Monday, July 7, 2014

Arts of the Ugly

…in which I think aloud about art. This is more or less a continuation of the cogitation begun here, here, and here. My thoughts are occasioned by two things: the first public exhibition and sale of my artistic work, and an essay on art by John C. Wright.

Mr. Wright considers the (apparent) pursuit of ugliness in modern art, mentioning along the way a number of famous avant-garde pieces typically regarded as intentionally crude, disgusting, or blasphemous, the NEA-sponsored Piss Christ being perhaps the most familiar example. This pursuit he attributes to political motives, regarding it a means of breaking man's resistance to the dehumanization perpetrated by various regimes and forces.

While not necessarily disagreeing with this view, I must confess that I see a different dynamic at work, though this doesn't necessarily exclude Mr. Wright's interpretation, for reality – especially spiritual reality – is many-layered. Writing this post is just a way of putting my thoughts in order, so I hope I will be forgiven if I seem somewhat vague or sketchy on several points.

Let us consider, first, a painting by a famous painter, say, Leonardo da Vinci. I pick Leonardo not because I am particularly fond of his works, but because he is universally recognized. Take his Lady with an Ermine:

Here we have a skillfully executed painting with a charming subject. Men being as they are, a great deal of its worth in their eyes owes to the fact that Leonardo was the one who painted it. Suppose, however, that it wasn't attributed to any known artist. Perhaps people who know of art only from Dan Brown novels would be unimpressed, but I think most would agree that the painting would still be greatly admired, and that the artist would become known as the Master of the Lady with an Ermine, or some such thing. It commands respect as an artifact of human skill and discipline, quite apart from its beauty; but of course it is beautiful, and, Leonardo aside, men would find it valuable insofar as they found it beautiful.

Now let us turn to the famous urinal of Marcel Duchamp, signed R. Mutt, otherwise known as Fountain.

Let us suppose that some cataclysm were to occur, and the history of art to be forgotten. What interest would the urinal signed R. Mutt command, save as an episode in the history of indoor plumbing? Clearly the answer is – none at all. And yet this is a "work" whose authenticated replicas are now zealously defended (though not altogether successfully) by the guardians of culture from being used for their apparent purpose, and auctioned for millions of dollars.

What interests me here is the intrinsic difference in the valuation of the two objects. One would be valued as an artifact, quite apart from its origin and provenance. The other is valued specifically for its origin and provenance, and would otherwise be discarded as trash, or used, perhaps, as an ivy pot by my mother, who thus employs any antique bedpans that come into her power. Its value is something intangible, a mere societal figment.

I'm reminded at this point of something quite different. Another setting in which the history of an object, and not some observable trait, is what lends the object value; a setting in which this history originates, not in an event, but in the fiat of a human agency, declaring the object now to be different from any of its "fellows" of similar construction, taken wholly up into a new order of being. I speak, of course, of the transubstantiated host in the Catholic mass. The priest, acting in persona Christi, after declaring the wafer's history ("fruit of the earth and work of human hands"), takes it up and announces that its history is now that of the crucified, resurrected, and glorified body of Christ. Thus is the host mystically transformed, though the eye detects no change.

In much the same way, Marcel Duchamp, acting as high priest, takes his urinal up and announces it to be art. The artist is, in fact, the priest of the cult of modern art, which has risen up to take the place of the old faith. For man must ever pursue transcendentals, and if traditional religion fails he will find a substitute. Curiously, though, the artist is not "ordained" by fellow artists, but by agents and gallery owners, the "bishops" of art, the self-anointed brokers of culture. But it is clear that such ordination is quite necessary. Without it, none of the "faithful" (wealthy collectors and museum curators) would know which "hosts" had been validly "consecrated."

Some express surprise that the elements chosen by these priests are things like urinals, canned excrement, maggoty cows' heads, soiled beds, and urine-soaked crucifixes, but perhaps artists have little choice in the matter. It is a point of sacramental theology that the priest must use wheat bread and grape wine, as Christ did, so perhaps these imitators of Duchamp are similarly constrained.

At any rate, the observation about the "faithful" and their need for certitude in matters of "faith" brings us to my other point. However much the modern artist may sniff at the mere mention of money, there has never been a more purely commercial art.

For one thing, the value of R. Mutt's urinal is a little bit like the value of the dollar, backed up by nothing but the mutual agreement of concerned parties that this is what it's worth. Collectors buy such things as investments, receiving as an added bonus the gratifying assurance that they and they alone represent haute couture, but facing the same risks and standing to make the same profits as any investor speculating on the value of currency. The difference, of course, is that one dollar is as good as another, recognized by all, while Fountain and its descendants are more or less unique, however much they toy with the idea of mass production. It's almost as though these pieces were created to serve as placeholders in an exclusive, artificial market.

Perhaps it all began with the advent of the commercial gallery. Once you go from the magnanimous patron of the arts, seeking to enlarge his name and status, to the wealthy collector, you raise the possibility that high-risk investors will begin buying up art and trading it like stock shares. For such a market to operate, it is imperative that the supply be carefully controlled, so what could be more natural than to have a system of valuation based on name-recognition (as managed by the anointed) rather than technical mastery (which is open to all)?

On the other hand, the gradual ascent of the artist from the anonymous workman of the Middle Ages to the modern art-diva lent itself to the creation of just such a system: once the artist stepped out from behind his work and an element of personality was introduced, it was bound to happen that someone, somewhere, would seek to reduce art to that element, until, as now, you have nothing at all to distinguish a piece of art as art except the name and the gatekeepers' word.

Well, who can say which was cause, and which effect? And perhaps I miss the point entirely. Still, there is more here than the mere attempt to slap the viewer (or taxpayer) in the face or accustom him to ugliness, and I think it has a lot to do with changes in our ideals. The great-souled munificence of the Middle Ages is no more. Chesterton says somewhere that St. Thomas Becket wore gold on the outside, where the commons could see it, and a hair-shirt underneath, while the modern businessman wears his ugly clothes on the outside and his gold next to his heart. Perhaps much the same could be said of the patronage of the arts. The Borgias, whatever their failings, facilitated much beauty in their quest for self-aggrandizement, beauty that was shared with the public, whereas the modern collector not only hoards his treasures, but holds aloof from anything that would delight the plebs. A "feast for the people" (Andrei Rublev) he would utterly scorn.

This doesn't mean that no beautiful art is made today. It only means that it will have to be sought in the waste places of the earth.
[T]he modern world, which had promised the artist all things, will soon scarcely leave him even the bare means of subsistence. Founded upon the two unnatural principles of the fecundity of money and the finality of the useful, multiplying its needs and servitudes without any possibility of there ever being a limit, ruining the leisure of the soul, withdrawing the material factabile from the control which proportioned it to the ends of the human being, imposing on man its puffing machinery and its speeding up of matter, the modern world is shaping human activity in a properly inhuman way, in a properly devilish direction, for the ultimate end of all this frenzy is to prevent man from remembering God. […]
Persecuted like the wise man and almost like the Saint, the artist will perhaps recognize his brethren at last and find his vocation once again: for in a way he is not of this world, being, from the moment he begins working for beauty, on the road which leads upright souls to God and makes invisible things clear to them by visible. However few they may then be who will disdain to gratify the Beast and turn with the wind, in them, for the simple reason that they will be exercising a disinterested activity, the human race will live. 
– Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism


  1. Brilliant! Your comment about ugliness being a modern sacrament are right on the mark. I wish I had made that point. The relation to fiat currency (money no longer being gold, just paper held up by a consensus) is well put and quite insightful. Bravo on the Chesterton quote.