I used to know a poet who heaped gratuitous insults on fellow poets and justified it by saying, “I’m an artist.” In other words, because she was an “artist” she was exempt from petty bourgeois niceties. Her attitude suggests that it’s too easy to be an artist today. Moreover, there’s a lot of puerile, curio shop stuff that passes for art. Whoever claims to be an artist, however, presumes to enter the company of masters who have given us immortal works of art.
“A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line,” wrote Joseph Conrad. How much art today can make that claim? The definition of art has become so loose that it’s meaningless. Everyone pays lip service to the sanctity of art, but who has the courage to criticize or evaluate it? The fashion of the times is to make no distinction made between a bucolic scene painted on a handsaw and the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel, between “Hamlet” and a Batman comic. That would be a “value judgment,” and according to the prevailing mood of relativism, judgments of value are anathema. No one wants to be labeled a philistine, so pretentious, tasteless, sophomoric displays of genitalia and excrement are praised for “pushing the envelope.” One gullible collector paid $8 million for a shark immersed in formaldehyde. It was supposed to be shocking, but our capacity to be shocked may be exhausted. Or have we forgotten the message of “The Emperor’s New Clothes?”
Some years ago, Lawrence was embroiled in a controversy over art to be displayed in front of the restored Union Pacific Depot. A passionate debate pitted “art snobs” versus low-brow patriots, realistic art versus abstract art. It was a healthy debate, reminiscent of one that took place in Florence 500 years ago over the placement of Michelangelo’s colossal statue of David. Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci were among the giants who argued the case, but everybody and his brother in Florence had an opinion.
As Lawrence pursues the distinction of “City of the Arts” it should encourage this sort of public debate. It would sharpen the faculties of appreciation and understanding. Rather than shying away from criticism, we should revel in it. It would help raise the quality along with the quantity of art.
When Donatello was working in Padua, he longed to get back to Florence, where “he knew he would receive from the carping Florentines nothing but criticism, which would spur him on to greater achievements.” (Frederick Hartt). A little irreverent humor in the spirit of the “Expose Yourself to Art” poster wouldn’t be amiss. The question, “What is art?” will never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction, but we shouldn’t be afraid to ask. Conrad took a stab at it.
“Art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe…” he wrote. “It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colors, in its light, in its shadows … what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential — their one illuminating and convincing quality — the very truth of their existence.” Not bad for a start.