by William Lloyd Stearman, PhD


For years I earnestly strove to “understand” and appreciate abstract art. To that end I haunted art museums and galleries in Europe and the U.S.  I learned, for example, to tell a Motherwell painting from a Mondrian and a Lieberman sculpture from a Moore. I later, however, realized that I was primarily motivated by a bourgeois fear of being thought philistine. I didn’t want to be one of those average persons who readily and honestly admit that they don’t understand modern art. I finally came to realize that avant garde writer Gertrude Stein’s immortal description of Oakland, California tellingly applied to most modern art, “There’s no there, there.” What became crystal clear to me was the utter poverty of today’s avant-garde art which deliberately strives to be totally bereft of beauty, meaning and any appeal to the human esthetic tastes that have evolved over the centuries, for example, from the beautiful 14th Century B.C. Egyptian portrait bust of Nefertiti to Greek and Roman art, Renaissance and 17th Century Dutch and Flemish art and 19th Century Impressionism. Dominant art is now, for the most part, pure gimmickry, usually produced by those of limited ability who lack the talent, diligence, discipline and craftsmanship needed to produce true works of art. The art establishment, however, always closes ranks in support of this so-called art, .and excludes art that would have meaning to the vast majority of viewers who are dismissed as hopeless philistines “who just don’t get it.”

Highly regarded art critic, Robert Hughes, put it best in his book “Things I Didn’t Know...A Memoir”, when he confessed that he “had lost forever a belief in the ‘potency of avant-garde….and today, looking at the ever-more-feeble effort on the part of the art world to designate its latest products as ‘cutting edge’, ‘edgy’, ‘radical’ etcetera, I am not in the least sorry I lost it. Some new works of art have value of some kind or other. Others, the majority, have little or none. But newness as such, in art, is never a value.” (From a Washington Post book review, Sept. 2, 2006) Two fundamental flaws of modern art are well illustrated by these quotes. “I was cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty” stated 20th Century’s leading proponent of dreadfully dissonant atonal twelve-tone (or serial) music, Arnold Schoenberg (quoted from “Surprised by Beauty” by music critic Robert Reilly). At a cocktail party in the 1970s, I asked British leading 20th Century poet, Stephen Spender, “Why does so much modern poetry lack rhyme, rhythm or reason?” He simply replied, “It’s easier.”  (American poet Robert Frost used to say that writing poetry that doesn’t rhyme is like playing tennis without a net.) When, a few years ago I asked my very perceptive ten year old niece, Mele Finau, why most modern art is abstract, she replied, “Because it’s easier. That’s why.” Right on, Mele. I like to cite Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian, as an example of this. His early representational art was mediocre at best. Then he hit upon the gimmick of the far easier painting of various grid arrangements of squares and lines and thus became a famous abstract artist.

As Rice University art history professor Thomas McEvilley put it, ”It’s pretty clear by now that more or less anything can be designated art. The question is, Has it been called art by the so-called ‘art system?’” (NY Times October 12, 1997) I feel that art has hit its absolute nadir in being rendered totally reductio ad absurdum through total minimalism. For example, canvases covered with just one color. In sculptures we have the monstrous, usually rusting  curved iron plates of  Richard Serra whose “Tilted Arc,” a long curved iron plate fence erected, in 1981, at considerable expense in New York’s Federal Plaza, in addition to being totally bereft of an esthetic value,  so hindered pedestrian and other movement that it had to be removed in 1989. It is fitting that Frank Gehry’s freakish, misshapen and bizarre museum in Bilbao, Spain features Serra’s dreadful, overpowering “sculptures.” In music, minimalism hit its peak, or I should say nadir, with John Gage’s piano composition 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds  performed by a pianist who sits at the piano playing nothing at all for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, apparently leaving the audience to imagine some music.

Frank Gehry’s costly architectural monstrosities, which now deface several US cities, illustrate what is intrinsically wrong with much contemporary American architecture. Many en vogue designs today demonstrate how far architects have strayed from the credo of a father of modern American architecture, Louis Sullivan, who declared that “form … follows function.” I.e., the shape of a building should reflect how it is actually used.  This led to unadorned structures, while excessively austere, were practical and less expensive to build. Now in the interest of being on the “cutting edge” of avant garde design, architects resort to gimmickry which ignores normally accepted standards of beauty or symmetry and the human needs it should be serving. In eschewing all tradition they resort to costly design features which serve no useful purpose nor, in its elitism, would have any esthetic appeal to the majority of those who use those structures. This avant garde approach is encouraged in most schools of architecture. Even less extreme architects like I.M. Pei can design terribly impractical buildings like, for example, Washington’s East Wing of the National Gallery of Art which wastes an enormous amount space and devotes far too little space to the galleries where most of the art is actually exhibited. Budding architects would, however, be well advised to emulate contemporary architects like, for example, Washington based, now deceased, Alan Rider who designed President Kennedy’s grave site in Arlington VA, the imposing and impressive Fermilab near Batavia IL, most of the modern buildings at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis MD and several university libraries, including the one at Georgetown.

Unfortunately, modern gimmickry has also defiled some fine classic operas.  For example, Peter Sellers’ TV production of Mozart’s marvelous Don Giovanni was staged in modern dress and set in the ugliest, most desolate part of New York City. Another example of opera uglification was the 2008 Washington [DC] National Opera production of Puccini’s La Boheme was also in modern dress with Musetta dressed as a sadomasochistic dominatrix dressed in leather and carrying a whip. Rock bottom was struck by the Virginia Opera company’s 2011 total desecration of that lovely opera Hansel and Gretel set in modern California with the two children being bullied by school children and both the witch and the mother played by an obese woman. Opera staging is even more perverse in Europe these days with some of the worst examples presented at the annual summer Salzburger Festspiele. Then there is choreographer and director Twyla Tharp who raised clumsy and awkward dancing to an art form. Sad to say popular music has also gravely suffered. For example, rock introduced in the 50s and 60s, produced some pleasant, if not pleasurable, music, notably the Beatles’ tunes. Rock has, alas, now degenerated into primitive assaults on the aural nerves masking the paucity of musical content with ear-splitting and deafness-inducing amplification, setting yet another milestone on the path of western cultural decline. Also more than sad is the near absence here of the treasure of beautiful Catholic music. Despite the Vatican II Council’s clear promotion of Gregorian Chant, what we now hear in most Catholic churches is banal, unsingable and generally dreadful 1970s pop hymns against which Pope Benedict XVI has inveighed in vain. Even the music at his April 2008 outdoors mass in Washington was appallingly bad, a, perhaps unintentional, slap in the face for the Pope. Fortunately, our parish (Holy Cross in Garrett Park, MD) uses a hymnal that features the best traditional hymns, both Catholic and Protestant, but this, unfortunately, represents only a small minority of parishes in this country.

I am also quite upset about the appalling decline of poetry, most of which today lacks rhyme, rhythm or even reason. A prime example of what has happened to poetry was, for example, the bumbling, pedestrian and confused poem read at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration. And there is the new US Poet Laureate Philip Levine’s dreadful “ best poem” with the cryptic gimmicky title “They Feed They Lion” (Washington Post August 10, 2011). My generation had to memorize a large amount of poetry -- which is now out in schools because of the current prejudice against “rote” memorization. Also modern poetry must be difficult to memorize. I have, however, always been extremely grateful for having been encouraged to learn poetry in school. To this day, I cannot enter a forest without thinking of the opening lines of Longfellow’s immortal narrative poem Evangeline, “This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlock…” Whenever I go to the beach and see the ocean I always think of Masefield’s Sea Fever, “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky…” When I find myself in the countryside at dusk there always comes to me the opening lines of, what is to me and many others, the greatest poem in the English language, Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard,

            “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
  The     lowing  herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
             The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
                    And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”

The race to the bottom in art can, in my opinion, in large measure be traced to Marcel Duchamp’s “Ready-Made” conceptualism introduced in 1917 by his sculpture Fountain which was nothing but an inverted urinal signed “R. Mutt.” Duchamp’s personal conviction that life is meaningless and absurd was well reflected in this last phase of his career. He actually did have some talent as reflected in his well known 1912 Cubist-Futuristic painting Nude Descending a Staircase No.2. What this has led to is well exemplified by two 2008 acquisitions of Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum from the collection of Italian Count Guiseppe Panza di Blumo. Here is how they were described in the Washington Post (November 4, 2008). “Look at…the five glass cubes that Joseph Kosuth presented in 1965. All are much the same (forty inches on a side), and all are made of greenish glass so that one looks both at and through them. Five primary structures lined up in a row – what could be more minimalist. But the artist doesn’t stop there. Instead forging on, he adds block letters to each one. The first cube says ‘Box’, the second says ‘Cube’, the third ‘Empty’, the fourth ‘Clear’ and the fifth ‘Glass.’ “ Wow! What originality! Here is a description of Lawrence Weiner’s 1970 work “REDUCED” which, the Post describes, “is just that single word …red and floor-to-ceiling.” The reviewer at least had the gumption to declare, “All it does for me is lead my thoughts to mush.” To think that the Hirshhorn actually paid good money for these two and other similar “works of art,”

For those who think that art actually hit rock bottom with a British art museum’s display of soiled nappies (diapers), let me introduce you to the world of animal art. The Washington Post’s Kid Post page (May 8, 2007) described art produced by elephants, a sea lion, an Indian rhino and an orangutan. It reported that in 2006 a large mural painted by six elephants sold for a record $35,000. At the bottom of the page were four paintings and readers were invited to guess which ones were painted by animals. One was obviously a Jackson Pollack. I guessed that the one done by an orangutan and the one by an elephant looked more human-produced than the fourth one by well-established American artist Helen Frankenthaler, who died in 2011. The Washington Post (June 22, 2005) reported that an American collector bought at an auction three abstract paintings by chimpanzee “Congo” for $26,352. An unintentionally hilarious description of cat art can be found in Why Cats Paint by New Zealanders Heather Busch and Burton Silver (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley CA 1994). Described is the art work of one cat: Torn up venetian blinds labeled “Bad Cat,” described as a “work clearly alluding to the containing effect of man-produced products on the contemporary cat’s freedom of movement.”

Here are the styles of cat painting: Spontaneous Reductionist, Neo-Synthesist, Elemental Fragmintist and Psychometric Impressionist. Then there is meaning looking cat “Bootsie’s” Trans-Expressionist painting “Hands Up, Mr. Rooster” which sold for $15,000.  This cat had five exhibitions which had netted him over $75,000. He won the Zampa d’Oro (Golden Paw) award at Exposizione dell’ Arte Felino (Exposition of Feline Art) in Milan in 1993. Famed cat artist “Minnie” had a kitten that sold an Abstract Expressionist painting in Japan for $20,000, twice as much as Minnie ever got for a painting. (I’m not making all this up.) (Some assert that this book is actually a spoof, If so, it is an accurate one.) What I’m trying to is to demonstrate here is the extent to which modern, non-representative art has been so completely dehumanized that even animals can produce works of art that could easily have been produced by human artists.

“The more minimum the art, the more maximum the explanation” observed New York Times art critique Hilton Kramer in the late 1960s, when the term “minimum art” was en vogue. No truer words were ever spoken. Art critics go to extraordinary and risible lengths to explain works of art that clearly can have no meaning. In the 19th Century, English painter J.M.W. Turner and French artist Claude Monet both produced paintings that, at first blush, seemed to be abstracts, but terse titles could make them clear to any viewer, for example, with the former “Storm” and the latter “Water Lilies.” These were true artists. As Professor McEvilley explained, what is art is determined by the “art system.” In the same 1997 New York Times article quoted above, Professor of Art History at NY University Robert Rosenbaum wrote that it was up to the “informed people” of the art system, that is: artists, art schools, curators, dealers and collectors to determine what is “good art.” The problem with this is that, with exceptions here and there, this establishment generally exhibits a knee jerk opposition to representational, (i.e., comprehensible and human-oriented) art. To them, for example, popular artists like Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth produced “kitsch” (the ultimate put down) that could appeal only to the most incurable philistines. . I love the observations on abstract art by the cartoonist creator of Lil’Abner, Al Capp, “A product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.”(National Observer July 1, 1963)

I had a number of conversations about this kind of art with leading American sculptor, the late Frederick Hart, who produced the fine Three Soldiers statue at the Vietnam Memorial Wall and a moving addition to a portal of the National Cathedral in Washington DC. Hart was quite bitter about the stubborn opposition of the art system to representational art and its obstructing and discouraging talented young artists who want to produce such art. It would be tolerable if non-representational art were just confined to galleries, museums and private collectors. What is deeply disturbing, however, is the proliferation of ugly, meaningless, abstract sculptures in public places paid for by taxpayers. The “Tilted Arc” mentioned above is one of the worst examples of this. Then there is the monstrous, black, oppressive, depressing, thistle-like, and no doubt very expensive, sculpture by the late Alexander Calder that fills and overwhelms the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building. These sculptures are no doubt tolerated by those who feel they must be lacking in art knowledge not to appreciate them and are approved by various board members who don’t want to appear philistine and “not with it” and simply accept the recommendations of representatives of the art system, whom they believe “must know best about such things.” How these public monstrosities are financed is exemplified by a law passed by our Montgomery County Council in 1983 requiring that one percent of public project construction to be spent for art. I need not mention what kind of art got financed this way. I would fervently hope that someday someone much younger and more energetic than I will launch a nationwide campaign to Ban Ugliness in Public Places (BUPP) aimed at the dreadful sculptures that deface the landscape.

An interesting new approach to art was the 2009 book The Art Instinct by New Zealand professor Dennis Dutton (Bloomsbury Press, New York) who views art as a result of Darwinian evolution of human art tastes. While I do not share this approach, he does come to some interesting and revealing conclusions that explain why most humans are turned off, for example, by abstract art, atonal music and “random word order poetry.” He states that “Human nature, so evolutionary aesthetics insists, sets limits on what culture and arts can accomplish with the human personality and its tastes. Contingent facts about human nature ensure that not only some things in art will be difficult to appreciate but that appreciation of them may be impossible. Earlier he had quoted 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume:
“The general principles of taste are uniform in human nature.” In fact,”all the general rules of art are founded only on experience and on the observation of the common sentiments of human nature.” He goes on to declare, ”Homer who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousand years ago is still admired at Paris and at London.” Dutton began his book with a fascinating survey, the People’s Choice project ,commissioned by the Nature Institute, of artistic  preferences of people in ten countries as varied as Iceland and Kenya which ended in “a reliable report on the artistic preferences of two billion [sic] people.” The Project, conducted by two experienced painters, was to determine “the most wanted and least wanted painting for every country in the study” to be painted on request by the two artists. “The people in almost all nations disliked abstract designs.” “The most wanted  painting was a landscape with water people and animals” and the “overwhelmingly favorite color in the world turned out to be blue.”