If art can’t tell us about the world we live in, then I don’t believe there’s much point in having it—Robert Hughes
I just spent a depressing hour and fifteen minutes watching Robert Hughes’ documentary, The Mona Lisa Curse. This was made in 2008 – I’m always the last to discover nearly everything, and this is partially due to my avoidance of the media. That’s a choice, and I pay for it by remaining unconversant. But eventually I’ll come across things on a journey that is most likely motivated by a need for inspiration or a necessity of research, and that’s how I stumbled upon this documentary.
Hughes’ statement was made in the last few minutes of the program, which focused on the monetization of art, and art appreciation being usurped by monetary value driven up by clueless but rich investors rather than artistic merit.
I mostly avoid the media because nearly everything in it is scary and sad. The scene he painted for us is very scary, terribly sad, and that’s because it’s pretty accurate. It’s not a fantasy depiction of dystopian society, it’s fact. But this quotation, “If art can’t tell us about the world we live in, then I don’t believe there’s much point in having it,” which is meant to denounce contemporary art, is, I think, somewhat missing its own point. Contemporary art is telling us loads about the world we live in. It’s a chilling point, but a precise one.
Modern humanities scare the shit out of me. I suppose that looks to put me squarely in the camp of those who shake their fingers and say “when I was young,” even though a) when they were young is was fundamentally no different, and 2) it’s a little early for me to be setting up my tent. Aside from being untimely, I’m also outside of my demographic in my tastes and viewpoints. I know this, and yet I solidly agree with him in my existentialistic way: Everything’s shit, it’s all shit, and we walk around with this shit on the soles of our feet, oblivious to the fact that we’re the ones spreading the stench.
I’ve tried really, really hard to understand contemporary art. I’ve studied and observed, and I want to see the meaning, the beauty, the reflective messages, but more often than not, I can’t. Hughes stood up and pointed out the nakedness of our praise, and that’s a brave action to take. He was not afraid to be loud, clear, and direct—the way he laid into Jeff Koons was turn-your-head-away “ouch!” And the really painful thing of it was the integrity behind the observation. I think Hughes earned the right to make his declarations based on his nearly 50 years as a professional art advocate and critic. And before you think, “50 years? Yeah, but he was ow-uld!” consider that he started out in the 60s, right when pop culture had stepped into the forefront of expression. He was a young man in the thick of it, so I think his perspective has a generous dose of validity.
Art is subjective, I’ve echoed that sentiment a million times, and I believe it. But it’s also become subject to a popularity contest driven by mob rule. Artistic culture is being piloted by publicity and profit—the very things it’s meant to analyse and decry. Scary and sad, scary and sad.
Why am I so obsessed with this? Because we’re standing around letting it happen, and I really do think that we, the non-moneyed masses, are better than this, and much more powerful than we believe. Unfortunately we’re also apathetic, and more than willing to go with the flow if it means we don’t have to pick up an oar and paddle against the current. Politically, artistically, theologically, we’ve castrated ourselves. And you know what? That sucks.