On my post about heroicism, a commenter posted a picture of the “rape victim” with her mattress, and the commenters of course cracked all sorts of jokes in true dehumanizing fashion. It was kind of beautiful. For those of you who haven’t heard, a college art major is carrying around the mattress she claims to have been raped on as her senior art thesis project. Her rape has been a great event to unite the community, and everyone in the photos looks like they’re having a gay old time. Being a rape victim looks like so much fun!
The word “art” is from the Latin “artis”, meaning “skill.” It referred more to weaving than to painting at the time. Still, what we think of as art within the last 500 years has generally involved skill. Now, though, anyone can be an artist with the right funding and media attention.
The Value of a Liberal Arts Education
In my state university aesthetics class, we spent a good deal of time making fun of Thomas Kinkade, and although I wouldn’t call him creative or original, at least what he did had a large amount of skill involved. I certainly couldn’t paint pictures like that.
The other thing we made fun of in that class was modern art. Our go-to term was “shit on the wall.” Never has a truer statement been uttered at a secular-liberal college. We discussed such fine works of American ingenuity as Tilted Arc, Elegy to the Spanish Republic, and Fountain, and finally we took a field trip to the school art museum. The work there was so lacking in substance that any painting that was vaguely traditional was championed by the students. The great centerpiece of the exhibit was a line of lipstick in various shades. In the front corner was a light shining on the wall with an “Ask” price-tag. American education at its finest, no doubt. Where should I send my tuition check?
The Ubiquity of the Decline
This lack of talent has affected all areas of contemporary art, not just visual art. Take, for example, all the hip-hop artists who are considered to be musical geniuses. Degradation in music is nothing new, comparatively speaking. Yes, cheap pop has been celebrated by the masses since man first crawled out of the mud, but I doubt it’s always been considered high art. Again, we see change with our fancy 20th century Eurocentric liberalism. Consider John Cage or Schoenberg. I’ll grant that “4:33” is a cool idea, but what did Cage do beyond that? Perhaps Cage and Schoenberg took a lot of effort in planning their compositions, but was any of it enjoyable? The great masters of dissonance—Stravinsky and Thelonius Monk—are widely influential because they are entertaining, but listening to Schoenberg is a chore. I’d rather hear my mother prattle on about the dangers of smoking than listen to his material.
Historically, most poets have been men, and good female writers have been few and far between. Yet today poetry is considered feminine, as is art in general. Men avoid poetry like they avoid Curves. Do you know why? It’s because in high school, they showed us the worst pedantic dribble they could find, or at least, if they showed us something worthwhile, they told us it can mean whatever we want it to, regardless of the artist’s intention.
I was told “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” was about life choices, just like how we were about to make a choice about college. Obviously, I thought the poem was shit. Some time later, a friend made the argument that the poem was about suicide and could be about nothing else, and suddenly it became one of my favorites. A dopehead felon had taught me more about literature in a moment than a woman with a graduate degree in English did over a full year.
The Impact of the Decadence
So is carrying a mattress around campus art? There is such a thing as performance art, and silly as it may seem, it generally involves some kind of physical suffering or negative social consequences beyond sore muscles. Art, more than anything, involves creativity. This has been an ontological part of the word’s definition throughout its entire history. As fun as it looks, what’s creative about carrying around a mattress? Even if she really was raped, and even if she is going to bring major social change for the betterment of all mankind, is this really art? Keep in mind that this is her major. She went to college with the intention of learning how to carry a mattress. I wonder if she actually learned to paint during her time there.
I understand that words evolve over time, but at what point does it break so much from the original that it’s lost its essence? That is to say, the state of the arts today are a Theseus’s Paradox. This is true not just for the high arts, but also for the low. Consider country music. Is Taylor Swift or Brad Paisley really country? Does overdubbing a subtle banjo make a song country? True, genres morph over time, but to quote Kris Kristofferson, “If it sounds country, that’s what it is.” I have much the same gripe with fusion being labelled as jazz, but at least fusion artists are truly creative and enjoyable.
Francis Schaeffer pointed out that art historically has reflected the worldview of the time. Art today is so fragmented and relative because society’s philosophy is fragmented and relative. Western society is lost in an identity crisis, and so our mode of expression is broken. Compare this to the optimism of the Renaissance and the beauty they produced then. If art is the diary of humanity, then you can track the history and decline of a civilization based on its art more than anything else. We are no exception.