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Why has so much contemporary art become so boring?

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 20 August 2012


There is a trend in many art institutions that do not rely on selling art to the public to display what can be described as conceptual art. The aim of such art is to convey an idea. Philosophically, it represents a Platonising influence that favours the idea over the object. In Platonism the real things are the eternal ideas and the objects of the world are shadows of those ideas. The Spirit is valued over the material. The role of conceptual art is to represent the realm of ideas in sensible ways.

This means that a work of art is not valued for itself but for the ideas that it conveys. When this concept is married with the understanding that anything can be art, we face a bewildering array of installations, video clips, embroidery or what have you that are intended to convey something to us. However, because we are uncertain that material works of art can convey the transcendent idea this art must be accompanied by a didactic that tells us what the art means. Since the art often consists of a collection of objects, the meaning of the work is not immediately apparent. It is the function of the didactic to bridge this gap. The viewer, in bewilderment at the work, desperately reads the didactic and then engages in a struggle to see the artist's intention. I say "struggle" because bridging the gap between the art and the didactic often stretches our credibility. Since most people are awed by ART they are desperate to be included in the secret that lies before them and they are willing to be gullible for arts sake and not be shown to be a Philistine; the worst possible fate.

If a work of art cannot speak for itself then it is a failure. Great works of art have always conveyed meaning but they have done so via technique in composition and skilful painting or sculpture. They do not need to be explained, the skill of the artist is all that is necessary.

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The prioritisation of the idea over the object means that the object does not have to be the product of a skilled craftsman, it does not have to be beautiful. Indeed, beauty is the one thing that is despised. The proponents of conceptual art are meaning junkies who have produced a chasm between beauty and truth, thinking that they can have truth without beauty. This is why much conceptual art is ugly; it does not draw us in to a closer inspection. Its aim is not to reflect the beauty of the world or the human body. We are not calmed and enchanted by art that elicits the beautiful, even if that beauty is the strange beauty of the cross. Rather, the aim is to confront us, and change us with objects that contrast and disturb. It seems that such art has taken the place of the gospel whose mission is to draw us in to beauty and transform us in the process. Conceptual art wants to bludgeon us into submission. Unlike the confrontation of the gospel, it is graceless and ultimately impotent.

It may be argued that this kind of art is in fact anti-art. These practitioners are not interested in learning to draw and paint, they are interested in confronting our perceptions of things. They are the new moralists believing that they have a truth to convey. However, on reading the didactic one often concludes that the truth they are attempting to convey is banal. Why not just write an essay, join a protest movement, get elected to parliament? Why attempt to get a message across using a medium that is ill suited to the job?

One of the problems with such art is that it is has a life for the viewer of about ten seconds. Once the message has been understood the work of art can be dispensed with like the daily paper at the bottom of the bird-cage. Great art has legs. It continues to inform us and evoke deep feeling. This is why it is best to educate oneself in what art does before one buys it because some art becomes tiresome very quickly. This is because it is shallow. After a while it runs out of anything to say.

An enemy of good art is neoism, the idea that everything must be new. This is true of conceptual art but instead of the art work being new, the idea that it attempts to convey must be new. Now we are in real strife because there are very few really new ideas. This means that the artist must strive even harder to be original, an impossible task that drives him into strange places. Because of pervasive neoism, art that stands within a tradition is spurned because it is held to be derivative and therefore worthless. This has serious consequences for the revival of art that explores the Christian tradition. Rather than reinterpreting traditional themes figuratively, the artist must convey meaning in obscure and supposedly "new" ways. Thus the artist resorts to analogy in a vain attempt to produce a "spiritual" rather than a "literal" reading of the theme. He then has to rely on the ubiquitous didactic to enlighten the viewer. Again, it is the message that is prioritised over the actual work that suffers as a consequence.

Garry Deverell, a Melbourne based theologian, has pointed out that human art is not creative. He agrees with Emmanuel Lévinas and Rowan Williams that only God can create something really new. Human creativity is a co-operation with the creative activity of God. It can only receive what is given gratefully and mould it and shape it within the intention of the Holy Spirit. This is true not only of Christian art but all art. The idea that we can create truly new things comes from the arrogance of the European Enlightenment that placed the human person at the centre of all things. Human creativity thus displaces the creativity of God. Art becomes self-expression since the self is at the centre. Art that attempts to be spiritual is an expression of the self since the divine has been replaced by the human spirit. The problem here is that our personalities or our psychologies never get off the ground, they are never transcendent, always mundane and earthbound. This is why such art is so boring, all that can be expressed, most often badly in the artistic sense, is our own dull dilemmas.

This realisation has the capacity to defeat the current domination of neoism in art. It also provides a better basis for actually producing art. Rather than self expression, that has become so tiresome, we look to a "working with" a spirit of beauty and grace that is external to us. This modifies the artistic ego and relieves him of having to make something of himself, perhaps the tyranny of the Enlightenment. The artist is relieved of the Promethean spirit in which he must wrest fire from the gods. He is relieved of the idea of the artist as bohemian transgressor that has made a ruin of many lives and terminated brilliant careers before their time.

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The making of art is a spiritual journey and it is crucial that the spirit that accompanies it is healthy. A spirit that seeks only to shock and transgress for no other reason that to provoke controversy and hence fame is an ill spirit. Similarly a spirit that evokes a work that is so empty of content that it may receive all projections is ill.

The proclamation of the death of God killed off any idea that there exists moral or aesthetic values. "All that is left is the conflict of arbitrary notions of taste." This means that there can be no art criticism because there is no criteria from which to make criticism. Thus there can now no longer be a discussion about the value of art, one must leave all judgments open because the person beside us may hate what we love. This vacuum may be easily exploited by the artist who wants to make a name for himself; enter the artistic charlatan. Who is going to proclaim that the emperor has no clothes now that Robert Hughes is dead?

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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