Terrorism and Postmodern Art
by Michael Newberry
Manhattan at Night, oil on linen, 28 x 36 inches.
A Wonder of the World. Gone.
To witness the obliteration of those glowing, lithe twins was a shock beyond comprehension. They were so playful; light danced on them as they stretched up towards the sky. They were so free; you could not say that they stood tall with pride because they were so unselfconscious of their beauty and height. They were so innocent; they believed in friendship, progress, creation, and joy. They were.
There are people in the world who can’t stand to see that beauty and creativity exist. The guy who took a hatchet to the Pieta of Michelangelo. The Taliban leader who chose to blow up the Buddhist cliff sculptures.
On the other side of humanity, a vast majority of people felt universal shock. Waves of anger, sorrow, and sadness have followed. Though, personally, after I experienced the shock of the attack, I felt none of those other emotions. Instead a quiet calm spread over me and I knew it was a time for cold, calculating, and uncompromising action and thought. A time to expose evil and put it in its place. And a time to stand up proudly and defend the values of civilization against the onslaught of a species of human beings that romanticize destruction.
The definition of civilization, found in the American Heritage dictionary, is an eloquent statement:
“An advanced state of intellectual, cultural, and material development in human society, marked by progress in the arts and sciences, the extensive use of writing, and the appearance of complex political and social institutions.”
Every civilization has had artworks, including buildings, that represent that country’s values. A unique aspect of art is that it represents the purpose of what one lives for. It represents the “point” of life. In a similar way, the art in major art institutions represent the soul of a culture or civilization.
The World Trade Center has been that kind of symbol for us and I can think of no greater expression of civilization at its height.
Apparently neither could the mastermind of the terrorists’ attack.
Terrorism, as I understand it, is based on destruction and murder, using shock tactics and unconventional means that result in a populace experiencing mass fear, anxiety, or apprehension. Though terrorists might state lofty aims, it is generally recognized that they don’t have the character to create anything other than bring about destruction. And rarely will you hear anyone claim that they destroy for the sake of destroying. But if one looks at the results of terrorism one must conclude that their aim is simply to inject fear into their victims’ state of mind. Fear is not the stuff that civilization is made of.
Now that the World Trade Center is gone, what is going to replace it? I don’t mean replace it only in the physical sense, but what is going to replace it as a symbol of civilization at its best. There are reports that a monument and four skyscrapers of 50 to 60 floors will be built on the site. But that project has something hopelessly anemic about it. It sounds prudent and safe and, absolutely, lacking in imagination. Of course the Empire State Building stands, but what about finding something new from our art culture, some artwork to hold up proudly as a symbol worth creating and fighting for?
Unfortunately, the great American skyscraper is the exception to the state of serious art in contemporary western civilization. What dominates western civilization now is postmodern art. Postmodern art is a completely unique historical phenomenon. Every other culture through the history of humanity has proudly produced and honored painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and stories. But postmodern art, in theory and practice, is an anti-art movement. It prides itself on the destruction of the above mentioned forms of art and on shocking its audience.
It starts theoretically with Kant’s Critique of Judgment, a treatise on aesthetics. He elevates fear of experience and formlessness of means in his concepts of the Sublime and he condescendingly relegates form, theme, beauty, and sensory pleasure as elements of craftsmanship. It is an amazing piece of work. Imagine dismissing the principles that are the aesthetic foundations of Michelangelo and Beethoven as crass and replacing them with a principle of nothingness–as a superior aesthetic. Incredible.
Louis Aragon, a Dadaist poet, rants, “No more painters, no more scribblers, no more musicians, no more sculptors…no more nations, an end at last to all this stupidity, nothing left, nothing at all, nothing, nothing.”
Tristan Tzara, another Dadaist, states pathetically, ” Art is a private thing, the artist makes it for himself; a comprehensible work is the product of a journalist…We need works that are strong, straight, precise, and forever beyond understanding.”
Neither of these statements is understandable in the ordinary sense of communication between civilized people. But their stance is clear: they are for the obliteration of the forms and comprehensibility of art. But this attack is not limited to art. The obliteration of forms of human understanding results in fear and will likely lead to a snap with reality that will force the subject through a long descent into psychotic hell.
At a recent exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, one of the exhibits was a photo documentation of Paul McCarthy smearing his face and beard with excrement and using his head as a brush to “paint” a large white canvas. He is a professor of art at UCLA.
Perhaps the best known and most widely and wildly academically acclaimed postmodern artist is Marcel Duchamp. He presented a urinal for an exhibition in 1917 in New York. A copy of it is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Our society, unwisely, has swept postmodern art away from its consciousness and, unfortunately, all real art with it. They have hidden it, like the insane uncle, mentioned only in whispers, tucked away in a sanatorium with a name like Village Heights. The whispers leave a hint in the air that if we acknowledge that our uncle is in fact crazy then somehow we will be equally affected.
Notice how leading newspapers and internet news sites sweep art under such light and effervescent categories as Style, Entertainment, Arts & Leisure, as if putting art under pleasant headings will change the nature of it. My guess is that because of the disgusting or utterly puzzling content of postmodern art the news media feels more comfortable relegating it and consequently all art to a less than serious status. Imagine listing politics under Gatherings, or economics under Business & Play.
But serious art and postmodern art are not the amusements of the masses and they are not accessories to life. Art is to culture what the soul is to a human being. If you try to ignore your soul, stuff it under a rug, or dress it up, it will rebel. A culture’s art, like your soul, will not be dressed-up or repressed; if you do not respect its nature it will prick your confidence, disrupt your peace, or, possibly, sabotage your virtues and make you wish you never existed.
Ignored as it may be, postmodern art, America’s crazy uncle, is not in a sanatorium. Postmodern art rules the art institutions of western civilization. Its aesthetics are the criteria guiding curators and directors of contemporary art museums. It is the only aesthetic taught to upper level students in the major art schools around the world. It is the criteria used by the most influential art critics. It is debated in nuances of comical and absurd proportions by the scholarly community. It is the baying of sheep. Unless, of course, the sheep know what they are baying about. If they understand the point of postmodern aesthetics then they know that they are promoting anti-art. Which means that they are actively promoting the demise of civilization’s art forms as well as Western art. Western art–Aeschylus, Michelangelo, Beethoven, and Yamasaki–represents the soul of the greatest civilization in humankind’s history and postmodernists want to replace it with what? With the cynical spirit of Marcel Duchamp’s toilet?
Ominously, the postmodernists are as clever as bin Laden or whoever is the mastermind of the recent attack on civilization. Postmodernists have infiltrated our civilization’s greatest art institutions. And they have done it with our naïve blessings. They now represent America’s art culture, its soul. They are the spiritual voice of America.
And that voice is sending a message out to the world: “No value here. Go ahead and dump on us.”
How long do you give a country whose leading art institutions project the self-abasement of hatred, of self-pity, of cynicism, and of the living-dead?
America is embarking now on a moral crusade to eradicate the evil of terrorism from the world. It is a sick irony of massive proportions that America, through its network of museums, dealers, intelligentsia, and funding, is the world’s leading exponent of postmodern art. And that is a very big chink in her armor. The symbol for this aspect of her culture and equally well for the terrorists is the bloody formless waste that was the World Trade Center and its people. A symbolic and literal marking of the decline of a civilization. But this does not have to be. It is imperative that Americans do three things to repair the damage wrought on her by the terrorists and the postmodernists:
Make in clear to the postmodernists that their nihilism is not wanted. You do not have to be an expert in art to tell the director of a museum that you are disgusted by their exhibitions. It won’t go by them unnoticed.
Support the arts that give you the experience that you are glad and thankful to be alive –works you can point out with pride.
And build a new Wonder of the World.
First published in 2002 in the Free Radical
revised in New York, 2006