16 March 2012

Prophecy and Authenticity in Modern Art

Art is thought of commonly as a class of privileged objects intended for pure aesthetic beholding. The Artist is spoken of as a kind of demi-god, charged with the business of Creating. Art has been sacralized by the culture to the point of receiving its own temples, where the common people go to pay homage to the mystical greatness of the Artists. Because it is treated as an object of disinterested beholding, art is thought to be irrelevant and even immune to judgments related to truth or intrinsic goodness. Rather it is an expression of the artist's inner-truth. The freedom of the artist to voice his own truth — a truth notably private to the artist — is defended under terms of prophetic expression or authenticity.

If we are asked to see the artist as a prophet, then any objective criticism is silenced as arrogance in the face of prophetic censure. It would, after all be absurd to approach Sophocles' Tiresias with comments on his choice of meter, or to shout down Jeremiah for presenting his material in an overly melodramatic fashion. Doing so would merely implicate us further in our guilt before the prophetic voice. And, since the artist-prophet possesses a uniquely privileged insight into our collective guilt, it is impossible to critique him even on his own terms. This is, however, irrelevant, since the artist is ordinarily inaccessible: he is either on a distant stage or altogether absent. His presence and genius are mediated solely through his Art.

If, on the other hand, the appeal is to authenticity, then all comment is cut off by a thoroughly alienating dose of "interiority" "alterity" "reifying intentionality" and the ever-looming "Other". To say anything evaluative or objective about Art would be to intrude upon the mystical bond forged between the artist's utterly inscrutable interior state and his inspired expression of it. It is not for us non-artists to approach the Art as an object of intention meant to accomplish something; rather, we are asked to see it as an object of indeterminate significance which has been placed before us for the sake of a personal "encounter" or "experience". The absence of purpose or significance opens up an infinite horizon of interpretation, so that the non-artist is capable (depending on his openness) of receiving an indeterminate amount of insight from his beholding of the Art. Art becomes a bearer of potential meaning rather than determinate function or truth. We say of the artwork, "it means a lot to me".

What is most curious about this contemporary approach to art is that it is so vulnerable to the simplest criticisms. The very raison d' etre of many art museums seems to flicker out of existence when an uneducated, uncouth person looks at something by Pollock or Cy Twombly and points out not only that it's ridiculous looking, but that with a ladder and some paint he could easily create a canvas with the same formal qualities. In fact, it is one of the miracles of high-brow inculturation that most of the art consuming world manages to repress these thoughts. The museum-goer goes to see things he may not understand, assuming that any failure on his part is due to an inadequacy of subtlety or knowledge, rather than being a fault in the artwork itself.