Once upon a time, it was a bedrock American belief that all men are created equal. Now, according to the latest intellectual fashion that governs the art world, all of us are created artists -- and so should feel free to show our work in public, like on the walls of museums. Though if all of us are now artists, no one is, since there's no longer a distinction between artists and the rest of us.
What's more, our art museums are no longer museums, or at least it is no longer politically, culturally or linguistically correct to call them such. Here's a sign of things not just to come but already here: You won't find any trace of those archaic terms "American," "art," or "museum" in the Whitney's new logo -- excuse me, "graphic identity" -- attached to its new digs in lower Manhattan's meatpacking district. The old museum's name has been chopped down to one word in capital letters: WHITNEY, as if someone had taken a meat cleaver to it.
Think of how newspeak, the official language of George Orwell's "1984," was forever shortening its vocabulary. And why. "The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought -- that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc -- should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words." -- Appendix on the Principles of Newspeak, "1984."
Now museums aren't to be called museums, for the very word carries with it all kinds of historical and cultural associations that must be suppressed. How long before Museum will be listed among the many words not to be spoken in today's politically and culturally purged times?
Museums may once have been places where people went to see, hear, appreciate, judge and debate art -- even be transformed by it. (See the conclusion of Rilke's poem on viewing an Archaic Torso of Apollo: "You must change your life.") Then museums became places where people went to see and be seen. Now we're to visit them to exhibit our own creations, however trivial. Like children's drawings in a devoted mother's kitchen.
Why not? Our child's drawings, Rembrandt, our own personal Facebook page and selfies, Vermeer, El Greco, what's the diff if we're all artists now? Consider it the latest advance in the democratization of art.
Art itself fast becomes one of those words/concepts forbidden by the Thought Police, for it reeks of discrimination. No, not racial or ethnic or class discrimination with their long history and invidious motives, but discriminating judgment itself. That kind of discrimination has a way of establishing a hierarchy of values all the way from the sublime to the ridiculous, as it has since Plato, that fascist.
We'll have no more of that in our (not so) brave new world. The very notion of art as the highest and most distinctive of human activities offends our current crop of intellectuals. It reeks of elitism.
The new, largely empty Whitney has plenty of room for visitors to scrawl their own make-it-yourself art on walls, ceilings, walkways. ... Yes, it still contains some of the treasures that once made it a refuge for the untraditional -- an outsider's delight. But now you have to seek out those treasures, for they tend to be tucked away like skeletons in the family closet.
For example, works from the realistic yet romantic Ashcan School of the 19th century may be confined to a shadowy recess, a modernist like Milton Avery exiled to a dim corner, an Edward Hopper put up somewhere way back there. ... They all have to be searched out. As if they were something shameful instead of works that should take center stage, be spotlighted, inspire pride and attract generation after generation.
Or as Hilton Kramer, the great art critic and defender of high culture in general, told us decades ago, the plans he'd seen for the ever metastasizing Whitney should have put us on guard. For "we would henceforth be dealing with an institution which cannot be trusted to serve the interests of art or of its public," but one that would inevitably go with "glitz and glamour at the expense of art itself."
All those plans now have culminated in what bears an unsettling resemblance to one of those heaps of industrial scrap at the end of the L in Chicago. Inside, the newly rebranded WHITNEY contains vast spaces where We the People, now We the Artists Ourselves, can cover blank walls with our own impromptu creations. The current rage for snapping selfies next to real works of art in museums across the country is one more symptom of the We're All Artists Now syndrome.
But if everything is now art, then none of it is. For to be an artist is a rare distinction, and anyone who calls himself an artist ain't necessarily so.
T.E. Lawrence, man of many parts, knew as much. When he was criticized by his friends and admirers for undervaluing his masterwork, "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," he stuck to his guns and his self-description as only an imitative artist, not an original one.
As he wrote to his friend E.M. Forster in 1925, long after his glory days as Lawrence of Arabia, when his dreams of a great Arab nation arising out of the sands had been destroyed by the usual cynical cabal of diplomats serving their own nations' crass interests: "You can rule a line, as hard as this pen stroke, between the people who are artists and the rest of the world."
The object of those who design (if that's the right word) non-museums like whatever the new WHITNEY is, is to erase that line and replace it with ... what?
Nothing. At last man will have freed himself of art. That is, of being man.