How dare we be so wicked?
Three generations of tastemakers have sternly told us that all -- positively all -- art, design and architecture created during the long reign of dear old Queen Victoria was horrid, nay, worse: It was Bad Taste.
Just the same, otherwise civilized young people have lately fallen in love with Victorian buildings. All those gables, turrets, gimcrackery and ornaments, in fact, have become the rage. Victorian furniture has become as good an investment as an oil well. The proper life-stylish thing to do is no longer to polish the steel tubes of Breuer chairs, but to strip the paint off carved Victorian mantels and spend the vacation money on replacing long-lost stained glass.
But that is not all. Until very recently, otherwise perfectly civilized young people would pay their due to modernity by hanging at least a Josef Albers print or a Miro poster on the wall. Now, oh horror, reproductions of subtly hued, theatrically posed Victorian paintings are moving from the basement recreation room (where they only recently replaced Art Nouveau posters) to the parlor.
Two respectable museums actually sanction this perfidity. Today, the Brooklyn Museum is opening an exhibition of "Victorian High Renaissance." And the Detroit Institute of Arts is displaying a lavish survey of "The Second Empire Art in France under Napoleon III."
"The trend to revive and exalt the most reactionary painting of the century may fairly be said to have reached its apogee," fumes Hilton Kramer, the senior critic of the art establishment and The New York Times.
To some of us, however, it is late 29th century abstract art and architecture, the frivolous mannerisms of the perpetual avant-garde, that seem reactionary. It also, at last, is laid to rest. It will be quite a few years until it is rediscovered and, perhaps, resurrected.
Nothing personal, mind you. No one is fighting our noisy, modern and "post-modernist" artists who are so desperately fumbling for some new stunt or shock. No one is emotional about the critics, art dealers and curatiors who are so frantically trying to defend the vanishing avant-garde. As we, as a nation, become more sophisticated about art, we also become more tolerant about styles.
It seems generally true, as the British art historian John Steegman put it, "that each age dislikes and derides the art and the taste of its predecessors up to about a century preceeding. The gentlemen of the 1760s threw out Charles II furniture; the mid-Victorians banished their Chippendale to the servants' attic; in the 1930s everything later than the Regency was discarded."
Kramer and the rest of the modern art establishment, however, continue to dislike, deride, banish and discard Victorian painting and sculpture. They are trying to protect an enormous investment in money and reputation. They fight their windmills with the same emotional fervor with which, a century ago, the modernists effectively demolished what the Victorians held dear.
A century ago, the protest gave rise to a new art which promised to bring virtue and redemption.
What modern art and architecture brought instead was alienation between us plain folk and the elite. And now that modern has spent itself and degenerated, the old invectives sound ludicrously hollow.
The partisans of moderism, writes Kramer, "look upon this embrace of (Victorian) academic art as an act of apostasy and betrayal." But how can you betray something you have never fully accepted, let alone been loyal to? How can you take off the Emperor's clothes?
Kramer recalls that at the turn of the century the modernists saw their success as a moral victory of "truth" over 'the falsehood of the artistic establishment." As another century approaches, we see it precisely the other way around. What, pray tell, is "true" about brightly colored chevrons or framed, hand-painted awnings?
Why should the work of William-Adlophe Bouguereau -- the butt and scapegoat of the early French modernists -- remain condemned as "glossy bad taste," representing "soppy feelings designed to elevate and disguise the realities of modern life"?
Just what gives Jackson Pollock's expensive dribbles a lasting claim of un-glossy good taste representing a calm understanding of reality? Perhaps it is true, as Kramer says, that the Victorian painters (who, he concedes, were tremendously popular in their time) "quarantined middle-class culture from any trace of emotional honesty." But how, and why do Helen Frankenthaler or Robert Rauschenberg make our middle-class emotionally more honest? I would argue the opposite. For far too long, we dishonestly pretended to be emotionally touched by an art that had to be constantly rationalized with incomprehensible jargon.
Kramer is right: The intellectualism and austerity of the moderns, particulary the late moderns, "have created a yearning for something easier to take." But art and architecture that is easy to understand and to feel affection for is not "hokum." You cannot divide art into "intelligent" art and -- what? Stupid art?
The Zeitgeist -- the collective feelings and perceptions of a period -- moves on. Styles and fashions come and go. It seems a little primitive to indict a whole epoch with collective guilt.
The Germans make it easier for themselves in judging art because their word for it is Kunst , which derives from koennen , which means ability. It is inspired ability -- call it genius if you will -- that makes an artifact art.
The devastating mistake of the modern movement was to intellectualize art and divorce it from general experience. That is why our cities and most of our homes are so artless.
That does not make all Victorian art good. But neither does it make it bad. Such criticism, says Steegman, "is really as false and historically defective as to pronounce all art of the Italian Renaissance "good ."
You'll find some lovely paintings in the Detroit and Brooklyn museums.