. If one had to sum up volumes in a single word, a good candidate would be “beauty”: What the art world is lacking is an allegiance to beauty.

I know that this is both vague and portentous. But surely we have 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. And I might remark as an aside here how often this pattern repeats itself in contemporary life: if beauty was the traditional raison d’être of fine art, we now must have art that spurns beauty; if truth was the traditional goal of philosophy, we must now, post-modernists like Richard Rorty and others tell us, have philosophy that dispenses with truth; if ascertaining and elucidating facts was the traditional goal of historiography, we must now have historians who announce that there are no such things as facts and who pursue history as a new species of fiction; if procreation was the purpose of sex, we must now, according to radicals from Herbert Marcuse on down, foster a sexuality that has emancipated itself from the “tyranny of procreative eros” in order to champion what Marcuse called “polymorphous perversity.” 10 It is indeed a curious development.

But to return to art. The eclipse of beauty is not, I think, often talked about. But its absence has not gone entirely unremarked. I disagree with Peter Schjeldahl, the art critic for The New Yorker, about almost everything. But in a piece in the The New York Times Magazine, even Mr. Schjeldahl noted that “Beauty … has been quarantined from educated talk,” and that “commerce travesties it and intellectual fashion demonizes it.” 11 His own examples of “the best art of our time”—he mentions among other delicacies photography by Cindy Sherman, a dirt-encrusted landscape by Anselm Kiefer, and the “rapturously perverse” photography of Robert Mapplethorpe—are not encouraging. He is surely right that something has happened to beauty. But what?

At the beginning of his book on modern art, the German Art critic Julius Meier-Graefe defines painting as “the art of charming the eye by colour and line” and sculpture as the art of charming “the eye by means of form in space.” 12 Now when was the last time you heard someone talk about art “charming” the eye? And yet until quite recently, that specifically aesthetic pleasure was seen as being central to art. Thomas Aquinas defined beauty as id quod visum placet: 13 that which being seen pleases. Still laboring in the aftermath of the avant-garde, much art today has 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 form, it can mean the merely pretty, and in this sense beauty really is an enemy of authentic artistic expression. It is not hard to find examples of this sort of thing. Edmund Burke, for example, in his book on the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful, offers a list of the qualities he thinks are necessary for something to be beautiful:

First, to be comparatively small. Secondly, to be smooth. Thirdly, to have a variety in the direction of the parts; but fourthly, to have those parts not angular, but melted as it were into each other. Fifthly, to be of a delicate frame, without any remarkable appearance of strength. Sixthly, to have its colours clear and bright; but not very strong and glaring. 14
And so on. Frankly, I hesitated to cite Burke to this jocular purpose, both because I greatly admire him as a writer and because even this early book on aesthetics contains many profound and important things that my quotation out of context fails to acknowledge. Still, I think it is fair to say that most of us will want to open a window after a page or two of Burke’s raptures about beauty.

How different is something like Rilke’s idea of beauty in the first Duino Elegy:

Denn das Schöne ist nichts als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade extragen, und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht, uns zu zerstören. 15
Or think of Dostoyevsky’s contention that “Beauty is the battlefield on which God and the devil war for man’s soul.” 16 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. It has, as one philosopher put it, “the savor of the terrestrial paradise.” 17 This is the source of beauty’s power. It both dislocates, freeing us, for a time, from our usual cares and concerns, and enraptures, seizing us with delight.

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. 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 academy. Indeed, 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 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. Hans Sedlmayr articulated this point eloquently in the 1950s. The fact is, Sedlmayr wrote,

that art cannot be assessed by a measure that is purely artistic and nothing else. Indeed such a purely artistic measure, which ignored the human element, the element which alone gives art its justification, would actually not be an artistic measure at all. It would merely be an aesthetic one, and actually the application of purely aesthetic standards is one of the peculiarly inhuman feature of the age, for it proclaims by implication the autonomy of the work of art, an autonomy that has no regard to men—the principle of l’art pour art. 18
Of course, Sedlmayr was hardly alone in this sentiment. Indeed, even so “advanced” a figure as Baudelaire understood that the ultimate measure of art must be extra-aesthetic. In his book L’art romantique, Baudelaire wrote that “the frenzied passion for art is a cancer that eats up everything else; and, as the out-and-out absence of what is proper and true in art is tantamount to the absence of art, man fades away completely; excessive specialization of a faculty ends in nothing. … The folly of art is on a par with the abuse of the mind. The creation of one or the other of these two supremacies begets stupidity, hardness of heart, and unbounded pride and egotism.” 19 And Julius Meier-Graefe made a similar point when discussing the liberation of modern art from the strictures of religion. The severing of art from religion marked an important “emancipation” for mankind, he thought; but it “entailed retrogression” for art. “Art was to be free,” Meier-Graefe wrote, “but free from what? The innovators forgot, that freedom implies isolation. In her impulsive vehemence, art cast away the elements that made her indispensible to man.” 20

What is it that makes art “indispensible,” as Meier-Graefe put it? That makes it more than “the diversion of an idle moment”? If the politicization of art is constricting, so too in a different way is a purely aesthetic conception of art. By the nineteenth 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.” 21

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 artists by persons one might otherwise have had reason to think were serious people. This Romantic inheritance has also figured, with various permutations (not to say perversions) 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. It is no secret that Dostoyevsky thought it a disaster all around, for mankind as well as for art. 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. To put it another way, the trivialization of outrage leads to a kind of moral and aesthetic anaesthesia not the least of whose symptoms is the outrage of trivialization.


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  1. Duchamp in an interview with James Johnson Sweeney in 1946. Excerpts reprinted in Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, Herschel B. Chipp (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), pages 392-396. Go back to the text.
  2. Readers of the first volume of Kierkegaard’s book Either/Or will be familiar with the unhappy consequences of elevating the interesting from an aesthetic desideratum into a moral imperative. Go back to the text.
  3. “Notes of a Painter,” excerpts reprinted in Theories of Modern Art, op. cit., page 135. Go back to the text.
  4. Quoted in The Age of the Avant-Garde, Hilton Kramer (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973), pages 3-4. Go back to the text.
  5. Ibidem, page 4. Go back to the text.
  6. This hilarious and penetrating essay appears in Cricket versus Republicanism and Other Essays, edited by James Franklin and R. J. Stove and with an introduction by Peter Coleman (Sydney: Quakers Hill Press, 1995), pages 58-62. Go back to the text.
  7. Selected Essays of T. S. Eliot (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1964), page 4. Go back to the text.
  8. Art in Crisis: The Lost Center, Hans Sedlmayr (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1958), page 251. Go back to the text.
  9. The Repeal of Reticence: A History of America’s Cultural and Legal Struggles Over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art, Rochelle Gurstein (New York: Hill and Wang, 1996), page 6. Go back to the text.
  10. See Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, Herbert Marcuse (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), pages 159-181. Go back to the text.
  11. “Beauty is Back: A Trampled Aesthetic Blooms Again,” The New York Times Magazine, September 29, 1996. Go back to the text.
  12. The Development of Modern Art, Julius Meier-Graefe (New York, G.P. Putnam, 1908), page 12. Go back to the text.
  13. Summa Theologiae, I, 5, 4, ad. 1. Go back to the text.
  14. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke, edited and with an introduction and notes by James T. Boulton (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1958), page 117. Go back to the text.
  15. “Beauty is only the beginning of a terror we can just barely endure, and what we admire is its calm disdaining to destroy us.” Go back to the text.
  16. The Brothers Karamazov, book 3, chapter 3. Go back to the text.
  17. Jacques Maritain in Art and Scholasticism, translated by Joseph W. Evans (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974), page 24. Go back to the text.
  18. Op. Cit, page 218. Go back to the text.
  19. “L’Ecole Paienne,” in Curiositiés esthétiques / L’Art romantique (Paris: Bordas, 1990), page 580. Go back to the text.
  20. Op. Cit., page 3. Go back to the text.
  21. Opus Posthumous: Poems, Plays, Prose, Wallace Stevens (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1957), page 158. Go back to the text.