Several themes emerge from the autopsy of our failure at nation-building in Afghanistan, not least of which is the complete lack of understanding of Afghan culture. In The Spectator magazine there is an article that highlights the problem. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent trying to import full-blown Western “wokeness” into what is clearly a comparatively backward and more traditional tribal society.
A major part of that effort was to bring a developed Westernized sensitivity to the natives as regards Gender Studies and LGBTQ+ issues (I realize one can add a lot more letters, but I’m an old guy with only so much time). In fact, it resulted in major revolts in the provinces against Americans as the natives rejected outright what was, for them, gobsmackingly stupid ideas of changed gender roles and sexuality. It is best summarized by a video at the end of the article which shows a Western teacher of Art explaining the “genius” of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal Fountain on an art museum wall. As the camera pans the class, take note of the dismissive faces.
There are arguments being made that many Afghans feel more comfortable dealing with the Taliban than they do the corrupt U.S.-imposed Afghan government under Ghani. But not only the government. Many Afghans also resent the cultural imperialists from America who have invaded their land and sought to remake their centuries-old, tribal-based traditions. Sure, the money’s great, they might be saying, but quit telling us how to think and what is of value.
Can’t really blame them. For example, I have long had a contentious argument with what is construed as art these days, and with the “experts” who claim to be the appropriate and final arbiters of what is of artistic merit, even in Afghanistan. It is these experts that drive the contemporary art world. That, and money. More on that momentarily.
Think of the recent event as commented on in a December 2019 article in Vogue. An Italian “conceptual artist” named Maurizio Cattelan had the grand idea of taking a banana and taping it to a gallery wall with duct tape. Voilà – museum quality art.
But here’s the kicker: some art aficionado paid $120,000 for that taped banana.
Then, another also paid $120,000 for another rendering of the banana taped to a wall. But it didn’t stop there. A third lover of art came along and spent $150,000 for a third rendering of the “work” of art. Money tends, in some people’s minds, to legitimize art. Just look at the brouhaha surrounding Hunter Biden’s “art” apparently being valued by art world pooh-bahs at half a mil.
As if it wasn’t already silly enough, one day an art connoisseur walked up to the art-as-banana while its many admirers stood about, took it off the wall and ate it. By way of explanation the man explained, “It was a big question mark for all of us—can this banana be an artwork?” He then compared the whole affair to the controversy surrounding Duchamp’s “Fountain.” The gallery simply replaced the banana.
Alas, this is the state of art in America, and apparently exported to Afghanistan. This is art – refined and curated fine art – toward which only the bluenoses among the urban elite flock. Not the people. God no, not the people.
I’m just a knockabout kid from a working-class neighborhood in Maryland. I learned about modern art when I went to college. And I have to admit, much of it is truly striking. But other works are simply silly and ridiculous. No doubt, for some examples of modern art my face looked a lot like those Afghans having to endure their exposure to Duchamp.
A valuable book, to my way of thinking, is Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word. He argues that modern art is not controlled by artists. It is not the Jackson Pollocks and Willem de Koonings of the mid-20th-century art world who were the driving forces behind art, but the “expert” critics in the media – and now I guess in academia.
It is the Clement Greenbergs and the Harold Rosenbergs writing in The New York Times and Partisan Review that drove the market. They created a “need to see” and “need to have” listing of artists and art works that the culturally aware simply must attend to and have on their walls. Have to keep up with the other glitterati, after all. One’s social standing would be in jeopardy if such clarion calls were ignored. So they in their expertness set the parameters of contemporary art, of who would be accepted and who would not.
My personal belief is that contemporary art has gone off the rails, and has only limited influence among the cognoscenti. The public, in general, has been left behind, thought a bunch of deplorables with very limited artistic sense. I argue that the current crop of art dilettanti in their New York and San Francisco upscale bungalows have a lesser understanding of art than the rest of us.
Let’s see if I can make my case.
“If he’s an artist, what a man does, or a woman, is make things; and once people have them in their hands or standing there in front of them, people for some reason feel they would like to take them home with them or eat them.” So says Arnold Deller, a character in a John C. Gardner short story. The reason we are attracted to such art, Deller suggests, is that it makes “life startling and interesting again.” Note, there is no mediation by an “expert.” One experiences directly – or not – the beauty and power of a work of art.
Seems as good an understanding of art as any other. But, as written, even it justifies the banana on the wall. After all, someone decided to eat it. But let’s continue our investigation.
I used to work at a Michigan newspaper. Many years ago now we ran an interesting photo of a patron looking at the partially obscured “Vision of Wisdom,” a drawing by a high school student that won Best of Show in the local community college’s art competition. It led me to hunt down that drawing myself while visiting the campus. It was an engaging piece, made even more so as one backed away from the wizened elderly woman’s face that was drawn there. One could almost envision, while looking at it, the young girl who once was. And it did make life “startling and interesting again.”
Then there was this. At nearly the same time I became aware of another artistic venture. It seems a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, Jonathan Yegge, made a name for himself with his “performance art” to fulfill a class assignment.
The San Francisco Art Institute, it should be noted, counts among its alumna Karen Finley, a National Endowment of the Arts-funded artist who is best known for performances in which she takes vegetables and chocolate and smears them over her nude body. Riveting!
But don’t make the mistake of thinking the Institute is anything less than serious when it comes to art. Founded by Ansel Adams, the extraordinarily gifted photographer, the Institute strives to remain at the cutting edge of contemporary art. The difficulty, though, is determining what is cutting edge and what is merely pretentious crap.
Mr. Yegge is a case in point. After obtaining the cooperation of a volunteer who agreed to be bound, gagged and then blindfolded, Yegge began his performance in front of 22 witnesses, including two faculty members and a security guard. His performance consisted of his defecating, giving himself an enema, and then performing oral sex on the unsuspecting and blindfolded volunteer.
The fellated one later complained to school officials, and an artistic kerfuffle then ensued. Yegge and his supporters claim it was art. His professor for the class agreed that it was art, though “bad art.” The professor went on to say that his job was “to teach, look, and talk. A professor is not there to police students about their work.”
According to the Institute, the new genres department class is “the ideal place for art-making that includes everything and anything the artist can justify.”
So what was Yegge’s justification for his “art?” He claims his artistic intent was an exploration of the master/slave dialectic in G.W.F. Hegel, a nineteenth-century German Idealist philosopher.
I am not making this up!
If only I had known. Some years previously, in a graduate school philosophy class, I went to great lengths during an exam to explicate Hegel’s theory of the master/slave relationship and its later influence on Marxist thought. To think instead of all that writing and analysis I could have just dropped my pants, defecated, taken a quick enema and then have a go at my professor, all while amazed and admiring classmates were nodding and saying to themselves,
“Now there’s a guy who knows his way around Hegel.”
Mr Yegge’s “work” was simply added to my list of evidence that contemporary art is anchorless, peurilely pompous, and peopled by pseudo-intellectual poseurs.
He joins the artist/creator of “flying stick” in the Indianapolis Museum of Art, a pedestrian piece in which a stick has a beanie propeller pinned to it and a fan blowing at it so the propeller will spin. Wow!
And then there is that other exhibit in the same museum in which a portion of a wall is taken up with five little cardboard slide projector casings mounted with no film in any of them, just the wall showing through. Upon inspection, there is a lengthy prose explanation, much larger than the work of “art” itself, that rambles on and on about philosophical this and continental thinker that. Just goes to show a little – oh so little – knowledge is a dangerous thing.
When I was on faculty at a college in West Virginia we had a Humanities Department meeting to discuss measuring competencies of our graduates. The art professor said that when it came to art majors, competencies could not imply qualitative judgment. When pressed, he said it was inappropriate to judge an artwork as either good or bad because there was no agreed-upon standard by which to judge.
My reply was to take a piece of paper, wad it up, place it in the palm of my hand and announce, “This is a work of origami. Are you telling me there is no criterion by which to judge my work of origami as any better or worse than those created by Japanese masters?”
To be consistent, he would have to say there is not. Indeed, that is exactly what he proclaimed. And therein lay the absurdity of much contemporary art.
It isn’t just the “doing” of art that makes one an artist, but the result. No doubt Mr. Yegge was a great “doer” of art (no pun intended), as was the creator of “Vision of Wisdom,” that engaging and evocative portrait that was hung on a community college wall.
And what has been the result of these two “doers” of art? The one has resulted in a pissed-off volunteer, bad press for an art school, and a pile of Yegge-doo, while the other has resulted in art.
C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, makes a proper point when he writes, “[I]n literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
The irrepressible Mr. Yegge and the banana man desperately try to be original, resulting in pretentious pap, in the sense of lacking solid value or substance. That high school student’s rendering? Now that had substance.
Even I, a wrong-side-of-the tracks kid can see that. All of us “Normals,” as Kurt Schlichter likes to refer to us, can see that. Even the Afghans being told they must come to appreciate Duchamp’s urinal on a wall know better. Perhaps therein lies the tale. Perhaps the universality of humankind is that “We, the People” don’t like cultural Brahmans coercing us as to what we should think and value.
The Afghans rejected the “woke” agenda being force-fed to them by know-it-alls who intruded into their lives with no regard for what they thought and felt. Indeed, there is a very sizable segment of American society who react similarly to the cultural dictates of the institutional powers-that-be. Will they ever listen? Will they ever? Can they even hear?
It puts me in mind of a favorite quote from Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. A ninety-five-year-old woman speaking of what she’s learned in life says: “The beginning of wisdom, … When you’re seventeen you know everything. When you’re twenty-seven if you still know everything you’re still seventeen.”
Our misfortune, it would seem, is that our country is run by an elite cadre of those older than twenty-seven who, in terms of wisdom, are a bunch of seventeen-year-olds.
By Ron Nutter
Ron Nutter is a retired college professor of Philosophy and Religion living in a cabin on a mountain in Western North Carolina with his retired physician wife, and he still reads voraciously.