December 13, 2001
Last week, London’s Tate Gallery bestowed its most coveted honor, the Turner Prize, on 33-year old Martin Creed. After establishing his artistic bona fides with such masterworks as a crumpled piece of white paper, a ball of adhesive Blu Tak stuck to a wall, and neon signs blaring profundities like “Everything Is Going To Be All Right,” Creed rocked the art world with a stunning tour de force: an empty room with lights flickering on and off every five seconds. Chair of the awards committee Sir Nicholas Serota raved that Creed’s work shows "strength, rigour, wit and sensitivity.” Simon Wilson, the Tate's rhetorically challenged communications curator, added: "He wants to make art where he is doing as little as possible that is consistent with doing something.” Exactly.
The same week, in a setting less polished but no less barren, the Billboard Music Awards handed six trophies to chart-topper R. Kelly. His prize-snatching song, a hit called “Fiesta,” turns on such symphonic phrases as, “To all my players and my hustlers, Fiesta. And if you sittin' on them blades, Fiesta. To all my honeys in the club, Fiesta. And if you rollin' with a thug, Fiesta.” This, the best music had to offer, from a performer who plays concerts in his skivvies.
Such is the culture of anti-culture -- the harvest of liberalism’s long assault on tradition. For the pseudo sophisticates of the modern age, the texture of a Michelangelo would look strained next to neon proverbs. And that crowd taken to ecstatic heights by thug poetry would likely find Handel as moving as elevator music.
Somewhere along the way, art became non-art became anti-art. And few notice the difference.
A generation of social dropouts didn’t set out to destroy the beautiful and the excellent, the good and the true. That would have taken too much work. Instead, they merely cast off from the old morality and rode after Lucy in the Sky. Drawn along by a relativist tide with no north star but the orthodoxy of disbelief, they intended no destination. That would have been too definitive. But then these passive revolutionaries grew up and got marriages and mortgages and pinstripes. They had to land, so they chose the shore opposite the one they left.
In that new world, disdain for the notion of absolutes has become disdain for the absolutes themselves - and a perverse attraction to their antitheses. In the liberal mind, where tolerance once refused to judge if something was beautiful or not, beauty is now ugly because it invites superficiality. Truth is farcical because it establishes morality. Excellence is unfair because not everyone starts with equal abilities. Good is evil because it requires objective standards. G.K. Chesterton was right. “When people cease to believe in God, they don't believe in nothing. They believe in anything.”
Thus we’re left with noise as music, clutter as art, and literature that doesn’t last past lunch. An Attorney General marked by moral clarity is smeared for “seizing every opportunity to spread his new gospel.” A President who describes mass murderers as “evildoers” draws fire for cowboy-speak. But like the crowd enraptured by Creed’s empty room blinking false tribute to nothing, we go on about our business oblivious to the sad exchange.
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