Sunday, May 15, 2011

Art and its era: a rant

Great art seemingly comes out of nowhere. Life is just bumbling along, nothing new, same old thing -- when suddenly something fresh and new springs up. It doesn't just catch everyone's attention, it beguiles. In an instant, it owns us.

The magical thing is that these huge artistic events make people see their own lives differently. It's as if contact with powerful images, words or music literally alters the quality of people's lives. Great art influences us. In the end, it takes over and colors a time, leaving a permanent brand on the era. It is the era in some intrinsic sense. Certainly when we look back at great art, it perfectly embodies a time and place.

Some of these game-changers are huge, some are small. But their influence is in their reach. Think of small but significant artistic events such as the theme from the movie "A Man and a Woman" and the look and colors of the movie "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg". Remember the way they made you feel? Like a door was opening?

Or take art with a greater impact like the book, "Failsafe" and the movies, "Dr. Strangelove" and "2001: A Space Odyssey". We were different people before and after this art touched our lives, and they opened new artistic doors. Art is a march; it proceeds.

Obviously there were huge artistic events in recent history: Warhol's art, Ginsberg's "Howl", the songs of Bob Dylan and the shocking genius of the Beatles. These artists burst into their era and in the end, became one with their time. They live on there in an eternal way. They are that time.

But my sense is that the gushing torrent of new art began to sputter seriously in the late 80s. After that, when I look for the flow of new art I become like a compass spinning in all directions looking for North. Where did it go? So I'm asking readers this: In the past decade or two do you think there has there been any life-changing art? Was there something so triumphant, novel, colorful and true that it rushed over the country and altered the tenor of our lives? What have I missed?

Offhand, I can't think of a thing. Sure, a song here and there, but that's it. What art has come along? The dreadful "installation" called The Gates -- where Christo and Jeanne-Claude hung ditzy saffron curtains over Central Park? Yeah, that was art. Uh-huh. Let's see, it made people see saffron for a while and wonder whatever happened to the Hare Krishnas. Sigh.

The only culturally significant art I've seen in a long while is Amanda Lear's Chinese Walk. But again, it's just one song and anyway, it won't receive wide exposure. Art has to be seen to have an effect. Still, I saw something there that I haven't seen in a long, hungry while.

Any thoughts? Am I being too harsh? After all, there was McQueen in fashion, and . . . what else?