We recently visited—I for the second time, my wife for the first—the “Jewel City” exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. It was a retrospective, gathering once again some of the paintings, murals, and sculpture from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The original exposition was the city’s celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal and its own recovery from the 1906 earthquake and fire. The modern exhibit a hundred years later was as much an eclectic affair as the original, mixing 19th century triumphalism about the westward march of civilization with French Impressionists, Norwegian Expressionists, Italian Futurists, and American painters and sculptors from the preceding half century.1
Going through that exhibit nailed for me, once again, a favorite period in the visual and plastic arts. It was a time when painters and sculptors regularly produced imagery that another human being could examine in detail; draw from it a sense of time, place, and mood; and relate it to his or her own life and thoughts. It was all “representative” art, of course, in the sense that it tried to show something with reference to the real world—or to an imaginary world that drew life and meaning from the world we all inhabit.2 The presentation might be skewed by the artist’s sense of perspective, color, light, and detail, but it was still meant to “be” something.
I feel at home with this kind of art. Artists and their critics from the late 19th and early 20th centuries might feud bitterly about the merits of impressionism versus expressionism and the details of painterly technique. But these are the minutiae of art history. For the average human viewer, the paintings and sculptures for the most part worked their magic and made themselves accessible.
Somewhere, sometime—and I think the civilizational collapse of two world wars, an economic depression, and the resulting political extremism had a big hand in this—we lost that vision. Art became personal to the artist, abstract to the point of concealing the original subject—and the efforts of Pablo Picasso and his followers had a hand in that—and isolated from the life and thoughts of the average person.
Some interesting studies in form and color have come out of this movement. I think of Alexander Calder’s delicately balanced mobiles from the 1950s—although I recall one critic decrying them as “lacking irony.” That comment has always stuck with me and helped shape my view of modern art. A Calder mobile is interesting, evocative, draws the eye, and inspires the imagination like moving clouds, schooling fish, or flocking birds. It is not a comment on the world but a vision of pure color and motion. I can look at one of his mobiles for whole minutes at a time and feel relaxed. But a nearby exhibit of four rectangular panels painted in primary colors with a roller brush—intentionally ironic and abstractly intellectual as they might be—have nothing to absorb my eye or my mind.
We have entered a time in modern art when the artist’s statement of purpose, typed out in a page or more of frankly tangled verbiage—abusing at once both the visual arts and the written word—has become a necessary part of the exhibit. You can’t just walk up to a painting or a sculpture anymore and just look at it. You need to have the artist’s view of his or her own worth and place in the ongoing process of “art.” And when the artwork is a picture of a two-dimensional human nude gagged with a surgical mask and stabbed with pins, which I remember from an exhibit at my own university in the 1960s, or a photograph of a crucifix dipped in a jar of urine, then you can guess that the artist’s view is pretty bleak and disoriented. And it’s not just the subject matter; the techniques themselves are usually slapdash and childish.
Now, I believe in personal freedom. I believe that everyone gets to do what he or she likes and thinks is important. But, and this is a big “but,” not every effort has equal value and not everyone’s “thing” should be practiced out in the open and pushed forward as supposedly important enough to engage the time and attention of everybody else. Not everyone should be—or should expect to be—paid for their sour, vindictive daubings that must be justified by paragraphs of explanatory prose.
Irony—the mode of speech or display that presents one thing but cleverly intends its opposite—does have its uses in prose and the visual arts. Socrates, for example, made a point of his pretended ignorance of the subject under discussion in order to draw out the ideas of participants in his dialogues. But when irony becomes the entire basis for an artist’s endeavors and the underpinning of his or her worldview—as in the criticism of Alexander Calder—it borders on sarcasm, ill humor, and disrespect of the viewer’s or reader’s time and attention. If the whole world is a big joke to you, something that only pretends to be what it is and whose values you know to be hollow … well then, how much further can your mode of discourse progress? There you are, snickering at life and the world—and you’re just about finished.
I’m glad that my business, that or writing novels, is one of the few art forms that cannot be turned on its head by this sour and dissipated view of life. You might be able to show your contempt for the worthlessness of hope and effort by painting black canvases or developing blank film, but it’s difficult to publish a book filled with randomly repeated words or meaningless strings of type.3 A book is supposed to involve the reader’s mind for a certain period of time, and no one willingly focuses his or her thoughts on empty content.4
As a writer, I know that to disrespect my readers is the death of art. I may play with them, tease their imaginations, and trick them with false clues, suggestive wordings, and red herrings littering the plot lines. I may use all the forms of irony to lead my readers to expect one thing and then drop them into another reality. But my readers—the alert ones, anyway—are expecting this. They read certain novelists for their double meanings and clever tricks in the same way that audiences love a good magician or a musical parody. But if I try to pass off something cheap and ill conceived, something that suggests I’m not playing with the reader’s mind but offering up trash because I don’t think my readers can tell the difference—they will know it immediately.
I know a few musicians—singers and keyboard players—and they say the same thing. You can clown around with your audience. You can imitate famous singers and make knowing parodies of popular songs and modern styles. But the minute your audience suspects that you are offering them less than full effort because you actually despise them and their sense of taste—then you are dead on stage.
To disrespect your audience is to imply that you as the artist are more important than they are, that your time and effort are more valuable, that you are somehow doing them a favor by performing. And yet they are the ones who can at any time stop reading, stop listening and watching, stop paying attention. That is the power, the superior position, held by the audience.
To disdain your audience is also to disrespect and belittle you own art. You are making light of your product’s value. You are suggesting that you waste your own time. And it is part of our culture, at least here in the Western tradition, that art in any form—even the silliness of making comic films or writing and singing funny songs—is a worthy pursuit that is due the artist’s full effort and attention.5
I don’t know how modern painters and sculptors get away with their overbearing sense of irony. It’s an attitude of contempt that no successful or even just competent writer, singer, or movie producer could survive.6 And yet the modern galleries and self-conscious “museums of modern art” are full of it.
No one likes being on the outside of an in-joke.
1. The original exhibition left enduring marks on the city. The Palace of Fine Arts, a reconstruction in concrete from the original in lath and plaster, became a landmark of the San Francisco Marina District. And then a group of western American painters who felt they had been snubbed by the Panama-Pacific International Exposition’s selection committee presented their own show at what later became the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. Finally, the French exhibit at the PPIE inspired sugar heiress Alma Spreckels to create the Legion of Honor Museum in the Presidio.
2. In the same way that the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and the fantasy writers following him—filled with elves, dwarves, and magical swords—or the science fiction of a Heinlein or a Herbert—filled with spaceships, strange creatures, and people with stranger powers—still deal with issues and concerns that have meaning for readers in the here and now.
3. Of course, there have been blank books—essentially exercises in bookbinding without the effort of typesetting—that were sold as jokes. They have titles like Everything I Learned About the Stock Market in Thirty Years of Trading. If you get one, you can always use the blank pages to start a journal or paste in recipes. But no one expects you to sit down and read the thing.
4. Well, the Zen koans ask you to do just this, but their goal is mental expansion, not diminishing attitude. And none of them runs to book length.
5. When I was studying English literature at the university, John Fowles wowed my generation with his novels. The Collector, The Magus, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman held us all spellbound. And then he suddenly declared that novels were not an important art form and he would concentrate on his poetry. It was like a smack in the face. He disappointed us all.
6. Although Hollywood is skating perilously close to audience contempt with their endless and uninspired remakes of comic-book fare.