Backward and Downward with the Arts

The number of objects now claiming attention in the name of art is past calculating, and the size of the public more or less disposed to glimpse these objects, if not actually to acclaim them, increases at a velocity rivaling that of the population explosion itself. Yet the suspicion persists that this dizzying state of affairs, far from certifying the cultural health which all the yea-saying agencies of government, the foundations, museums, and other interested institutions gleefully affirm, might actually reflect a general decline in artistic seriousness. Art, self-consciously considered as such, has never been more popular, but the price of this popularity is certainly higher than anyone is willing to admit. One of its worst results may be seen in the way a dumb, factitious celebrity has come to exercise—and not only for the public, but for critics, museums, academicians, and even many artists—the kind of authority formerly enjoyed by disinterested artistic accomplishment. For this new public and its captive artists, fame itself is the driving force and works of art only its incidental expression.

Where the great modern artists were obliged, often against their will, to carry on a kind of aesthetic guerrilla warfare against the tastes of the public, today’s audience-oriented artist has placed himself in a position where only acts of violence committed against his own artistic resources can achieve the goal that has preempted all others: to win not necessarily the approval but the sustained interest of a public for whom the spectacle of such deliberate self-abuse has become virtually synonymous with creative vitality. An art so irredeemably mortgaged to its own destruction is barred, of course, from trafficking in the kind of values which in the past have conferred significance, great or small, on the objective work of art. In place of such values it substitutes the artist’s myth—or, to be precise, his publicity. This carefully constructed fabric of gossip, ideas, pseudo-ideas, and tendentious verbiage of every sort, makes its appearance initially perhaps to “explain” the inner logic of the work of art, but, being exempt from the destructions wrought upon the work itself, ends by triumphantly displacing it. The artist’s legend, carefully filtered through the intricate mechanism of commerce and communications, is what remains most vivid to the public eye. His works, though still necessary for sustaining the legend (at least in its early stages), become mere occasions for renewing acquaintance with it.

The four “profiles” which Mr. Tomkins has brought together in The Bride and the Bachelors constitute the most straightforward exercise in legend-mongering which this situation has yet produced. The book is, in fact, a brilliant example of the deplorable tendency to mythicize rather than criticize works of art which attain any degree of notoriety, and its success is directly attributable to its author’s total lack of intellectual involvement with either the art in question or, indeed, with aesthetics as such. For unlike other writers who have addressed themselves to this task, Mr. Tomkins …

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Letters

The Scene August 5, 1965