According to the Wall Street Journal this morning, the Art Institute of Chicago has received art valued at $500 million. The donors are Stefan Edlis and his wife whom the WSJ calls Gael Neeson. The art is of the Pop genre and includes some nine works by Andy Warhol (1928-1987).
During my Army years (1956-1960) I’d spent some of my free time seriously studying art as a phenomenon—aided by being in Europe during that time. Just after I’d returned to the United States, Warhol’s star began to rise, in the 1960s. By then I’d seen the terrain leading up to the Pop Art movement and, having formed some conclusions of my own through actual study and thought, I more or less shrugged. It was bound to happen.
You might say that art reflects the general culture of its time. And even as early as the 1960s, culture had come a vast distance from the days of Christendom. Indeed art had separated itself into a self-conscious social phenomenon long before I’d actually been born; it had become emancipated from the collective. Somewhat arbitrarily, let me say that this emancipation began with Impressionism in the nineteenth century. Thereafter new schools began to flourish, among them, just to name a few, were Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, and so on. A strong element of this was self-consciousness: viewing the collective from above and as its critics. By contrast, what I came to view as real art during my studies (and it’s always present, if also largely in the minority of works since the Renaissance) is art that aims at something transcending. And in that sense Pop Art, with its focus on ordinary objects, celebrity, and techno-wizardry is amusing, perhaps, but not in any sense motivating the viewer to respond. Self-conscious art, curiously, comes ever more to focus on itself, rather than on its subject; the subject is a means, not an end. Beauty, which is perhaps the most general word expressing art’s subject, is lost in self-promotion.
The art world, in consequence, has lost its general relevance to culture—except as yet another path to fame and fortune—whether as a creater, owner/collector, or institutional temple for it. When art is seen as art, it no longer works. And much the same may be said of countless other semi-institutional efforts that have become similarly “emancipated” rather than remaining organically rooted in the collective social effort.