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Art as Leadership
Angie Chamberland • A new direction in the art world may appease conservative appetites.
Commencement 2004

Many conservatives will look at modern art distastefully and claim its illegitimacy in the realm of true art because of its nihilistic, subjective, and abstract nature. The past century of art may seem to them to be a spiral of not-so-gradual decline into what conservative thinkers assume to be less meaningful and less ethical artwork. This concern has been echoed in some parts of the art world as artists are beginning to look past the grim, at times confusing face of modern art toward something more inspiring, more uplifting, and interestingly enough, more traditional.

The ethical climate of recent art is often described as ambiguous. Though not particularly morally degrading, modern art has become increasingly reflective of what some would call society’s moral decline and increasing apathy. Certain groups of people are growing restless with the artists’ avoidance of prescriptive claims and leadership through art. Some people are becoming bored with the apathetic and almost uninspired reflection of a morally and spiritually uninterested society. The only logical result of this is a return to a more powerful art movement: one that makes claims on morality, challenges its audiences, and most importantly, leads the viewer through creative inspiration. The art world’s reaction to the restlessness of subjective art is a return to the artist as a leader, to objectivity, and to art as a traditional cultural element.

Ironically enough, this new direction in art is not making its way into the public through galleries and the elite, but rather through the underground metal scene and universities. One need only pick up a copy of Tool’s latest CD, Lateralus, which is already a few years old, to see the new mentality of art creeping into the mainstream. Tool’s songs, now more than ever, are concerned with unambiguous accusations of society’s decline and the search for greater truths. Rather than complaining about his dislike for urban centers like Los Angeles, (Aenima) Maynard James Keenan, Tool’s lyrical mastermind, hints at spiritual progressions and beliefs about an existence greater than human life (Lateralus, Parabola). Most important, however, is Tool’s choice of cover art for this release. The anatomical paintings of Alex Grey create a transparent booklet of a human with emerging spiritual and religious imagery.

There are plenty of hints to Grey’s agenda in this insert, but it becomes more clear with a bit of further background on his art. Alex Grey’s website is centered on a work in progress, including a series of “mirrors” to be arranged in a chapel as a place of meditation and spiritual guidance. Grey is not ambiguous about his aims or the purpose of his art. His many books include treatises on the purpose of art, the degradation of art and society, and ways to remedy these conditions. His most direct book, “The Mission of Art,” not only describes a return to classical art and the need for the artist to be a leader, but places further demands on the artist and the audience. Namely, he argues for the implementation of concrete changes, not the least of which is a morally aware society and spiritual awakening amongst what many would agree to be a blind audience. This is by no means a “Bible-thumping” agenda, but rather one of pure awareness and unity.

Grey not only writes and paints, but he teaches as well. Recently a teacher at NYU, Grey tours the country with his wife, Allyson, who is also an artist. Together, they participate in various “missions” to promote their art and to teach students and other artists along the way about the urgency of this new awareness. He also incorporates these teachings into his NYU courses.

This new activist sentiment has become more public over the past decade in the music world. For instance, many artists have worked together to create a sense of unity and global awareness through benefit concerts for political agendas and collaborations to commemorate events such as September eleventh. Though it is too early to estimate how successful and powerful this movement may be, one can only hope that both the mission and the aims of artists will be taken seriously and put into effect. Trends in art are ever-fluctuating from one extreme to another, so it seems likely that those who yearn to go back to classical art, art that was once meaningful, realistic, and rooted in tradition, may in fact get their wish.

This is not to say that the world of visual representation is evolving to satisfy the demands of one small group of people. Grey’s visions demand attention and contemplation to radically challenge any audience, be they conservative, liberal, aware, apathetic, or inspired. But these visions are based on a command of technical skill that reflects the concerns of Michelangelo and DaVinci, who worked for a balance between accurate representation and inspirational substance. Rather than trying to break out of tradition, the new wave of art may actually succeed in using tradition well. By taking on the challenges posed and standards set by centuries of great artists and mediating this traditionalism with a new vision, post-post-modern art is working to benefit both the world of art and, hopefully, the world in general.

Angie Chamberland is a rising sophomore in Branford College.


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