Why Do We Need High Art? — A Summary
(Reposted to preserve timeline fidelity, this is an event that has already passed.)
Attacking the hyper-inclusive meta-disciplines of Post-Modernism, Cultural Studies, and Existential Nihilism, Camille Paglia cites the continual devaluation and elimination of Art from the American consciousness as contributing to the cultural death of the West.
Though an obvious primary target would be those forces actively allied against Art, Paglia chooses to instead to partially blame the art and academic community for a failure to make responsible decisions in the societal curation of art.
She describes the modern American mind as starving — starving for cultural perspective, starving for meaning, starving for identity. Art is an answer for this, both the expression of this existential question and the documentation of the search for meaning amidst the chaos of the universe can be found in the culture and execution of art throughout the ages.
Having come to the end of their usefulness, or rather stretched thin in their already tenuous application, disciplines (or intentional anti-disciplines) such as cultural Marxism and Post-Modernism cannot account for the essentially human aspects of art, in particular the inherent search for Meaning present in art and cultural development.
In the abyss of cultural relativism and the absence of contextualization, Art has lost it’s way. Art, in particular hackneyed avant-garde or statement art, has become increasingly hollow, where artists who shattered tradition to express themselves through innovative approaches to art were once derided, exiled and ignored for their art, only to become the Masters we recognize today as finding a new way through the stale traditions of their time, current “experimental” artists are celebrated for their aggressive need to destroy cultural paradigms for the sake of their own nihilistic aggrandizement. Many “Artists” are making a statement only to make “A” statement, not for any particular purpose or intention, and with this their art is essentially flat and reactionary; they are provocative rather than thought-provoking, incendiary instead of insightful.
In this regard, Art and the Art Community (if there is such a thing) are to blame as much as the external forces which constantly besiege creativity and independent thought. As the Art Community we need to make the case for Art, it can no longer be expressed as an implied imperative, we must rationally defend Art and its effect on culture, progress, innovation, and vision. In the making of the case for Art, its positive effects must be described and enumerated, but also the negative effects considered and expelled, purposefully sacrilegious art without context should be accepted by the Art Community as a valid expression, but rejected on the basis of being bad art (or not art at all). We must return to an attitude of scholarly and purposeful study and extension of artforms, both reflective and progressive, but eschew the tendency to value only the superficially relativistic hodge-podge, devoid of meaning.
Meaning itself, is an important feature of Art, currently anathema to the Art Community which prides itself on the post-modern vacuum, but cultural development, Religion, Spirituality, Mysticism, art, and individual and group psychology are all aspects of the same thing, the expression of humanity’s struggle against the chaos of the universe. Meaning is inextricably bound up in the essence of Art, to remove it from Art is to excise the Soul of Art itself. Art is crumbling around us; we, a young civilization in the cultural long-view, are the torchbearers in this era, but in our hands Art has dimmed and faded, a remnant of the shining beacon Art was, a shattering brightness that now is being retaken by the dark.
We are an echo of Alexandria.
(This is essentially a summary of Mrs. Paglia’s lecture, however the wording and writing are mine and did, indeed, take a digressionary tack toward the end there. The intention is the same, but there are some liberties taken in extending what I thought were interesting points of her discussion that she did not remotely have time to return to or expand.)
(Sorry for the delay, the trip up to LA came on the latter half of the week and the tail end of my usual day (which starts well before 6am), so driving 6 hours and getting home around 2am was quite the ordeal, needless today I skated semi-coherently through Friday and crashed, hence the Sunday summary.)
Museums: Adapt or Perish
This article was written in response (support) to the article, “Why On Earth Am I Looking At This?” by Wellington Reiter, on the Zocalo Public Square site.
Museums, being a relatively modern institution in the history of art (well, in the history of history really), are subject to the pangs of growth and development; they, like all things, must adapt or perish. At the inception of museums they were self-indulgent collections, privately held aggregations of personally curated pieces for the display of wealth and personal prestige; they were exclusive, access granted only to the elite or otherwise worthy. Between the 14th and 17th centuries more and more collections became “public” in that they were donated or opened to the general populace, however, like so many other cultural institutions (including literature) of the time, access was still structurally limited to those who had either means or opportunity to partake of them.
Fast-forwarding through the timeline we see the expansion of the role of the museum as the curator of major, minor and independent art in every viable location. Museums are now found in metropolitan areas as well as tiny hamlets in the tucked away corners of the country; further, the collections themselves experience an extraordinary variety of expression from specifically defined periods of High Art to the broad collections containing a comprehensive selection of Art through the ages to the micro-galleries of the local, avant-garde, and para-/neo-famous.
In spite of all of this, the egalitarian nature of selections does not result in museums experiencing a similarly inclusive demographic of attendees. Somewhere, in the transition of the museum from the stubborn vault of High Art to the new expression embracing “Art” in its many definitions and states of vagary, what was lost was the attention of the patrons. We cannot hold strictly to the forms which served us in the past and expect the public to follow along; each era, each period, sees new innovation on a broad scale and while museums have adapted to some degree they have become simultaneously mired in the rigid formality of the past and forgotten by sociocultural architects as footnotes or archives.
Instead of this stagnation, museums should be vibrant institutions, distilling at once the admiration of our past mastery of expression and celebrating the continuation, abandonment or destruction of these traditions as our cultural identities develop throughout the modern era. In this regard, Mr. Reiter expresses the desire to envision a new direction for the concept of the museum. Implied in his article, or rather following from his article and in concert with other similar calls to action by other writers, I see several important ways by which the museum as a cultural institution may be recast (these are offered without particularly extensive research).
The most important, and most generically addressed, would be to consider, at every level, the role and emphasis of Art within the educational and cultural spheres. Were we able to comprehensively renew our approach to teaching about art and the experience of it, then even without any alterations to the museum model we would see an increase in attendance and likely an accompanied increase in engagement. This would include: increased funding and emphasis on art at early levels of education, art programs as enrichment throughout the primary and secondary education systems, attention to the interdisciplinary aspects of art as it pertains to and reinforces the other primary subject areas, and the promotion of art experiences relying primarily on local galleries/museums as resources. The “radical de-centering” entertained by Cuno is a relatively uncommon occurrence as most museum patrons are unsure how to even begin engaging a work, much less how to seek the profound and transcendental truths in the works around them, but this can be changed. As more and more individuals find themselves equipped to think in the language of art, they will begin to understand its role and expression, and ultimately they will come to appreciate the experience of it.
To reinforce this societal reframing of the importance of the arts, we must similarly adapt our appreciation for the museum-space and its role in the public square. Similar to the interdisciplinary refocusing that must occur on the educational level, a more active integration of museums (and the museum-esque usage of public spaces) into the cityscape or psychic landscape must simultaneously occur. New museums must be planned in such a way as to reinforce or accentuate existing cultural corridors, their architecture should strike boldly with momentum toward the future, but their “storefront,” entrances, and street level spaces should exude familiarity of purpose. The incorporation of elements of the Krens formula as well as other components such as conference and lecture space, public book collections (related or generic), and mixed studio space should create an attitude that these museums are a logical destination for a variety of common and possibly everyday purposes. Existing museums should aggressively reach out to form coalitions and partnerships to increase cross-utilization of their existing space for a broad variety of programming, they should immediately reevaluate their existing architecture and address whether or not it is conducive to a broader view of the art experience as multi-modal and interdisciplinary, and, short of exterior and structural renovation, they should strongly consider reorganizing their existing space to accommodate visitors with coherent and intuitive viewing experiences.
Finally the gallery and curation of art itself must be addressed, while some of the gap may be closed given a campaign for renewed passion for the fine arts, patrons are often left feeling the intimidation of the uninitiated to which Mr. Reiter refers. To combat this disconnect, the museum, or any cultural institution seeking to remain simultaneously relevant and enriching, should seek to provide additional layers of information and interactivity. We are now talking of virtual docents, augmented reality applications (with links to additional art, journals, research, videos and live chats with experts or other viewers), geotag/location-based activation of enrichment/informational materials, and digital take-homes, for example, the ability to “bookmark” your favorite pieces (prompting additional information such as in-gallery locations of other similar pieces or pieces by the same artist, highlighting relevant shop inventory, and connecting your viewing experience to other social media).
As museums have opened their doors to all art, so too must museums open their doors to all patrons, however, this has less to do with being open and more to do with being approachable. The transition from exclusive to inclusive museums (referring to art AND patrons) is completing its final stage; and as we concede that “Art” takes many forms and styles, so too must we concede that the experience of Art is concomitantly multi-modal. I agree with Mr. Reiter’s article, however, I would posit that, in addition to his conclusion that the city and museum need to see themselves as interdependent, society and the individual, while receiving the effect of this interdependency, should also see it as their responsibility to participate fully in the discussion of the concept of the museum in contemporary society and the approach to Art in education and the public sphere.
I like to think that by providing and preserving examples of beauty, museums foster a greater sense of caring in the world and urge their visitors to undergo a radical de-centering before a work of art.
Why Do We Need High Art?
(Reposted to preserve timeline fidelity, this is an event that has already passed.)
It’s a free event and if you click through the lecture title you’ll be taken to the event page where you can reserve tickets (up to 4) for the event.
However! In the interest of making new friends, if you’re in the Southern California area and free that night and want to go with me, I’d be happy to pick people up along the way! :) So message me or answer here and we’ll connect up!
Come on, free lecture event, fun people, and free wine after the lecture (Zócalo is big on the “after” discussion in facilitating the depth of the event, so they host free wine after their events).