June 30, 2005

The Political Art and the Art of Politics

THE CLASSICAL THEMES of art have always been -- virtue, nobility, patriotism.

Since I practiced none of these in my youth, and throughout much of my career worked actively or passively to under-mind them, I came -- at last -- to yearn to discover what they could possibly be in this blighted age. After all, I was not alone in my abnegation. My entire generation, one way or another, had tossed virtue, nobility, and patriotism over the side of our Ship of Fools thinking to lighten the vessel and keep it upright and afloat. As the Not-So-Great Generation, we did not understand the physics behind removing the ballast when all aboard were struggling to climb over each other to get as high as the very top of the top gallants.

Since the beginning of this century, the more I surveyed the vast and troubled social sea on which I had finally awakened adrift with the rest of the wreckage, the more I saw that these virtues -- in a shriveled and shrunken form -- seemed only to be found in the scattered sanctuaries of the Church and what remained to the Republican

Party. But looking long at both these institutions I found I could not fit in either one or the other or some amalgam of both.

Perhaps art could be my refuge, my refiner and restorer? It was, I knew, folly to even think so. The "art" of our age , in the main, had been for so long mired in a swamp of the impish and the perverse that, mirroring the tainted soul of my generation and, in the absence of the classical themes defining it, art had no power to uplift, but only the power to degrade its central soul, beauty, until even that sunk beneath the surface of the expression of an age defined by human wastes. The celebration of shit as art had, at some point in the 1990s, gone beyond metaphor and been enshrined in the cathedrals of art, the museums, and subsidized by the government. Shit as art had become, by default, the official art of the era.

Of our popular arts, worse still was to be expected from them and they did not disappoint. Where the "higher" arts merely expunged beauty, truth, virtue, nobility and patriotism from their vocabulary, the popular arts actively substituted ugliness, lies, evil, degeneracy, and sedition.

And because humans are readily seduced by degeneracy since it is always the easier path to take in a life given over to sensation without sensibility, the popular artists were richly rewarded and came to be, some briefly and some with real staying power, glittering icons that inhabited in ever changing forms, the central electronic shrines of our homes -- the home's new hearth.

In these shrines the new high priests of the soul's pornography paraded an endless pantheon of the very modern models of the soul. Wife-killers who played golf as their reward. Twisted pederasts who built their own child-traps complete with pony rides and carousels and Ferris Wheels; who had a payoff for the parents who brought their boys in for the delight of the master of this land of Wonders. And these were only two of the numberless celebrated souls that appeared on "The Trial of the Century, This Week." Those known for money or being known took their turn there as well. The apotheosis was one woman who sought power and position in order to stuff up the spot in her soul that rotted from the center of a fortune got when one husband died in an airplane crash. This woman was so crazed that she found in her next husband a man so besotted with himself that he had never known an ambition higher than the crassest ambition in America, to become the President of the United States. It was, in a very real way, the apotheosis of a corrupt politics with a corrupt art. It was a very 21st century American aesthetic in which virtue, nobility and patriotism were discussed but never really existed. Made for TV.

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

Posted by Vanderleun at June 30, 2005 5:10 AM | TrackBack
Save to del.icio.us


"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Further ballast for your point on modern art. The latest creation of British artist Mark McGowan is called "The Running Tap." At the House Gallery in London, the work consists of a water tap left on at full power for one year to highlight water waste during Britain's worst drought since 1976 with some 15 million litres of water to go down the drain.

Posted by: Jille at June 30, 2005 7:30 AM

This brilliant little try ends waaaayy too soon, and without provocation or conclusion. Please finish it. Make this Part 1...

Posted by: Jeremiah at June 30, 2005 7:44 AM

Jeremiah is right, sir. The ending here is a failure of nerve.

No one *really* fits in anywhere, any more than we ever did in adolescence. The only difference is that we now know nobody back then felt they fit either; some were just better at posturing.

Politics and religion -- and marriage, for that matter -- are flawed institutions, because we are flawed individuals. So we make our peace -- it costs too much to be called joy, but it is a kind of peace when you can find the courage to make a fit of sorts wherever it is you find yourself.

After much tempest-tossing voyages, I washed up in a small Episcopal Church. Despite what I feel about the larger church, I'll stay with this small group of people feeling their way through life.

The thing original sin teaches you is that Eden is forever closed, that there is a large chasm between what we think and want and what we actually do.

And I washed up in the Republican party because the alternates are so odious. It's a large enough tent and lots of people you can talk to without feeling you're on a strange planet.

Sooo...when do we get part two?

Posted by: dymphna at June 30, 2005 8:04 AM

Lighten up a bit guys; I think it's great when our master editor, GVDL, just lets it go and writes from heart to the page (or screen). Besides I like the occassional odd-shaped pearl.

My post 9/11 disappointment with the sanctuary of art has been with the novelists of the world. Has one novelist (besides Roger Simon) come out to condemn Islamic fascism? Just yesterday I discovered that Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes came out with a book-length screed called Contra Bush in which he compares Abu Grabe to...you already know (hint: they made use of an ancient Buddhist symbol). I try to separate the man from the work but retroactivity kicks in - Fuentes seems to possess a completely conventional mind - even his linguistic experiments like Where the Air is Clear seem now conventional. Ditto Norman Mailer and the rest. Conventional, all along, playing it safe, utterly insured by America's vast lumpy tolerance of everything.

Posted by: Doug at June 30, 2005 9:10 AM

Actually, I always thought OUR generation, rather than jettisoning virtue, nobility, patriotism, etc., just ignored such things, being pre-occupied looking for what a fellow in Marblehead, Mass used to call "THE 'IT' IN SHINING ARMOR," and was devastated that nothing seemed to fill that ideal.
Of course, to many, it seemed a lot like virtue, nobility, and patriotism, suffering the slings and arrows of TrogAmerica because of one's opposition -- by conscience -- to mass slaughter in Southeast Asia.
Is it just possible that "finding refuge" in the Church and the Republican party (or the Democrats or the Libertarians, or the Vegetarians or anyone else but one's own commitment to virtue, nobility and patriotism -- as determined by conscience) is a mature willingness to settle cheap, but still scratching that elusive itch for the "IT" so wottehell, Archie.
I remember a fellow in Marine Corps Boot Camp, during swimming lessons, splashing and screaming he was drowning -- help help help -- and the DI shouting "Stand up and save yourself," since he was in the shallow end of the pool where the water was only 3 feet deep.

Posted by: Saintperle at June 30, 2005 9:28 AM

The Romans understood that art was to delight, instruct, and lead the perceiver to virtuous action. That seems about right.

Apparently we are a timid folk, or, perhaps, merely corrupt. We can't identify a picture of a crucifix in a glass of piss for what it is, and for what it most certainly is not--art.

Posted by: Old Dad at June 30, 2005 9:44 AM

How about an art project that hangs a person a day to protest the death penalty?

The urinal as art was supposed to be a joke. Really.

Posted by: StephenB at June 30, 2005 11:54 AM


I agree that Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" is a joke but doubt that it was intended as such. That there is an iota of confusion suggests the sorry state of modern "art."

Posted by: Old Dad at June 30, 2005 12:21 PM

My entire generation, one way or another, had tossed virtue, nobility, and patriotism over the side of our Ship of Fools thinking to lighten the vessel and keep it upright and afloat.

Was it to keep it upright, or turn it into a swan?

Posted by: P.A. Breault at June 30, 2005 3:28 PM


The unit of action in a democracy is the individual... and neither you nor I can do squat to change yesterday.

We can learn and live better for the lessons, though - and our daily interactions with others cannot help but to change the world for the better.

Failure is the price tag for life. The trick is to not go bankrupt. We aren't near that point as a people, or a nation.

(of course, your "life in the 3-9-2" link a few days back could be taken as proof otherwise...)

Posted by: TmjUtah at June 30, 2005 5:06 PM

As to the rotting of the "arts".

Is there a real Elsworth Twohy actively undermining it from within or is it just a natural decay because shocking people is easier than inspiring them?

Posted by: Mumblix Grumph at June 30, 2005 9:30 PM


Burns' documentary on American Masters about Eugene O'Neill casts an interesting light on things. He said theater changed from an optistic art to a pessimistic, fatalistic one, a "realist" view, if you will, with O'Neill. It still hasn't gotten over that dour Irishman.

This realism today has devolved into nihilism. The movies and books of my youth made me a leftist. It's only now I'm discovering there's more to reality than they told me. I missed the Morning in America but am board for Act II with Bush.

I also miss the noble in arts and write about it here. Maybe the Liberty Film Festival will begin the reconstruction...

Posted by: Patricia at July 1, 2005 2:29 PM


Posted by: Patricia at July 1, 2005 2:31 PM


Remember the famous parables of the lost sheep and the prodigal son? There is a high virtue in being found and returning to righteousness. For one thing, during the journey you may find and don the armor against the attack of nihilism that those who never strayed may not possess.

I have a confession. I am of your age, but not your “generation.” I found the ’60 revolution repulsive and despised the Viet Nam war protesters. Perhaps it was my upbringing as an immigrant. Perhaps it was the small town I grew up in. Perhaps it was my relative poverty (I did not have my parents’ money to go out and “find myself”). One factor certainly was a deep and abiding faith in Christ.

There is a wealth of wisdom in the final chapter of Ecclesiastes. To some it is deeply depressing. To me it is a reminder that no one was ever promised a rose garden.

May you know peace.

Posted by: Moneyrunner at July 2, 2005 8:17 AM

Before I slide the confessional screen please define "virtue" for me. And you weren't raised to practice it?
Patriotism I'll let slide because use of the term has been corrupted through fear and cowardice and exploitation.
Nobility is mastered by the few and it is nice to know them that have.
But virtue? Lack of that will land you in prison. There is nothing difficult to virtue. Hard for me to fathom many who aren't virtuous to a workable degree-such that keeps humanity on teetering course at the least.
And that is my exception to the first two sentences.
The rest of the post: How many times have you seen "The Terminator"? How many times "Jean De Florette"?
The problem isn't art. There has always been deceptive junk. The problem is your choice of art, resultingly, your seduction.

Posted by: Frightened guys? at July 2, 2005 10:00 PM

The "you" and "your" above should be regarded as impersonal. Thanks.

Posted by: Frightened guys? at July 2, 2005 10:17 PM

Before I slide the confessional screen please define "virtue" for me. And you weren't raised to practice it?

I will not presume to answer for the author, but let me intrude a thought.

Why, no. Many people are not raised to practice virtue, since many people do not seem to know what it means.

For many of the ‘60s generation virtue consisted of “if it feels good, do it.” The lessons of enlightened parents and teachers was that we must not be bound by the hypocritical morals of the Victorian past. We were born anew, ready to define for ourselves the good and just. Above all we must not be bound by the hidebound rules of the past since these rules were imposed on us by a dead white patriarchy whose heritage was slavery, genocide and oppression. Virtue was a moving target that each one of us – the good, the true and the newly enlightened – must find for ourselves.

How then can you be raised to practice virtue when virtue was defined in relation to each individual and no one individual was required to have the same ideal of virtue as the next?

Silly question?

Posted by: Moneyrunner at July 3, 2005 7:55 PM

Surely we are not long past youth when we are forced to confront society at large and are no longer isolated within our peer group. The 60's generation is now in their fifties and are becoming the pre-eminent political influence in this country AND have had, conservatively, two plus decades to decipher virtue. This post and its responses, in the main, force me to conclude that our formative years start with the fraternity initiation and all those childhood years spent amongst parents, school, and church were just garbage detail.
C'mon, let's grow up. Someone saw you crying and suggested therapy? Blaming 10-12 years of your youth spent under a "bad" influence for present-day-society's ills is third grade essay material.
Allow me to suggest you look around, reacquaint yourself with the Seven Capital Sins, and look around again. If you indulge me in this request, and still want to hop on your elephant or donkey and wave a flag, feel free to question your intellect.

Posted by: Frightened guys? at July 3, 2005 9:42 PM

I'm not going to jump into the fray, but wanted to note that Mr. Van der Leun has been away for a few days, offline, out of town, and, in fact, out of the country. He will return, and when he does, no doubt he'll have more to say on this subject.

Posted by: Mrs. VdL at July 5, 2005 8:37 AM

I'm with Dymphna on this one, for what it's worth.

Well done, sir.

Posted by: USMC_Vet at July 6, 2005 10:18 AM

Yes Gerald you are right. The corruption that rots our society must be violently and horribly expunged.To protect ourselves we must sink to the level of the beast as we begin a bloodbath ridding our society of the pestilence that is destroying us from within. God will forgive us, and indeed welcome us with open arms, for ridding the earth of Satan's spawn.

I'm sure my fellow posters feel the same.

Posted by: Tobias at July 8, 2005 8:06 PM

Writing ia an art too. Reading the post and comments was painful for many reasons, the quality of the writing being one.

Posted by: kate at July 9, 2005 11:04 AM

if one says "Piss Christ" is representative of "art" or "modern art" or "modernity" or whatever, this one piece of art intentionally made famous by grasping right-wing blowhards, well, i think that says a lot more about the observer than the observed. you sure murakami doesn't represent all of "art" these days? maybe he just represents "modern art"?

the kids these days. get off my lawn. etc. whingeing old windbags.

of course, equating teresa heinz kerry to o.j. simpson just makes one a moron, but hey, no one else here seems to mind, so in concert with the above i think we can safely say a certain mental-lock pervades this particular thread, yes?

Posted by: Robert Green at July 9, 2005 11:06 AM

"The Summer ILost My 'Virtue'"


i never used to believe the stories in your magazine were true, until, one day, it happened to me....


Posted by: KEvron at July 9, 2005 11:59 AM

Bravo, Gerard, bravo. Sans doute va-t-il le faire.

I'm reminded of a bit of Montaigne: Il sait, de'sormais ce quil veut et a la simplicite d'oser le faire.

Such wisdom. One hears echoes of Virgil. Ah yes, Gerard, even Virgil. For he too had his say, pre' Dante, pro patria. And yet: Non dulce; non et decor.

We sing songs, you see...vous cantos. And we must never stop, Gerard; no! Sing virtu--cantos virtum.

Tra la la la la.

Ah yes, that old Wagner tune. Make it new, Gerard. Let us, together, make it new.

Posted by: Mark at July 9, 2005 2:38 PM

Here by way of Pat. I like what I see.

Posted by: Rod Stanton at July 9, 2005 5:52 PM

pompous much?

Posted by: dave at July 9, 2005 10:08 PM

James Wolcott poops on you.

Posted by: Klee Kloo at July 10, 2005 6:31 AM

Am I the only one going through VDL withdrawals? Thanks, Mrs. VdL.

Posted by: StephenB at July 10, 2005 5:26 PM

We should remember where the whole Joe Wilson/Valerie Plame story started:

* * *

Valerie Plame should be 'frog-marched' out of Washington

... Joe Wilson's wife is not a foreign spy - she's a desk jockey at Langley (with a cushy place in Georgetown) who's responsible for ... wait for it ... tracking down WMD for our country!

Why on earth did someone with that very important responsbility pre-judge the Niger-Iraq-yellowcake story as "this crazy story"? I mean, its only our national security and stuff - no biggie.

Someone let Val Plame know: the Niger-Iraq-yellowcake "crazy story" turned out to be true.

How many other WMD leads has Ms. Plame given short shrift? Do you know about any more "crazy" WMD leads, Val? Maybe you should go look at those files again. Does her high security clearance prevent her from getting fired for not giving a whit about national security risks for which she's the responsbile agent?

Not only did Ms. Plame dismiss one of the key pieces of intelligence regarding Iraq potentially creating the Arab bomb - she successfuly recommended her gadfly husband to be the sole investigator to go check out the lead! How many millions of dollars go to the CIA for intelligence gathering each year? And yet the only person we have to send to Niger to see if Saddam is building a nuke is ... the house husband of an agent at Langley?

What's next? Will Valerie Plame send the family golden retriever to look for missle silos in North Korea?

This is the real story that the mainstream press won't touch with a ten-foot-pole. What heads should roll at Langley for entrusting our national security to the whims of the Wilson-Plame family travelogue?

* * *

Unbelievable. Shameful. Putting nepotism above national security.

Fire Valerie Plame now. She's a very real risk to our national security.

-nikita demosthenes

Posted by: nikita demosthenes at July 10, 2005 11:16 PM


Posted by: Frightened guys? at July 14, 2005 9:50 PM

Do the crowd wandering in from Mr. Wolcott's site actually think that they are clever? No, really?

That hollow meanderings and failing attacks somehow constitute smart dialog? Do they fail to see that they merely emphasis Mr. Vanderleun's essay?

Can I ask anymore questions in one post?

"...[P]ompously, pretentiously, and opaquely composed..." The funny thing is that Mr. Wolcott isn't talking about his own writing. Ha!

Just so you know now, Mr. Vanderleun, you can only write about topics in a manner that is approved by others. No. no, don't seek your own ideas or voice, no matter what that might be, you must join the chorus of the Betters and sing their song.

Only then can you be enlightened. Only then can you have a voice.

And only then will you need a secret decoder ring to discuss matters of virtue, nobility, patriotism.

Posted by: Rusticus at July 15, 2005 7:20 AM

1. The toilet was a joke as confirmed by one of the first posts.

2. Art is dead, and until it regains it's virtue it will remain dead.

3. James Wolcott is a moron, but hopefully his readers are not and will read the piece he tries to trash by taking it out of context.

4. This was an excellent commentary. Ti was well written and definitely hit the nail on the head. I look at the young people today who are joining our military and returning to religion for spiritual support and I realize how truly disgusting my own generation is.

5. It is past time to re-institute sedition laws and the full force of the law. If we don't, then we might as well slit our own throats.

Posted by: Art at July 15, 2005 1:37 PM

"...is it just natural decay because shocking people is easier than inspiring them?"

No, not natural. Rather because one, shocking people is easier for those who have little talent, and the art world (especially academia) is full of talentless people. Two, in an art world that places a premium on novelty, it is becoming harder and harder to come up create work that is stylistically new, so shock value is an easy substitute. Three, in an art world that sees itself in opposition to conventional society, shock value has great currency. Four, with the discrediting of the ideas that underlayed "progressive" art of the past, all that's left is opposition and nihilism--hence urine, feces, bullwhips, cadavers, and childish political posturings.

Of course, the art world is large and diverse, and these problems are mostly in the "official" art world of academia, journalism, criticism, and so on. If you make a habit of browsing art fairs and galleries you can still find much good art.

I saved a particularly stupid quote from a Brooklyn Museum justification for "transgressive" art: "The savage lives within himself, while social man lives constantly outside himself and only knows how to live in the opinion of others, so that he seems to receive the consciousness of his own existence merely from the judgement of others concerning him."--Jean Jacques Rousseau. Of course, Rousseau was not writing about actual savages but rather the fantasy savages on which he projected his own dissatisfactions with civilized society. Savage societies have very little tolerance for individualism and it is the Western civilization that Rousseau hated which is tolerant and pluralistic. It speaks volumes that a modern "intellectual" can quote such rubbish with a straight face.

Posted by: pst314 at July 24, 2005 3:05 PM
Post a comment:

"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated to combat spam and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Remember personal info?