A Map of Modern Art
Between the 60′s and today the visual arts ceased to matter to the life of the mind. In living memory, an educated person was expected to know the names of the two or three most prominent painters, sculptors, and architects of the day. Picasso’s studio in liberated Paris was a tourist stop for American GI’s; Frank Lloyd Wright was a celebrity. Today, even well-informed people would have trouble identifying Jenny Holzer or Frank Gehry. There is, of course, an “art world,” but it is as self-contained and remote from the concerns of most educated people as is the fashion world (with which, indeed, it seems to blend at times in a single universe of hype). Now and then, fundamentalist outrage with avant-garde artworks like those of Robert Mapplethorpe attracts attention; even this, though, to many literate Americans, is a war of pygmies and cranes, taking place in a distant country.
How is it that the visual arts have drifted so far from the concerns of people who are manifestly not philistine? One reason is the baffling multiplication of styles; to tell the score, a gallery-goer almost needs a Ph.D. But that is not the entire answer. Underlying the apparent chaos of abstract, neo-expressionist, mixed-media, minimalist, and performance art are a few basic conceptions of the purpose of the visual arts, which can be understood without great difficulty. To understand, however, is not necessarily to approve.
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