Art as Theology: Chapter Thirteen

      1. Art is Culture
      2. Keeping Art Relevant

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"Painting is a blind man's profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen." (Pablo Picasso, quoted in Jean Cocteau, Journals, pt.1, 'War and Peace', 1956)

Art is Culture

Participation is central to the arts. Art that is not valued is a dream, a song never heard. Art for dilettantes only is a senseless game. The audience makes art alive and valuable as surely as the artist does. As such, the most vibrant of contemporary arts are not necessarily the institutional works of museums, galleries and performing arts centers, but the art of music, film, television, magazine illustrators and advertisers.

Certainly the mundane arts of everyday life are less coldly separate from the realities of life. The plurality and unself-consciousness of most of these arts shelters a rich array of analytical and emotional engagement with the real world(s). Of course I am reminded every time that my son turns on his stereo, that most of the mundane arts is pure trash and drivel, (do I sound like a dad?); but then Renoir is bound to have painted many paintings he wisely painted over. In the end, pristine white walls surrounding a piece do not make it art any more than the appreciation of unwashed masses make something not art.

When leafing through pages of art history you will immediately notice that up until recent times anything qualified as long as it exemplified a culture. The elitist position of artisans in the last several hundred years of the Western World has attempted to redefine 'art' to something done by 'artists'. This creates a circular argument. The classic Coke bottle was not art, I suppose because it was mass produced, but Warhol's painting of them was. How better to contemplate the Coke bottle as it is than to place an actual Coke bottle in the MOMA and ignore Warhol all together? Does art require an elite artist, or can art simply be something uniquely relevant to the culture of our times.

Additionally, if an art object as produced by an artist is antithetical to our culture, attacks culture, and seems relevant only to a handful of dilettantes and activists, how is it art? Would not some future culture see it as an odd artifact of a social dis-ease rather than art? It would appear that relevance to the larger culture has ceased for most of modern art. On the other hand we all flock to the mundane arts, even the artists and the art critiques. Which then is more relevant to a future generation studying today's art. Today's 'art' would seem to be a footnote to our culture, not a signpost.

“Art is anything you can get away with.” (Marshall McLuhan)

Keeping Art Relevant

A certain level of good taste must be required of all public institutions. There is no rational reason why the arts should claim special exemption. The display or performance of works showing poor taste in public arts institutions can only be acceptable under carefully defined and monitored situations intended to inform or otherwise enhance public life. While intense censorship could stifle creativity, it is not sensible to ask the public to support arts which lampoon or denigrate political or religious figures or institutions, or to support the vulgar or inhumane. Legislation will not make art more or less valuable, nor will censorship eradicate the unwanted. Banning religion from public institutions does not make religion irrelevant, and will not make it disappear, neither will such censorship make any valid form of art disappear. The boogy-person of censorship, (do we have to self-censor?), incredibly engaging for the arts, is a bit of a red-herring.

I am reminded of a discussion on how the brain works. The brain takes raw data and filters out most of it. The idea is to reduce the perceived intake to only a manageable and relevant body of sensory data. Only then is the brain able to operate in an effective way. The truly creative intellect is open to changing the picture. Filtering is still just as pervasive, but there is an additional feeler looking for new possibilities. In the same sense, artists who are by nature raw and unrestrained must be filtered by galleries, museums and other institutions. Relevance and value are the filters which define art. If our arts institutions fail to filter, they cease to be significant except to those factions which happen to want to see dung on the wall, erotic photos taken by famous photographers, or vulgar insults to religion. In the process there will be those galleries, etc. who thrive on controversy and those which seek and find new and exciting art. When the significance of art is defined by how distasteful it is, then it is caught in a back eddy whose relevance disappeared long ago.

A temporary excitement caused by a censorship battle is of small relevance and ultimately points up the diminishing significance of modern art. The pornography of the internet far exceeds Mapplethorp's photos. Swastikas and burning crosses are more incendiary than a crucifix in urine or dung ringed Madonna. These battles betray a childishness within the arts community. The arts will return to significance when they begin to bring our chaotic lives back into focus.


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