At the downtown exhibitions of conceptual art in the early ’90s, the gallery walls served as bulletin boards on which to post a syllabus of moral lessons imbedded in twisted steel and fluorescent neon light. Ugly was a show of virtue, and so was the lack of talent, the bombast recurring in the explanatory notes (“imperialism,” “otherness,” “void,” “difference”) pointing as garishly as road signs to the injustices of gender, race, wealth, and social class. It was not enough merely to look at a battered rubber woman or a pair of gold-plated tennis sneakers. What was important was the theory of the thing, not the thing itself, the knowing that beauty was reactionary and that the artists labeling the merchandise had come to think of history as a “dysfunctional idea.” The message brought with it the great good news that the arts, when not otherwise employed as political agitprop or commercial advertising, offered refuge from a dysfunctional grasp of reality with welcome escapes into the nearest mirror. Novels that in the 1950s set out to discover how it is with man in the company of other men gave way in the 1980s to the writing of memoirs intent upon discovering that when one really had a chance to think about it, the world and all its troubles were really all about me. The authors who would be king placed stylish gestures of self-loathing on the altar of self-promotion.
The United States Census Bureau now counts almost two million Americans working in the arts, many of them under the impression that the occupation designates them a law unto themselves, granted the equivalent of the “moral waivers” that the U.S. Army bestows on those of its sorely needed recruits burdened with a chronic illness, poor test scores, or a prior record of criminal assault and felony arrest. Never before in the history of the known world have so many people trooped through so many museums, been provided with so many handsome reproductions, dance recitals, string quartets, lectures, libraries, postcards. The opinion polls report two-thirds of the citizenry defining art as a necessity, but for the most part it is a constituency in the market for distraction, more interested in what Van Gogh’s deranged hand did to his ear than what his incomparable eye saw in the sunlight at Arles. The constituency is likened by Jack Tworkov to a circle of spectators watching a sidewalk artist sketch portraits of Scottish terriers, what they admire having “nothing to do with art, but everything with performance: even costume plays a role (beard, beret, smock).”
The preference has shaped the framing of the American mind since its inception in the colonial wilderness, the sensibility noted by Benjamin Franklin as being attracted to the invention of a machine or the improvement of an implement, more apt to make communion with objects that move and do things than with those that merely stand there waiting to be spoken to or heard. Not the kind of audience likely to object to the processing of the lively arts into the machine-made product distributed as media, the metamorphosis similar to the one visited upon the livestock in a Nebraska meat-packing facility. The songs and dances come with a factory-inspected guarantee that the commodity in the hand of the manufacturer will remain dead in the mind of the consumer.