The Resurrection of Art

Manès Sperber, in his excellent essay on “The Public and its Soul,” points out that all discussions of aesthetics focus on the subject in one of three ways: by studying the artist himself; by studying the work of art as a special and privileged creation; or by studying the social context of works of art.  In other words, aesthetics can deal with the producer of art, the artistic product, or why artworks are produced at all.
Nowadays this third approach is dominant, and the second is vilified as elitist.  No one seems to be able to discuss a work of art without blithering on about its “context,” or what it tells us about social relationships, or how it demonstrates or critiques oppression or sexism or racism or whatever else is on the fashionable hate list.  No one wants to examine the work of art itself, as an attempt to express formal perfection and harmony via craft and virtù.  Say that you like a work simply because it is beautiful, and snot-nosed grad students will snigger at your lack of critical perception.
Well, fuck them.  Art isn’t about social contexts.  Art is about art.  A work of art is either good (in the sense of being excellently designed and executed) or ineptly done.   A large part of the last century was spent trying to convince millions of skeptical people that works of art manifestly ugly, pointless, and unsatisfying were nonetheless good, and that unresponsive persons had no one to blame but themselves for their failure to be aesthetically moved by such garbage.  And so you had the bizarre phenomenon of persons laboring mightily to disregard their natural reactions of pleasure or displeasure, and training themselves to see value in works that did not move them, or even that disgusted them.  (“Of course I like Jackson Pollock!  Do you think I’m a philistine?”)
I don’t have much public satisfaction as a paleo-conservative these days, except when I see that this con-game is finally being recognized and rejected by ordinary people.  You can’t shame anyone into liking garbage art the way you could in the 1950s and 60s.  An independence of mind has taken root, and people are starting to like what they genuinely like, regardless of what our self-appointed aesthetes tell them they ought to like.  Magazines like American Arts Quarterly and The New Criterion are registering this shift back to sanity and serenity in the arts.
This doesn’t mean that extensive damage hasn’t been done.  It will take centuries to repair what I have called “the corruption of taste.”  A noisy and ideologized segment of the population will continue to sing the praises of garbage art, and will try valiantly to pass on their corrupted tastes to the young.  And since these vermin largely control the teaching apparatus, they have a built-in advantage over the rest of us.
Since I began TRINACRIA five years ago, I have included quality reproductions of graphic art in each issue.  Paintings, woodcuts, watercolors, engravings, mezzotints… I reproduced whatever I happened to find aesthetically appealing and consonant with the poetry in the magazine.  I consulted nothing but my own taste when making these choices.
Guess what?  I got some complaints.  Someone whined that my artworks were all Western, and therefore “lacking in diversity.”  I wrote back telling her to shove her diversity up her multicultural twat, and to not contact me again.  Another person complained that the artworks in TRINACRIA were “unthreatening” and “unchallenging.”  I wrote back to him advising that he take a walk in Central Park at 3 AM if he wanted to be threatened and challenged.  Still another person wondered why I didn’t give a full identification of each artwork, its source, and an acknowledgment of permission to reproduce.  I answered him that, if the long-dead artists wanted to dispute my violation of their copyrights, they should have their lawyers send me a writ.
All three of these complaints were the emanations of silly people without the slightest aesthetic sense.  But it’s interesting that the three complainants also represented, in epitome, everything that is diseased in aesthetics today, and that needs to be amputated and cauterized out of our thinking.  There’s the stupid and politically correct obsession with “diversity” as opposed to quality; the weird notion that art is supposed to make you uncomfortable; and finally the most degraded idea of all—that art is the exclusive and inviolable property of wealthy museums, galleries, and investment-conscious collectors, whose permission one needs to secure before making a copy.
Cultural diversity, radical provocation, and an exaggerated respect for the rights of the proprietor-class: how perfectly suited to the mindless global capitalism that now dominates the planet!  No wonder garbage art by the talentless Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat is in such demand today.  Their work satisfies all three criteria.
Well, the only thing one can do is tend one’s own little garden.  TRINACRIA will continue to feature reproductions of excellent Western artworks that delight the eye with their beauty, polished execution, and expert design.  If anyone has a problem with that, they are cordially invited to bugger off.


Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.