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While in London, my wife and I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum (one of the most underrated museums in the world). At my wife’s behest, we made straight for an exhibit displaying the history of world jewelry. The earliest jewelry had been crafted in 1500 BCE. As we moved down the timeline, the jewelry became more and more sophisticated, following newly-developed rules – until we reached the 1960s. At that point, the jewelry began to regress in complexity and craftsmanship, to the point that when we reached modern jewelry, it looked substantially like the jewelry from 1500 BCE.
The same has held true in painting. Take a look at the difference between Da Vinci and Caravaggio and it’s easy to see the progression. Follow the line forward and the art becomes more and more realistic. With the invention of the camera, realism in art became secondary to emotion; artists responded by embracing the passionate imagism of Renoir and Monet. But with the rules beginning to come apart at the seams, it was a short road from Monet to Jackson Pollock, and from Pollock to the nonsense you see on museum walls that look identical to finger-painting on your fridge.
Craftsmanship is no longer a mark of value. It’s the “sense of the thing” that matters these days. How difficult would it be for Hollywood to hire a few grammar-checkers on its scripts? Yet how many movies have you seen where someone screws up third-grade rules like when to use “me” and “I”? Why are teenagers and forty-year-olds reading the same books? Because literature has bifurcated into rule-breaking impressionism like Dom DeLillo or Salman Rushdie and clear storytelling with cliché-ridden language like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King (literary critic Harold Bloom rightly slammed King as “an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis”). And the temptation for adults is to treat Rowling or King like real literature, since they’re spending so much time reading it. Do adults really want to admit browsing through the bookshelf right next to Encyclopedia Brown or Danielle Steele?
The evocative and the provocative have replaced the polished and the skillful. And eventually, evocative and provocative are no longer interesting. In a world with no rules, there are no rules to break. Everything becomes “art.” And when everything is art, nothing is art. It’s drek.
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