As recently as the late 20th century, well-educated people were expected to be able to bluff their way through a dinner party with at least some knowledge of “the fine arts” — defined, since the late 18th century, as painting, sculpture, orchestral or symphonic music, as distinct from popular music, and dance/ballet. (“Starchitects” notwithstanding, architecture has never really been one of the fine arts — it is too utilitarian, too collaborative and too public).
A few decades ago, in American gentry circles, it would have been a terrible faux pas not to have heard of Martha Graham. You were expected to know the difference between a French impressionist and an abstract expressionist. Being taken to the symphony and ballet as a child was a rite of initiation into what Germans call the Bildungsburgertum (the cultivated bourgeoisie).
The “back of the book” in widely-read journals like The New Republic andThe Nation regularly reviewed the latest developments in the New York “art scene.” If you skipped over those sections, you did so with a guilty conscience if you wanted to be a card-carrying member of the intelligentsia.
This is no longer the case. The latest issue of the venerable New York Review of Books, to be sure, has an essay on the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. But to judge from zines like Vox, the younger generation of literate and well-educated Americans have an intense interest in literate cable television shows like “Game of Thrones” and the issues of race and gender in Marvel Comics movies. Trends in American painting ever since the plate paintings of Julian Schnabel are not a big subject of debate among Millennials. As far as I can tell, very few college-educated people under the age of 50 pay any attention to the old fine arts at all. A search of the newer literary journal n+1 for traditional reviews of gallery shows revealed only this essay by Dushko Petrovich — from 2005:
Painting has been both dead and back for a little while now, and Greater New York is no exception. Painting hangs out with harsh videos, miniature amusement park rides, and big photos of failed politicians…Many of the paintings seem simply to wish not to keep going, which, if they were sentences or pop songs, would be expected of them. As it is, they can get away with a pose. Their audience, however, is less still and moves swiftly toward the café.
There is still an art world, to be sure, in New York and London and Paris and elsewhere. But it is as insular and marginal as the fashion world, with a similar constituency of rich buyers interacting with producers seeking to sell their wares and establish their brands. Members of the twenty-first century educated elite, even members of the professoriate, will not embarrass themselves if they have never heard of the Venice Biennale.
Many of the Arts Formerly Known as Fine seem to have lost even a small paying constituency among rich people, and live a grant-to-mouth existence. In the old days, bohemian painters lived in garrets and tried to interest gallery owners in their work. Their modern heirs — at least the ones fortunate to have university jobs — can teach classes and apply for grants from benevolent foundations, while creating works of art that nobody may want to buy. Born in bohemia, many aging arts have turned universities into their nursing homes.
What happened? How is it that, in only a generation or two, educated Americans went from at least pretending to know and care about the fine arts to paying no attention at all?
The late Hilton Kramer, editor of The New Criterion, blamed the downfall of the fine arts on purveyors of Pop Art like Andy Warhol. And Jeff Koons, who replaced Arnoldian “high seriousness” and the worship of capital-c Culture with iconoclasm, mockery, and irony. A Great Tradition of two millenia that could be felled by Andy Warhol must have been pretty feeble! But the whole idea of a Phidias-to-Pollock tradition of Great Western Art was unhistorical. The truth is that the evolution (or if you like the degeneration) from Cezanne to Warhol was inevitable from the moment that royal, aristocratic and ecclesiastical patronage was replaced by the market.
Having lost their royal and aristocratic patrons, and finding little in the way of public patronage in modern states, artists from the 19th century to the 21st have sought new patrons among the wealthy people and institutions who have formed the tiny art market. It was not the mockery of Pop artists but the capitalist art market itself which, in its ceaseless quest for novelty, trivialized and marginalized the arts.
The dynamic is clearest in the case of painting and allied visual arts. Markets tend to prize fashionable novelty over continuity. The shocking and sensational get more attention than subtle variations on traditional conventions and themes. Capitalism, applied to the fine arts, created the arms race that led to increasingly drastic departures from premodern artistic tradition, until finally, by the late 20th century, “art” could be everything and therefore nothing.
The textbooks in my college art history classes lied about this. The texts treated the sequence from Cezanne to Picasso to Pollock as purely formal developments within a tradition unaffected by vulgar commercial considerations, like fads and branding and bids for attention — unlike, say, the rise and fall of fins on cars.
In fact Picasso, like Warhol and Koons after him, Picasso was rewarded by the market for pushing the boundaries a bit further for a progressively-jaded audience of rich individual and institutional collectors. The novelty-driven art they produced for private purchasers was and is different in kind from the traditional art commissioned for church and state.
The process of escalating sensationalism ultimately reaches its reductio ad absurdum in any fashion-based industry. In the case of painting and sculpture the point of exhaustion was reached by the 1970s with Pop Art and minimalist art and earth art and conceptual art. Can a row of cars be art? Sure. Can an empty canvas be art? Sure. Does anybody care? No.
That’s why I want my money back.
The share of my college tuition that went to a few art history classes wouldn’t amount to much, even with interest. But the time I that wasted on studying what, in hindsight, was nothing more than a series of ephemeral stylistic fashions among rich people in the Paris and New York art worlds, of no lasting significance whatsoever, is time that I could have been devoted to subjects of real cultural importance to members of educated people in our own day and age. Like Marvel comic book heroes and the movies they inspire.