Cover Story

STEALING BEAUTY

Increasingly, art is becoming either so esoteric as to be irrelevant or so commercial as to be reduced to a consumer commodity. But we can recover the foundation for true aesthetics

Issue: "What is art?," March 20, 2004

Christians, it is often said, are not interested in the arts. The same can be said of most ordinary Americans, who want to leave that sort of thing to the elite culture, to the upper-class patrons of the galleries and museums. But even those who profess no interest in the arts watch TV, go to the movies, listen to music, go shopping, and live in a cultural environment saturated with design and aesthetics.

Artists are the makers of culture. They express their worldviews in ways that shape the worldviews of others. Because they specialize in making their expressions appealing, their visions and values are uniquely persuasive to others. Their works are artifacts that embody the ideas, the emotions, and the philosophies of their time.

In our postmodern times, aesthetics has, in many circles, taken the place of knowledge and morality. Questions of truth are resolved according to what people "like." Moral issues are considered simply a matter of personal "taste." These are aesthetic categories, which people now use to determine the most important dimensions of their lives.

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Aesthetics drives contemporary popular culture. Entertainment has become the ultimate value, not only in Hollywood but in education and even religion. People define themselves according to the music they listen to and the aesthetically packaged products they buy.

But while aesthetics are very powerful today in influencing the way people think and-what has become almost the same thing-what they buy, creating objects that are beautiful and meaningful in themselves seems out of place. The arts, in fact, are in a state of crisis, as the rejection of absolutes undermines their own nature and value.

There was a time when the arts supported culture, bringing values and meaning to bear on everyday life, and, while this can still be found, the arts today often are instead subversive of cultural values-and, ultimately, subversive of themselves.

Art has increasingly become either so esoteric as to be irrelevant, or so commercial as to be reduced to a consumer commodity. Both extremes devalue art, making it lose its potential to exalt and edify and enrich. When beauty is cut off from the true and the good, to the point of trying to take their place, beauty itself suffers, and truth and goodness are diminished.

Christians used to be the leaders in aesthetic pursuits, and the Bible gives a foundation for the arts that affirms their value, while preventing them from distortion. Putting the culture back together must involve reclaiming and restoring the arts.

Something for nothing

The Turner Prize, given in England each year, is one of the world's most prestigious awards for the very best in contemporary art. One year, the winning work of art consisted of the dead bodies of mutilated animals pickled in formaldehyde. Another year, the winner was the artist's unmade bed.

In 2001, the best contemporary work of art was deemed to be an empty room. Viewers of the work by Martin Creed titled "Lights Going On and Off" went into a gallery and there was nothing there. The lights would occasionally go on and off. That was the work of art.

Presumably an art consisting of nothing would be the low point of contemporary art, either its end or a turning point to something more. The most recent candidates for the Turner Prize were a step up from nothing. In 2002 the winner was an artist whose works included lead castings of the items on a Kentucky Fried Chicken menu.

Those on the short list for the 2003 prize, which comes with $36,000 cash, included Anya Gallaccio, who makes works of art out of rotten fruit. Another was Willie Doherty, who showed a video of someone running without being able to get anywhere. Another finalist was the work of brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose works included "Sex," which was a sculpture of dead bodies being eaten by maggots, and "Death," a bronze of blow-up sex dolls engaged in a sex act.

The winner of the 2003 Turner Prize was Grayson Perry, who makes traditional-looking pottery pieces on which are illustrated what he calls inversions of a happy childhood-whimsical cartoons showing child abuse and dead babies. Mr. Perry is also a transvestite with a wife and daughter who exhibits his dresses.

The Turner Prize shows that we have come a long way from Giotto, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh. The issue is not just a move away from realistic, mimetic art. There is even a decline away from the highly formalistic aesthetic standards of the abstract art of the early 20th century.

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