Conservatism and Art

Honore Daumier, One Says That The Parisians . . . (1864)

There’s no epithet in the art world quite as damning or feared as “conservative.” Sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? The word carries with it the stale smell of convention, easily digested comforts and hidebound principles. (Forget politics; we’re talking aesthetics here.)

Certainly there’s no creature so roundly mocked by contemporary tastemakers. People twist themselves into knots trying to avoid the label. After all, doesn’t history teach us that regard for precedent and suspicion of novelty are wrongheaded?

Well, to an extent, anyway. Modernism—or, more specifically, the avant-garde—insisted that art must push boundaries and question definitions about the nature of the art object itself. The hapless fate of those who stood against modernism’s challenges to established taste has left an indelible impression on artists, curators, dealers, critics and—that most enigmatic of all things—the general audience.

The innovations of modernism were met originally with fierce opposition and eventually with (wait for the beat) utter acceptance. Resistance is futile: Outrage is the norm. That’s the moral of the story and the law of contemporary culture. Thus the avant-garde becomes incapable of genuinely revolutionizing form or taste. The cutting edge simply plays to an audience feigning shock for the sake of feigning shock.

Marcel Duchamp had the integrity to mock those who mistook his provocations for art. But then Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns made Duchamp’s gadfly cynicism safe for the masses. Predigested, vacuum-packed and eminently consumable, Dadaism is now a gleaming parody of itself. The anti-aesthetic has become the mainstream for a subculture fueled by status, fashion and real estate. Shock has followed shock to ever-diminishing effect—or, rather, to huge profits.

Thumbing one’s nose at culture has become especially lucrative as the art scene has become ever more entwined with showbiz. Enabling critics are, at worst, capitalist stooges and, at best, flatterers to the court. Should we ask hard questions about the artistic legitimacy of the latest transgression? Let’s not. Better to be an easy lay than to wonder if the sex you’re having is any good.

“Conservative,” then, is just a slur used to prop up a rickety, glittery social network. It’s a conversation-stopper meant to quell dissent. Yet it’s also a more widely applicable term than you might think. Mark Stevens, the art critic for New York magazine, described the 2006 Whitney Biennial as “conservative at heart … [embodying] the well-worn conventions of our time.” Huey Lewis had it wrong, apparently: It’s square to be hip.

© 2006 Mario Naves

Originally published in the April 16, 2006 edition of The New York Observer.

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