January 29, 2007


Admit it - you really hate modern art (Spengler, 1/30/07, Asia Times)

The most striking difference between the two founding fathers of modernism is this: the price of Kandinsky's smallest work probably exceeds the aggregate royalties paid for the performances of Schoenberg's music. Out of a sense of obligation, musicians perform Schoenberg from time to time, but always in the middle and never at the end of a program, for audiences flee the cacophony. Schoenberg died a poor man in 1951, and and his widow and three children barely survived on the copyright royalties from his music. His family remains poor, while the heirs of famous artists have become fabulously wealthy.

Modern art is ideological, as its proponents are the first to admit. It was the ideologues, namely the critics, who made the reputation of the abstract impressionists, most famously Clement Greenberg's sponsorship of Jackson Pollack in The Partisan Review. It is not supposed to "please" the senses on first glance, after the manner of a Raphael or an Ingres, but to challenge the viewer to think and consider.

Why is it that the audience for modern art is quite happy to take in the ideological message of modernism while strolling through an art gallery, but loath to hear the same message in the concert hall? It is rather like communism, which once was fashionable among Western intellectuals. They were happy to admire communism from a distance, but reluctant to live under communism.

When you view an abstract expressionist canvas, time is in your control. You may spend as much or as little time as you like, click your tongue, attempt to say something sensible and, if you are sufficiently pretentious, quote something from the Wikipedia write-up on the artist that you consulted before arriving at the gallery. When you listen to atonal music, for example Schoenberg, you are stuck in your seat for a quarter of an hour that feels like many hours in a dentist's chair. You cannot escape. You do not admire the abstraction from a distance. You are actually living inside it. You are in the position of the fashionably left-wing intellectual of the 1930s who made the mistake of actually moving to Moscow, rather than admiring it at a safe distance.

That is why at least some modern artists come into very serious money, but not a single one of the abstract composers can earn a living from his music.

One is reminded of the opening lines of Tom Wolfe's devastating critique, From Bauhaus to Our House: O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, has there ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested as within they blessed borders today?

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 29, 2007 8:42 AM

Or perhaps it takes fewer greater fools to make a career in modern art than modern music?

My wife and I basically quit going to the symphony because they were always trying to get us to buy a crap sandwich - a slice of Ives or Boulez in between two pieces of Mozart.

Posted by: Rick T. at January 29, 2007 9:20 AM

--It is rather like communism, which once was fashionable among Western intellectuals. They were happy to admire communism from a distance, but reluctant to live under communism.---

Once fashionable????

Posted by: fa@hotmail.com at January 29, 2007 9:59 AM

I think the most telling reaction I've ever seen to modern art is at the Vatican. The rooms with the Titians and Reubens are packed. In the Sistine Chapel, if you passed out, you wouldn't hit the floor, there are so many folks crowded around you. When you get to the modern section, the tourists are literally sprinting to the exit.

Rick, it's also why I've given up my season ticket to the opera. There's always some modern piece of dung that is crow-barred into every ticket package, and you couldn't give it away.

Posted by: Dreadnought at January 29, 2007 11:39 AM

Modern Art! How many of you were escorted out of a major museum by uniformed security guards for conduct unbecoming an art lover?

A friend and I were decorously walking down the ramp at the Guggenheim trying to understand the display. When we came to a tiny little figure that had no shape nor features, we were stumped, so I bent down to read the card. It read, "Mother and Child." That's when I lost it. Being nine months pregnant at the time didn't help.

Posted by: erp at January 29, 2007 6:00 PM

The Other Brother and I were hustled out of the National Gallery or someplace like that because we started cheering at a painting called National Gallery on Fire.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2007 6:42 PM

This excellent essay should be read in its entirety. Spengler does an excellent job of identifying modern so-called, self-proclaimed "Art" and "music" as part of a great non serviam. Disorder for the sake of disorder, bentness, sort of like wearing a baseball cap in a disordered fashion.

The writer's identification of certain modern escrescences as conscious parodies of particular works of art is particularly chilling. Ponder how that mirrors the blasphemy of the black mass, and bring wood and fire.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 29, 2007 6:45 PM

Schonberg may have "invented" modernist music (a crass oversimplification), but he also wrote many conventional, tonal pieces that anyone perusing this blog would find beautiful - try his Suite for String Orchestra, or Weihnachtsmusik. His atonal music represented a rather natural progression from the hyper-romantic chromaticism of his youth. That it was, for the most part, rather unattractive music for most is undeniable, of course.

The real father figure of modernist music, or at least of the music that dominated academia for most of the 20th century, was Anton Webern. Just as "atonal" as Schonberg, but frankly I find many of his miniatures to be beautiful. His followers were often rigid sectarians and producers of a great deal of ugly music, but they shouldn't reflect on their predecessor.

It obscures a lot of great music, on either side of the divide, to paint with broad strokes as this article does. Modern composers are often busy drawing their own lines in the sand, but the tonal/atonal arguments of their predecessors have been left behind. If only the cultural critics would go along with them.

Posted by: M. at January 29, 2007 8:07 PM

So that's what became of the residents of the Grand Academy of Projectors of Lagado. Still trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and convert excrement back into food, too.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at January 29, 2007 8:50 PM

Wolfe certainly punctured some targets that needed it. Spengler is his usual outrageous self here, hitting some easy targets (Hirsch) in a way both insightful (the abstract art/atonal music link) and sloppily broad (what he considers "modern" visual art). Not to quibble, but "modern art" is usually said to have begun with the Impressionists, ironically a now universally-loved style that was attacked in almost precisely the same way, starting in the 1860's. Heck, they said the same things about J.M.W. Turner before that, and who around here would hate having one of his on a wall?

I'll join in the traditionalist eye-roll at Hirsch, but I'll defend the work of Matisse and Sargent and Malevich and Mondrian and DeMuth and O'Keefe and the Surrealists and the Pop Artists and yes, even Pollack and Picasso, regardless of their wacky theories or silly politics. (One of the most prized items in my library is a copy of Warhol's autobiography. When he signed it for me he also drew a soup can.) Even conceptual art can be worthwhile and beautiful, when Andy Goldsworthy does it. (I wonder what Wolfe thinks of him? Might like him, I think.)

Yes, the last few centuries of artistic experiments have a mixed record of success. Sturgeon's Law. In music, pure atonality is a dead end, but jazz and rock are just as modern and yet rather more successful. The modernist impulse has certainly worked well in commercial and industrial design: Moderne/Deco/Streamline is still visible in every airplane, auto, locomotive and stapler. You're likely reading this in a version of Helvetica or another typeface influenced by it. And nobody wants to read a blog designed like a premodern newspaper or watch a movie staged like a 19th century play.

If some art displeases you, fine, but please don't trash all "modern art."

Posted by: PapayaSF at January 30, 2007 1:29 AM

Yes, the Impressionists, who are awful, are the key. They are the point where it became trendy not to represent beauty. Art that doesn't isn't art.

Posted by: oj at January 30, 2007 7:20 AM

Wow, you are really are a stick in the mud when it comes to art. Dislike Turner, too?

Most people (artists and non-artists alike) would say that the Impressionists do represent beauty. I think art can be other than beautiful and still be worthwhile, and would say the worst artistic trend is to put the highest value on "shocking the bourgeoisie."

Posted by: PapayaSF at January 30, 2007 12:33 PM

More would say dogs playing poker is. Beauty isn't democratic. It's divine.

Posted by: oj at January 30, 2007 2:42 PM