Few things tell us more about a culture - what it esteems, what it disparages - than its art. The plays of Sophocles distill an essence of Periclean Athens just as the paintings of Titian bring us near to the heart of seventeenth-century Venetian culture. Closer to our own day, it is easy to see how Modernist art - with its dissonances and anxious novelties - epitomizes the giddy, Promethean ferment of the early twentieth century. Le Sacre du Printemps or The Wasteland could no more have been composed in 1850 than Les Demoiselles D'Avignon could have been painted then. Such works belong to and help define their time.
What, then, of contemporary culture? What does the art of the past few decades tell us about it - and about ourselves? Alas, anyone interested in understanding what is at stake in the "culture wars" - those many battles about values that, since the 1960s, have loomed increasingly large in American society - must ponder contemporary art. I say "alas" because the spectacle that the contemporary art world presents is distinctly unappetizing. Whatever merits individual artists here and there may exhibit, most of the established art of our time is pretentiously banal when it is not downright pathological.
Celebrating the grotesque
These are, I know, harsh words. But they are not excessive. We live in a time when art is often indistinguishable from perversity. Everyone knows about the cases of Andres Serrano, with his photographs of crucifixes immersed in urine, and Robert Mapplethorpe, with his photographs of sexual torture and humiliation. And everyone knows, too, that work by these men was supported in part by public monies from the National Endowment for the Arts and other government bodies.
But such well-publicized cases are only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. For every Andres Serrano or Robert Mapplethorpe there are scores of other artists - celebrated and acclaimed ones, too - producing "work" that is equally repellent. It would be a simple matter to fill a book with examples: Karen Finley smearing herself with chocolate and denouncing the evils of patriarchy; Ron Athey, an HIV positive "performance artist," who slices abstract designs into the flesh of another man and then mops up the blood with paper towels and suspends them above his audience on clotheslines; Carolee Schneemann, who slowly unravels a text from her vagina while reading it aloud to her audience; and on and on. As I say, it would be easy to produce a fat anthology of such grotesqueries.
But the problem is not, or not only, numbers. The real issue is not the existence but the widespread celebration of such images and behavior as art. As a society, we suffer today from a peculiar form of moral anesthesia. It is the delusion that, by calling something "art," we thereby purchase for it a blanket exemption from moral criticism - as if something's being art automatically rendered all moral considerations beside the point. A juror in the Mapplethorpe trial in Cincinnati memorably summed up this attitude. Acknowledging that he did not like Mapplethorpe's rebarbative photographs, he nonetheless concluded that, "if people say it's art, then I have to go along with it."
It is worth pausing to digest that terrifying comment. It is also worth confronting it with a question: Why do so many people feel that, if something is regarded as art, they "have to go along with it," no matter how offensive it might be? Part of the answer has to do with the confusion of art with "free speech." (More precisely, it has to do with the confusion of art with a debased idea of free speech that supposes any limits on expression are inimical to freedom. In fact, freedom without limits quickly degenerates into a parody of freedom.) Another part of the answer has to do with the evolution, and what we might call the institutionalization, of the avant-garde and its posture of defiance.
In any event, when we step back to …