Art Wars

The New York art world is up in arms these days—and the furor has nothing to do with funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. No, there's something even more serious afoot: One of their own leaders has broken ranks. The offender is Arlene Croce, widely regarded as the best dance critic in the country. Croce published a critique in the New Yorker magazine of a performance piece by Bill Jones, a black choreographer who is HIV-positive. The performance included videotapes of people dying of AIDS and other deadly diseases. Miss Croce objected to the presentation of real people in a work of art. These were not actors; they were real individuals struggling desperately with their mortality. How can an art critic evaluate their performance when there was no performance—only real pain? The appropriate response is not aesthetic critique but sorrow and pity. And that, Miss Croce says, may be precisely the point. "By working dying people into his act," she writes, "Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism." Jones is part of a movement that some have called "victim art," featuring oppressed groups like abused women and disenfranchised minorities. In the words of art critic Hilton Kramer, victim art "short circuit[s] criticism by foisting off social grievances as art." Anyone who criticizes it is accused of being sexist or racist—labels that quickly scare off most critics. Miss Croce identifies this tactic for what it really is: simple intimidation. Avant-garde artists, she writes, are aggressively defiant of any conventions, any standards. Many make it part of their act to heckle the art critics. Bill Jones's dance company stages performances, Miss Croce writes, that have degenerated into "a barely domesticated form of street theater" that had "declared war on the critics." The critics are now fighting back—at least Miss Croce is. And we ought to cheer them on. For two centuries, Western culture has been in the grip of scientism, the glorification of science as the only form of objective truth. Ideals of beauty and art were relegated to the subjective realm, cut off from any objective standards. Victim art is one of the results. As art critic Robert Hughes puts it, today's artists reject the very concept of "quality" as a "paternalistic fiction," and demand to be judged "on their ethnicity, gender, and medical condition rather than on the merits of their work." This belligerent subjectivism is a poison eating away at the practice of the arts in America. As Christians we are to be salt, preserving and restoring our culture—which includes the arts. To do so, we need to go beyond simply complaining about government funding for the NEA and understand the deeper causes of the decline of the arts. In our own churches and Christian schools, we need to counter that decline by fostering appreciation for good art, art that embodies objective standards of beauty—rooted in the beauty of God's creation.


Chuck Colson


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