The Death of Western Art

by Barry Drogin

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In the past I have written of the death of opera, and the possibility that a new art form may rise, phoenix-like (to cite the metaphorical cliché), from its ashes. The end of millennium retrospectives have, however, opened my eyes to a different perspective. These retrospectives have blithely ignored the significant cultural developments of the twentieth century: propaganda, advertising and design. Meanwhile, the population explosion and the burden of post-modern historical consciousness have resulted in a massive democratization of the arts, to the point where, statistically, opportunistic mediocrity and competent professionalism have erased the relevance of the nineteenth century idea of the “artistic genius.”

It is with this perspective in mind that I declare the imminent, if not present, death of all Western art. In its place, I predict that the aesthetic cultural manifestations which previously existed under an idea of “art” will be replaced by propaganda, self-aggrandizement, and marketing. Any remaining artistry or genius will be interpreted or otherwise received by the culture as some form of one or more of those three.

That romanticism should evolve into self-aggradizement was, perhaps, inevitable. That “art for art’s sake” should backlash to propaganda is logical. But the evolution of consumer culture, the pervasiveness of advertising, the population shifts to the cities and its surrounding suburbs, and the mass-production technologies that have made architectural design, interior design, graphic design, product design, event design, environment design (including transportation interiors)… in short, human-made and individually-chosen living space, could not have been foreseen or predicted, and are completely unprecedented in scale compared to any other era in the entire history of mankind. Of course, history has seen its palaces, cathedrals and monuments, and Marie Antoinette was diverted by an artificial peasant village. Crude forms of advertising and marketing pre-date the twentieth century. Political thought in art can be linked to religious art and controversial plays. But never before have so many people been able to experience and select so much about what they see, hear, taste, smell and touch on a daily basis. The impact of this on the sociological construct we call “art” has been devastating in the Western world.

Aside from the aesthetics of pleasure, sensation (in all its meanings), exoticism and eroticism, objects and experiences will be found to serve one or several of the three purposes I have cited. Objects and experiences created to financially benefit the creators will result in marketing machines and mechanisms. Objects and experiences created to bring fame and recognition to the creators will continue to distract us with their self-aggrandizement. Those left will create objects and experiences to further a political end; worthy as that end may be, the product is propaganda. Those insistent on the evolution of artistic ideas and expression who cannot be exploited for marketing, who are not chosen to represent the ideas of “artistic excellence” (and there is a limit on how many people the culture will bestow such recognition on), who purposely choose to avoid coherence, relevance or non-aesthetic meaning in pursuit of a new aesthetic idea, and who otherwise fail to provide positive accessible experiences to the mass audience, will be marginalized, ignored and unknown. In such an environment, the evolution of artistic expression cannot be maintained, and the artist as creator will be impossible. What will remain is the creator as so-called artist, a myth of art accompanied by a stagnation, repetition and regurgitation of dead ideas. Art will be preserved and will be re-experienced, but the point of reference will have been lost, the approach will be so different.

One might read in this analysis an implied criticism or conservative nostalgia, but that is not intended. After all, propaganda to serve a worthy cause, as well as propaganda to counter unethical, immoral and unsavory aspects of marketing and self-aggrandizement, is necessary in human affairs, if not an imperative. But just as a historical perspective can consider the emergence of new aesthetic philosophies, such as romanticism and modernism, so should such a consideration be allowed to recognize their demise. Highbrow and lowbrow taste have been supplanted by what John Seabroook calls “Nobrow,” a “hierarchy of hotness” and “culture of marketing,” but this is only the majority culture. I have attempted a fuller picture, while still acknowledging the extinction of the old.

Others might merely see a radical swing from the Apollonian to the Dionysian, where “art” is interpreted as an intellectual idea that is supplanted by advertising’s need for impact. But Conceptualism, which must be thought of as Appolonian, has not disappeared. Its purpose, however, must be called into question. More and more, the concept of a piece obviates the need for the art to even exist in any concrete form, let alone constitute an evolutionary development in aesthetic form or means of expression. The media’s reception and conveyance of the concept of the piece becomes, in fact, the piece itself, so that the “original” need not even exist (although, of course, it usually does), and certainly need not be directly experienced by anyone but the media representatives of the public. When a piece is experienced by the public, it is often through the lens supplied by the media in advance.

Finally, one might question the metaphor itself: the “death” of Western art. Perhaps the author, in his middle-age angst, sees “death” and “extinction” everywhere. A psychological approach would suggest that the author’s perception is merely a projection. As with most psychological interpretations, agreement is due more to an act of faith than to proof. An alternative explanation is to posit “death” as the natural state of being; Western art is continuously “dying,” and youth is continuously mis-interpreting the past to create a new present. What is dying, then, is the author’s assumption of a shared concept of “art.” If this is the case, then this is nothing new, and what is lost will remain lost. The net result is the same, even if it was inevitable.

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007