In a previous post, I mentioned the idea that “the great thing about history is that things disappear.” I used it in the context of looking forward to a future in which my art is no longer confined to a post-Minimal or post-Conceptual understanding.
But the idea is also a useful for discussing very basic questions of taste in art. I’ve noticed that there is a particularly argumentative population that finds contemporary, and even modern, art abominable. You can find them leaving comments on contemporary arts coverage in mainstream newspapers. Often, the comments have nothing to do with the artist, art or angle of the story. Rather, the authors seem intent on complaining about how the 20th century or Duchamp (single-handedly) ruined art. These authors often valorize classical art (often made by white men for elites). In their opinion, nothing can or ever will surpass classical realism, or even provide a worthwhile artistic experience.
As an artist who would like to help more people appreciate contemporary art, it’s saddening and exhausting to hear audiences espouse such rigid, exclusionary definitions of art. So I’d like to take this opportunity to remind such audiences that historical art isn’t representative of all art from the past. Just some. So here’s a revised quote:
great thing about history is that things Western dreck, or works deemed dangerous or worthless by those in power* disappeared.
The fact that the historical art that has survived to the present is only the sanctioned good stuff doesn’t seem to factor into many classicists’ considerations. As Stephen Bayley put it:
The motion [that ‘Britain has become indifferent to beauty’] wobbled as the audience saw the prejudice inherent in it: greater interest in beauty existed in the past. Yet people have a selective view of the past and its benefits…. And [David Starkey, who argued against Bayley] is corrupted by “survival bias”, the fact that only the best of the past survives and influences us disproportionately.
–Stephen Bayley, “‘Britain has become indifferent to beauty'”, The Observer, March 22, 2009.
*Or things used by cultures who didn’t collect things for posterity; after all libraries, archives, cabinet of curiosities were all outgrowths from the Age of Discovery and Age of Reason.