The Last Day of Pompeii - Karl Briullov. The painting is depicted on the cover of the book.

Becoming Disillusioned with Art

Many children, myself included, become disinterested in art during their time in high school. I recall my teacher being ecstatic about a new work done by Damien Hirst – he had implanted a skull with diamonds and it had sold for millions. The urinal made by Duchamp was praised, and when pupils in the classroom raised their hands to ask questions about this supposed work of art, the teacher’s reply was a mere ‘Who are we to deny that this is art?’

On a school trip we visited two different museums, one was the Stedelijk Museum, focused on modern art, and one was the Rijksmuseum, which hosts classics such as Rembrandt’s ‘The Nightwatch’. The modern art museum had a room full of drawings of penises, as a temporary exhibition. In the Rijksmuseum, I came face to face with many works carefully created by the many painters active during the Dutch ‘Golden Age’. I realized I did like some art, simply not the modern art that was pushed on me by my teacher.

The Decline & Fall of Western Art

All of this happened many years ago, but last week I read a book by Brendan M.P. Heard, called ‘The Decline & Fall of Western Art’. From the start, the book was more gripping than any art class in school had ever been, and for a very obvious reason. Heard is not content with the current status quo in art, where modern art reigns supreme, and he goes into great depth in explaining why.

From the start, Heard looks back in time, towards the start of Western civilization. He discusses the ancient statues, the Platonic forms that gave an ideal to strive towards, unattainable as it may be. Beauty is not random, but adheres to strict rules – it takes training and practice before anyone becomes able to create a true piece of art. A stark contrast to today’s belief that anything can be art (even some splattered paint), and it is all in the eye of the beholder and the feelings it triggers.

We are taken through a historical timeline of how art develops, up to the point of modernism. According to Heard modernism and post-modernism are really the same, and the terminological difference was only created to make it sound as if art was still moving in a certain direction instead of stagnant. The real modernism is about abstract expressionism, and Art Nouveau and Art Deco should not be included under that same name.

People have lost touch with modern art, it has become detached from society. Many tourists still visit Florence every year, to see the beautiful buildings and take a picture of the magnificent Duomo. Nobody takes joy in seeing the bland modern architecture, which is an extension of modern art.

The Western World is Dying

Heard is clearly passionate about this loss, and sees the lack of beauty in art as either a cause or a symptom for a falling Western society. The latter part of the book focuses on the lack of vigor in the Western world. If the lack of real art is the cause, then how can it be healed? Heard dives into a traditionalist way of thinking, what is it that we lost along the way that we need to bring back to see a return to standards of beauty in art?

Perhaps, I would say, such rigorous intervention and backwards vision is not a necessity. The international world of art is controlled by a small clique, and the only people that express their contentment towards it are pretentious high school art teachers – and the pupils they manage to indoctrinate. Most normal people still recognize beauty, and while people briskly move through the aisles of the modern art museum, the Nightwatch has a constant crowd admiring the skill that was required to paint it.

I don’t believe that our society has lost its sense of beauty. I believe that this group that pushes modern art onto the masses, with every chance it gets, needs to be broken and their influence reduced. A good start would be to make this book mandatory reading for all art classes – a first line of defense to keep our minds sane, and above all, to keep our appreciation of what art really is.