A few years ago, a neighbor and I were wending our way through a small gallery featuring the work of local artists, when we were stopped in our tracks by a large canvas, or board, from which hung a dozen one-gallon freezer bags containing colorful liquids purporting to be health and beauty products: shampoo, conditioner, feminine hygiene stuffs.
My neighbor, who tends toward the positive—even if she must stretch to do it—cooed, “What a statement that is! We women really are enslaved to all that!”
”Wait,” I said. “How do you know that’s what the artist means? Maybe this is saying that women are just bags of chemicals, and transparent and shallow, to boot!”
”Oh, be serious,” she said, thinking I was not. “This speaks to me! It says we need to love ourselves and accept ourselves as we are! And it says that we are vibrant, like all the colors in the rainbow!”
”No, come on,” I said, “This seems like something an over-praised 14-year-old would show at the junior high. It screams, “Look, Mom, I’m an artist!”
The creator, we were informed by a woman who seemed to be a cog in the gallery wheel, was studying at a distinguished art school in Manhattan, and her display was meant to “raise the consciousnesses of women” who were too quick to conform to social norms of beauty.
”Well if that’s all she’s saying,” I said, channeling Flannery O’Connor, “then to hell with it. Women’s consciousnesses have been raised so high for so long that we’re breathing thin air. We could use some oxygen.”
My neighbor moaned audibly and began to move away. For her sake, I resisted the urge to suggest the display be renamed “Huffer’s Delight,” with an accompanying warning that whiffing tired feminist tropes could be as brain-deadening as inhaling Reddi-Wip.
The gallery lady suggested that art requires an open mind, in order to be fully appreciated.
”What it requires,” I shrugged, “are some parameters defining what constitutes art, and what is merely a silly comment to the passing age.” To me the thing seemed lazy, pretentious, adolescent and unskilled.
My neighbor, by this time, had moved into another room.
”Art should not be restricted,” the woman began. “Explorations with non-traditional media help to expand perspectives, which is a process.”
”I grant you that,” I said, “but shouldn’t the expanded perspectives reach for more than, ‘Look what I did. Ain’t I a stinker?’”
That’s the way I opened an exposition at First Things a few years ago. I was writing about how hearing the word “no,” rather than endless affirmation, can leave us feeling challenged to put extraordinary effort into expressing ourselves — and finally transcending ourselves — through art or in other ways. You can read the whole thing, here.
I was put to mind of that piece thanks to this video by pop-historian Nikolas Lloyd, wherein he kvetches about how insulted he feels by modern art:
As I said at First Things,
Art needn’t be eternal, but shouldn’t it speak to more than passing trends? If it is not seeking to transcend shouldn’t it at least transport? I once spent ninety transfixed minutes seated before Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist, quite mesmerized. By comparison, the bags of shampoo said their piece in mere seconds, and the rest was silence. A gimmick short on concept and shorter on craft, the display was unable to say, “Behold, something greater than me. Or you.”
That brings us, again, to humility. If you believe in something greater than yourself, however obliquely, you are always a bit of a beggar, which is not a bad thing in creation. It keeps you hungry, and reaching out.
Somehow I just can’t see something as gorgeous as Rome’s Church of the Gesu having been created in an era where a constant application of affirmation mattered more than real skill, in any field of endeavor.