Art and the Left

I am not an artist but I do try to appreciate art where I can find it. I visit museums and particularly like the Milwaukee Art Museum, with its famous rooftop “wings”. The site is almost as interesting as the art inside its walls.

Much art, however, is aimed at a strange insular world of elitists. The arbiters of taste for art are generally on the coasts and inevitably extremely liberal. To say that their tastes are out of the mainstream is a vast understatement.

This article, which I clipped from the Chicago Tribune book review about 6 months ago (sorry, it sat in my “blog folder” and I recently found it) inadvertently captures this elitist gap with a non-ironic subtitle:

“Photographer Gregory Crewdson’s America is filled with people and places that reflect life at its most hopeless”

While I think whoever wrote that subtitle (I guess it was Jessica Reaves, the author) has never been to sub-Saharan Africa or maybe she’d have a better perspective on what hopeless means, that quote perfectly captures exactly what they’re going for – the view from a glass tower high above those struggling souls in small towns and suburbs across America.

From looking at Mr. Crewdson’s bio he’d probably agree with that subtitle… but what leaps into my head is WHY this is something worth setting as a goal, except to subtly (or not so subtly) look down on the lives of others.

One day when the 2nd Iraq War was starting there was a protest march in downtown Chicago. I am still kicking myself because I didn’t have my camera with me as I walked by the local art school and they put a sign on the door saying that classes were canceled since everyone was over at the protest. But of course…

Wasn’t art supposed to challenge the status quo? But much of today’s art panders to the same sad stereotypes of Americans as dullard hicks living meaningless lives, unenlightened and far right. Probably the most “artistic” thing an artist in one of today’s schools could do would be to be a Republican – this would shock everyone far more than the usual antics.

11 thoughts on “Art and the Left”

  1. The decline of western art into meaninglessness, whether demonstrated by its triviality or its relentless pursuit of the grotesque, is the perfect companion for, and, indeed, an intellectual doppelganger of, the decline of western philosphy and political theory into the utter lunacy of post-modernist cant.

    Both are utterly impenetrable. Both dress up their lack of meaning in elaborate verbiage which boils down to nothing. Both have as their ultimate objectives not the edification and advancement of humanity, but its denigration and reduction to something less than it could be.

    Educated people understand the perverse way in which totalitarian art embodied the inhumanity and moral sterility of that gruesome venture into the destruction of the individual.

    Eventually, they will also see that the emptiness of modern or post-modern art perfectly encapsulates the meaninglessness of that entire view of the world, and the creatures that espouse it.

  2. I love art, and museums, as well, but there is such a dull, pedantic, lifeless, academic quality to a lot of what I see these days. I loved the MFA in Boston, but, would find many of the contemporary exhibits utterly, well, strange and boring all at the same time. (To be fair, they did an exhibit, don’t remember the exact theme, where one of the pieces showed the teamwork involved in a group of soldiers working together. It was a little film or something like that).

    Lately, I’ve been really into this visual arts blog called Masal Chai (it’s linked at my place) that explores contemporary Indian stuff. There is a lot of bright interesting stuff going on in India these days – I mean, beauty and color and observing what you see around you, simply and honestly, seems to be at play in that corner of the art world. Anyway, the problem is often not the art work but the curator and the curators need to put explain everything in the tones of a dull college seminar.

    Good post!

  3. Oh, and I forgot to add that what I really love about that blog is that I can’t discern any overt political aspect to it – it seems to be about what is visually arresting. Now that’s a nice concept, isn’t it?

  4. (sign) anonymous was me.

    Also: Arthur Koestler once remarked that “The British have sex on the brain, which is a very unsatisfactory place to have it.” Probably unfair to the Brits, but relevant to art.

  5. I don’t know how to tell the photographer, but I’ve seen hundreds of houses like the ones in the picture. You can see them in the river valleys of New England, usually where there was once a water-powered mill in the first phase of the Industrial Revolution, then some small-scale hydro generation in the third (coal/steam being the second). The mills are gone now. The houses here look like they date from the first two decades of the 20th century. I live in a house like that. It was balloon-framed, heated by coal stoves originally, then by a coal-fired boiler with steam radiators, converted to oil, and now oil-fired forced hot water.

    Everything around here looks hopeless in March. The melting snow only promises mud. But that camera lies, because it only shows the outsides of the houses, and only shows them at one time. Some houses get fixed up, the asphalt shingles get replaced and the walls get insulated, and then there’s a machine shop in the back or a big garage for the trucks and construction equipment. Some burn to the cellar hole when someone drops a cigarette on the couch. Some just hang on for decades, but then they sell the lot to Walgreen’s, and suddenly there’s money. Things change, and change means hope. Kids grow up in those houses. They go to school, and some pay attention; some kids leave town, some stay; some succeed, either home or away, and some don’t; some don’t care one way or another, but just go on from day to day. They get the same chances we all get for love and loneliness, regret and contentment, joy and bitterness, here, there, or anyplace else. Life in those houses isn’t hopeless; it’s just life.

  6. When I saw this photo I thought, someone is walking a dog in the NE or Midwest USA. The weather is bleak but, as Mitch points out, the action is all indoors and doesn’t show up in the photo. (I suspect that a weekend afternoon in July wouldn’t have conveyed quite the feeling that the photographer wants to push on us.) Perhaps we are meant to reflect on the “ticky tacky” houses but the whole thing comes across as hackneyed and manipulative. I don’t see hopelessness. It looks like an OK neighborhood to me. Most places look bleak at dawn or in bad weather. Most of the people in the world would love to live in such a place.

    Most art is junk. Many artists and arts people are untalented hacks or charlatans. IOW, art is like every other human activity. Crewdson probably makes a good living selling his works to satisfied customers, and his gallery probably does well by representing him, and that’s great. It’s like any other business, and probably more fun than most. But it would be a mistake to interpret this photo as helping us to understand anything. It’s a prop for the photographer’s shtick.

    As someone who sometimes enjoys art but often is skeptical of artists, I do best when I ignore the catalogs and artists’ statements and explanations. But to each his own.

  7. I don’t see what’s so “hopeless” about that picture. Dull, sure, but not hopeless. Looks like life on a cold day to me — houses that probably house normal people doing normal things. For all I know, the lady standing there could be a teen getting ready to head off to a great college on a scholarship she earned because of how hard she studied in the room upstairs. Or maybe she’s an immigrant who’s happy to have the house she’s looking at, and to have food for her kids who are playing inside.

    Of course, it’s not merely the picture that matters, it’s the context. I don’t know what’s on the previous or next page of his picture book. It certainly can’t be as hopeless as the situation for many people in Iraq, or worse yet, in Burma or Darfur. But it can be simple, mundane, depressing, dying-American-town hopelessness. Is that “pointless” or “meaningless” or “impenetrable”? I don’t know; he may have captured true hopelessness, and his book may spark worthwhile responses. But I think it’s more likely Jonathan is correct and that it’s a weak attempt to sell photos that pretend at a hopelessness that doesn’t actually exist.

  8. I defer to all of you on photography… at our blog LITGM my poor photo skills are legendary (especially considering that the other 2 guys are really good, one a flat out professional) – but my overall point is that the artist ASPIRED to the title of “life at its most hopeless” (per the writer of the article, at least) and I can’t judge whether or not he actually achieved his “goal” (??). That is what shook me so much. Is that how he introduces himself at NYC cocktail parties – as the king of hopelessness? And to what end…

  9. It’s a market niche. Nudes, sunsets, landscapes etc. are a dime a dozen but who else does hopelessness? Plus, hopelessness as a theme fits with trendy leftism, which makes marketing much easier. Do you think the Trib would have reviewed a book of beautiful sunset pictures?

Comments are closed.