There’s a distinct feeling of dread that accompanies crossing the threshold into the contemporary art galleries of a metropolitan museum. You already know what you’re in for, and yet, every time, you get hit with the same feeling of disgust seeing exhibit after exhibit trying to flaunt its puerile sense of self-important meaninglessness. Spend enough time there and you’ll certainly get jaded, but the disgust will never go away.
You can point to all kinds of reasons as to why the shift in the art world occurred. Maybe it’s the technological innovations that made painting less important. Maybe it’s the ideological shift and gradual devaluation of religion in public life among the cultural elites that changed painting into a superfluous indulgence. Maybe it was the embrace of capitalism and the invention of the art market. It doesn’t matter, because swift changes in an art scene aren’t usually unrecoverable the way that the degeneration of the arts has come to be. A generational downswing during the twenties and thirties is one thing, but the damage has been more severe. Everyone has so thoroughly lost their eyes for aesthetics that even works produced in earnest can only be interpreted ironically.
The world of painting and the visual arts has degenerated for the same reason everything else has degenerated; our world is not worthy of the great artists that lived before us. There is more to Van Goh’s depiction of a pair of worn-out boots than the entire oeuvres of the most highly respected and overpaid living artists of the contemporary period—and he painted toward the end of an era in which art had any relevancy left.
Can you imagine a still life depicting a Nintendo Switch, a remote control, an unfinished craft beer, a couple tablets of birth control, and maybe with an old bong framing the left side? Can you imagine a landscape depicting the urban sprawl of San Antonio, up there on a massive ten-by-twelve foot canvas, painstakingly revealed through oil and water? Can you imagine fugues written as variations on a theme from a television commercial? Can you even imagine a modern symphony?
If you’re more artistically astute, you probably can. It sounds like a movie soundtrack, which in the last ten years have all started to sound the same. Meanwhile, our minimalist friend Glass wrote variations on the themes of a coked-out pop album by David Bowie some decades ago already. It may not be a television commercial jingle being immortalized into the Western canon, but it’s close enough. Are we clever yet? Have we elevated guitar drone and liberal drug abuse to the realm of high art by turning it into cellos and violins? Welcome to the world of contemporary music—if it has any sense of harmonization at all, it’s just being used as throwbacks to the songs of your youth. Today’s youth aren’t even granted the dignity of having nostalgia to fall back on when they get older.
Imagine a piece in the vein of a winter landscape by Pieter Bruegel, except instead of a frozen lake and the occupants of a sleepy medieval town, it’s a frozen pond near an upper-class suburban development outside of Washington, DC. Instead of fur trappers, traders, children playing, and various wildlife, it depicts the aesthetics of late-capitalist post-industrialism: oversized hoodies with brand names, The North Face athletic jackets, a few Priuses parked in driveways, and the ridiculous looking prepackaged McMansions holding dominion over the background. There is no elevation of the subject into the realm of the beautiful; the modern lifestyle is so deprived of beauty that it cannot be dignified with depictions in works of art. Everything that tries can only do so ironically.
In exchange for beauty in our lives, we see common amateur artists squander their talents on comic books or advertising. The few who relegate their interests to mere hobbies post their work on social media platforms and even take commissions, creating an internet-driven amateur knock-off version of the professional art market that emptied personal collections after the World Wars and turned abstract expressionism into a form of proto-cryptocurrency. But what are these amateurs drawing? Fantastical landscapes, neon-colored backgrounds, fan art—whatever works out as the background of a computer program, really. And in fairness, it isn’t necessarily their technique or even their content that’s the problem. It is the fact that it is so utterly and strikingly out of place. Even the works composed and produced by hand are made to appeal only to a very immediate sense of aesthetic pleasure. Painting, an endeavor that once required an artist to produce the beautiful by replicating an expression of the real, is now little more than an attempt to make some pretty wall ornaments.
I bring all this up because I was recently introduced to the work of Ilya Glazunov, a far-right Russian artist who dabbled in just about every field once considered a liberal art. He died last year at the age of eighty-seven, having lived a life advocating for the reconstruction of the Russian spirit during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His activism on behalf of the Russian soul plays second fiddle to his artistic output, however, which reveals the depths of his insight regarding Russia, history, and matters of the spirit.
The man’s talent with a brush was self-evident, and he put it all on display with his enormous depictions of the cultural landscape in a method evocative of medieval paintings. Figures are lifted out of history and plastered next to the landscapes of contemporary globalism, old communism, and Russian medievalism, while masses of modern crowds offset the lumbering giants of fallen idols or great men. Size and color, expression and placement—all work together in the transmutation of the real into the poignant.
And yet, it’s all so surreal. Work carried out with the methodology of a medieval scholar has come to depict modernity in all of its tasteless vulgarity. Sure, we have bigger buildings, fast cars, and more roads; sure, we can get sex on demand and presumably have a better time at it; sure, an impoverished man could have the opportunity to eat better food than the kings of just two hundred years ago. But what of it? The Market for Our Democracy, painted at the end of the 90s, strikes at the blackness that takes the root of the modern soul; every avenue of pleasure exists to service an impulsive and insatiable hunger, and nothing about any of it is beautiful.
Among the many crimes of modernity, the commodification of beauty ranks among its worst. The market can only deal in images, and only in simple ones at that, because it reduces its demographics to their lowest common denominators. Beauty is by its nature exclusionary, elitist, hierarchical, ordered, opaque, and in a way, forbidden. It takes clarity of vision and a purity of character to discover and to create. Art-by-markets and that democratic cynicism that urges artists to “produce what sells” only ever destroys art; it drives a stake through the very organs we need to comprehend beauty, and worse still, it misattributes the merely pretty as being sublimely beautiful. And it has led generations astray.