Modernism and the Arts

Robert Blumen, writing at Mises Economics Blog, asks “Why Do We Hate Modern Classical Music?” Blumen opens with this:

Modern classical music is primarily a project of the classical music industry’s managerial elites which has no basis in consumer demand. Despite decades of proof that audiences do not like this music, the managerial elites continue to push this agenda. When questioned, their response is to blame the classical music audience for not liking the music.

It’s not only the managerial élites who are to blame:

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the visual, auditory, and verbal arts became an “inside game.” Painters, sculptors, composers (of “serious” music), choreographers, and writers of fiction began to create works not for the enjoyment of audiences but for the sake of exploring “new” forms. Given that the various arts had been perfected by the early 1900s, the only way to explore “new” forms was to regress toward primitive ones — toward a lack of structure…. Aside from its baneful influence on many true artists, the regression toward the primitive has enabled persons of inferior talent (and none) to call themselves “artists.” Thus modernism is banal when it is not ugly.

Painters, sculptors, etc., have been encouraged in their efforts to explore “new” forms by critics, by advocates of change and rebellion for its own sake (e.g., “liberals” and “bohemians”), and by undiscriminating patrons, anxious to be au courant. Critics have a special stake in modernism because they are needed to “explain” its incomprehensibility and ugliness to the unwashed.

The unwashed have nevertheless rebelled against modernism, and so its practitioners and defenders have responded with condescension, one form of which is the challenge to be “open minded” (i.e., to tolerate the second-rate and nonsensical). A good example of condescension is heard on Composers Datebook, a syndicated feature that runs on some NPR stations. Every Composers Datebook program closes by “reminding you that all music was once new.” As if to lump Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven.

All music, painting, sculpture, dance, and literature was once new, but not all of it is good. Much (most?) of what has been produced since 1900 is inferior, self-indulgent crap.

In other words, if you can’t readily do better than your predecessors, you take the easy way out by doing something different — ugly as it may be. And you call it “progress.”

My observation of the “arts” in the modern age leads me to the following conclusions:

  • Taste is not dictated by élite opinion, which is more about exclusiveness than excellence.
  • Therefore, that which élite opinion designates as “art” is not necessarily art — and is likely to be its opposite.
  • In fact, most of the works of modern “artists” are mere artifacts, having no more relation to beauty than rusty tools, derelict boxcars, and abandoned buildings.

Taste and Art

Definitions:

  • “Taste,” as I use it here, is “the faculty of discerning what is aesthetically excellent” (from TheFreeDictionary, taste, n. 7. a).
  • “Art” consists of “the conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty” (from TheFreeDictionary, art, n. 2. a).
  • An “artifact” is “an object produced or shaped by human craft, especially a tool, weapon, or ornament of archaeological or historical interest” (from TheFreeDictionary, artifact, n. 1).

There is a good test of the faculty of taste at this site, where a visitor can view a series of ten images and designate each as “art” or “non-art.” The viewer’s choice, in each case, triggers a response of “correct” or “wrong.” For example, the designation of  a piece by a recognized “artist” (e.g., Willem de Kooning) as “non-art” triggers a response of “wrong,” even if the piece looks much like some of the “non-art” images, which are called that because they happen to be the scribbles and dribbles of 4-year olds. A discerning viewer will select “non-art” for all ten images, for none of them is aesthetically excellent. On the other hand, a viewer who is anxious to conform to élite opinion will try to identify and label as “art” the four pieces by de Kooning and his ilk. (For more in this vein, see “Modernism in the Arts and Politics.”)

My observation of the “arts” in the modern age leads me to the following conclusions:

  • Taste is not dictated by élite opinion, which is more about exclusiveness than excellence.
  • Therefore, that which élite opinion designates as “art” is not necessarily art — and is likely to be its opposite.
  • In fact, most of the works of modern “artists” are mere artifacts, having no more relation to beauty than rusty tools, derelict boxcars, and abandoned buildings.