It’s not just politics. Politics is merely a governmental, socio-economic manifestation of a much broader “culture” that encompasses all generally accepted—or contested—values of a country. And values are based in philosophy.
Thus, America’s political collectivist-individualist divide is merely symptomatic of a deeper ideological (philosophical) divide permeating not only politics but also education, lifestyle, language, art, and more.
Philosophy addresses fundamental ideas and values regarding reality and human knowledge/behavior, but unlike other branches of the discipline—metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics—aesthetics (artistic presentation) is immediately accessible and comparable because art shows us ideas and values in material form.
From the America colonies until the United States’ last century, the preferred art by artists and admirers alike was that of established western-heritage forms and values: realism in visual arts; melody and harmony in music; structure, coherence, and meaning in poetry/literature; grace in dance; and beauty in all.
Arriving on our eastern shores via mainly English settlers in the 17th-century, these art forms and values came from ancient Greece (chiefly Aristotle’s ideas and the efflorescence of artistic innovation venerating the individual) by way of Roman adaptation, the ensuing Italian Renaissance, and finally the European Enlightenment.
The 19th-century produced paintings and sculptures of such soaring skill, beauty, and profoundness that it was termed “The American Renaissance.” Daniel Chester French’s “Lincoln Memorial” and Albert Bierstadt’s “Indians Spear Fishing” are good examples.
Then the 20th-century arrived with modernist shocks that challenged America’s humanistic artistic path, redirected it, and finally submerged it into depths of obscurity. For decades, realist painters and sculptors went into teaching rather than prostitute their art into ugliness and/or gibberish.
In 1913, NYC’s “Armory Show” instituted the phrase “avant-garde” to describe an art “movement,” a movement away from beauty and individual artistic nourishment. [Sidebar: In 1912 the Progressive Party was founded, promoting political collectivism over individualism.]
Most paintings in the exhibit were by Americans, but Europeans—Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp—caused the sensation, especially Matisse’s “Blue Nude”and Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.”
These distorted images directly confronted traditions of proportion and beauty resulting in a fractured-aesthetic approach to art that remains—sans shock—with us presently but in even more grotesque, fatuous, or nihilistic fashions.
After copying Europeans for awhile, Abstract Expressionists became the names of the game in America, their work usually devoid of figurative allusions and altogether lacking in content.
Today, however, many museums eschew contemporary artists of that passé ilk in favor of piles of logs (and piles of other suggestive things in similar shape and color), scrawling on walls, walk-through avenues of metal, and bright lights blinking, and blinking, and blinking. . . Block-bluster exhibits also feature oversized toy-balloon-dogs made of steel, horses made of sticks, and rags dipped in buckets of varicolored paints and hung like curtains for peeking through.
Predictably as the culture at large declines further, along with anti-aesthetic-brain-assaulting imagery, we now witness an astronomical rise in blatant anti-individualistic-pro-collectivist political propaganda in so-called “art.”
Also predictably, as political individualism and collectivism began to confront each other more directly over the decades (escalating from the 1960s on), the early 1990s ushered in a resurgence of representational painting and sculpture that confronted the ugly, silly or offensive with beautiful, serious, and positive.
My own NYC nonprofit foundation American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART—established 1993) was one of the first to champion contemporary art expressing beauty and life-affirming values: Art Renewal Center (ARC—established 1999) has become a major force worldwide with its competitions and exhibits. Demand for fine instruction in realism has burgeoned as painters and sculptors around the world yearn to learn. The Florence Academy of Art recently expanded its Italian campus and created outposts in Sweden (Mölndal) and America (N.J.) to meet that demand.
Beautiful, humanistic, and meaningful art is now in full bloom everywhere for the first time in a century. Thus we now have a distinctly divergent art world to parallel the fully solidified political split.
A true whole-culture divide.
What is this all-pervasive great American divide eloquently expressed in art all about? It’s about reason—non-contradictory thought—the primary survival tool of humankind.
Non-objective (meaningless) or offensive (subversive) “art” is a philosophical “No!” thrown in the face of reality, a real-life existence that requires reason in order to understand and navigate human life within it. Objective (intelligible) and beautiful (uplifting) art is a philosophical “Yes!” to the embrace of reality and successful individual human wellbeing.
Precisely because art is a physical, aesthetic manifestation of ideas—values—if it expresses ideas and values that are anti-rational, hence anti-individual and anti-reality, it affirms fear, anger, and alienation in likeminded viewers. If it expresses visions of values depicting rational verities and possibilities that rejoice in nature and ennoble humanity—or if when expressing life’s poignancies, it does so in remembrance of its opposite condition of joy—it affirms confidence or hope, and forever offers personal enrichment in likeminded viewers.
America is in stark political—philosophical—conflict: liberty and individualism vs. governmental authority and collectivism. Simultaneously, we witness an equally balanced artistic—philosophical—conflict: Life-affirming values expressed in aesthetically beautiful art reflecting core beliefs that respect the sovereignty of the individual and the rationality it takes to become an individual vs. nonsensical and/or hideous and/or collectivist propaganda-art expressing devotion to emotional anti-rationality and anti-individualism.
The two together—politics and art—express opposites emblematic of the entire culture at a tipping point.
Who stands where in this philosophical divide?
Shallow people with no significant values will mindlessly gravitate to mainstream twaddle or “with it” fads in every realm—political, artistic, stylistic, linguistic—regardless of foundational ideas at play.
It can be revelatory, however, to observe the mostly-interconnected (but sometimes equally-revealing-disconnected) chain of politics-art-philosophy preferences of good friends and treacherous foes.
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation (www.art-21.org). She has written for many publications, including “Reader’s Digest” and The New York Times. Her latest book is “Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks.” Read Alexandra York’s Reports — More Here.
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