How a Diet of Self-Expression Impoverished the Modern Soul. Part 1.

I value self-expression as far as it goes. That is to say, behind closed doors I acknowledge that one is permitted to express himself to the utmost limits of law and nature. But when that same self-expressor evaluates his work as having moved beyond the realm of the therapeutic and, in the name of civil contribution, feels compelled to re-brand as a pharmaceutic, my hackles involuntarily rise up in protest.

Several years ago, our local gallery permitted an installation which consisted of (I kid you not) a spilled jar of blueberry jam lying next to a spoon.

I dutifully conducted a thorough soul-search in an attempt to discover if I, somehow, was that jar of upset jam; if that spoon was, in fact, actually a sliver of childhood trauma my subconscious had been trying to suppress. At the end of it all however, I just found myself wishing for some butter and a soft-boiled egg.

This didn’t feel like art – it felt like a practical joke, and  I was pretty sure that a cranky toddler, given five minutes alone, could have created something equally compelling. How could any self-respecting curator allow these kinds of shenanigans into their galleries? Why is modern art often viewed as something beyond the reach of critique, definition, or paradigm; beyond, especially, the appreciation of the common man?

Part of the problem is that certain titles – like ‘artist’, ‘writer’ and ‘chief executive unicorn’ – have no measurable prerequisites, so any Joe-art college with access to thick glasses and a tweed coat can assume one. Once ‘established’ in the art world, he need only slap some colors on a canvas, compose an ‘artist statement’ of equal parts existential angst and social outrage, and find a way to circumvent those criminal gallery commission fees. Voila! He is now a certified contributor to culture, even if a more appropriate venue for his contributions might have been the lower story of a budgie cage.

This only works with visual or performance art by the way. Try getting hired as a heart surgeon with only repressed self-actualization and a reference letter from your cat Dickens. Try writing a concerto using only the music of your heart to guide you. Try running a marathon in a tweed coat.

I said before that there was no criteria for calling oneself an artist. That isn’t completely true, there are three general expectations:

Originality:

Is anyone doing what your doing? Has anyone ever sewed up a giant gray beanbag and pushed it around populated urban areas? (One girl has.) Has anyone ever cut a slit in a canvas with a razor blade and given it a profoundly ridiculous name like Spatial Concept? (One man has.) Has anyone ever stacked up cans of tuna and draped a Russian flag over them? (I think that one’s still open actually.)

You see the problem? Originality was never meant to be an end in itself. Originality, without aptitude, amounts to tomfoolery (that should be a universal law – quick somebody write it down!)

Audacity:

If you can’t stop people in their tracks through attention to beauty, you can always try sheer nausea! Thus ‘artist’ Keith Boadwee expels an array of primary colors from his -er- nether regions, and proceeds to sell them for obscene prices. Thus Carolee Schneeman has the dubious honor of being the first woman ever to pull an entire scroll from her vagina.

I’m not making this up folks.

You see where the deception comes in?

Exposed to such rubbish, the inner dialogue of the average purveyor goes something like: “Wow, no sane person would ever do those things unless they indicated something significant – this must be true art!” Here the main objective is not to communicate true and beautiful things, but to elicit a response – disgust, panic, offense, etc.

The more visceral the reaction, the more (apparently) needed was the contribution.

Authenticity

There is a myth floating on the wind that for art to really be authentic, there needs to be an element of ‘amateurism’ to it; somehow this makes it more “real” – more “grassroots.” There is an element of truth to this, which is as a reaction against an elitism which, in the past, has created arbitrary divisions between legitimate and low-brow artistic expression.

But now we have fallen off the ditch on the other side of the road and become mired in swamps of subjectivity. The old qualifications – the proper way to wield burnt sienna or draw a straight line or, just, not be revolting – are now often deemed an impediment to true self-expression

But real art is, and here I’m really going out on a limb, usually accomplished by real artists. By real artists I mean those people who have actually studied form, and color and aren’t necessarily driven by an agenda.

So who’s to blame for all this? When Joe art college invited the general public to celebrate what really should never have left the four walls of his downtown loft apartment, was he intentionally being deceitful? Or was his attempt only a symptom – a product of a larger culture which, possessing no criterion for truth or beauty, gives everyone who comes out a participant ribbon.

We can’t, at least completely, lay the burden on the self-expressors. To their credit, most at least see a problem, even if they lack the means to effectively respond to it.

We could bring up Freud and his opening the floodgates to subjectivity, but I believe Hans Rookmaker, writing in the sixties, puts the Shemagh on the barista when he says:

“Bourgeois life is like it is because it has no foundation. Morality and wisdom and respectability and love, these need a base, a meaning. Or else they atrophy, and become like withered leaves, or like old faded photographs on the wall.”

Think of it like this. The moon does not create its own light, but only reflects the light it receives from the sun. Without that primary light the moon is just another cold, empty satellite floating out in space. In the same way, qualities like morality, wisdom, and respectability can only be as bright as the primary light and beauty of God’s goodness radiates within them.

When you suppress the knowledge of God and the implications of His meta-narrative, the foundation for noble qualities deflate like a moist birthday balloon. And when virtue no longer ‘does it for us’, we turn to pragmatism – the cutting edge, the avant-garde, the audacious – and whatever else we need to do to feel something.

In it’s final stage of life, art becomes little more then a regurgitation of self-generated notions and philosophies which have no scaffolding on which to hang. In colleges and universities, students are reminded: “You came from nowhere, you are going nowhere. Now, in the soil of existential nihilism, go forth and create meaning.”

Contrary to what you might think, I don’t believe in cynicism for its own sake. It may help us clear the ground, but it doesn’t give us any meaningful answers. Those answers, such as they may be, I hope to address in the next post.

3 thoughts on “How a Diet of Self-Expression Impoverished the Modern Soul. Part 1.

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  1. As always, a thought-provoking composition. This is timely since I just watched Ghost World recently. Not sure if you’ve seen it but there’s a pretentious art teacher that compares the students’ work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wf6DpIKgtJ0
    (especially at 3:09 as she gets to the coat hanger piece)

    I visit art galleries and events fairly often – I can appreciate and understand much of what I see but always run into something like the blueberry jam scenario. The most recent that comes to mind was walking into a room with blank walls, but hanging from the ceiling was a birdcage with 3 live mewing kittens. “Oh this is a brilliant political statement,” said one man to his significant other as they stood near me. She looked at me and rolled her eyes. Soon a child entered with her parents and began crying over the trapped kitties.

    I was reading one of my poems at an event to an audience who would all categorize their writing as “higher art.” Most of them were also visual artists who had gone to art school. After I read, there was time for questions and discussion. I couldn’t believe how my simple poem was overanalyzed. By the time they were done dissecting it, it had turned into a deeply profound piece that left me frustrated and ready to consume all the free wine at the event. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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