by Gaius Marcius
The great swindle known as modern art is supposedly subjective. Only the artist himself can know the nature of a piece, and sometimes even he is at a loss. If you follow the logic of post-modern critics it should be impossible to judge whether any piece of art is superior or inferior, but perennial concepts do recur in different media in different ages, still following the same rules for successful, artful communication. Concepts as simple as word order and syllable patterns can change a line from clumsy to memorable. Consider the ordering of names in this seven syllable line from Ritson’s Robin Hood:
All this be heard three witty young men,
‘Twas Robin Hood, Scarlet, and John;
With that they espy’d the jolly pinder,
As he sat under a thorn.
The Jolly Pinder of Wakefield
The proper nouns get shorter as we approach the end of the line. This 3-2-1 syllable pattern keeps the sounds in step with the syntax and concludes the line in a way that is naturally pleasing to the ear. Natural and pleasing are both dirty words in modern art, but such sounds and patterns gain popular approval. Listen to Dion’s cloying Civil Rights tune and you will hear the same syllable pattern in use four centuries after the tales of Robin Hood. (Skip to 2:42 if you can’t bear to sit through the whole song) Try to rearrange the names in either work in a more pleasing fashion.
Where modern art is inscrutable, literature has followed a path of increasingly transgressive vulgarity. The race to be more shocking than the last writer degrades written communication and alienates the potential audience, as C.S. Lewis recognized when he set out some guidelines for edgy writers in Prudery and Philology.
When you come to those parts of the body which are not usually mentioned, you will have to make a choice of vocabulary. And you will find that you have only four alternatives: a nursery word, an archaism, a word from the gutter, or a scientific word…Whichever of the four words you choose is going to give a particular tone to your composition…Language forces you to an implicit comment…It may of course be said that this state of affairs-this lack of any neutral and straightforward words for certain things-is itself the result of precious prudery…The modern writer, if he wishes to introduce into serious writing…a total liberty for the pen… is attempting to rip up the whole fabric of the mind. I do not say that success is impossible, still less that the attempt is perverse. But before we commit ourselves to so gigantic an enterprise, two questions seem to be worth asking. First, is it worth it?
The contemporary state of sensibility is surely, like the language, part of the author’s raw material. Evasion…need not really be less creditable than the “turning” of any other difficulty which one’s medium presents. Great work can be done in a difficult metre; why not also under difficult restraints of another kind? When authors rail too much…against public taste, do they perhaps betray some insufficiency? They denigrate what they ought rather to use and finally transform by first obeying.
It so happens that 20th century music unintentionally provides a perfect case study for Lewis’ ideas. Listen to the early lyrics and then the final version of AC/DC’s The Jack. Same music, same topic, same meaning, but which song is better?
Art should be artificial in the sense of containing artifice. The artifice should perhaps, like a supporting framework, be hidden from the casual viewer, but it must reveal itself on close inspection. It shows that the artist has put effort and craft into his production, rather than simply belching out the momentary contents of his mind. And now you know why so much modern art is not just morally bad but is also inferior as art. Lacking innuendo and imagination it is literally artless.