This article appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
A CENTURY AGO MARCEL DUCHAMP signed a urinal with the name "R. Mutt," entitled it "La Fontaine," and exhibited it as a work of art. One immediate result of Duchamp's joke was to precipitate an intellectual industry devoted to answering the question "What is art?" The literature of this industry is as empty as the neverending imitations of Duchamp's gesture. Nevertheless, it has left a residue of skepticism. If anything can count as art, then art ceases to have a point. All that is left is the curious but unfounded fact that some people like looking at some things, others like looking at others. As for the suggestion that there is an enterprise of criticism, which searches for objective values and lasting monuments to the human spirit, this is dismissed out of hand, as depending on a conception of the artwork that was washed down the drain of Duchamp's "fountain."
The argument is eagerly embraced, because it seems to emancipate people from the burden of culture, telling them that all those venerable masterpieces can be ignored with impunity, that reality TV is "as good as" Shakespeare and techno-rock the equal of Brahms, since nothing is better than anything and all claims to aesthetic value are void. The argument therefore chimes with the fashionable forms of cultural relativism, and defines the point from which university courses in aesthetics tend to begin-and as often as not the point at which they end.
There is a useful comparison to be made here with jokes. It is as hard to circumscribe the class of jokes as it is the class of artworks. Anything is a joke if somebody says so. A joke is an artifact made to be laughed at. It may fail to perform its function, in which case it is a joke that "falls flat." Or it may perform its function, but offensively, in which case it is a joke "in bad taste." But none of this implies that the category of jokes is arbitrary, or that there is no such thing as a distinction between good jokes and bad. Nor does it in any way suggest that there is no place for the criticism of jokes, or for the kind of moral education that has a decorous sense of humor as its goal. Indeed, the first thing you might learn, in considering jokes, is that Marcel Duchamp's urinal was one -- quite a good one first time round, corny by mid-20th century, and downright stupid today.
Works of art, like jokes, have a function. They are objects of aesthetic interest. They may fulfill this function in a rewarding way, offering food for thought and spiritual uplift, winning for themselves a loyal public that returns to them to be consoled or inspired. They may fulfill their function in ways that are judged to be offensive or downright demeaning. Or they may fail altogether to prompt the aesthetic interest that they are petitioning for.
THE WORKS OF ART that we remember fall into the first two categories: the uplifting and the demeaning. The total failures disappear from public memory. And it really matters which kind of art you adhere to, which you include in your treasury of symbols and allusions, which you carry around in your heart. Good taste is as important in aesthetics as it is in humor, and indeed taste is what it is all about. If university courses do not start from that premise, students will finish their studies of art and culture just as ignorant as when they began.
It is true, however, that people no longer see works of art as objects of judgment or as expressions of the moral life. Increasingly, many teachers of the humanities agree with the untutored opinion of their incoming students, that there is no such thing as a distinction between good and bad taste. But imagine someone saying the same thing about humor. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday recount one of the few recorded occasions when the young Mao Tse-tung burst into laughter: it was at the circus, when a tight-rope walker fell from the high wire to her death. Imagine a world in which people laughed only at others' misfortunes. What would that world have in common with the world of Moliere's Tartuffe, of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, of Cervantes' Don Quixote, or Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy? Nothing, save the fact of laughter. It would be a degenerate world, a world in which human kindness no longer found its endorsement in humor, in which one whole aspect of the human spirit would have become stunted and grotesque.
Imagine now a world in which people showed an interest only in Brillo boxes, in signed urinals, in crucifixes pickled in urine, or in objects similarly lifted from the debris of ordinary life and put on display with some kind of satirical intention -- in other words, the increasingly standard fare of official modern art shows in Europe and America. What would such a world have in common with that of Duccio, Giotto, Velazquez, or even Cï¿½zanne? Of course, there would be the fact of putting objects on display, and the fact of our looking at them through aesthetic spectacles. But it would be a degenerate world, a world in which human aspirations no longer find their artistic expression, in which we no longer make for ourselves images of the ideal and the transcendent, but in which we study human debris in place of the human soul. It would be a world in which one whole aspect of the human spirit -- the aesthetic -- would have become stunted and grotesque. For we aspire through art, and when aspiration ceases, so too does art.
Now it seems to me that the public space of our society has in fact begun to surrender to the kind of degradation that I have just described. It has been taken over by a culture that wishes not to educate our perception but to capture it, not to ennoble human life but to trivialize it. Why this is so is an interesting question to which I can offer only an imperfect answer. But that it is so is surely undeniable. Look at the official art of modern societies -- the art that ends up in museums or on public pedestals, the architecture that is commissioned by public bodies, even the music that enjoys the favors of the public subsidy machine -- and you will all too often encounter either facetious kitsch, or deliberately antagonizing gestures of defiance towards the traditions that make art lovable. Much of our public art is a loveless art, and one that is also entirely without the humility that comes from love.
IT DOESN'T FOLLOW that taste and judgment are things of the past. It doesn't follow that art has vanished from our lives or has lost its meaning. All that follows is that art is being driven from the public arena. It is no longer out there that you find it, but in here, in foro intero. Art is being privatized, with each of us striving to remain faithful to visions of beauty that we are no longer confident of sharing outside the circle of our friends. One cause of this is the democratic culture, which is hostile to judgment in any form, and in particular to the judgment of taste. The prevailing attitude is that you are entitled to your tastes, but not entitled to inflict them on me.
Most American students come to college with this attitude, and are appalled to discover that there are people who do not merely disagree with their tastes in music, art, and literature (not to speak of clothes, language use, and social relations) but actually look down on their tastes, as inferior to some putative standard. This is very hard to take, and is one cause of the widespread endorsement of cultural relativism in its many forms -- since cultural relativism simply lifts aesthetic experience out of the world of judgment altogether, and therefore neutralizes good taste as a value. And the preference for art that desecrates the human image or the public space is connected with this fear of aesthetic judgment. By espousing what is deliberately unlovely and unlovable, you make judgment ridiculous, my judgment as much as yours.
It seems to me, however, that the democratic attitude is in conflict with itself. It is impossible to live as though there are no aesthetic values, while living a real life among real human beings. Manners, clothes, speech, and gestures -- all require careful attention to the way things look. In every sphere of human life, from laying a table to giving a funeral speech, aesthetic choices are both necessary and noticed. Without them we cannot solve the vast problem of coordination that arises when a myriad private individuals crowd into a single public space. Hence, in the democratic culture, aesthetic judgment begins to be experienced as an affliction. It imposes an unsustainable burden, something that we must live up to, a world of ideals and aspirations that is in sharp conflict with the tawdriness and imperfection of our own improvised lives. It is perched like an owl on our shoulders, while we try to hide our pet rodents in our clothes. The temptation is to turn on it and shoo it away.
Here we see another motive for the desire to desecrate. It is a desire to turn aesthetic judgment against itself, so that it no longer seems like a judgment of us. This you see all the time in children -- the delight in disgusting noises, words, allusions, which helps them to distance themselves from that adult world that judges them, and whose authority they wish to deny. That ordinary refuge of children from the burden of adult judgment has become the refuge of adults from their culture. By using art as an instrument of desecration they neutralize its claims: it loses its authority, and becomes a fellow conspirator in the plot against ideals.