Art that expresses an age

Culture: A British social historian questions the very nature of 20th-century forms, and debates which best represent these times.

May 25, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

During a family visit to North Carolina last weekend I saw "Phantom Menace," the newest "Star Wars" epic, at a local multiplex.

Folks in Greensboro seemed mercifully resistant to the hype that envelops the movie elsewhere. To them, "Phantom Menace" was just a movie, thank you.

Yet the very equanimity with which they took the film struck me as a portent of sorts. It made me wonder whether when people look back on our century, they will remember Pablo Picasso's "Guernica" or George Lucas' "Star Wars" as the art work that most expressed its age.

There's certainly an argument to be made that the 20th-century marked a watershed in the history of art.

Ours is the first century ever to see motion pictures, television, radio and the recording arts.

That is the thesis of "Behind the Times: The Decline and Fall of Twentieth-Century Avant-Gardes," a provocative little essay published last year by British social historian Eric Hobsbawm.

It argues that modern art does not at all "express the times" in the way art of an earlier era did. On the contrary, it represents a willful aberration from the spirit of the age, and therefore is increasingly irrelevant.

For Hobsbawm, the spirit of the age is reflected in movies like "Phantom Menace," "Gone with Wind" and "Casablanca," in Duke Ellington's recordings of "The A Train" and John Coltrane's album "A Love Supreme" -- in short, in what philosopher Walter Benjamin called the modern arts of mechanical reproduction. They are the quintessential art forms of the 20th century, not painting and sculpture.

As a social historian (and an accomplished jazz critic), Hobsbawm is an outsider to the world of professional art historians and critics.

But he brings a fresh view to Benjamin's seminal ideas on the effects of mass reproduction of visual and sound images.

Benjamin predicted that the mass reproduction of images eventually would alter our emotional and psychological relationship to the unique object that a painting or sculpture once represented.

And it appears today that this has, in fact, happened.

Today we live bathed in a ubiquitous media ocean of images. The power images once held by virtue of their physical uniqueness -- what Benjamin called their "aura" -- they now retain only as shock value.

This is a consequence of the 19th century avant-garde idea that, to be significant, one had be new, and that to be new required one to be shocking.

Moreover, while writers and composers were trying to come to terms with mass production and the technologies of infinite repetition, painters and sculptors still clung to the idea of the unique art object, the product of the artist's own hands.

The result was a self-absorbed cult of newness that relied increasingly on prurient effects than on spiritual or aesthetic truths. The recent controversies over issues of obscenity and censorship of the arts are an inevitable outgrowth of these developments.

Whether or not one agrees with Hobsbawm's views, they represent an important challenge to the current critical orthodoxy about the respective virtues of "serious" and "popular" art.

The tug-of-war between the two constituted the intellectual backdrop of the recent uproar over the Whitney Museum's retrospective of 20th-century American art, which put the popular arts -- photography, movies, advertising -- on an absolutely equal footing with those of painters and sculptors, the traditional fine artists.

I would hate to have to choose between "Star Wars" and "Guernica." To me they are both essential pieces of my mental furniture, part of the stock of ready-made myth by which I orient myself in the world.

I can imagine that in the far distant future one or the other will have been long forgotten. But it is a prospect that strikes today me as a great pity indeed.

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