On Art and Culture

Marc Quinn’s sculpture Alison Lapper Pregnant was the first commission for the Fourth Plinth Project in Trafalgar Square (2005-2007). It combines the best of audacity and craftsmanship.

This weekend I had the good fortune to see the great Irish-American band Solas on the second stop of their “Shamrock City” tour. Solas quarries material earlier explored by the Irish band Horslips: the Irish immigrant experience.
While Horslips were pioneering Celtic rock in the 1970s, Solas is more or less a straight-up Irish traditional band, a tradition that extends back before the mists of time. But layered on top of the music, “Shamrock City” includes a video projection in the style of Ken Burns’ “The Civil War,” which was a groundbreaking documentary released in 1990. I felt in some ways that I was in a cultural time warp.
On the way home, we launched into a spirited discussion in which we weighed the superior musicianship of Solas against the innovations of Horslips. Which was absolutely the “better” band? The answer, of course, is both and neither, because all such debates are ultimately pointless—both bands are poetic and moving and justified in their place in musical history.
The experience got me thinking about the ways in which art is and isn’t temporal. Is Bach any less of a genius because the Baroque was in decline at the time he was writing? Time has a way of leveling these bumps in the road. I keenly appreciate the difference between skinny jeans and parachute pants, but I’ll be darned if I can identify the difference between various phases of Regency dress. It’s of absolutely no moment to me that Bach didn’t invent the fugue—when I’m feeling fugal, he’s my go-to guy.
On the other hand, art is also nothing if not relative to its time and place. I was looking at a highly mediocre photo manipulation on Facebook yesterday. It had a middle ground of golden trees, some lavender action in the far distance, and the requisite figure on the foreground.  I said to myself: “That would make a very marketable painting.” Photoshop has, no doubt, affected the way we paint.
There is nothing new in technology driving art. The introduction of new pigments in the 19th century drove French impressionism and indeed made alla prima painting possible. But that is a matter of materials, not outlook. What has changed with the recent acceleration of interactive media is how viewers perceive the world.
We are all familiar with the idea that photography liberates the visual artist from the need for representation. We’re less easy with the idea that it also creates other obligations. What magic can painting create to compete with Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy?
At first glance, heeding the siren call of mass media seems like inspiration, but it stops the artist from looking for their internal voice. Despite any other consideration, that internal voice must be individual; it must have the attitude of “f— it all,” which is the polar opposite of whatever mass media is driving toward. In fact, that inner “f— you” is the most important tool an artist has.
We live in one of the most beautifully-designed worlds in history, certainly the best-designed period in my lifetime. One need look no further than modern cars on the highway. With the exception of the Nissan Juke, cars are far more beautiful than they’ve ever been before. Modern architecture is beautiful, modern highways are lovely, and if I compare the humble disposable pen of today to that of my youth, I’m practically transported.
Part of the improvement is in materials, part is because we’ve shaken off the thrall of modernism and are again paying attention to history, and part of it is computer design. Part of it may also be a first glimmer of a change in attitudes about art—the end of the cult of genius.
Not comfortable? You’re not smart enough!
Frank Lloyd Wright—peace be upon him—was unquestionably a 20th century genius. In fact, he was such a genius that all minor matters such as livability, waterproof roofs, etc., were subservient to his brilliance. Heaven help you if you found his interiors damp, dark, or uncomfortable, or couldn’t read a trashy novel seated in one of the chairs you were required to keep in situ. Elevate your thinking!
However, nobody could accuse him of ignoring craftsmanship, which sets him apart from many other geniuses. In visual arts for the last century, audacity has generally been revered above craftsmanship.
This semester, my Sandy was required to watch a movie in her graduate-level Art Theory and Criticism class. I repeat her description, because I cannot find the actual video without wading through a lagoon of porn: “Naked men smeared bright red lipstick slowly, erotically, all over the lower half of their faces, then danced naked. In the next scene, they were in a pile, naked. Then one man grabbed another’s penis and flung it.”*
The point of showing this movie in an art theory class was that audacity quickly pales. One must constantly accelerate the offensiveness of the material to engage the viewer. But where is craftsmanship in this? If American teens can effortlessly film their own naked bodies with their phones, how can it be a question of skill?
Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Turner Prize-winning sculpture, entitled Death (2003). Yes, they’re audacious,
but it makes me think that if you’ve seen sex once, you’ve seen it a thousand times.
There was a proverb that still had some currency when I was young: “He that touches pitch shall be defiled.” This proverb presumed that purity is a value worth preserving. A Victorian could not have seen that video without feeling that he had “touched pitch,” but I can’t imagine an American born after 1960 who has any clue what that proverb means. But this too—as every paradigm ever has—shall pass.
So how does one move past audacity? Marc Quinn’s “Alison Lapper Pregnant” to me is the apotheosis of the modern ideal. The model is obviously handicapped, suffering from a congenital disorder that left her without arms and with truncated legs. She was raised in an institution. This is, frankly a far more brutal reality than any mincing, lipstick-wearing penis-slappers could ever attain. And the sculpture itself—carved from Carrara marble, is technically beautiful.
*You try searching for this on the net!