The problem with modern art; or, why beautiful art matters.
During the past fifty years, one subject, amongst all the timeless Permanent Things conservatives have so vigorously defended, remains unexamined, unreported, all but ignored. Yet, as this essay would suggest, it may hold the key to a new world, a new way of seeing. Twenty-five years ago, at the height of the so-called culture wars, Newsweek magazine published a special edition on "The Revival of Realism." On the cover was a reproduction of William Bailey's Portrait ofS. Bailey was a little known professor of art at Yale University. His paintings were exhibited at the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, a small three-room gallery located on the top of an old apartment building on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The Schoelkopf was one of only three or four galleries in New York City specializing in works by realists. The title Portrait of S was a sly allusion to John Singer Sargent's famous, or rather infamous, Madame X, shown at the Paris Salon of 1882. Sargent's model was a high society woman of somewhat low repute, and the painting caused a minor scandal. Although Sargent was still a very young man, already recognized for his great talent as a portrait artist, he found it necessary to remove himself from Parisian society to the English Cotswolds. One hundred years later, Bailey was similarly tweaking the nose of the arts establishment by introducing, like Sargent, a questionable subject. In 1982, modernism was the obligatory style of contemporary art, if you wanted a review in The New York Times, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a place in the Whitney Biennial or a big-time, prestigious art gallery on 57th Street.
Bailey's painting is a realistic portrait of a young woman with her breasts and upper torso partly uncovered. It's a very handsome, well-composed painting, but does not compare to the beautiful still-life paintings of ceramic bowls and porcelain Bailey is best known for. The editors of Newsweek intended to deflect any positive statements about the new realism of the late 1970s and 1980s. Their essay made it clear that this painting and the others they reproduced were not selected because they were beautiful. Indeed, many of the works were intentionally ugly. The Newsweek editors had cleverly undermined their essay on realism with derogatory phrases such as "cornball humanism," "shallowness of mind" and "seductive nostalgia." (1) They wanted to provoke their audience, and they did. Conservative readers were outraged at the nudity on the cover of a traditional magazine and cancelled their subscriptions in droves. Conservatives, however, missed yet another opportunity to reconnect with the traditional cultural values that lie at the heart of their beliefs.
Twenty-five years ago the sculptor Frederick Hart was hard at work on the Creation Sculptures for the main entrance of Washington National Cathedral, the most important and beautiful work of public art since Daniel Chester French's Abraham Lincoln in the memorial at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Beginning with the 1974 commission, which Hart won in open international competition, and during the ensuing sixteen years from model to monument, an official unveiling ceremony and a blessing from Pope John Paul II, a blanket of silence descended over the project. Totally ignored by the media and newspapers, including the Washington Post, the cathedral project drew attention at last in 1982, when Hart became the subject of a negative campaign after winning the commission for Three Soldiers at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Three massive bas-reliefs, carved from Indiana limestone, are set in the tympana above the Cathedral's great bronze doors. Life-size carved figures of Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Adam flank the entrance portals. The stone centerpiece consists of eight life-size figures emerging from a twenty-one-by-fifteen-foot "primordial cloud" of creation. Hart's inspiration was so profound he converted to Catholicism. His mentor was the great Baroque sculptor Bernini. Hart wanted to create a work worthy of George Washington's admonition for a great national cathedral: to serve the spiritual needs of the new nation. Like all great artists, Hart believed beauty is the supreme way for an artist to show proper respect. The public admires the realism and moral themes at play in all Hart's works, but it is the aesthetic quality of Three Soldiers that sets it apart from the other, more recent additions to the Mall: the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Korean War Memorial and the World War II Memorial.
Twenty-five years ago the National Endowment for the Arts funded a series of confrontational works, which subsequently almost ended the existence of the NEA. The controversy over funding and the ensuing firestorm, which continued for several years, provoked the single largest mail response in Congressional history. Conservatives responded as never before, expressing their shock and outrage over government-funded exhibitions such as Piss Christ--photographs of a crucifix submerged in the artist's urine--and sexually explicit homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. The wave of moral outrage overwhelmed not only Congress but many of the American banking and corporate institutions that had provided matching funds for these NEA grants. These protests were met with equal ferocity by the cultural establishment, the press, the media, university professors, Hollywood actors and the full weight of the liberal establishment. The give and take was unprecedented.
More than that, it was unexpected. No one had ever challenged the credibility of the arts community before. The NEA was regarded as sacrosanct, wrapped in the mantle of the memory of John F. Kennedy. Indeed, the records of its grants were unavailable even to conservative senators who demanded accountability. This time those who had little knowledge of the arts and its issues felt fully justified in protesting government funding to the arts, defending their faith, their moral values, their nation. The cultural cognoscenti felt equally justified defending the First Amendment and freedom of expression. Constitutional lawyers were much in demand for panel discussions on funding to the arts and the numerous criminal trials for indecency and pornography that suddenly sprang up. The Republican president quickly appointed a lawyer as chairman to keep a lid on the troubled Arts Endowment, but a year later had to fire him when it became apparent that a lawyer was unprepared to lead an arts organization. Conservatives had pressed their point effectively through political action, but they had missed a great opportunity to address the cultural issue.
Why should a dissertation on beauty be addressed specifically to conservatives? Does the topic of beauty hold more relevance for conservatives than, say, liberals? If the answer is yes, as I propose it does, why hasn't there been more attention paid to the subject of beauty by Republican and conservative leaders? This blind spot about cultural issues has hurt conservative credibility with the public. But, more importantly, it hurts true conservatism at its moral, spiritual and philosophical core. At this critical post 9/11 time of world terrorism, this nation finds itself culturally disarmed, its moral strength sapped. The reason for this decline is no mystery. Conservatives abandoned the culture some time around the end of the First World War. By century's end much of the old master legacy was being ignored, and major art museums were aggressively collecting postmodern minimalist and neo-Dada works. Beautiful architectural treasures such as Pennsylvania Station were torn down to make room for highways and high-rise glass boxes that destroyed the soul of inner cities in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. If one political party stands more responsible for the precipitous decline in cultural standards, the other blindly ignored it.
Conservatives clamor to lead in the twenty-first century, but they choose to ignore the legacy of 2,500 years of Western civilization, which could elevate their cause to a higher level. The cultural direction isn't to the left or right, it's hierarchical. Beauty provides the key to a door that conservatives have been trying in vain to unlock for almost a century. That door leads to a world that reflects the timeless values and permanent truths that conservatives hold dear: faith, transcendence, virtue, freedom, God, patriotism, natural law, conservation. In short, what I am suggesting is that beauty provides the epistemological structure of a good society--not only through the ideological infrastructure, its laws, religion, customs, and government, but in the physical structure of its architecture, homes, public works, monuments, roads and bridges. Most importantly, beauty resides in works of religion, in offerings to God. This is not a new idea. Indeed, it is a very old idea, older than ancient Greece and Egypt, going back to the first evidence of civilization, the cave paintings of Paleolithic man, when art and the spiritual were one. Primitive man evoked the power of the gods to save the clan from starvation or to prevail over its enemies in battle. The ancient Greeks held no separation between art and religion. Art was religion, religion was art. This is what Plato means when he said "art is politics, politics is art." Form and content are inseparable. This has been true of many civilizations, from ancient Egypt, through Christendom and the Renaissance, to the artifacts of the Dogon, Yoruba and Kwakiutl tribal communities.
For those of us who consider ourselves conservatives, the recovery of beauty is a pilgrimage. I use the word pilgrimage because, in some ways, the recovery of beauty involves the recovery of the sacred. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," wrote Keats. "That is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Beauty is not about pretty pictures, pleasing flower arrangements or some Hollywood star's sumptuously decorated mansion featured on the cover of Architectural Digest. It is about offerings inspired by the noblest, most profound and sacred works men can create. It is about the inner sanctum, the oracle, the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant, the Golden Mosque.
There are two ways to know and experience beauty. The first is in the Platonic sense, as an idea or ideal of philosophical or mathematical perfection, which exists in a world beyond phenomena. The second is Aristotelian, a sensory approach to beauty that recognizes formal excellence and spiritual power. History supports the view that no one particular style or culture is intrinsically superior. It is possible to appreciate a Gothic cathedral, a classical statue, a tribal fetish or an abstract painting with equal sensitivity. Across civilizations, from antiquity to the present, we see basic formal aesthetic qualities reoccurring in music, art, architecture and literature. There was an acrimonious debate between the nineteenth-century Academy and the early modernists, but aesthetically pleasing works from both schools share important formal qualities. When modernism declined into postmodernist theory in the late twentieth century, artistic discourse lost sight of the universality of art, including beauty and formal excellence. The revival of Realism in our own time has as much to do with the recovery of the ideas that have been lost--aesthetics, myth, spiritual, virtue--as with the recovery of high standards of quality in the arts. When modernism began to embrace a political agenda and cut off the ties to 2,500 years of Western civilization, it lost the moral high ground in the culture wars. The argument about whether "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" matters. There can be legitimate differences in taste over what is beautiful or merely adequate, but the idea that beauty is relevant to civilization is once again gaining ground. In the last decades of the twentieth century the mainstream establishment lost sight of the basic principles of art and beauty.
In 1990, the then-senior art critic of The New York Times, Michael Brenson, in a full-page editorial titled "Is 'Quality' an Idea Whose Time Has Gone?" wrote: "The quality issue works overwhelmingly to the detriment of artists who are heterosexual, male and white." (2) Brenson summed up the ideological agenda of a cultural consortium who believed that high culture, particularly Western culture, is oppressive, hierarchical, racist, homophobic and misogynist, oppressing women, non-whites, homosexuals and the poor. Although there is some historical justification for these views, the resolution to dumb down the arts and humanities, to eliminate standards of excellence, and remove the classics and old masters from the curricula of universities and secondary education has lowered cultural standards for the entire nation. When another art critic for the Times subsequently denounced an exhibition of Athenian sculpture from the golden age of Pericles, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as "empirical, racist, xenophobic and misogynist," it effectively ended the long tradition of serious art criticism at The New York Times. The primary function of an art critic is to analyze the success or failure of the artist within the context of a given work of art. The Times was now saying that aesthetics is irrelevant compared to "important" social issues such as poverty, gay rights, gender and racism. The Times position on the arts--all the arts--henceforth would be based on politics. Conservatives wasted the next twenty years protesting the blasphemy and pornography in the art world. What they should have been doing is helping create an alternative.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson appreciated how profoundly aesthetic quality enriches symbols and meaning when they envisioned the future architecture of Washington, D.C. Jefferson had an epiphany when he discovered a Roman temple known as the Maison Carree at Nimes on his way by coach to Paris with the painter John Trumbull, to see Jacques Louis David's revolutionary Oath of the Horatii (1784). Jefferson's design for the Virginia State Capitol, completed in 1798, was the first classical-style temple built in the West in fifteen hundred years. It became the prototype for federal-style architecture in the nation's new capital and, a century later, an inspiration for the McMillan Commission's visionary 1903 plan for the National Mall. The Roman temple at Nimes had been built during the age of Augustus. To heal the wounds and restore the faith in the faltering Roman state, Augustus had embarked upon a vast national program of cultural renewal to restore the arts and architecture, civic rituals and high education to the diverse peoples of the Roman Empire.
Why is beauty important? Because beauty--the idea and physicality of beauty--suggests a universal truth. The idea of truth, any truth, is abhorrent to those who believe that everything is relative. The war against beauty has been going on in the culture for much of the twentieth century. Conservatives, indeed most Americans, pay it no mind until some scandal in government or corporate funding to the arts reminds everyone that much of contemporary high and low culture is ugly, pornographic or anti-religious. You don't have to launch a frontal attack on religion or God if you have already deconstructed the idea of absolute values.
No nation in history as powerful as ours, engaged in a clash of civilizations, has been left so culturally defenseless to its enemies. When the Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote that the soft underbelly of Western civilization lies in its culture, not even he could envision the damage our intellectual class could inflict upon the soul of our nation. Conservatives, who roused themselves to a fury in protest over a few ill-advised fundings in the arts made by a tiny government agency with a budget less than it costs to build one stealth aircraft, missed the entire point. What they should have been concerned about were not the so-called objectionable grants, but what was not funded. The golden pig created by artist Jeff Koons, as the centerpiece of a government-funded 1986 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art, may indeed be the modern equivalent of the golden calf created by the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai, but that is not the problem. The problem is that conservatives have not yet sponsored works that are worthy of the ideals we purport to embrace and defend to the death, if necessary.
In the last twenty-five years--during which Allan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students--there have been hundreds of books written by prominent conservatives blaming liberalism and modernity for the decline they perceive in America. Many of these books, at the top of the bestseller lists, skewer the foibles of liberals and hold them up to ridicule. But even the best of these books--by Newt Gingrich, Samuel Huntington, Dinesh D'Sousa, Robert Bork and William Bennett, and other popular fare by Ann Coulter, Bernard Goldberg, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh--invariably omit two words from their index: Beauty and Art.
The greatest intellectuals and the artists of the past--Aristotle, Friedrich Schiller, Leonardo, Bernini, Virgil, Augustine, Homer, Dante, Burke, Ruskin, Jefferson, Raphael and Michelangelo, Bach and Beethoven--not only embraced the idea of beauty, but created works that are beautiful. Beauty is the high moral ground, wrote Schiller. It reminds us that great civilizations of the past serve as inspiration to those of future generations when things go bad. To create a work of beauty requires effort and dedication. But it also requires enlightened patrons to seek out talented artists. In the year 1504, the three greatest artists of the Renaissance--Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael--found themselves at the same time, in the same place, working on three separate projects inside the Palazzo Vecchio, owned by the Medici family in Florence. The three artists represented three generations in age. Raphael was a very young man. Leonardo was quite old. Michelangelo was in his prime. They had been invited there by a noble family which prided itself on sponsoring works of great beauty and significance. How did the Medici know--in contrast to our own muddled times--what beautiful works look like? Both patron and artist could recognize beauty and appreciate its importance. Today, this is not true at all.
The poet Frederick Turner writes that beauty has a biological imperative. It is an integral part of nature and the environment. It's part of every living creature. For those of us in the arts and humanities, sensitized to the formal aesthetic qualities of painting, architecture, literature and music, it has become a battlefield against those in the establishment who reject beauty as a criterion. The loss of beauty in the epistemology of creativity and knowledge is the root cause of our discontent. The dictionary definition of beauty in our time has been desacralized to read "a quality that gives intense aesthetic pleasure" (Random House). And, of course, that is partially true.
But before philosopher Immanuel Kant brilliantly separated aesthetics from content, beauty and content had been long associated in the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions. The Bible is filled, from Genesis to Revelation, with judgments about the quality of works and behavior. In Exodus, God commands Moses to appoint the master craftsman Bezaleel--"filled with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship"--to oversee the creation of works in gold, silver, wood, stone and brass which the Lord had commanded to be made. These sacred works (including the Ark of the Covenant), described in some 457 verses and thirteen chapters of Exodus, are part of the atonement and rededication the Israelites must perform after worshiping an idolatrous golden calf. Notice that no words are wasted in describing the golden calf. The ceremonies, rituals and offerings connected with these works are described in the following twenty-seven chapters of Leviticus.
Beauty is a timorous, inadequate word to describe the quality of works and behavior that please God. There is no adequate translation to capture the gravitas of the word good in Genesis: "And God said let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good." Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), America's greatest theologian and philosopher, wrestled with the definition of a "good Christian," which he repeatedly described in aesthetic terms as the beauty of holiness.
For the first time in a hundred years conservatives and conservatism have an opportunity to take the high moral ground in shaping the future for America. Newt Gingrich and Heidi Toffler write about a "Third Wave" in Creating a New Civilization, but they overlook the arts. "The failure of the Democrats to make themselves the party of the future has thrown the door wide open for their adversaries. The Republicans ... have failed to seize this opportunity ... rely[ing] on knee-jerk Second Wave rhetoric." (3) It was not entirely a surprise when a Republican president omitted Arts Education K-12 from the 1992 legislation Goals 2000: Educate America Act (it was later included). The window of opportunity is still open. The liberal establishment is still committed to a "second wave" culture of shock and ugliness, the cutting-edge and the anti-traditional. Conservatives need to get involved in the arts. This doesn't mean that they should don military uniforms with special arts insignias, like the Russian Constructivists of 1917, imposing order and beauty at the point of a gun. It does mean that the reordering of a civil society should include artists and scholars, poets and filmmakers, who wish to serve a higher purpose than being included in the next trendy Biennial in New York or Venice.
Two and one half millennia later, we are still thrilled to read a funeral oration to brave Athenians fallen in battle, delivered by their commander-in-chief Pericles. That same Pericles ordered the construction of the Parthenon, a sacred place for the gods, and one of the greatest icons of freedom and beauty in Western civilization. It was this same great general who spent the night before a decisive naval battle discussing the merits of beauty. Edith Hamilton, in her wonderful book The Greek Way, recounts the story of the statesman Pericles, who invited his admiral to dine with him aboard the flagship the night before they would engage in a decisive naval battle. They spent the evening debating the qualities of the "purple light" striking the cheek of a beautiful young boy who was serving them wine. The entire discussion, Hamilton relates, turned on a variety of delicate and fanciful points of literary criticism, as each quoted first one poet or playwright, then another. In the morning they led a ferocious attack on their enemies and destroyed them. Hamilton's point, quoting Pericles himself, is that "Athenians are lovers of beauty without having lost the taste for simplicity, and lovers of wisdom without loss of manly vigor." (4) America won the greatest war in history against the forces of tyranny, fascism and communism, yet the sacred soil of the National Mall is still treated as a political plum for various interest groups. George Washington wrote: "It is of great importance to fix the taste of our Country properly." (5)
It has taken forty years of wandering in a cultural desert for conservatives to realize that their leadership, economic, and military victories will not supply what is sorely missing from American society. Things continue to get worse. Cultural values and standards continue to decline. Public architecture, monuments and memorials are a national joke. Education has become a matter of class warfare, with children of the poor and middle class shunted into prison-like warehouses. Ultimately, it doesn't matter who controls the White House, the Congress, state and local governments or even the Supreme Court. The lens through which most Americans view the world has been ground by the liberals. By "lens" I mean the culture: the arts, media, education, history, architecture, literature, music, popular culture, television, movies, fashion and, most importantly, the epistemology of language. Many conservatives revere Ronald Reagan. They should study his Farewell Address to the Nation, in which he warns that "the diminution of cultural values, the loss of civic ritual, will result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit." (6)
The real issue underlying the former scandals in government funding in the arts was not freedom of expression or the first Amendment, nor was it the pornography and blasphemy of a few objectionable grants; the real issue was the mediocrity, vacuity and banality of the thousands of works that were funded. The original charter of the NEA has only one directive: "to seek excellence." If George W. Bush is remembered kindly by history, it might be for the appointment of Dana Gioia as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. As chairman, Gioia has sponsored and encouraged high standards in the arts and humanities. He has sought out many new writers, poets, sculptors, painters and architects who are inspired by beauty and excellence. If America is to prevail as a civilization in the twenty-first century, if we are to stand for freedom and prosperity, we must reclaim and reinvigorate our culture.
1. Mark Stevens, "Revival of Realism," Newsweek (June 7, 1982), 64-70. 2. Michael Brenson, The New York Times (July 22, 1990). 3. Alvin and Heidi Toffler, Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave (Atlanta, 1995), 75. 4. Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way (New York, 1991), 106. 5. Richard Brookhiser, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (New York, 1996), 76. 6. Ronald Reagan, "Farewell Address to the American People," The New York Times (January 12, 1989).
JAMES F. COOPER is founding director of the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center and editor of American Arts Quarterly.