The End of Art as We Know It

by Janet Roberts

I opened the Sunday Journal Sentinel, and in the CUE section discovered the announcement of the recipients of the Mary Nohl awards. The heading was, “Majority of Nohl Winners Work in Film, Video, and Photography. I read the article and was not surprised to find that these winners were all doing what might be classified as conceptual art. I won’t list the artists and their work here, as that information can be easily found. What I do want to address is the question of why only this type of art is being noticed and honored, and what impact this has on the more traditional artists and the general public.

As a painter who has been working for 40 years, I can’t deny the importance of progress in art. Art is like a huge but delicate machine that moves across the acres of time, shifting gears as needed, and sometimes stopping for new parts and tune ups that enable its progress through the endless journey. The fuel of this great machine is the sweat and passion of all artists, everywhere. But just as we have seen technology impact music, television, photography, and of course, computers, it is now being embraced by young visual artists everywhere. Those who are in a position to control and dictate the direction the arts take seem to be fueling this movement by their enthusiastic support of it, and general rejection of traditional art.

What bothers me, on a personal level, and also on a broader one, is how this movement has turned into an insider’s club. I cannot believe that the average person, no matter how well educated, will like or even understand some of the more radical conceptual art. Yet, we are all made to feel lacking in some crucial area if we don’t “get it”. To go too far in the other direction, however, or to prohibit such work, would smack of censorship. In the arts, of all places, one MUST be free to do his thing and not be held to some rigid standard of the past. But, shouldn’t art also have some sort of obligation to the public? After all, without people, without buyers, without institutions and corporations willing to pay money for art, artists would indeed be starving.

I find it fascinating that over the years and time, the other arts maintain a core of identity and continuum. Music, for the most part, still utilizes the standard scale of notes and has a certain structure. Literature is still an art built of words, ideas, and also maintains a recognizable structure. Fine art seems to be leaving traces of the human hand behind, and has evolved into a confusing and intangible web spun by so-called artists who create their visions to be seen and understood by the select few who frequent the “club”.

In his book, THE END OF ART, Donald Kuspit says, “In a post-aesthetic art world the work of art becomes a bully pulpit, and the artist tries to bully the spectator into believing what the artist believes. He becomes a self-righteous bully preaching to us (or rather at us) about what we already know—the ugliness and injustice of the world—without offering any aesthetic, contemplative alternative to it. Indeed, the aesthetic, the contemplative, and the beautiful are bad words in the artist’s ‘revolutionary’ vocabulary. They do not speak to his attempt to make the world a better place to live in, at least according to his idea of a better world. Social criticism is no doubt a noble cause, and changing the world for the better is no doubt a heroic enterprise, but it is far from clear that art is effective at both.”

It has always seemed strange to me that one may pile concrete blocks on a museum floor and have it taken seriously as a work of art, but those very “advanced” artists will scoff and ridicule a lovely and well-executed landscape. Must only what is new be deemed worthy of acceptance? Must traditional artists put behind all that they love and instead rack their brains to come up with something that will gain the attention of the curators and critics? Isn’t the art world large enough—and generous enough—to include all kinds of art? Should not the art journalists of newspapers have an obligation to report on ALL the art events in the area, rather than focus on the few artists who have gained entry into the elite clubs-of-the-moment?

In the New York Times an article recently appeared detailing how curators of the largest and most prestigious art museums and centers spend most of their time traveling all over the world to seek out “new blood”. This is wonderful, but one wonders what all the “old blood” is doing, and if these experienced artists are expected to spend their days in a quiet corner with sketchbook and pen, remembering the times when beauty was not a dirty word, and paint was a joy to the senses.

Art has been a part of civilization as long as humans have been able to hold a tool, and it has gone through many stages and “isms”. I am not here to halt that progress, or to limit or censor anyone’s creativity…….as cerebral as it might be. I would, however, like to have that freedom extended to me and others who still prefer paint and clay over technologically produced ideas. It has been said that the market dictates. What frightens me is that the masses that make up the market may have just given up on this whole confusing issue of art, and are making do with posters and family photographs for their walls. Art seems to be primarily a very human endeavor, and I fear that if the human element is removed, art may morph into some new alien form that only serves to further de-humanize us all. Let us not loose the magic—we need it now, more than ever.