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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Political outlook and modern art

Art is usually thought of as an arena separate from politics; but it's not, really.

It occurred to me the other day that people's attitudes toward modern art divide pretty cleanly along political lines. I've never heard anybody say they like modern art who isn't a liberal, and I've never heard anyone trash it who isn't by nature conservative.

It makes sense, in a way. Liberals like to put their own spin on things, to "interpret" them, so to speak. Conservatives prefer to see things as they are in reality, or, as they say in the art world, representationally.

I suppose the flip side of this is that liberals would say that  conservatives have no imagination.

My guess is that most modern artists themselves have liberal sensibilities. However, when I looked up Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, I could find no references to their politics, other than a statement about how Warhol was determinedly apolitical.

The only modern artist I found whose political leanings were known was Mark Rothko, who lived from 1903 to 1970. He was a leftist. Here is one of his paintings:

(Most of his paintings were quite similar; they all seemed to involve horizontal lines separating different colors.)

Do you know anyone who isn't a liberal who would consider this great art?

I don't. I'm sure there are exceptions, but I don't know any.

There's a lesson here, somewhere. It all seems to boil down to your view of the world: whether you prefer reality or fantasy, your willingness to suspend your disbelief, how much tolerance for nonsense you have, and how badly you want to show that you're part of the "sophisticated" in crowd.

(The word "pretentious" does, after all, derive from "pretend.")

I'm going to take it a step further and say that modern art has a certain predictive value. Ask a 14-year-old, who has not yet formed his political opinions, what he thinks of the above painting. If he says he likes it, chances are he will eventually turn out to be a liberal. If he holds up his hands with an expression of slightly disgusted bafflement and asks, "Why is that considered great art?" he is a conservative-in-the-making.

If you don't believe me, think of all the people you know who have expressed an opinion on modern art. I bet they divide pretty cleanly along political lines.


Glen Filthie said...

I had to laugh at one of my other favourite bloggers (kinda sorta conservative, I guess). In any event he posted one about how the intellectual and cultural elites were enraged when they shut down the art museum for the night - and came back the next day to find out the cleaning lady had thrown out some of the 'exhibits'. One of the 'sculptures' looked like a crunched lawn chair with a bunch of garbage on it. You or I would have done the same, it honestly looked like some junk somebody forgot to throw out!

I wonder about the history of crappy art? Did the Romans have it? Or the Greeks or the Egyptians?

It is my scholarly belief that liberals, by nature - destroy anything they lay a hand to. They have really done a number on art in general.

John Craig said...

Glen --
Yes, I've heard some of those stories of "modern art" being mistaken for trash and being thrown out by custodians. It's quite telling.

And no, you're absolutely right, the Greeks and Romans and Egyptians did not have that kind of stuff, and would have scoffed at what passes for art today.

It's The Emperor's New Clothes, Part II.

Baloo said...

The famous artist Baloo is a cranky old right-wing fanatic. It's hard to say whether he's abstract or representational.

John Craig said...

Baloo --
You're representational, and that's that!

(If I see any of your cartoons which strike me as suspiciously like modern art, I'll let you know.)

Spychiatrist said...

I would think the great sculptures/painters of the past would be politically conservative types, while most modern artists and musicians liberal or libertine in their thinking.

Modern art like the painting posted is something any fourth grader can accomplish. I see much modern art as simply the self aggrandizement of people with virtually no real talent that want to think that they have talent.

A way for nonsensical liberal types to back slap themselves into thinking they're important and above the fray of commonality that plagues the rest of us.

John Craig said...

Spike --
Exactly. Perfect analysis.

Anonymous said...

I had never thought of it that way before, but I think you're right. I am a libertarian and hate modern art, whereas a family member who loves it is a liberal. I don't understand modern art: why would I want to look at a few splotches of paint that any old person could draw when I could be looking at something by Bruegel or Rembrandt?

- Gethin

John Craig said...

Gethin --
I'd never thought of it that way before, either, and it just occurred to me the other day. I went through the list of people in my mind who'd expressed opinions on modern art, and couldn't think of a single exception. The whole world view thing is pretty encompassing.

Steven said...

Hi John, this is unrelated but I've been reading your sociopath alerts and I was wondering whether you think Bill Gates is a sociopath. I'm an admirer of his philanthropy, particularly the health and development work in Africa, but I have a friend who insists he is a sociopath based on his business tactics and treatment of employees at Microsoft. What do you think?

John Craig said...

Steven --
No, I don't think he is. (And if you've been reading my sociopath alerts, you know I'm not reluctant to name them.) Yes, he employed sharp-edged (bordering on monopolistic) business tactics when he was getting Microsoft started, and as management at Microsoft, I'm sure there were times when he was a harsh boss. But there's nothing about him I'm personally aware of that spells sociopathy.

In fact, I've heard that he's widely suspected of having Aspergers, both because of his personal awkwardness and his habit of rocking back and forth the way a lot of autistic people do. (I'm not going to swear to that, it's just something I'm passing along.)

IF he is an Aspie, that would almost by definition preclude sociopathy. And Gates has none of the personal charisma, or salesmanship that often characterizes sociopaths. He is not, by any accounts, promiscuous, which he certainly could have been if he'd been inclined that way. He hasn't had repeated run-ins with the law, nor has he pursued a whole bunch of people legally. (Sociopaths tend to be on both sides of multiple lawsuits by his age, particularly if they're prominent and have resources.) And as far as I know, he's not known for being dishonest, either. So, no, not a sociopath.

Gilbert Ratchet said...

I'm conservative, and kind of like the New York school of abstract expressionism. Technically, there's nothing leftist about it - if photographs now represent reality much better than skilled painters can, those skills are now redundant, and painting can go off in its own direction. In fact, we know now that the NY School was promoted by the CIA as an example of American cultural strength! Jackson Pollock, as an American, was free to decide where to splatter the paint, unlike all the anonymous minions toiling away in the bureau of Socialist propaganda.

But you're probably right that in reality, abstract art was produced and appreciated largely by the (non-communist) Left.

Another quibble: I wouldn't say that conservatives are reality-based. Rather, both liberals and conservatives have certain things they take on faith, whether they coincide with reality or not.

John Craig said...

Gilbert --
Okay, I accept you as a conservative -- the exception -- who likes modern art. And I agree that technically, there isn't necessarily anything political about blotches of paint on a canvas. But I do think if you think about the people you know personally who've expressed opinions on modern art, they'll fall pretty much along political lines.

And yes, I overstated the case when I made the absolute statement that conservatives are reality-based. But, to the extent they abjure political correctness, which is all about ignoring reality, they are more so than liberals.

Quartermain said...

Here are two of my favorite articles on modern art:

John Craig said...

Allan --
Thank you, excellent articles. And "gaslighting" is the perfect term to describe the brainwashing that goes into learning to appreciate artists like Jasper Johns, or Mark Rothko.

Modern Art Gallery India said...

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John Craig said...

Modern Art Gallery India --

"And this will help to modern art lovers" -- spoken like a true modern art lover.