All the shallowness of modern mass culture began in avant-garde art 40 years ago
No sphere of high culture is implicated in the fall of the affluent society in the same way art is. Yesterday I commented on the resistance to melancholy, the flight from reality, that enabled art in our time to promote the fantasy of an unlimited market. Some have called the system that has now fallen “offshore capitalism”; perhaps another description is “post-modern capitalism”. In post-modern capitalism, secondary markets created a counter-reality that was unfettered by production. The economy was run like a theme park. It’s obvious how deeply involved in that daydream was the art of the last 20 years, which so gleefully rejected anything that might tie it to the slow, patient, tedious stuff of real creativity.
Drama, the novel, even cinema have all kept a safer distance from the booming monster of modern capitalism than artists did. What I want to ask now is – why? What happened? How did art become the mirror of fraud? It is not a story that starts with Damien Hirst’s diamond skull but one that goes back to the very origins of the consumer society.
After the second world war artists were steeped in history and introspection. Art has never been more serious in its view of life than it was in the era of Mark Rothko and Francis Bacon. But even as modern painting reached such heights and depths, western society was going through an epochal transformation. The power of the capitalist economies in the postwar era was unprecedented in world history. An entirely new lifestyle, that of “consumerism”, was born.
Consumerism instantly inspired artists. Pop art in America and Britain took the surfaces of objects, the instant appearances of the new bright world, as its subject matter. Everywhere, emotional depth in art was censored. Abstract Expressionism had to die. Art could teach people to look at the world in a new way: to embrace the cool. Pop art taught everyone to enjoy money and the mass media and 1980s post-modernism taught the same lesson again.
These emotional styles have long since been so popularised that even intelligent people accept that reality television is a form of culture and celebrities fit receptacles for our ephemeral floods of feeling. All the shallowness of modern mass culture began in avant-garde art 40 years ago. We’re Warhol’s ugly brood. Art has even fed the unsustainable appetites that are destroying the planet by constantly telling everyone cities are better than the countryside, culture more real than nature. It has become the enemy of truth, the murderer of decency.
The modern world has screwed itself and art led the way.