52. Art and the Decline of Civilization

There is certainly something wonderful about people expressing themselves without any formal training. For example, the punk movement included many young people who just decided to form a band and THEN learned a little bit in order to be heard. A few chords here, a few chords there, and a lot of attitude! In many ways this goes for the blues as well: if you want to be heard then, given the relatively simple structure of the music, where there is a will there is a way.

But I think at some point we have to bemoan the widespread lack of training found in so much art. At some point we have to realize that attitude and basics only go so far and that the more limited one is in terms of training and vocabulary the less one can say. Consider these passages regarding “marginal” or “frontier” visual art by Bernard Berenson from his wonderful work Aesthetics and History (Anchor Publishing, 1948):

“A frontier art, or, as we shall often speak of it, a marginal or peripheral art, owes its characteristics chiefly to lack on the part of its artificers of proper training, training in the most essential requirements of the arts of visual representation, by which I mean chiefly the drawing of the nude.” (191).

“Peripheralism or marginalism (if we may use these terms) is due to the abandonment of the artisan to his own devices, freed from the inspiration and control of the artist….But the artisan’s devices do not carry him far or forward. He falls back on sloppy methods of execution, while in visualization he returns to the crude shapes and infantile patterns that have taken root in is mind, because they were more accessible to his feeling and more suitable to his hand than art based on intellectual training.” (193-194).

But why should we care? Why take this lack of training so seriously? Well, according to Berenson, this state of affairs is a symptom of a declining civilization. Consider these astonishing claims:

“Self-satisfied incompetence on the part of the artist, complacent indifference if not enthusiastic approval on the part of the public, characterizes an ebbing civilization, leaving little but wreckage and refuse interspersed among the proud ruins of once noble cities. The surviving denizens salute every destruction, every distortion, every successful attempt to lower what is left of the past splendour to their own level of debased and crippled intelligence. They grow delirious with approbation, as we do now over the anti-art successes of painters and sculptors of the day, and over the wholesale demolitions going on before our eyes in the most conspicuous centres of what had once upon a time been our spiritual homes; while we are enraptured with the buildings that disclaim any purpose but that of being responsive to our animal needs – to our comfort, that is – as the cave was to the severely utilitarian requirements of the neanderthaler. In other words, as a civilization shrinks, the peripheral or marginal region gains upon the interior until it finally conquers the centres, reducing Babylon and Memphis, and Thebes of the hundred gates, to deserts, Athens and Antioch to small market towns, and Alexandria to little more than a fishing village” (191-192).

Could it be the case that the wide-spread decline of rigorous training and discipline in art is a symptom of a society in decline? It is certainly hard to believe at first glance. But it does seem important to realize to what extent we live among wide-spread destruction and pollution; to what extent most things are not built to last nor built to manifest beauty; and to what extent great centers of human achievement the world over have been reduced to mere shades of their former selves. There is no doubt that art is only one of the factors among the many involved in this destruction. But we know that art reflects the values of the culture. If a culture sees people, the environment, and indeed the Earth as mere instruments for their immediate enjoyment then it is no surprise, I guess, that so much art is expendable after the momentary escape it provides. The lack of respect, sacrifice, long-term thought (or thought in general), and taste is apparent in our actions and art alike. Roger Scruton has recently made a strong case for these points in his book The Face of God, especially with reference to architecture. To be sure, there is still plenty of great art and there are still plenty of people who appreciate it. There is good culture the world over. And progress in art often does come from critiquing the past masters, developing new techniques, breaking rules, and having an irreverent attitude. But despite these observations, it does seem that we are ebbing a bit…doesn’t it?



One reply on “52. Art and the Decline of Civilization”

  1. I agree that the culture is going down the tubes I think the answer is to try to communicate the frustration of that, and point towards how the world can be changed for the better by communicating to people of a wide “intelligence” range, and trying to uplift them with a universal message of goodness, It’s a hard task though and most people probably fall back on the bare minimum that makes the most money, worrying about their own life, not doing enough worrying about society as a whole.

    I’ve been working on a comic book idea for years but, knowing what it will take in terms of work, and blood sweat and tears, has me wincing. But I know that that work is going to be expended somehow through the course of my life so I might as well use it on something creative.

    The problem also is summoning the faith in yourself that something you make will be of benefit to the world. I don’t know I feel like I’m rambling now. There’s alot of knowledge and wisdom on these forums, I miss having you as a teacher! Hope all is well with Yourself and your family Goodyear!

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