Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia on why a new gen­er­a­tion has cho­sen iphones and other glit­ter­ing gad­gets as its can­vas

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - The Wall Street

DOES art have a fu­ture? Per­for­mance gen­res like opera, the­atre, mu­sic and dance are thriv­ing across the world, but the visual arts have been in slow de­cline for nearly 40 years. No ma­jor fig­ure of pro­found influence has emerged in paint­ing or sculp­ture since the wan­ing of pop art and the birth of min­i­mal­ism in the early 1970s.

Yet work of bold orig­i­nal­ity and stun­ning beauty con­tin­ues to be done in ar­chi­tec­ture, a frankly com­mer­cial field. Out­stand­ing ex­am­ples are Frank Gehry’s Guggen­heim Mu­seum Bil­bao in Spain, Rem Kool­haas’s CCTV head­quar­ters in Bei­jing and Zaha Ha­did’s Lon­don Aquatic Cen­tre for the 2012 Sum­mer Olympics.

What has sapped cre­ativ­ity and in­no­va­tion in the arts? Two ma­jor causes can be iden­ti­fied, one re­lat­ing to an ex­pan­sion of form and the other to a con­trac­tion of ide­ol­ogy.

Paint­ing was the pres­tige genre in the fine arts from the Re­nais­sance on. But paint­ing was de­throned by the brash mul­ti­me­dia rev­o­lu­tion of the 60s and 70s. Per­ma­nence faded as a goal of art-mak­ing. But there is a larger ques­tion: what do con­tem­po­rary artists have to say, and to whom are they say­ing it?

Un­for­tu­nately, too many artists have lost touch with the gen­eral au­di­ence and have re­treated to an air­less echo cham­ber. The art world, like hu­man­i­ties fac­ul­ties, suf­fers from a mono­lithic po­lit­i­cal or­tho­doxy — an up­per­mid­dle-class lib­er­al­ism far from the fiery anti­estab­lish­ment left­ism of the 60s. (I am speak­ing as a lib­er­tar­ian Demo­crat who voted for Barack Obama in 2008.)

To­day’s blase lib­eral sec­u­lar­ism also de­parts from the re­spect­ful ex­plo­ration of world reli­gions that char­ac­terised the 60s. Artists can now win at­ten­tion by im­i­tat­ing once-risky shock ges­tures of sex­ual ex­hi­bi­tion­ism or sac­ri­lege. This trend be­gan over two decades ago with An­dres Ser­rano’s Piss Christ, a pho­to­graph of a plas­tic cru­ci­fix in a jar of the artist’s urine, and was typ­i­fied more re­cently by Cosimo Caval­laro’s My Sweet Lord, a life­size nude statue of the cru­ci­fied Christ sculpted from choco­late, in­tended for a street-level gallery win­dow in Man­hat­tan dur­ing Holy Week. How­ever, mu­se­ums and gal­leries would never tol­er­ate equally satir­i­cal treat­ment of Ju­daism or Is­lam.

It’s high time for the art world to ad­mit that the avant-garde is dead. It was killed by my hero, Andy Warhol, who in­cor­po­rated into his art all the gaudy com­mer­cial im­agery of cap­i­tal­ism (like Camp­bell’s soup cans) that most artists had stub­bornly scorned.

The vul­ner­a­bil­ity of students and fac­ulty alike to fac­ti­tious the­ory about the arts is in large part due to the bour­geois drift of the past half-cen­tury.

Our woe­fully shrunken in­dus­trial base means to­day’s col­lege-bound young peo­ple rarely have di­rect contact any longer with the man­ual trades, which share skills, meth­ods and ma­te­ri­als with artis­tic work­man­ship.

Warhol, for ex­am­ple, grew up in in­dus­trial Pitts­burgh and bor­rowed the com­mer­cial process of silk-screening for his art-mak­ing at the Fac­tory, as he called his New York stu­dio. With the shift of man­u­fac­tur­ing over­seas, an over­whelm­ing num­ber of Amer­ica’s old fac­tory cities and towns have lost busi­nesses and pop­u­la­tion and are strug­gling to stave off dis­re­pair. That is cer­tainly true of my birth­place, the once-bustling up­state town of Endi­cott, New York, to which my fam­ily im­mi­grated to work in the now-van­ished shoe fac­to­ries. Man­ual la­bor was both a norm and an ideal in that era, when tools, ma­chin­ery and in­dus­trial sup­plies dom­i­nated daily life.

For the arts to re­vive in the US, young artists must be res­cued from their sani­tised mid­dle­class backgrounds. We need a reval­ori­sa­tion of the trades that would al­low students to en­ter those fields with­out so­cial prej­u­dice (which of­ten em­anates from par­ents ea­ger for the false ca­chet of an Ivy League sticker on the car). Among my students at art schools, for ex­am­ple, have been vir­tu­oso wood­work­ers who were al­ready earn­ing in­come as craft fur­ni­ture-mak­ers. Artists should learn to see them­selves as en­trepreneurs.

Cre­ativ­ity is in fact flour­ish­ing un­tram­melled in the ap­plied arts, above all in­dus­trial de­sign. In the past 20 years, I have no­ticed that the most flex­i­ble, dy­namic, in­quis­i­tive minds among my students have been in­dus­trial de­sign ma­jors. In­dus­trial de­sign­ers are brac­ingly free of ide­ol­ogy and cant. The in­dus­trial de­signer is trained to be a clear-eyed ob­server of the com­mer­cial world — which, like it or not, is mod­ern re­al­ity.

Cap­i­tal­ism has its weak­nesses. But it is cap­i­tal­ism that ended the stran­gle­hold of the hered­i­tary aris­toc­ra­cies, raised the stan­dard of liv­ing for most of the world and en­abled the eman­ci­pa­tion of women. The rou­tine defama­tion of cap­i­tal­ism by arm­chair leftists in academe and the main­stream me­dia has cut young artists and thinkers off from the authen­tic cul­tural en­er­gies of our time.

Dur­ing the past cen­tury, in­dus­trial de­sign has steadily gained on the fine arts and has now sur­passed them in cul­tural im­pact. In the age of travel and speed that be­gan just be­fore World War I, ma­chines be­came smaller and sleeker. Stream­lin­ing, de­vel­oped for rac­ing cars, trains, air­craft and ocean lin­ers, was ex­tended in the 1920s to ap­pli­ances like vac­uum clean­ers and wash­ing ma­chines. The smooth white tow­ers of elec­tric re­frig­er­a­tors (re­plac­ing clunky ice­boxes) em­bod­ied the el­e­gant new min­i­mal­ism.

‘‘ Form ever fol­lows func­tion,’’ said Louis Sul­li­van, the visionary Chicago ar­chi­tect who was a fore­fa­ther of the Bauhaus. That maxim was a rubric for the boom in stylish in­te­rior decor, of­fice ma­chines and elec­tron­ics fol­low­ing World War II: Olivetti type­writ­ers, hi-fi am­pli­fiers, por­ta­ble tran­sis­tor ra­dios, spaceage TVs, baby-blue Princess tele­phones. With the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion came minia­tur­i­sa­tion. The Ap­ple desk­top com­puter bore no re­sem­blance to the gi­gan­tic main­frames that once took up whole rooms. Hand-held cell­phones be­came pocket-size.

Young peo­ple to­day are avidly im­mersed in this hy­per-tech­no­log­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, where their pri­mary aes­thetic ex­pe­ri­ences are de­rived from beau­ti­fully en­gi­neered in­dus­trial de­sign. Per­son­alised hand-held de­vices are their let­ters, di­aries, tele­phones and news­pa­pers, as well as their round-the-clock con­duits for mu­sic, videos and movies. But there is no spir­i­tual di­men­sion to an iPhone, as there is to great works of art.

Thus we live in a strange and con­tra­dic­tory cul­ture, where the most tal­ented col­lege students are ide­o­log­i­cally in­doc­tri­nated with con­tempt for the eco­nomic sys­tem that made their free­dom, com­forts and priv­i­leges pos­si­ble. In the realm of arts and let­ters, re­li­gion is dis­missed as re­ac­tionary and un­hip. The spir­i­tual lan­guage even of ma­jor ab­stract artists like Piet Mon­drian, Jack­son Pol­lock and Mark Rothko is ig­nored or sup­pressed.

Thus young artists have been be­trayed and stunted by their elders be­fore their ca­reers have even be­gun. Is it any won­der that our fine arts have be­come a waste­land?

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