"the mona lisa"... "the pieta"... "the girlwith a pearl earring." for a score of centuries, artists enriched western society with their works of astonishing beauty. "the night watch"... "the thinker"... "the rocky mountains." master after master, from leonardo, to rembrandt, to bierstadt, produced works that inspired,uplifted, and deepened us. and they did this by demanding of themselves the highest standards of excellence, improving upon the work of each previous generation of masters, and continuingto aspire to the highest quality attainable. but something happened on the way to the 20thcentury. the profound, the inspiring and the
beautiful were replaced by the new, the different,and the ugly. today the silly, the pointless, and the purely offensive are held up as the best of modern art. michelangelo carved his "david" out of a rock.the los angeles county museum of art just offers us a rock, -- a rock -- all 340 tonsof it. that's how far standards have fallen. how did this happen? how did the thousand-yearascent towards artistic perfection and excellence die out? it didn't. it was pushed out. beginning in the late 19th century, a group dubbed the impressionists rebelled against the frenchacademie des beaux arts and its demand for
classical standards. whatever their intentions,the new modernists sowed the seeds of aesthetic relativism -- the "beauty is in the eye ofthe beholder" mentality. today everybody loves the impressionists. and, as with most revolutions, the first generation or so produced work of genuine merit. monet, renoir, and degas still maintained elements of disciplined design and execution, but with each new generation standards declined until there were no standards. all that was leftwas personal expression. the great art historian jacob rosenberg wrotethat quality in art "is not merely a matter
of personal opinion but to a high degree . . . objectivelytraceable." but the idea of a universal standard of quality in art is now usually met with strong resistance if not open ridicule. "how can art be objectively measured?" i'mchallenged. in responding, i simply point to the artistic results produced by universalstandards compared to what is produced by relativism. the former gave the world "thebirth of venus" and "the dying gaul," while the latter has given us "the holy virgin mary,"fashioned with cow dung and pornographic images, and "petra," the prize-winning sculpture ofa policewoman squatting and urinating -- complete with a puddle of synthetic urine.
without aesthetic standards we have no wayto determine quality or inferiority. here's a test i give my graduate students, all talentedand well educated. please analyze this jackson pollock painting and explain why it is good. it is only after they give very eloquent answers that i inform them that the painting is actuallya close up of my studio apron. i don't blame them; i would probably have done the same since it's nearly impossible to differentiate between the two. "and who will determine quality?" is anotherchallenge i'm given. if we are to be intellectually honest, we all know of situations where professionalexpertise is acknowledged and depended upon.
take figure skating in the olympics, whereartistic excellence is judged by experts in the field. surely we would flinch at the contestantwho indiscriminately threw himself across the ice and demanded that his routine be acceptedas being as worthy of value as that of the most disciplined skater. not only has the quality of art diminished,but also the subject matter has gone from the transcendent to the trashy. where onceartists applied their talents to scenes of substance and integrity from history, literature,religion, mythology, etc., many of today's artists merely use their art to make statements, often for nothing more than shock value.
artists of the past also made statements at times, but never at the expense of the visual excellence of their work. it's not only artists who areat fault; it is equally the fault of the so-called art community: the museum heads, gallery owners,and the critics who encourage and financially enable the production of this rubbish. itis they who champion graffiti and call it genius, promote the scatological and callit meaningful. it is they who, in reality, are the naked emperors of art, for who elsewould spend $10 million dollars on a rock and think it is art. but why do we have to be victims of all thisbad taste? we don't.
by the art we patronize at museums or purchaseat galleries, we can make our opinions not only known but felt. an art gallery, afterall, is a business like any other. if the product doesn't sell, it won't be made. wecan also support organizations like the art renewal center that work to restore objectivestandards to the art world. and we can advocate the teaching of classical art appreciationin our schools. let's celebrate what we know is good and ignorewhat we know is not. by the way, the white background you see behindme is not simply a white graphic backdrop. it is a pure white painting by noted artistrobert rauschenberg at the san francisco museum of modern art.
i'm robert florczak for prager university.