I’m not an expert on the topic of art. I enjoy art. It studied art during my Leaving Certificate. I can conjure up mildly informed opinions on works of art I happen to observe. But that is where the expertise ends.
A man that is, however, an expert on the topic, is the author of The Decline and Fall of Western Art; one Brendan M.P. Heard. He argues a controversial and rarely published perspective on the art world; namely that art is in the process of – or has been destroyed.
Indeed, he opens the book by saying: “The art we call Modernism is best described as a psychological disease, the goal of which is nothing less than the total destruction of art – which it has more of less successfully done.”
If that isn’t an opening line to suck in a reader, then I don’t know what is – and I’m supposed to be a writer. Modernism is the villain of this story, uglier and more dastardly than any from classic film or comic books.
As set forth by Heard, part of what makes Modernism so villainous and dangerous is its subversive and vague nature, which has enabled it to usurp traditional art movements, claim movements for itself to which it has no claim, and rebrand without actually changing anything.
It is often difficult to criticise modernism precisely because of this fluid nature, after all you must establish clearly the subject of your criticism. Heard performs this task admirably by making an important distinction early on; Modernism is not what the textbooks say it is. He leaves the academic definition behind and separates legitimately creative movements with talent and beauty behind them, such as Romanticism and Art Nouveau, from the soulless horrors of Abstract Expressionism, Conceptualism and many more.
In fact he ignores Postmodernism entirely, rightly noting that when you separate Romanticism and Art Nouveau from Modernism – there is no discernible difference between Modernism and Postmodernism. It is the same stale movement that has given us nothing new for over a century.
“Postmodernism as a title is just an invented category to pretend that there are art movements evolving beyond Modernism, when it is all part of the same dead end: the chaos, the nothingness.”
And that’s just the introduction.
Heard splits the arguments he makes within the books into three distinct parts: ‘What is Western art?’, ‘how art has declined’, and ‘the path back to healthy art’. I’m a solution-minded person, so certainly for me, and I would imagine for most readers, the most exciting element is the path back to a healthy art – and so for that reason I won’t spoil it.
One of the core arguments of the book is pointing out how the Modernists essentially rule the art world these days and have done for quite some time. Art academia has been completely subverted, with art-speak the official language and Modernism the holy creed from which no man may stray – it is worth noting alongside the Marxist dominance of academia overall.
According to Heard, if a true artist wants to practice his craft he must do so within the paradigm of Modernism, and if not, he’ll spend his days never having reached his fullest potential, drawing comics or working in corporate graphic design.
Indeed, it is the vagueries, the art-speak and the subversive, confusing nature of Modernism that allows it to hide from the most honest of judges; common sense. Compare one of Rothko’s canvases containing many-coloured rectangles to Michelangelo’s David or Bruegel’s Tower of Babel and any sane individual should understand the objective superiority of either of the latter over the former as works of art.
Objectivity plays a major part in Heard’s arguments, he regularly speaks of relativism – how art went from objective to subjective, often in the name of openness and inclusivity. Is objectivity, he argues, not an integral part of the struggle for betterment? If all is subjective, what need does the artist have to improve and hone his craft? Transcendence and betterment, once the focal point of art, have since been replaced by squalor and creative bankruptcy.
Heard seeks to deeply challenge the world’s and the reader’s assumptions about art, and in doing so he also manages to challenge assumptions about human nature, European culture, spirituality and the meaning of life. Truly an expansive array of topics – but then again, what is art if not an expression of these aspects made flesh? And following Heard’s thinking; therefore is not the fact that Modernism reduces art to materialism and cynicism even more insulting and damaging?
The Decline and Fall of Western Art is not an academic experience, nor is it a book solely for experts and those well versed in art. Anyone can read and enjoy the author’s gorgeous prose and appreciate his combative style of argument. Neither is the book devoid of humour, albeit most of it dry: “Modernism has allowed the vocation of art to be beset by hordes of untalented hacks – who are then trained to be even worse.”
It is all too easy to be absorbed into the great artistic struggle between Beauty and Modernism, Idealism and Nihilism, that the author sets forth. By the end I can guarantee you’ll be rooting for the Della Francescas and not the Bombergs.
To review this excellent piece of literature properly, I’d need to write an academic paper and not an article, but alas we must make do. I cannot give the book a fuller endorsement, it is a must-read not just for those interested in art and history, but for any conservative or nationalist. Understanding the art of your people is almost as important as speaking the language.
“And when the art of man and the beauty of nature are reconciled, the Earth will be wholly beautiful once more.”