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Happy Sunday! If you skipped the video up top, either because your time is limited or you disagree, please watch it! His arguments underlie my post here today. His contentions are the foundation for many arguments opposing the direction of modern art (or more accurately put, contemporary art). Let’s review some background information before addressing this video’s major points.

Prager University & Robert Florczak

Prager University was launched in 2009 by radio talk show host Dennis Prager. Dennis Prager describes himself as a fiercely independent individual, speaking at great length over his career on political, economic and religious issues in both American and international contexts.

PragerU contends that a number of Americans feel dissuaded from speaking their minds by popular opinion, that being, the left-wing majority in the press and in American academic institutions. Because so many universities are aligned with the left, he argues, Prager founded PragerU, an online resource designed to counteract this trend.

If you’re interested in this topic, I’ll provide some extra sources here. These are the basic points: survey data from the HERI (Higher Education Research Institute) at UCLA found that the number of university professors who identify as liberal has risen in the past 20 years from 42% in 1994 to 60% in 2014. But it’s important to note that the ratio of liberal professors to conservative professors often differs by department, and there is strong evidence that university students do not become more liberal in their 20s than those who did not attend college at all.

There are more details about PragerU that are worth knowing. It has a mission statement, an ideology described as follows:

We believe in economic and religious freedom, a strong military that protects our allies and the religious values that inform Western civilization, also known as Judeo-Christian values.

Additionally, PragerU is not an accredited university, it lacks a campus, and does not administer degrees to its viewers. As such, it’s a university in name only, lacking nearly every criterion classically associated with a university. It has more in common with Ted-Ed than institutions like Georgetown or Stanford.

Robert Florczak is an artist trained at Cooper Union University in New York City, and has been involved in the creation of fine art for nearly four decades, with primary interests in creating art reflective of historical, literary and mythological themes. His portfolio of commercial and miscellaneous art can be found here.

The Main Arguments

Why only Western art?

I find it interesting that all Eastern art is excluded from this conversation. Eastern art, most especially artwork from Japan, had an immense influence on the Post-Impressionists, including the likes of Van Gogh and Monet. Heck, Monet loved Japanese art so much that he displayed 200 works of art from Japan in his home, and even made his wife wear a blonde wig and a kimono! The influence of Eastern art on Western art became increasingly evident during this period: just compare Monet’s Water Lily Pond (mentioned in this video at 1:47) and Utagawa Hiroshige’s Bamboo Yard, Kyobashi Bridge.

 

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Lily Water Bridge (1900) and Bamboo Yard, Kyobashi Bridge (1857)

This is one of the video’s major shortcomings, in my opinion. It could very well be that the lack of allusion to Eastern art was due to the video’s length (PragerU videos are usually about five minutes long). However, the influence of Modernism and Post-Modernism is abundantly visible in Eastern art as well. This absence could also be reflective of the audience to which Florczak is speaking, but if you want to have an objective conversation about the degradation of artistic standards during the Modern period, you simply cannot neglect a major branch of artistic expression in the process.

Florczak’s Descriptions of Classical Art

This may seem like a minor point, but it has major implications in the way we discuss art. Florczak uses three descriptors (found at 0:43) for Classical art: profound, inspiring, and beautiful. But ask yourself this: are these characterizations objective? Isn’t it true that there are individual differences in each of these categories? You might not find Bamboo Yard, Kyobashi Bridge to be any of the three, but someone else might. You might find Bach’s symphonies to be magnificent and breathtaking, as I do, but there are others who cannot appreciate classical music: it’s “boring”, and doesn’t impart any emotion to them. They can be deemed ignorant by some, but regardless, this is their individual reaction to a work of art, and the way one perceives art itself has genuine merit.

You can very well argue that Michelangelo’s David is objectively beautifully, but let’s run an experiment like Florczak did. Please analyze this painting by an unknown artist of the Modern period, and explain why it is good:

love

What do you think? This is a piece called Love, painted by Koko, the gorilla who had the ability to speak sign language. She was asked, in sign, to paint how she was feeling at that moment. Gorillas, like humans, have trichromatic vision. She chose these colors deliberately, providing major insights into the ways gorillas associate color with emotion. She also titled the piece herself, after she was asked what it should be called.

You may have believed that this was an Expressionist piece, if you have any knowledge of artistic movements. This also was a reasonable presumption! It’s inarguable that Koko lacks the learned craft of Monet or Hiroshige, but this painting can still inspire, and to some people be considered beautiful. I’d be willing to bet that some of you looked at the painting at first and didn’t find it beautiful. But you may have found beauty in the context, which is inseparable from the work itself.

Analyzing the Works of Art Mentioned by Florczak

Levitated Mass

The “rock”, which Florczak mentions without giving its proper name, is Levitated Mass. The video has an accurate graphic representing the work, but here’s another picture of it:

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With no context, this piece does seem trivial. Here is some information behind it. The 340-ton boulder was taken from outside of Los Angeles, and began an 11 day, 105 mile drive to the LACMA. It is open 24 hours a day, and anyone can walk under the boulder at any time. The mind behind Levitated Mass, Michael Heizer, has never gone into detail about the meaning behind the work. But two inferences can be drawn: one from design, and one from the search for this particular boulder. This piece is designed to give the appearance of levitation, and Heizer was intent on having this piece always open for public consumption. We were meant to stand under the rock; could you imagine standing underneath an object almost 3000x heavier than yourself? What feelings are drawn by standing underneath such an object? Secondly, Mike had been looking for a particular boulder, though he didn’t know which one, for 30 to 40 years. This gives an impression of nature as the artist, and all it took was finding the right piece for the job. A documentary about this piece has been released already! I’ll put the trailer below:

The Holy Virgin Mary
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– Chris Ofill, 1996.

Let’s be clear about one thing here: Chris Ofill’s work here does not use cow dung; it uses elephant dung. Florczak got this wrong. Again, while this detail seems trivial, perhaps even irrelevant at the surface, there is significance that should be addressed. The entire canvas is not covered in dung, as Florczak leads the viewer to believe; only Mary’s left breast is covered. Ofill was inspired on a trip to Zimbabwe by the great respect locals gave elephants: elephants are perceived as animals of power, and elephant dung represents fertility. And it’s not at all uncommon for African art to incorporate dung as an artistic material. This piece, through a somewhat unconventional method, emphasizes the Virgin Mary’s race, and the heritage from which she was descended. The pornographic images of female genitalia are in the form of butterflies, further evoking this sense of fertility. These images were used in place of the putti, a commonly used figure in Baroque and Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and child. And the putti, as chubby male children, are quite commonly naked. Nothing is really new here, only a novel interpretation of a particular type of portraiture.

Petra
image

– Marcel Walldorf, 2010

A sculpture like this provides insights into the humanity of those working for riot squads. The image of riot gear is synonymous with the suppression of others, so we often disregard the fact that riot squads are comprised of human beings. This is the central principle behind this work; to display a moment of complete human vulnerability while wearing a uniform most directly connected with an inhumane, coldly-calculating authoritarian regime.

Further Academic Dishonesty

Context has the power to completely change how we feel about a work of art. Recall Andres Serrano’s infamous work of an amber photograph of Christ on the cross:

piss_christ_by_serrano_andres_1987

It would probably not have been so reviled, if Serrano didn’t reveal the title to be Piss Christ. Some praised the work, others set out to destroy it. I do not intend to offend anyone by providing context to both Piss Christ and The Holy Virgin Mary. As a Christian myself, I reconcile how offensive these images are to many who share this worldview. Yet, however one reacts to these works, it illustrates the importance of context when forming one’s opinion on a particular work of art.

Context matters, and deliberately withholding context to spite a work of art is an example of the most flagrant forms of academic dishonesty. My biggest gripe with this video was his deliberate misquoting of Jakob Rosenberg. Misquotes and plagiarism are the most unpardonable transgressions in academia, and Florczak misinterprets Rosenberg’s words to reinforce his own position.

Florczak’s thesis (which begins at 1:52) is that modern art is nothing more than a reduction to individual self-expression, and universal standards have been removed as the primary consideration of artistic merit. Florczak quotes the art historian Jakob Rosenberg at the 2:05 mark as saying, “Quality in art is not merely a matter of personal opinion but to a high degree… objectively traceable.” Notice the ellipsis? Here’s the full quote:

“‘Artistic value’ or ‘quality’ in a work of art is not merely a matter of personal opinion but to a high degree a matter of common agreement among artistically sensitive and trained observers and to a high degree objectively traceable.” – Jakob Rosenberg, On Quality in Art: Criteria of Excellence, Past and Present, pg. 24.

Rosenberg did indeed believe in standards of art which exist outside the individual and group consensus, but he did not disregard the influence and importance of subjectivity in art. Florczak does not trust the “museum heads” and critics who financially encourage the production of contemporary art. He speaks about intellectual honesty at 3:25, but his series of arguments in this presentation is itself far from being intellectually honest.

While I find both PragerU and Florczak to lead viewers to make incorrect leaps in judgment, sometimes by deliberately withholding pertinent information, there are some points in this video that are worth pondering. I hope this article successfully represented the reasons why context is absolutely necessary to determine artistic quality, and how context can completely alter a work of art’s meaning, as well as what constitutes art to begin with.

Additional Resources

Articles:

Notes on an Art Crisis – An excellent look into the financial success of contemporary art, and its changing criteria.

In Defense of Concepts – A stalwart defense of conceptual art as deserving to be called art.

Why People Hate Conceptual Art – Fantastic analysis of why Eric Wayne believes many people dislike conceptual art. I especially identify with this point, “The big problem in the historical stance of conceptual art that it surpasses visual art, and makes it irrelevant, in the same way Einstein’s theory of relativity renders the Newtonian law of gravity obsolete.” Fascinating read, highly encourage it if you have the time.

Videos:

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