This past weekend I had the acute misfortune of spending an afternoon in the Whitney Museum of American Art in the Meatpacking District of New York. A friend of mine had asked me to join him to investigate it, which should as a legal matter make him responsible for damages of $18, several hours, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The Whitney, as it’s called, is not all bad. It has some nice Hopper, Lichtenstein, and lesser-known artists such as Henry Koerner. The long-exposure photography was excellent too. Unfortunately my pleasant memories of all these works were sullied by the exhibit on the sixth floor — An Incomplete History of Protest.
Rounding the corner to enter the exhibit, I encountered the most fascinating combination of leftism and bad taste ever assembled. There was a mosaic of anti-Vietnam signs, which displayed the hippies’ talents for zeugma (“Save Lives, Not Face”) and swearing (“F*** the Draft”). Then followed a few horrifying AIDS-related posters including genitalia and more wordplay (a picture of Reagan with the caption “He Kills Me”).
Next there was a wall full of agitprop from some organization called the Guerrilla Girls. The material in question looked like advertisements one might have taken out in Ms. magazine back when that was required reading for the fashionably radical. “Republicans do care about women’s rights to control their own bodies!” (Smaller print: “breast augmentation,” “nose jobs,” etc.) “We demand a return to traditional values on abortion!” (Smaller print: “The Catholic Church didn’t ban early abortion until 1869.”)
I truncate the epic catalogue, since by now the reader has surely gotten the point. The exhibit was an entire floor of lies, obscenity, melodrama, and a single rhetorical trick used 8,000 times. Which, to borrow a conceit from Meryl Streep, are not the arts.
This was the museum’s key weakness: It had shunned art and preferred razzmatazz. No doubt I shall be called a philistine hater of modern styles and a pseudo-cultured reactionary, but that is not really at issue here. The question is whether propaganda is art, and the answer is No.
“Expression” is probably the word most associated with art nowadays, especially with visual art. That is correct if properly understood, though it has an alarming tendency to become the proposition “any expression is art,” which is dead wrong. “F*** the Draft” is expressive, sure, but it is not artistic. What distinguishes artists from everyone else is that they are not merely expressers but the best expressers; they do things that we not only couldn’t do but wouldn’t do. They find le mot juste or its equivalent in other media, while the rest of us can resort only to generalities.
The primary purpose of art, therefore, is elevation. The artist can take a feeling and refine it so that even people who don’t feel it can understand why others do. I’m no roaming outdoorsman, but The Call of the Wild made me want to strangle a deer and eat it. Atheists who see The Last Judgment contemplate for a moment that millions of people fearfully awaited and still await that day of wrath. Art, especially religious art, often has a stronger effect on people who agree with the artists’ premises; certainly Michelangelo was aiming at the believer when he painted the Sistine Chapel. But his work also has sympathetic side effects on the unbeliever.
Protest and injustice are fine subjects for art, but the artist must refine his anger into a subtle creation.
Coercion is not a purpose of art. The atheist regarding The Last Judgment does not get the feeling that someone is trying to convert him to Catholicism. The handiwork of the Guerrilla Girls, on the other hand, is designed for browbeating into submission whatever poor soul happens by. He is supposed to feel attacked if he does not agree.
One wall was covered with what I shall provisionally call a poem that consisted of columns of the same stanzas replicated over and over again: “No to racists,” “No to fascists,” “No to clickbait as culture,” “No Islamophobic anything,” “No meaning without meaning.” One can do one of two things in response to this: nod one’s head or shake it. There is no complexity. To the leftist it is a soothing mantra straight out of Eastern mysticism; to the non-leftist it is a summary of all the things protesters shout at you when you’re trying to get to work.
In other words, the exhibit commits the cardinal sin of art, which is naked didacticism. The materials belong, if anywhere, in a history museum because they are historical artifacts, not artistic works. Of course protest and injustice are fine subjects for art, but the artist must refine his anger into a subtle creation. The Third of May 1808 is a protest painting. The changes in color and brightness are striking; the viewer sees the main figure about to be shot, then the corpses of those already shot; he immediately wonders how he would feel if he were that terrified peasant. “F*** the Draft” does exactly none of this.
One gets the feeling the patrons of this museum visit to prove how progressive they are. They do not care that the so-called art is the quintessence of bilge. They care only that it advances the ideology de rigueur. The March for Life has been going on since 1974, yet we find no “Abortion Is Murder” sign in the quite incomplete history of protest. That would get the museum shunned by high society.
Indeed, there is no reason the Whitney should go on calling itself an art museum now that it has forgone artistic merit as its selection criterion. Let it call itself the Protest Shrine — at least then the unwoke will save their money.