Art in Decline

Recently, a film exploring the life of Vincent Van Gogh was finally released after nearly six years of creative development. ‘Loving Vincent’ brought the artist’s last few months before his suicide on 29 July 1890 to life through his paintings, it was a painstaking task that required 115 oil painters to create 62,450 frames. The very first film of its kind, it is testament to the devotion and fascination we still have to this emotionally troubled master. The film is a beautifully evocative piece of animation, that captures Van Gogh’s commanding style, of vivid brushstrokes and intense composition.

I thought recently about how much power artists like Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Monet et al, these sensitive and creative men of art still hold over us, across the globe we are so enchanted by the works they created. Art, we are told, is subjective, there’s not really bad art because it’s all down to personal taste. This is what is constantly touted by the irksome chattering classes and academics, these pompous curs, consumed by their own hubris. Well, I’m here to say that art is not subjective, good art and bad art, art with meaning and art with no meaning exists, that is why men like Van Gogh and all the others still resonate so deeply.

Photo by Andrian Valeanu

Today, the Western world, which was once so sure of itself, so full of creative passion has lost its way, it has become consumed with self-obsession and debased pleasure seeking. This is clearly reflected in its art, which is nothing more than a psychotic mess of narcissism and ugliness, and has been for the past century, looking at what passes for art in 2017 is like looking into the mind of a dribbling mental patient. To echo the thoughts of cultural critic Camille Paglia, the West is in decline, like ancient Rome, Egypt and Babylon before her, and it is now in the late stage, preoccupied with degeneracy and cheap thrills.

I was once told that artists are the antenna of a civilisation, they reveal what the soul of a culture looks like, well, the current soul of the West is most ugly indeed. The decline of art has its roots in the Salon art of the mid-19th century, but the exact moment is the elevation of Marcel Duchamp to the status of genius by the art world. His urinal, which he presented in 1917, was the make or break moment for art as something of value in the West. With the approval of critics and a section of the press, the Western world said goodbye to centuries of cultural success. 

Photo by Vaclav Pluhar

This decline has, from 1917, increased decade by decade, to the point where we now have artists that are so far removed from the ordinary man and all that is pure, appealing only to a tiny section of society, of self-aggrandising individuals who sneer at and mock all that has gone before, look down upon those who seek beauty in the world and whose raison d’être is to perpetuate an elitist mentality. It’s both humorous and tragic to see these people call classical art elitist when they create such hideous detritus that does not connect with anyone other than the most damaged individual with a degree in fine art. 

I have long pondered over the question of what makes good art and I always come back to aesthetics and the philosophy of beauty, which was articulated by the likes of Plato and Aristotle. Beauty is an absolute, it’s not subjective nor in any way a matter for debate.

The classical ideals were formulated by the great men of philosophy. It was Socrates who railed against the notion that beauty should simply be defined by the idea of supreme physical shape or luxurious trappings. As Palmarium Magazine describes:

“Aristotle said “The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness ” and claimed that science proved this wherever you looked. He found great beauty in ‘the golden ratio’ which is a mathematical formula found all over nature, such as the growing of shells and the human body. Socrates argued that there are some things beautiful by their very nature alone. “The straight line and the circle and the plane and solid figures formed from these by turning lashes and rulers and patterns of angles”. These he says are not relative, but always beautiful. They give a pleasure, but nothing like the pleasure of scratching. They are constant.”

Photo by Eric Terrade

The contemporary artist over the past 100 years has taken such a dramatic flight away from beauty that he fails to understand the principles of classical philosophy, it’s as if the gargantuan efforts of Socrates et al never happened. Today, the artist is about creating art in its most debased form. The crux of the problem is not that the artist is creating something ugly, as many artists throughout the centuries have shown, particularly those from the Renaissance and the Baroque period like Donatello, Titian and Caravaggio, who explored the dark and macabre, the more disturbing elements of human nature, of our minds and imaginations, succeed from an aesthetic basis because they show us the beauty which is missing.

The classical ideal is such that if an artist is showing us the emptiness of life or a scene of dramatic death, for example such as Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, he will offer a sense of redemption, such as showing us a brighter path to take or, in the case of Gentileschi, he will show us rawness but have it balanced by a sense of sorrow.

Above: Portrait of Maurice Deriaz Below: Maurice Deriaz posing for Courtois

To put it simply, artists once understood and revered the past, continuing the great adventure of experimentation by adhering to the core principles of aesthetics. Today, the artist is in a permanent state of war with the past, the slogan of Ingsoc from George Orwell’s ‘1984’ War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength” is the contemporary artists mantra, because they are not just at war with the past, but ignorant of it and slaves to trends. As Sir Roger Scruton writes in his 2009 essay ‘Beauty’ – “The repudiation from beauty gains strength from a particular vision of modern art and its history. According to many critics writing today, a work of art justifies itself by announcing itself as a visitor from the future and to remind us of the ceaseless change which is the only permanent thing in human nature.”

Art, as it is today, is in an ongoing state of transgression, centuries of artistic thought cultivated by some of history’s most creative and intelligent minds have been downgraded and are now merely dirt beneath our feet. Art is in decline because it rejects beauty and devotes itself to all that is unpleasant about humanity.

Featured image by Igor Miske