The Prophets Have Quit Their Job
Artists do not make art simply because they are bored, or because they want money, fame, etc. True, there are some artists who get distracted by worldly success. But most artists engage in creative activity because they have something they need to communicate. Like the biblical prophets who could not remain silent while the word of God burned inside them, artists are driven by their creative impulses to speak to what they see in the surrounding world. For many artists in the twentieth century, what they saw around them was horrifying, bleak, and tragic. They were being very truthful when they created works of art which reflected the ugliness and sadness they could see.
Guernica, above, is an excellent example of an artist looking intently at the world, and passing judgement on what is seen as evil or destructive. Although Guernica is a frightening and profoundly ugly picture, it presents a positive response to the event that motivated it’s creation—Picasso is saying, in his picture, “What happened in Guernica was wrong and evil”. He is taking a moral stand against the evil that he sees, fulfilling the artist’s role of prophet, speaking truth to the culture around him.
But what happens when artists fail to make a positive statement against evil, and are instead caught up in a belief that the evil cannot be resisted? Despair sets in—a despair that robs a person of the ability to look beyond the evil, and hope for something better. This is the kind of art that comes out of despair:
This rotting, mutilated landscape, painted by Ernst after he fled Europe in the first stages of World War II, is emblematic of the failed experiment that Europe was becoming; the enlightenment ideal of a secular society built on human reason was being exposed for the falsehood that it was. Artists were some of the first people to notice this, and their grief over their ruined civilization is analogous to Jeremiah’s grief over the ruined Jerusalem in the Bible’s book of Lamentations.
But there is a problem with despair. Without a constructive solution, despair will eat alive whoever wallows in it. By the nineteen fifties, after two world wars and no solution in sight for the existential despair that now confronted the secular western world, many artists decided that it was too emotionally costly to engage with culture in that way anymore. So they turned inward—to themselves and their own psychic landscapes, attempting merely to provide expression for their impulses. And this kind of art began to be produced:
There is nothing wrong with this kind of artwork taken on its own. It’s not different from wallpaper—in fact it is eminently suited for decorative purposes. It is not ugly—it isn’t much of anything at all. But it is a negation of the artists’ traditional concern with the representation of reality, and the telling of truth—the artists who make this kind of painting are saying, “reality doesn’t matter to us anymore”, or more accurately “we don’t want to engage with reality anymore.”
What is the opposite of despair? What is the alternative to grief? Imagine a triangle with the vertices labelled “despair”, “hope”, and “indifference”. Indifference and hope are both opposites of despair, but only hope is constructive. Unfortunately, a great many of the artists who are admired and celebrated by modern western culture have taken the negative path of indifference. It seems like the last fifty years or so have been fascinated by artists (Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol, Bridget Riley, Jeff Koons) who are producing . . . decoration. There is nothing wrong with decoration, but it seems off to me that the culture doesn’t seem interested in using paintings to talk about truth anymore. Am I missing something? Artists like Hirst and Koons are like prophets who have quit their job, who are refusing to offer solutions to the problems that they see. There are serious artists out there who are working against this trend. It is the obligation of those who care about the arts as tools of communication to support these artists, wherever they are found.