June 13, 2003


In last friday's Portland Tribune was a letter I wanted to comment about, on the purpose of public art. Written by Erik Impson in response to this rather bland complaint by Richard LaMountain, it makes the classic fundamental error of other defenses of modern drivel art.

First, how bigoted is this?

I question your motives in choosing to publish Richard F. LaMountain's "Out with the abstruse, in with relevance" (Insight, May 16). While competent in grammar and structure, it relays an opinion that is not only undereducated but also hateful toward the arts.
Yeah, right on, brother... he disagrees with us modern artists, so lets censor him! He doesn't deserve to be published. Die, dissenters, die!

Okay, I'm being absurd. But do you see my point? LaMountain's view should not have been published because it conflicts with Impson's worldview. How accepting, for someone who goes on to make the art is expression fallacy:

Yet conformity is not art. Conformity is the antithesis of art, which is at its heart, expression.
Bzzzzzt. Wrong. Art is, and always has been, about beauty. While it is a form of expression, art is not synonymous with expression.

The problem with LaMountain's lackluster essay is that he associates the sucess of art with a dead culture -- Ancient Greece. Now there is nothing wrong with the Greek influence, but it presumes that Athens was more capable of greatness than we are today. I object to LaMountain's POV for the same reason that I rejected, a few days back, Totten's view of architecture. Both of them give up on the promises of the present and future.

But this does not mean we should go in the opposite direction, which says that " art... is at its heart, expression." That leaves the door open for all sorts of monstrous frauds, like cans of excrement and tinfoil sculpture, to be accepted as art.

It's easy to poke holes in Impson's argument by applying a little gradeschool algebraic theory: if X is true, it's opposite, Y, must be false. If something that does not conform is art, then something that does conform cannot be art. So then, by this reasoning, many of the greatest artworks of our culture's past are not, in fact, art at all. They are just some kind of pre-modern schmaltz.

Mona Lisa? OMG, it's... it's... it's representational! How tacky!

Modernism is dead, but the modernists are not, and they will never let go of the fiction that allowed mediocrity, and sometimes complete failure, masquerade as achievement. Instead they will keep modernism in a glass casket, and keep trying to park it, like Lenin's tomb, in the center of our towns....