The Guggenheim museum recently announced the finalists for the Hugo Boss prize, which is worth $50,000 and given every two years to an artist whose work “represents a significant development in contemporary art.” The finalists represent contemporary art, all right, and not only in the sense that their works are mostly silly. As Aldous Huxley knew, they are also works of artistic cowardice.
Here are a few of the Guggenheim finalists, as described by the New York Times: Francis Alÿs, “who deals with the absurdity of urban life through his collaborations with local artists and craftsmen in a variety of media, from video to performance art”; Anri Sala, who has already won a prize at the 2001 Venice Biennial “for his poetic video installation on transience and tourism”; and Koo Jeong–a—my favorite—“whose pieces incorporate everyday materials like aspirin tablets, pencils, and coins.”
Yes, these are slow–moving targets, good for a few laughs. Yet what’s noteworthy is not only why, but also the way many people laugh at this stuff. Usually those outside the modern art world deride works on pencils and tourism, but in a way that is a bit self–deprecating. We know we’re out of it, that this stuff is just too sharp and esoteric for our minds to grasp. We waffle and ask ourselves, Is it art? And if so—if, indeed, it comes with the imprimatur of the Guggenheim and $50,000—aren’t we more than a little bit square?
No, actually, we’re not, but sometimes it takes someone fearless and eloquent to spell out exactly why. Recently the complete essays of Aldous Huxley were reissued in six volumes. In volume three can be found an essay titled “Art and the Obvious.” First published in 1931, it helps us to make sense of the Times article and the attitude that underlies it.
“All great truths are obvious truths,” Huxley begins. “But not all obvious truths are great truths.” He then lists some of the great truths that are also obvious—or at least that were obvious before the era of victimology and the rise of the helping professions: happiness depends upon oneself “and not external circumstances”; parents love their children and “men and women are attracted one to another in a variety of ways”; many people are moved by nature “to feel elation, awe, tenderness, gaiety, melancholy”; most people are attached to their homes and countries, “to the beliefs which they were taught in childhood and the moral code of their tribe.” All of these are “obvious truths and great truths because they are universally significant, because they refer to fundamental characteristics of human nature.” Thus people never tire of hearing about them. They appreciate validation of the facts of human life, and great artists give it to them. It’s why we never tire of love songs.
Huxley then touches on the obvious truths that are not great truths—the fact, for example, that New York has traffic and that fashions change. In light of the Hugo Boss awards, we might add to this list of obvious truths the fact that people find use for aspirin tablets, pencils, and coins. These things may be appreciated by people when they see them in art, noted Huxley, but they don’t fulfill the public’s need for art that focuses on obvious truths that are also great.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that all art about great obvious truths is automatically great art. Sometimes the public will shun great truths because they are often treated in a sentimental and hamfisted way by popular culture—in, say, dopey songs about human weakness or cloying romantic movies that fail to reveal the true beauty of love. Such works aim for the big truths but fail. And in failing, thought Huxley, they often convince our artists that the truths in them are not worth examining: “The excesses of popular art have filled [our artists] with a terror of the obvious—even of the obvious sublimities and beauties and marvels.” They then become “compelled by their disgust and fear” to address only “a tiny fraction of existence.” Like aspirin and pencils, for instance.
Yet as the last few decades have taught us, artists don’t always retreat into the quotidian because of popular schmaltz. Sometimes they do so because they convince themselves that the big issues are unworthy of examination since great truths do not exist. Huxley’s essay is more than seventy years old, so one can only guess at the despair that our art scene would inspire in him today. He was spared Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe. For the last forty years our media, educational institutions, and those calling themselves artists have dragged the American people along by the nose, trying to convince us that the world we once knew—the world of tradition and faith—is an ossified relic, precious only to the stupid and reactionary, and thus unworthy of artistic interpretation. We are in, to invoke an apt phrase, a brave new world.
In other ways, however, our current situation might have seemed depressingly familiar to Huxley. After all, he came from a post–World War I generation that, like so many of us today, tended to deny the existence of obvious facts that are great truths. As far as Huxley was concerned, “Those who proclaim that human nature has changed since August 4, 1914 are merely rationalizing their terrors and disgusts.”
We, too, have spent years denying the existence of great and obvious truths. Isn’t it long past time to say, with Huxley, that shrinking in terror and disgust from the obvious is the act of a coward? How else to describe an artist who traffics in pencils and coins when our world, both before and after September 11, offers such an abundance of subjects for art? How else to explain the cheap anti–Christian pranks of our “artists” when real life provides us with a photograph of the lifeless body of a priest who died giving the last rites as the World Trade Center crumbled around him? The world is full of images and acts of breathtaking beauty—and our artists give us ashtrays and aspirin.
It is in refusing the retreat into the banal that Huxley really hits his stride, denouncing it with an intensity that would be much too bold for most contemporary newspapers. The last paragraph of his essay deserves to be quoted almost in its entirety:
Almost all that is most daring in contemporary art is thus seen to be the fruit of terror—the terror, in an age of unprecedented vulgarity, of the obvious. The spectacle of so much fear–inspired boldness is one which I find rather depressing. If young artists really desire to offer proof of their courage they should attack the monster of obviousness and try to conquer it, try to reduce it to a state of artistic domestication, not timorously run away from it. For the great obvious truths are there—facts. . . . And since they exist, they should be faced, fought with, and reduced to artistic order. By pretending that certain things are not there, which in fact are there, much of the most accomplished modern art is condemning itself to incompleteness, to sterility, to premature decrepitude, and death.
That, and $50,000.
Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author of If It Ain’t Got That Swing: The Rebirth of Grown–Up Culture (Spence).