On Art and Sport
Last night I had another one of those maddening conversations about art that have become the bane of my existence. I was sitting in a bar in Belgium, trying to pass the time waiting for my furniture to arrive (I just moved to Bruges). The bar TV was bleating out its incessant meaningless noise through the pall of cigarette smoke and I was exchanging the odd word with a bar mate, when I happened to comment, in answer to a question about sport, that I thought it overrated. Pressed, I admitted that I felt sport to be unimportant. My new friend, clearly aghast, asked me what I did for a living. I told him and his predictable reply was, "Well, is art so important?"
I asked him if he could name any artist from before 1900. He rattled off quite a few names, impressed with his own memory and not seeing where I was going with this. Then I asked him to name a famous athlete from before 1900. He looked at me blankly. Finally he came up with someone, but I had to tell him that Ben Hur didn't count. A cleverer man might have seen he was beaten already and moved on, but my Belgian friend was not such a one. No, we had to hit all the art-conversation hot spots—elitism, hierarchy, relativism—likely you know the drill. Very soon it was I who begged off and flew back to my tower, shaking the soot and intellectual ash from me as I went.
Re-esconced in my seclusion, I could see and breathe clearly, and I remembered that the world once contained pockets of sanity. I thought of Thoreau and Emerson, speaking to each other through no fog, intellectual or otherwise. But then I remembered that Thoreau retreated to his cabin nonetheless—a cabin that we are not told had a guest room.
However that may be, I returned to thinking of art and its high place in the history of man's achievement. In any other century, this would have been implicitly understood. Arguing about the relative importance of art and sport would have been ridiculous. Sport, like acting, was a low art if an art at all. Painting, like music and literature, was a high art. A nobleman might love the hunt or the Derby, or even a good archery contest, but he would never call them arts or assert that they were among the finest flowers of civilization.
How have we reached a point where the "great people" are athletes and actors and pop musicians, and the artist is obsolete? There are no artists of excellence, universally admired for their achievement. There are only conmen like Nauman and Koons, famous among a confused clique of plastic people—the rich, tasteless, half-educated insiders who think that memorizing a list of names is the same as wisdom, who think that reading and writing catalogues is artistic.
How is is that men like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan have become the wealthiest and most influential people in society? People whose achievements are so trifling, whose talents are so inconsequential? It is very easy to see that it simply does not matter, now or ever, whether Tiger makes that putt or not. But someone who argued that it does not matter that Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel would have to argue that it does not matter that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet or that Beethoven wrote the Ninth. Art can be non-historical only to those who think that history itself does not matter (admittedly, there is a fair supply of such persons, but I have nothing to say to them, since by their own admission, they do not matter.)
Many readers, I know, will conclude that I am once again complaining about an eternal verity: that I am but restating the basic and timeless vulgarity and ignorance of man. They will think that I might as well rail at water for running downhill or at the sun for setting at night. But these readers miss my point. There are things new under the sun, the present is not always a cycle of the past, and our current decadence is worth understanding for how it is unique. High achievement has always been rare, and it does take time to sift the wheat from the chaff. But what if the wheat no longer yields the kernel? What if the plant is entirely chaff? Or, what if our tastes have themselves run to chaff? We sift the wheat from the chaff, discard the wheat and eat the chaff, rubbing our bellies in full content.
This seems to me the nut of our situation and it is a situation unlike any in history. It is not that the high end is rare or unappreciated by the masses—as it always has been. It is that the high end is extinct. It has been theoretically disassembled and put away. In its place an odd monument has been erected—not a symbol of the loss or an obelisk of fond memory, but an actual facsimile of the void—a crude attempt to embody the nothingness that now sits atop the pyramid, watching us with its lidless eye.
The novelty of this is undeniable. Never in history has a culture believed itself capable of existing with no higher end, with no goal, with only trunk but neither upper leaves nor roots. The decadence of Greece, of Rome, of the French Empire—none exhibited our peculiar symptoms of malaise. The dissolution into materialism and hedonism was nearly analogous, maybe, but art actually flourished during the decay of these empires. It could be argued that the artistic excesses of the elite fueled the collapses: the excessive desire of the aristocracy for fine things was one of the primary causes of instability.
The members of our plutocracy, conversely, have no taste for fine things. They have expensive cars and yachts, maybe, but their homes are ugly, their art is ugly, their music and literature nonexistent. They are categorically unlike the wealthy people of Greece or Rome or any other empires. The hierarchy of wealth has lost its concomitant hierarchy of taste. You can see the precipitous decline from Henry Frick to Walter Annenberg to David Geffen. Even the Windsors no longer have the wherewithal to choose decent portrait painters, and we are presented with the sad spectacle of the Queen herself painted by Lucian Freud—poor Elizabeth looking like she has a five-o'clock shadow. Those few of us with eyes are left to wonder if it is not possible to look your absolte worst for less than seven figures.
How did we reach this state? It is very simple. Except for a few rare exceptions, the wealthy have no natural eye for art. Whether they inherit their money in an empire or earn it in a democracy, the wealthy should be expected to have no more taste than anyone else. They should be expected to be artistically blind in the same percentage as every other class of people. The difference is that in the past the wealthy got their information from creative people—in the best cases from actual artists and in the worst cases from interior decorators. But now they learn their taste from critics and art history phDs and other intellectual charlatans. They are told that the proper words and incantations can turn dross to gold, and since they don't know the difference anyway, they accept it all and run. They don't need to be told which cars they like, so they spend most of their quality time buying and riding in cars; explaining art is left to bare minimum. The guests should understand that it is expensive and that a bunch of Yale graduates think it is important. That is the definition of art for them, whole and complete.
I hope you can see that this turns current wisdom in the Realist camp on is head. It is believed that all that we have to do is keep painting and eventually the market will return to us. The wealthy will tire of their oddities and monstrosities and will gravitate back to "high decoration." I think even the avant garde fears this. But it hasn't happened because it can't happen that way. That prediction relies on a false analysis. It assumes that the wealthy care, at least a little, what their houses look like. But they don't. They would don snorkels and live in giant cesspools if someone convinced them that the rest of us would envy them for it.
No, they will return to real art only if they come to believe that we are the true experts and that the avant garde is made up of false experts. Since the wealthy cannot follow a cogent argument anymore than they can recognize beauty—they are too busy—our only hope is some kind of propanganda coup. We have to create some phony scandal or dig up some sacred skeleton or annoint some veil in the name of all that is holy and true. Either that or we simply have to outspend the oppostion. Once our national convention gets bigger and gaudier that the avant garde convention, we will have won. TIME and CNN will be there and the 21st century is ours.
Maybe then we can apply to get painting as an Olympic sport.