The Emperor’s New Culture

Fort Worth, Texas, 1989:

We are driving at a furious pace on the interstate.

Another argument ensues between ex-fiancee sculptress Susan and I over artistic responsibility.

I express disgust that one painting, American Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire, an abstract painting of three vertical stripes – the outer two blue, the inner one red – was purchased by Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada at the cost of $1.8 million(Canadian).

I argue that if tax dollars are going to be spent on art then the art should at least come with written explanations as to what the artist was trying to achieve and why the Gallery thought it a worthwhile investment.

The Gallery was neither apologetic nor forthcoming.

The Gallery would buy and display what it liked, as it liked, whether taxpayers, who funded the Gallery, liked it or not.

Susan argued that art was art for art’s sake and that the artist need not explain or defend her work.

I argued that if I am paying for something then I am owed an explanation.

Our different philosophies are among the reasons the marriage never takes place.

Ljubljana, Slovenia, 1995:

A packed darkened auditorium, a barefoot man in dressing gown appears on the empty stage and disrobes.

He is the Illustrated Man, covered in tattoos from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet.

While thematic music throbs, lights play upon his body section by section until – crescendo – the audience focuses on the man’s anus within the centre of a bright orb of sunshine.

He is given a standing ovation.

I remain in my seat, confused and bored.

This is art?

Granted the performance was for the raising of AIDS awareness, but is it art?

Oristano, Sardinia, 2015:

A local theatre group gives a post-modern (post-mortem?) Italian-language performance of Dante Alghieri’s Purgatorio (Purgatory) in the garden of the Agri-Turismo B & B, where Ute and I are guests, so, after dinner, we are, of course, expected to attend.

The audience, on lawn chairs or sitting on the grass, is then guided through the seven terraces of Purgatory with a combination of obscure sound-and-light displays, emotional ill-timed monologues, dry ice smoke effects along with laptops and tablets showing flames and other images being held by the actors as part of the performance.

Though I am not conversant in Italian, I am familiar with all three parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and at no point did I feel a connection or comprehension of what was unfolding before my bewildered eyes.

The audience, including She, rewards the performers with a standing ovation.

I watch astonished and wonder: why am I not sharing their emotion?

Granted these performers acted out their hearts and souls in front of a live audience and should be appreciated for their efforts, but isn’t the point of a performance to capture thought and imagination, feeling and fervor in the minds of its audience?

Smoke and mirrors are shoddy substitute for lost communication.

I am reminded of The Emperor’s New Clothes, a short tale, by Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, about two weavers who promise an Emperor a new suit of clothes that is invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid or incompetent.

When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, no one dares to say that he doesn’t see any suit of clothes until a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

I often think of this tale when I consider modern culture and art.

I wonder if I am simply stupid, or is art less an expression of communication today than it is a clever deception by marketers who make us call something “art” that is unworthy of that description?

Is everything produced by an “artist” worthy of being called “art”?

Does this mean this blog could be called “literature”?

For me, “art”, whether it be literary, musical, theatrical or on display in a museum or gallery, should elicit a response from me, communicate a feeling.

Three stripes on a canvas, colourful though they may be, don’t speak to me, except to impress me with the audacity of being able to generate millions for such simplistic expression.

By confessing I cannot see the clothes for myself, I may appear unfit to comment, or perhaps I remain, at least mentally, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up a pretense.

Poor, naive me…

Sadly believing that sight becomes insight prompting action.


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