The latest scandal involves one of Britain’s most renowned art galleries, the Royal Academy. It seems that an artist sent in a sculpture of a human head to be exhibited, and in a separate box also included a chunk of stone and a small piece of wood to prop up the head for display. The Academy mistakenly thought the props were meant to be the art and proudly displayed them in a summer exhibition – minus the actual artwork.
How did high culture fall this far? I’d suggest two reasons. Traditionally high art was supposed to either represent or evoke some higher truth about existence or some higher state of human experience.
It’s difficult for high art in a liberal culture to aim for this. In a liberal culture there is not supposed to be anything to limit an individual freedom to choose. This means that liberalism does not like to recognise the “transcendent” – the real existence of goods existing outside of or independent of individual will.
In an advanced liberalism, therefore, the “good” is made radically subjective: it is the individual who invests art with meaning or value. There is no transcendent good existing outside of individual will for the quality of the art to be referenced to.
The art critic Professor John Carey concluded his recent book, What Good Are the Arts?, with a ringing endorsement of this modernist view by claiming that “anything can be a work of art. What makes it a work of art is that someone thinks of it as a work of art.”
The second reason for the decline of modern high art is that liberalism encourages not so much the development of tradition but its deconstruction. It is thought to be liberating to break down the existing forms of art, as limitations, rather than to work within them.
To be an “artist”, in the modern sense, is therefore to be someone who challenges the inherited forms of art. John Cage, the American music composer, is therefore thought of as a great modern artist because he broke down the forms of music entirely by composing completely silent pieces of music. Others have won fame as modern artists by exhibiting their own unmade beds as art, or urinals, or a pile of bricks.
This aspect of modern art is revealed in the efforts of Mark Lawson, the art critic for the Guardian newspaper, to defend the Royal Academy’s gaffe. He compared leaving out the sculpture and exhibiting the props to the following printer’s error:
Or imagine that the last chapter of a crime novel were accidentally omitted in a mix-up at the printers. Readers and critics who admired the ambiguity of the ending - and welcomed the author's departure from the convention that every loose end must be tied - are not wrong or stupid. They simply responded honestly to what they were shown and expressed a preference for work that was willing to ignore traditions.
The assumption here is that a departure from convention or a willingness to ignore tradition are such artistic virtues that they compensate for an artwork being accidentally shown in part.