I am not the first to notice that ideas and styles spread across the fine arts, regardless of medium or genre. In the middle of the 19th century, orchestras grew to 100 or more musicians, and symphonies were lush and tuneful.
Think of Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saens. Novels had as many characters as orchestras had musicians. Their prose was lush and their stories absorbing. Think of Dickens, Tolstoy, Melville and Hugo.
Architecture expressed similar thoughts in stone and steel. The Paris Opera, where Saint-Saens was played, has beautiful lines and lots of ornamentation.
A different thread runs through the arts today. Poetry no longer matters because it’s a word game for an elite intellectual subculture.
The rest of us can’t recite any contemporary poems because we can’t remember them. They don’t rhyme, they have no rhythmic structure and they’re not about anything. Often, they’re just jumbles of words.
John Cage’s music is a jumble of sounds. And sometimes not even that. His piece 4’33” is four minutes and 33 seconds of nothing at all.
Jackson Pollock represents the jumble style in painting. He didn’t use an easel or a brush; he just dripped paint on the canvas. And while he was working, he once said, “I’m not aware of what I’m doing.”
Mark Rothko represents the nothing-at-all style. His Black-Form paintings are a series of eight black canvases.
This kind of anarchy — no story, no cadence, no song, no organized sense of shape, perspective or color — has not arrived in architecture, because buildings have to stand up and we need to live in them.
But there is a deconstructivist movement that has elements in common with it. Architects like Frank Gehry (Walt Disney Concert Hall), Rem Koolhaas (Seattle Public Library) and the Coop Himmelb(l)au (Gasometer in Vienna) design chaotic and unpredictable buildings with odd surfaces.
In my more cynical moments, I have suspected that all of these artists (except Frank Gehry, whom I kind of like) are playing a joke on us. My rule of thumb about art is, if I can do it, it’s not art. And I could paint a canvas black; or not play my instrument for four minutes. Heck, I could do five minutes.
But to be fair, there is a deeper idea at work. John Cage once described music as “a purposeless play.” It’s “not an attempt to bring order out of chaos … but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.”
Traditional artistic forms impose an order on the world, and offer us a way to understand it and appreciate its beauty. The point of postmodern art is to dispense with these structures and bring us face to face with brute reality.
Cage is right to speak of chaos. That’s exactly how Ovid describes the primal state of things: “the face of Nature in a vast expanse/ was naught but Chaos uniformly waste./ It was a rude and undeveloped mass/ … congested in a shapeless heap.”
I’ve been thinking lately about creating a Fine Arts Council at the university, whose charge would be not to appreciate this representation of the world, but to rebel against it.
In the Catholic imagination, the God who created the heavens and the earth brought an order out of primordial chaos. Or in Ovid’s words, “God, or kindly Nature, ended strife — / … he bound the fractious parts in tranquil peace.”
Perhaps if we can bring together enough people who see the world this way, they can inspire one another to a distinctively Catholic vision of the arts. I’m not sure what it would be. (I have already confessed to being no artist.) But I know it has to start in a different place than where the culture is today.
Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington.
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This is an old discussion that started at the end of the 19th century well after industrialization. I can understand people still going on the issue. Still, it’s difficult to read people stumbling around it. I would recommend to read John Ruskin and reflect on the whole topic. Any good colleague would have directed Mr. Harvey to Ruskin’s Lamp of Truth. I also recommend talking with knowledgeable people about things that we may understandably have limited grasp. Perhaps some light can come out of simple conversations in which simple personal opinions can turn into actual interesting issues.
I think that the artist expresses his soul in his art. What I have frequently sensed in much of modern art is the sense of loneliness.
As a Christan who has completed her MFA in a primarily Marxist/Conceptual program, I find myself at such a loss. Given my training, I struggle now with how to aesthetically redeem it!
So sad to read this. Arrogance is not a Catholic virtue. I guess Mr. Garvey forgets the limitations of the human condition in understanding our existence. Most importantly, forgets that his unfair judgement of what he can’t understand comes, not from him, but from the Catholic University’s President (Ephesians 4:29)…
There is nothing more condemning to our culture than the deconstruct of our traditional art and architecture. Self absorbed, blank and without the ability to inspire, modern deconstructionist art has long sought to tear down the classical and traditional in the civilized world and it has been going on for a century. Spawn by atheistic , cynical poseurs post modernism presents no hope , no passage way to the truth. It nearly always gives you the emptiness of the tomb. There has to be a return to the kind of beauty and story telling found in a Bougereau or a Pre Raphaelite. To ignore the classical art form is to lose our own western soul.
As an art student who had to tolerate the art history classes centered on post modernism, I concur fully.
Post-modern “art” is yet another of relativism’s inroads into culture. One’s definition of art is what ever one decides it is, and who is everyone else to judge. Post-modern art is the emperor’s new clothes, with few willing to point a finger and say that isn’t art for fear of being ridiculed by the cultural elite.
I remember hanging my children’s stick figures and colored scribblings on my office door at work. One was a blank piece of paper with a small dot in the corner. I asked my son what it was and he said, “space!”