Winston Churchill once said that “Cultured people are merely the glittering scum which floats upon the deep river of production.” He was essentially saying that rather than being useful to society, culture and by extension “cultured people” are somehow outside of the productive capacity of society and therefore not really needed. This is a very interesting statement from a man who motivated the British people during a time of war with some of the most profoundly moving speeches ever made by a 20th century leader. What is writing except art, and what is art if not culture? By this rationale, Churchill was probably the finest artist of his generation and a “cultured person” of the highest quality, although he seemed blissfully unaware of the fact at the time.
Being that Churchill was in many ways an artist, and a master craftsman of indelible sentences, perhaps what he actually meant by “cultured people” are those who enjoy bad art. The tepid and stale offering of yesteryear or the mindless gibberish of the young has always been highly praised by those with too much money and not enough brains. While populist art such as crafts, calligraphy, illustration, folk tales, and songs have historically been disdained by the “cultured people,” these genres are often enjoyed by the widest range of people both high and lowbrow.
Certainly there was a time when the most critically revered artists of the day were also the most popular. The people of Rome rejoiced to see the creations of Michelangelo adorn their city and the citizens of Milan were not only inspired but protected by the work of Leonardo da Vinci; da Vinci produced art and military inventions as well. Since those pesky impressionists started cleaning their brushes on canvas at the end of the 1800’s, however, there has been a major split in the world of visual art. This can be roughly defined as the separation between “contemporary” and “lowbrow” art.
In the lowbrow category we find cartoonists, animators, tattooists, vehicle decorators, illustrators, and graffiti artists. These artists are often defined as craftspeople or as something other than the beloved artists which grace the world of contemporary art. Contemporary artists are those that usually have an academic background and produce art which usually only people with academic backgrounds can appreciate.
The exceptions make this rule, as certain contemporary artists have garnered mass appeal, but by and large, the public remains unaware of the most “important” contemporary artists working today.
If art does not communicate, then is it art? If you intend to make people think of love and friendship with your Venus de Milo sculpted from pure salami, yet achieve only laughter, what is it that you have created?
Contemporary artists construct elaborate artist’s statements to rationalize and justify their work, but if I can’t feel some sort of inspiration, emotion, or intellectual argument from the piece itself then what do the statements matter? If I am unable to make a sandwich properly, I don’t write a letter to my stomach about what I was trying to do.
Art is nourishment, plain and simple. It is meant to edify, direct, encourage, and – above all – communicate, and if it fails to do so then it is not art. I look around the world of contemporary art and see a bunch of pathetic buffoons making uncommunicative clap-trap springing from their insular and myopic “practices” which amount to exorbitantly priced navel-gazing. Churchill would have whipped this lot with his left hand, drank a mickey of 50 year old scotch, punched a Nazi right in the mouth and, finally, would have written a speech to make both you and your grandma cry. That is art. Art makes us feel and think things, and if it can’t do that, it amounts to no more than glittering scum.