Man, this video pisses me off.
Under the aegis of Prager U – a right-wing think-tank disguised as “the best ideas of the best minds” – a smug jackass named Robert Florczak throws a self-important, historically vacant hissie fit about “How… the beautiful [art] come to be reviled and bad taste come to be celebrated.” Assuming the mantle of an “art expert,” Mr. Florczak “explains the history and the mystery behind this change and how it can be stopped and even reversed.”
His presentation is an infuriating heap of smug, steaming bullshit.
Mr. Florczak‘s video fails Art History 101 on several very important levels: And before I get into them, I’ll point out something that should be obvious but clearly isn’t: ART, ARTISTS, and ARTISTIC EXCELLENCE ARE NOT CONFINED TO, OR DEFINED BY THE SO-CALLED “WESTERN WORLD.” By using this as his cornerstone and introduction, Mr. Florczak reveals his cultural blind spot, exposes his right-wing bias, and undercuts his own thesis because a big part of “what happened” is that “art” stopped being defined by what a bunch of European dudes did.
Now then… where to start…? Oh, I know…
“What happened” to art? World Wars I and II happened. Industrialization happened. The Enlightenment ideals falling apart in a mess of blood and horror happened. Mass media happened. Recording technology happened. A LOT of shit happened. And as any art historian whose understanding of art goes further than making cheap-shot videos on the internet would understand, art reflects the human condition. The human condition had a collection of radical meltdowns in the 20th century, and part of the ENTIRE IDEA of 20th century avant-garde art is to reflect those meltdowns and the things they say about the human condition.
That’s what modern artists spent roughly 100 years writing about, talking about, and expressing in their art: the idea that the human condition itself was being shaken to its core, and that shakeup was revealing things that previous generations and their art had kept hidden from public view.
Anyone who claims to be a fucking historian of art knows that. Again, this is Art History 101. And he not only failed it, he conveyed his ignorance to other people as supposed wisdom. And as someone who has studied art history, who has taught art history, and whose living has been based in the arts for almost 40 years, that shit just pisses me off.
As for that happy horseshit about artists being all fine and noble in all the things they expressed:
1. Like hell they did. Ever hear of Goya? Kyd? Greek satyr plays? Pompeii pottery? Commedia dell’arte? The Decadents? The “floating world”? Marquis de Sade? That stuff was every bit as bawdy, obnoxious, ugly, and often obscene as anything dreamed up by Karen Finley or Bob Flannigan, and sometimes worse. Check out Goya’s “disasters of war” series sometime, and see what a “real” artist did when confronted with the inescapable savagery of the human animal on a rampage. Even Leonardo and Shakespeare did porn and gore – that’s just not the stuff folks tend to remember when they revere the name of Art.
2. Avant-garde art’s primary intention involved tearing that idea down and replacing it with something more honest. The “standards of beauty” that Mr. Florczak crows about had not only become prisons of political favoritism and academic disdain, THEY WERE FAKE. Modern art was an intentionally outrageous rebellion against a grinning falsity that obscured the human truths that modern artists strove to expose.
Deconstruction was the goddamned POINT.
Those false standards also – as I ranted about a few minutes earlier – reflected an academic tradition based in a specific strain of European male achievements. Women were almost invariably shut out, and the artistic traditions of China, Persia, Japan, Egypt, India, the multitudes of Native American, Asian, and African cultures, even the “low art” of Europe itself – traditions that predated the “European classical mode” by centuries or even millennia – were either ignored or relegated to “primitivism.”
Even in the 20th century, when those artistic traditions began appearing in European and North American art galleries, they tended to be viewed as “primitive” because their standards of aesthetics and craft differed from the European classical mode.
Part of the “ugliness” that Mr. Florczak laments involves the influx of other traditions and other standards from other cultures. And much as folks like Mr. Florczak might whinge about it, that influx revitalized western art traditions too.
To hold a single standard to “art” that’s gauged by a deliberately exclusionary boys’ club is not only racist, sexist and classist, it’s willfully ignorant as well.
And the “Pollock” joke: Jeeze, where to start? Rather than correcting the ignorance of his students regarding Jackson Pollock’s work, Mr. Florczak employs a manipulative “gotcha” that misses the entire point and context of what Pollock was about:
Jackson Pollock – like Warhol, Goya, Picasso, and other artists before him – was a classically trained commercial artist who felt constrained by the formalism required in his work. His “Jack the Dripper” stage began out of sheer frustration and Jungian exploration into his own psyche; once he realized that he was expressing something that his formalism had repressed, he started deliberately tearing that formalism apart in a series of ecstatic and often drunken rages across the canvas. Tearing formalism apart is what Pollock was trying to accomplish, and his art was – and remains – respected not for being random spatters that look like a painter’s apron but for being the deliberate deconstruction of formal standards and techniques in the service of an established artist’s raw emotion.
And yeah – that knowledge is actually kind of important if you want to discuss modern art and not come across like an idiot. but rather than TEACH HIS STUDENTS – y’know, as in, doing his fucking job – he passed along snide ignorance in place of actual knowledge.
That’s like a math teacher making fun of algebra because he disagrees with the way it works.
And that’s why shit like this makes me angry. Not because I’m a huge fan of avant-garde art (I rather like some of it, and really hate a lot of it), but because it spreads and enforces ignorance. People like Mr. Florczak are supposed to know better than this, and rather than educating people about what modern art actually MEANS, they keep people in the dark so that they can score points.
From an educational standpoint, and an artistic one, that is anathema.
Yeah, a lot of stupid bullshit has been peddled in the name of “modern art.” And yes, the commercialization of American avant-garde art was ironically underwritten by the CIA, who was using sponsorship of the American avant-garde scene as a form of cultural propaganda. (Another bit of art history that Mr. Florczak really should have talked about, and instead ignored.) A whole lot of rank bullshit has been peddled as “art” to people who really should know better.
But the thing is – and this is why I am angry about this video – people should know better. People deserve to know better. And smug garbage like this substitutes elitist ignorance for informed knowledge, which keeps people from learning what art is really all about, and realizing that even the craziest kinds of art actually MEAN SOMETHING when you know what the artist was trying to say.