In the process of praising Virginia Postrel’s new book, The Substance of Style, David Frum raises a very interesting point. Allow me to quote it at length:
It is curious that the moment in which American business has discovered beauty has coincided with a radical rejection of beauty by American artists. I donâ€™t fully hold with Charles Murrayâ€™s anxieties about the disappearance of artistic excellence (see below), but nobody can deny that serious artists and musicians have been gripped by what HL Mencken once called a â€œlibido for the uglyâ€ â€“ abandoning the interest in beauty to fakers and hucksters like Thomas Kinkead, the â€œpainter of lightâ€ whose mass-produced works are sold at fabulous prices in shopping malls near you . . . But if the idea spreads that there really is no difference â€“ that what say Cezanne did is just a rarified version of what the stylists at Starbucks do â€“ one should not be surprised that potential Cezannes decide to forgo the hardships and risks inherent in the life of the artist and sign up for the certain benefits of working as a stylist. With those who can actually draw or compose a tune or write clever words absconding for work in the style economy, the art world is left empty to be filled up with misfits and weirdos attracted to the life of the artist precisely because of its hardships. Weâ€™ve created a world in which those with artistic talents are systematically hired away from artistic vocations â€“ while just about everyone drawn to an artistic vocation lacks basic artistic talents.
I think Frum is on to something here. Could it be that beauty in traditional art has been so devalued that we are forced to look for beauty in other places? Those on the left might like to blame this on the market and on consumerism but it seems to me that the art world rejected beauty as a value seperate from any consumerist drive, in fact quite the contrary, they sought it to prove they were not commercial but political. Ironically the market is trying to bring beauty back.
Postrel responds to Frum’s points somewhat here. What do you think?
I read Frum, too and some reviews of Murray’s book. It’s been one of my biggest complaints for the last 30 years – the triumph of the Ugly justified by Theory.
No one likes it yet its practitioners get grants and fortunes for it.
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