Who Will Teach Us How to Feel?
It was nothing short of astounding to come across an opinion piece in the New York Times
that throws a little shade on the pitiable state of contemporary art. David Brooks reflects on some recent high-brow choices of “artworks that define the contemporary age”—finding the selections to be nothing like the robust, complex works of the past. Instead, he characterizes most as primarily thin (if provocative) political ideas and statements. In fact, most are creations a tiny minority of insular, self-righteous artists who “signal” their political messages to a similarly positioned smug set of curators, critics and collectors. And the entirety of this insular art world is reflected and supported by the New York Times, which is why Brooks’ piece was such a breath of fresh air.
Thank you David Brooks.
Still—underlined by the simplistic headline “Who Will Teach Us How to Feel”--Brooks seems to regard the average American as one in need of getting in touch with their emotions (the currency of what it means to be human). In fact, the opposite might be true. Feeling seems to have gotten the upper hand today: our lives, our culture, and our politics are all governed by the standard of whether something has hurt our feelings. It used to be that rising above one’s emotions was a sign of maturity. Today, instead, we are coddled. Teaching us “how to feel”—or even what to feel—is not the answer (and reflects a certain tendency of our liberal nanny-state).
As an antidote to the current confrontational trends in art, Brooks envisions art that builds on emotion—like the human condition itself. But while our emotions are key, if they are given priority we lose our capacity to communicate with each other, to live together productively, to build culture. Perhaps an antidote is something Brooks also mentions as notably absent from contemporary art: beauty. What else but beauty—in all its varied forms—can help us rise above our petty memes, our solipsistic tendencies, and our intolerant politics?
As Brooks observes, “beauty yields larger truths about the human condition that are not accessible through politics alone — and these are the truths that keep us sane.”