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The problem with modern art

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 4 August 2008

There has been a tradition in the West of the artist being fraught, agonised, drug addicted and living a chaotic life that leads to early death. Brett Whitely died of a drug overdose in a motel room. Jackson Pollock died in an alcohol fuelled car accident that claimed the life of a young woman with him. To find that you have artistic talent is thought to be accursed. The American poet Franz Wright when he showed his first poem to his poet father received the encouraging statement “You are a poet, welcome to hell”.

But the muse does not always torture the one she settles on. An example of such a one is my friend the Rev. Bob Booth, whose paintings illuminate most walls of my house. I spoke to him the other day and on asking “how it was all going” he told me that he was excited about the new things he was discovering in his art. Bob, an ex mountain climber, is the sort of person who is not happy unless they are pushing some kind of edge. He describes painting as an exhilarating journey into a kind of glory. His pictures are not an imposition of his own will and ideology but a response to the world. His most recent exhibition was called An Attempt at Obedience and he made these introductory comments:

Any notion of arriving at some mastery that offers certainty to my next effort is not really hope at all, as I note that progress depends on obedience rather than mastery. The inner necessity of the work, (that very small unassuming voice) requires a corresponding inner silence of the painter. It seems to be a process of developing sensitivity to what is required of me in order to follow.


This same exhibition contained a large desert scene entitled “The dead leaves living it up in the Pilbara”. Even dead leaves participate in the glory of creation.

This approach is in stark contrast to the idea of art as self expression or art as ideology or political statement. Indeed modern artists would bristle at the very idea of obedience, are they not the brave explorers of new frontiers never before broached? We wonder if this is the spring of their agony for what if there is nothing worth expressing in the self? What if ideology and politics eventually cease to motivate and entrance?

The contrast between these two images of the artist, the one agonised, the other exalted, raises questions about art in late modernity. Before the modern era and the turn to the self, artists responded to the glory of God and many did not sign their names. Just as fine stonework was often placed out of sight on a cathedral steeple, it was not our view that was important but the view of God.

There is a lag between the beginning of modernity in the 17th century and modernism in art in the early 20th. It may be that the secularisation that began its long ascent in the 17th century did not work itself out fully in the work of the artists for 200 years. Charles Taylor defines the secular age as “one in which the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing becomes conceivable”. So the artist who lives in a thoroughly secular age cannot see anything beyond his own concerns to make an artistic statement, to promote his status, to find a place in the history of art.

It is no wonder, then, that many artists are agonised and their art so lacking in beauty because they are trapped in their own egos. Their work is marked by imposition rather than response, a desire to create out of nothing rather than to be obedient to the demands of truth and beauty, they desire to make their mark and that is their undoing.

The result is the race to the new, to be the first to express some personal ideology in an installation, or a happening, or a construction. The thing that is most obvious in much contemporary art is that it costs the artist so little. One feels that there has been no long apprenticeship in drawing or painting or sculpting, there is no technical expertise. All one needs is an idea and the arrangement of junk to express it.


When I was at the University of Sussex I used to go to the gallery on campus and it was my experience that before one could view the exhibit one had to read a long manifesto of the artist’s aims. Now there is something seriously wrong here. For a work of art to be so personal to the artist indicates that he is operating on his own, out of his own ego with nothing before him but his own navel.

One must say that this is the end result of secularisation which has closed us out of the transcendent. All of our attempts to find that in ourselves only results in ugliness and self obsession. This is not to say that we have to begin to believe in the supernatural defined as the spooky natural. It has been the great and tragic mistake of our civilisation to accept the materialism of the natural scientists as meaning that all there is is matter, even though we know that none of the qualities that make us human can be described in material terms.

Yes, I know that neuroscientists would claim that love may one day be described in terms of patterns of neural firing. And yes, I do know that human beings are bags of meat and offal and brains, that is what it means to be creaturely. But I do object to the conclusion that this realisation produces, the reduction of the human to mechanism and hence the reduction of art to the elicitation of sensation without beauty or meaning, or even more absurdly to an idea. This is what produces art works that Bob describes as “something dead nailed to a piece of wood”.

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Note: the unreferenced quotations come from Roger Kimball “The End of Art”, First Things, July 2008.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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