Why is the art world a disaster?…because of the popularization and institutionalization of the antics and attitudes of Dada. As W. S. Gilbert knew, when everybody’s somebody, nobody’s anybody. When the outré attitudes of a tiny elite go mainstream, only the rhetoric, not the substance, of the drama survives.

That’s part of the answer: the domestication of deviance, and its subsequent elevation as an object of aesthetic—well, not delectation, exactly: perhaps veneration would be closer to the truth. But that is only part of the puzzle. There are at least three other elements at work. One is the unholy alliance between the more rebarbative and hermetic precincts of academic activity and the practice of art. As even a glance at the preposterous catalogue…accompanying almost any trendy exhibition these days—demonstrates, art is increasingly the creature of its explication. It’s not quite what Tom Wolfe predicted in The Painted Word, where in the gallery-of-the-future a postcard-sized photograph of a painting would be used to illustrate a passage of criticism blown up to the size of its inflated sense of self-worth. The difference is that the new verbiage doesn’t even pretend to be art criticism. It occupies a curious no man’s land between criticism, political activism, and pseudo-philosophical speculation: less an intellectual than a linguistic phenomenon, speaking more to the failure or decay of ideas than to their elaboration. Increasingly, the “art” is indistinguishable from the verbal noise that accompanies it…

A second element that helps to explain why the art world is a disaster is money—not just the staggering prices routinely fetched by celebrity artists today, but the bucket-loads of cash that seem to surround almost any enterprise that can manage to get itself recognized as having to do with “the arts.” The presence of money means the presence of “society,” which goes a long way toward explaining why yesterday’s philistine is today’s champion of anything and everything that presents itself as art, no matter how repulsive it may be…The vast infusion of money into the art world in recent decades has done an immense amount to facilitate what my colleague Hilton Kramer aptly called “the revenge of the philistines.”

A third additional element in this sorry story has to do with the decoupling of art-world practice from the practice of art. Look at the objects on view…and almost none has anything to do with art as traditionally understood: mastery of a craft in order to make objects that gratify and ennoble those who see them. On the contrary, the art world has wholeheartedly embraced art as an exercise in political sermonizing and anti-humanistic persiflage, which has assured the increasing trivialization of the practice of art. For those who cherish art as an ally to civilization, the disaster that is today’s art world is nothing less than a tragedy.

Roger Kimball
The New Criterion