Antennae of the Race: Understanding Modernist and Contemporary art

Ezra Pound once remarked that artists are the “antennae of the race,” perceptive to the spirit of the age around them. Mainstream conservative commentators make the horrendous mistake of dismissing Modernist and contemporary art as “bad,” and therefore they must complain about the artwork. Yet, like they normally do, they miss the root issue of “bad” contemporary and older Modernist works. Artists take in what they see and feel around them. Disordered, nihilistic times such as ours (with, of course, some elite meddling) are invariably going to produce ugly artwork. In this regard, that is why contemporary art is important–not that I personally like most of it–but it is a touchstone for the state of our culture. Marcel Duchamp’s infamous toilet  did not simply come about without social context.

When Modernist art took off after the Great War, traditional painters and artists could not simply go back to the world of before the war. The Great War was the culmination of the industrial revolution, the violent intrusion of machines onto the human sphere. Take for example Wyndham Lewis’ A Battery Shelled: the soldiers in the background of the painting do not look human at all. Lewis depicts them as the dehumanized components of the war machine the soldiers were reduced to.

A Battery Shelled by Wyndham Lewis, 1919

The above Prager University video raises interesting points, yet they do not understand that the cause of aesthetically unpleasing art is not entirely the result of artists plotting against the stuffed shirts of the academy, but examining their world and

Prague Strasse by Otto Dix, 1920

producing art that reflects it. How could Wyndham Lewis return to the styles of the prewar era after seeing the trauma of the Great War? Such a style of painting would strike as dishonest or overly sentimental, not unlike authors who use their art as agitprop–it comes off as fake.  Otto Dix, a German (coincidentally an artillery veteran like Lewis) depicted the spiritually broken society of Weimar Germany. Dix depicts the spirit of the Weimar era both with the shocking content of his work and his quasi-surrealist style. Dix’s other paintings show the contrast between the glamor of Berlin night life and the poverty stricken veterans on the street, like his 1928 work Metropolis. Weimar Germany was not a place where an artist could find transcendent beauty among the wreckage of the old Reich.


Blogger Agnostic notes that pop music often reflects the zeitgeist. He speculates that music will have to shift to fit the attitudes of President Trump’s America, noting that hits of the uncertain, tumultuous 1970s  have a sharp contrast with the far more optimistic,

Image result for patrick nagel

Patrick Nagel painting

high energy 1980s. Popular music of both decades fit the spirit of the age. Even artwork from the eighties, while technically postmodern, shares this shift in consciousness. It is not possible to undo the effects of Modernism or later art movements on the culture. Art will change and adapt to reflect the times. Shallow conservative analysis sees “ugly” art itself as the problem, when the issue is the zeitgeist. This is not to downplay the terrible effects of the National Endowment of the Arts or Humanities from enshrining conceptual art as the peak, but those art works say something about the world we live in.

The next change in art of all kinds, from literature, to music, to fine art will shift with the American mood–that is, if Americans (and conservatives in particular) are still willing to pay attention to art, rather than sit back and complain about “ugly” contemporary art. Should the economy improve under the new administration, people will have more leisure time and disposable income to support quality arts and entertainment. Art that depicts ugliness does not come out of a vacuum, and neither does art that depicts beauty.




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