Human Waste and Radiant: Why We Need Contemporary Art

CREATION

Art polarizes. Modern and contemporary art have become entwined with with numerous issues of identity and value, such as one’s political leanings. The well-known Political Compass Test asks test-takers to affirm or deny that “Abstract art that doesn’t represent anything shouldn’t be considered art at all.” Like it or not, the conservative-in-stereotype opts, quite vocally, to skip the wing of the museum that holds anything created later than the beginning of World War I, looking askance at the crowds entranced by various objects he could, he notes, have made in his garage.

Yet when the viewer is affronted by a piece of contemporary art, he has engaged with it, if against his will. I hope to present a vision of art that not only identifies contemporary currents in art as fundamentally traditional in the richest sense of the term, but also demonstrates their importance to the coherence, and thus the redemption, of the world from which they emerge.

The origins of the discord that surrounds contemporary art are not a mystery. Contemporary art has gone far, and there has been, at times, appropriate offense taken. Andres Serrano has created a piece of art so impious as to be an unavoidably good example. The artist’s infamous 1987 photograph Piss Christ features a small plastic crucifix submerged in a vat of his own urine. He intends this piece, he says, to be a statement of how religious icons have become cheapened in modern life—he has accomplished his purpose. I happened to see this photograph, and vividly recall seeing it, at a very young age. I remember the same feeling of revulsion and guilt that I experienced when I first heard a particularly nasty slur actually directed at a human being and the sound echoed in my head against my will for weeks. The same feeling that I experienced when I found a book of headline pages from 9/11 on a bookshelf in our house and turned through every page. Once seen, I could not ignore Piss Christ just as I could not ignore the dusty screaming face on the female body half buried in white rubble. Neither was a lie. Do I wish that Serrano’s piece had never been created? With all my heart. But is it art? Yes. Serrano was an artist in 1987 and his photograph is a photograph of 1987. What I saw in his photograph was the world I live in.

Art is an expression of humanity in time. In order to present an image of its world and continue pointing toward one truth, art must change constantly. It is precisely because standards of beauty and truth remain constant that art must move—upwards or downwards—as the world moves. T. S. Eliot presents this vision of the artistic tradition in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent. Creating art within a tradition, he argues, does not mean a blind adherence to what has come before. “To conform merely,” he writes, “would be for the new work not really to conform at all; it would not be new, and would therefore not be a work of art… [The artist] must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same. He must be aware that the… mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes” (39).

The German Romantic poet, artist, and philosopher Friedrich Schlegel developed a similar vision of art in the early 19th century. He, like Eliot, was critical of much of the art being made in his day. Schlegel critiqued the art of his contemporaries for falling into extremes of slavish imitation or radical novelty. Art, he emphasized, must draw from the spirit of its time and place, not to become more particular or specialized, but to approach the more ultimately human. Only by being drawn from its time and place could it transcend them, for only then could it be art, and sublime.

As Schlegel wrote in his his Lectures on Literature, “If we consider literature in its widest sense, as the voice which gives expression to human intellect—as the aggregate mass of symbols in which the spirit of an age or the character of a nation is shadowed forth; then indeed a great and accomplished literature is, without all doubt, the most valuable possession of which any nation can boast. But if we allow ourselves to narrow the meaning of the word literature so as to make it suit the limits of our own prejudices, and expect to find in all literatures the same sort of excellencies, and the same sort of forms, we are sinning against the spirit of all philosophy, and manifesting our utter ignorance of all nature” (274-5). For Schlegel, because art shows forth the “spirit of an age,” it would be foolish to go to art from all places and time periods and look for the “same sort of excellencies.”

And yet, for all his emphasis on the spirit of the present, Schlegel was by no means in favor of neglecting the art of the past. In his early work On the Study of Greek Poetry, in which much of his artistic thought emerged, he attempted to investigate what made classical art, particularly linguistic art, so superior to the art of his time. It was an essential character of “Greekness” that made Greek poetry great, but it was not this same character that would make German poetry great. While Greek poetry had developed organically, European poetry’s development had been stilted by pure imitation on one side, and “anarchic” novelty on the other.  Art, Schlegel argued, must be something not between but beyond these two extremes. Art must find and express the spirit of its own age, a spirit which lies behind all great art, but can only be found by the artist. As he wrote in his Critical Fragments, “You should never appeal to the spirit of the ancients as if to an authority. It’s a peculiar thing with spirits: they don’t let themselves be grabbed by the hand and shown to others. Spirits reveal themselves only to spirits.” (#44)

For Schlegel, as for Eliot, carrying on an artistic tradition did not mean recreating the art of the past, but preserving the spirit of that art through labor and constant change. Romantic poetry, of which Schlegel was a great pioneer, sought not to be a completely new type of art, or a better art, but to partake in an “infinitely increasing classicism” by becoming “an image of the age” (Athanaeum Fragment #116).

The century following this flowering of Romantic poetry and art is a great illustration of art changing alongside world. Romanticism spread and flourished until concentration camps and the atomic bomb rendered its spirit untenable. The Beat Generation was not in rebellion against its time but in the closest conformity with it. A Romantic novel could not emerge from a post-WWII world. If it did, it could not have been inspired by or in conformity with its own time. It would be either pure imitation or completely disconnected, and thus not art. It would have nothing to say.

FALL

If Eliot and Schlegel are given credence, it quickly becomes clear that the necessity of a changing and emergent art does not mean that any artistic expression that emerges from an age is valid. However, it also follows that art is, always has been, and will continue. That art expresses humanity in time is not a dictum that must sit above art and to which artists must carefully and consciously conform themselves. It is simply the nature of art. This should be a comfort, particularly for those who fear, or perhaps mourn, the death of art. Humans are art-making animals, and they are art-preserving animals. Great art will last. The artificial, inorganic, and meaningless will pass away. This should check both our fear and our hatred of currents we may personally dislike. If we are right about their unworthiness, then they will not live on.

Art cannot move away from man. Brilliant 20th century music theorist and composer Arnold Schoenberg, in a reaction against what he saw as the exhausted tonality of the classical music tradition, pioneered innovations in “atonality”, music that lacks a key or hierarchy of pitches, and developed what is known as the “twelve-tone technique”, which sought to emphasize all twelve notes of a chromatic scale equally and thus avoid a key. He believed that tonality had run its course, and that it must be pushed past. “In 50 years,” he famously quipped, “the postman will whistle my tune.”

It was in part in reaction to this kind of theoretical composition that composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich pioneered minimal music in the 1960s. In a 1986 interview, in response to a question about the importance of a tonal center in his compositions, Reich contrasted Schoenberg’s work to his own in a way that, I hope, serves the distinction I am trying to draw.

“All over the world,” said Reich, “you find certain very basic musical practices, and one of them in terms of notes is that you find the fifth. That interval is omnipresent…Now, many people have suggested over the years, and I think they’re right, that this is based on acoustics, on our ear, and on how the world is constructed physically. Reeds vibrate a certain way so that they cut in half first which is the octave, and then they cut in fourths which is fifth. If you say, ‘oh well that’s merely human convention and we’re going to make a music of twelve equal tones’… you’re then neglecting a basic human trait, at your own peril…Schoenberg said “In 50 years the postman will whistle my tune”, well it’s going on a hundred. And the postman can’t even spell his name. Because the ear is not built to do that…I would say that this kind of music is really pretty much over; that those who follow these people, particularly in America, are totally irrelevant academics.”

For Reich, an attempt to move past tonal music would ultimately be unsuccessful, because the human ear is designed to experience and appreciate tonality. Personal tastes set aside, this moment in music history illustrates well the inevitability of art’s return to humanity. Composers like Reich and Glass, understanding the need that Schoenberg recognized for a modern music, sought, as Reich explained, “a restoration of harmony and rhythm in a whole new way”, developing music to express their world, but returning it to man. Art must develop to remain art. Where, within this development, art turns away from its end of expressing humanity in time, it will not last. The most complex theories and the most elite enthusiasms are all subject to the reality that they can only be carried into the future by younger human beings.

REDEMPTION

Art tells of its time. But what if we inhabit a bad time? Does the honesty of the most disgusting art redeem it from its disgustingness? Clearly, the answer is no. We should never rejoice in darkness. But art is not in essence pretty or good, it is in essence expressive and honest. It shows our world starkly. Thus, if we dislike contemporary art, it is our world that we should seek to change and not the art that reveals it. Because our world is fractured, our art will be the same. Expressionism, abstraction, and the like presented the world as it was: incoherent and fragmented. If artists in the mid 20th century had made art identical to that of a century prior, it would not have been art. Indeed, in presenting a coherence that was not there it would have lied.  

This is the precisely the artistry of T. S. Eliot’s poetry. In working to move away from older forms and invigorate the field with his own he refreshed the substance and meaning of twentieth century poetry. For Eliot, it is only by presenting the fragments of the world that we can hope to begin piecing them back together. By exposing the shattered pieces of the world, Eliot’s poetry shows that there is a complete picture that has been broken. If it is not made clear that something about our world is broken, then it becomes nonsensical that there could be any whole into which the pieces fit.  Only by seeing the fragments clearly can we begin to piece them back together, to turn from them, or, perhaps, to see what may be transcendent within them.

If we hold an incarnational faith, our world contains something redemptive in its fibers. Though splintered, our physical world houses truth. And thus where we can catch a few fragments and hold them together, we can hope to make out a bit of the picture—no matter how crass, dark, and hopeless they may seem, no matter how skewed the artist’s intent or vision may have been. Underneath our world, even in its fragments, lies an order and a truth that art has a hard time resisting. Beyond the intention of the artist, a piece of art that catches the spirit of its world must also point in some way to that world’s source.

Thus in some sense even the crassest contemporary art, if it is art, has the potential for transcendence. It can be hard to see, and perhaps frequently it is not worth plunging into a particularly squalid piece to search for its hidden lights. And so we return to the problem. We return to Serrano and his horrifying photograph. Where is the glowing coherence beneath Serrano? Perhaps it is not there. Perhaps his fragments fall where they reflect no light. Perhaps he points only downwards and should not be celebrated. I find myself inclined to react in this way. I will never hang the photograph on my wall and I will probably always avert my eyes when I come across it.

RESURRECTION

In 2010, American poet Andrew Hudgins published a poem entitled “Piss Christ.” He begins the poem by remarking that if we did not happen to know that we were looking at a small plastic crucifix suspended in urine, we would see something very different:

“we would assume it was too beautiful.

We would assume it was the resurrection,

glory, Christ transformed to light by light,

because the blood and urine burn like a halo,

and light, as always, light makes it beautiful.”

We know what we are seeing. But Hudgins, with a poet’s vision, moves not past or above Serrano’s piece, but further into it.

“the Piss Christ thrown in glowing blood, the whole

and irreducible point of his descent:

God plunged in human waste, and radiant.”

Stacey Egger is a junior studying history.

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