Skip to main content

Artistic Collapse

David Wojnarowicz's, "A Fire in my Belly," was recently pulled from an exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery not because it was poor art, but because it was found to be offensive. Blake Gopnik (Washington Post) thinks art should make us think. And to do that it may have to cause a "little offense."Eric Felten (WSJ) points out that art which is designed to shock, like the piece in question ("A Fire in my Belly" depicts the a crucifix crawling with ants), is no longer shocking, but boring. Many issues are at play in the discussion--censorship, religious tolerance, economics, public funds--but there is precious little mention in the debate as to whether or not the film is of any moral worth, whether it makes reality trivial.

In his controversial essay, On Moral Fiction, John Gardner argued that art is not given for the purpose of making reality trivial. It is rather, “essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.” He argued that truly great art shows the story of humanity; it takes the random experiences of life and shows their worth in the story: “Life is all conjunctions, one damn thing after another, cows and wars and chewing gum and mountains; art—the best, most important art—is all subordination: guilt because of sin because of pain.”

Ever since a certain artist nailed a urinal to a wall and called it fountain, much art has subverted this idea. It is now more concerned with fragmentation, disjunction and the doing away with any idea of human nature related to a guiding narrative.

If there is no story to humanness, then there is precious little resource for deciding what is of moral worth. Instead we see the collapse of morality into its medium. Morality used to be something reflected in art, now morality is judged in terms of art itself. Martin Amis puts it well in reference to literature, “…style is morality: morality detailed, configured, intensified. It’s not in the mere narrative arrangement of good and bad that makes itself felt. It can be there in every sentence.” The medium--sentence, brush stroke, cinematography--has become the object of judgement. Style, therefore, is all that can be judged. It is as if morality is no longer something depicted, but something which depicts. Morality is tied up with how one says something, not with what one is talking about. Amis noticed this idea at work in the Nazi pursuit of death, “The exceptional nature of the Nazi genocide has much to do with its “modernity,” its industrial scale and pace. This piercingly offends us, but the disgust, perhaps, is not rigorously moral; it is partly aesthetic... In Nazi circles during the early 1940s there was much frowning talk of the need to streamline the killings, to make them more elegant.”

How can we think of Nazi atrocities as elegant? This might sound impossible. How can we consider such horrendous evils without considering their morality? But this is exactly how some people wish to treat such things. For some cultural gurus it is the elegance of violence which is their art form. Quentin Tarantino makes stylized violence. In Inglorious Basterds Tarantino depicts acts of terror against Jews in hiding and an ensuing act of vengeance.3 One might suppose that this was sacred ground for seriousness. But if irony rules there is no such hallowed ground. Evil is made trivial; it is hammed up, not gloried in, but not taken seriously. It is taken trivially. What is truly moral on the other hand is the film itself, its sleekness, its elegance. If violence can only be judged by its elegance then we must impose rigor to rape, purity to cutting.

If death itself becomes a benign concept, one to which we look absentmindedly as we focus on style, then art cannot struggle with evil. The great battle against thanatos is merely pastiche, to be hovered over, observed without pathos. This loss of meaning in death presupposes the loss of a guiding story. Without such a story, the story of Adam and original sin, Gardner argues that we are left with a “new kind of guilt, more terrible than the other.” Guilt, having been removed from the story of creation, fall and redemption now, “springs from the fact that, though one has done nothing particularly wrong, one cannot, by one's very nature, do anything of particular worth. It is the guilt of the metaphysically abandoned animal who, conceiving ideals beyond his nature, can only eat his heart out, self-condemned.”

Art which only seeks to shock is all that can be produced by a culture which has detached itself from any guiding story of what it means to be human (See Al Mohler's blog for this argument). As Gardner puts it, art should rediscover "generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness.”

Martin Amis, Experience (New York: Talk Miramax Books, 2001), 122.
Martin Amis, Koba the Dread: Meditations on Laughter and the Twenty Million (New York: Talk Miramax Books, 2002), 83-84.
Inglorious Basterds, DVD, directed by Quentin Tarantino (Hollywood, CA: Universal Studios, 2009).
John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (New York: Basic Books, 1978), 6.