“Social mobilism,” or the anti-Americanism of modern American art


Back in December, I went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (“LACMA”) to see an exhibit entitled “Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915.” Historic European and American fashion has always been something of a hobby of mine, so I was excited when I first heard about the exhibit. I wasn’t disappointed. The exhibit contained a very large, beautifully displayed, well-explained collection of European fashions from 1700-1915. It was a lovely reminder of a time when clothes, at least clothes for the middle classes and wealthy, were hand-made, with exquisite attention to detail and decoration. In other words, the clothes were a perfect example of the decorative arts.

Since we were at LACMA, after admiring the clothes, we wandered about a bit, and found ourselves in vast space housing a collection funded by Eli and Edythe Broad. It was very modern. There was a giant fish tank, filled with clear acrylic, in which there appeared to be floating three half submerged basketballs. Next to it was a glass display case with three shelves, each containing several electric floor polishers, all resting horizontally. There was a giant, maroon, shiny egg, broken in two pieces, as if a metallic lizard had recently hatched. There were several pieces of wood, not quite as big as 2 x 4s, nailed together in a seemingly random pattern. There was a chain link fence with metal sculptures mounted upon it, each of which was skillfully crafted to look like a child’s plastic pool toy.

There was also a very lovely young woman there, a museum employee (or, perhaps, a volunteer) who was happy to explain what all this stuff meant. She told us that it illustrated “social mobilism.” That was a conversation stopper. By the time we’d processed this bit of linguistic nonsense, she was speaking to other people, and it would have been rude to interrupt to seek further enlightenment.

The more I thought about it, though, the more intrigued I became by that silly phrase. In the past, art served three purposes: it glorified the rich and powerful; it glorified God, and, in a pre-photographic era, it recorded the world around us. To be worthy of artistic respect, all three of those goals required skill and elegance. Nowadays, though, art is the equivalent of a lost soul. God is dead (at least in the art world); the rich and power live on television and in glossy magazines; and every cell phone enables us to record our world with almost nauseating frequency.

For those who have graphic skills, money resides, not in cozying up to power brokers (as did the artists who served the Medicis, the Popes, or the various European monarchs), but in providing commercial images, whether for movies, magazines, posters, or anything else. We may admire the craftperson’s skill, but we don’t call it “art.”

Because the modern world imposes severe limitations on what was once the artist’s purview, the only thing left for the person with genuine artistic talent — or mere artistic pretension — is to produce things that make the critics happy. If you can’t have wealth, at least you can have praise from a rarefied class of academics and “art” magazine journalists. It won’t pay the rent, but it will make you feel good about yourself.

These critics, living in or coming from academia, all hew Left. To them, it’s only art if it challenges what they perceive as America’s failings: her religiosity; her crass commercialism; her grim, depressing people; and her sexual perversions. Art, in other words, is anti-American.

Of course, one can’t say that out loud, because Americans, who are generous people and interested in self-improvement, might baulk at being told that they’re spending their money to be denigrated and ridiculed. So the art world comes up with lovely phrases such as “social mobilism,” which not only serve as a cover for a deep cultural animosity, but also make the self-styled art class feel special.

Keeping in mind the art world’s deep hostility to America, it’s hardly surprising that one of the most recent exhibits to hit the art world celebrates graffiti or, as some of us still call it, vandalism. In City Journal, Heather MacDonald takes a look at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s newest exhibit, Art in the Streets — or to cut through the euphemism, Scrawls on Walls that Destroy Communities:

There is no clearer example of the power of graffiti to corrode a public space than the fall and rebirth of New York’s subways. Starting in the late 1960s, an epidemic of graffiti vandalism hit the New York transit system, covering every subway with “tags” (runic lettering of the vandal’s nickname) and large, colored murals known as “pieces.” Mayor John Lindsay, an unequivocal champion of the urban poor, detested graffiti with a white-hot passion, but he was unable to stem the cancer. The city’s failure to control graffiti signaled that the thugs had won. Passengers fled the subways and kept going, right out of the city. To the nation, the graffiti onslaught marked New York’s seemingly irreversible descent into anarchy.

Yet in the late 1980s, the city vanquished the subterranean blight by refusing to allow scarred cars onto the tracks. That victory was a necessary precondition for the Big Apple’s renewal in the following decade; it was the first sign in years that New York could govern itself. Riders flooded back—by 2006, 2 million more passengers each day than in the eighties. The subway’s rising ridership was a barometer of the city’s rising fortunes.

What could be more artistic than something that doesn’t just mock America, but that actually hurts her? That’s social mobilism in a nutshell.

Cross-posted at Bookworm Room.

The Bookworm Turns : A Secret Conservative in Liberal Land,
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