|The Ghost of a Flea by William Blake|
|The Lady of Shalott by JW Waterhouse|
|Proserpine by Rosetti|
You'll examine a picture of terrible glory depicting a scene from the Book of Revelations as the dead rise up from the sea, stunned at the incredible realism of the artist's depictions of the human form, even as you are repelled by the horror of what is happening- a sure sign that the artist captured the atmosphere of the Last Judgement perfectly.
|The Field of Waterloo by JMW Turner|
You'll be looking at photographs taken recently of dead-eyed people frozen in time, lifeless and flat. You'll be staring at portraits that look like they were painted by six-year-olds using felt-tips and crayons, rather than sepia and oil and watercolours.
In short, you will find yourself experiencing the entire catastrophic decline of Western culture in the space of a single thirty-minute walk through the galleries of one of the greatest art museums in the world.
It is enough to make a man who appreciates such things feel like he's in the midst of a throbbing hangover.
When you turn on the TV and you see these ridiculous music videos glorifying sex and drugs and violence, where barely-dressed voluptuous harlots gyrate and moan and writhe to what feels like someone scraping a cheesegrater over your eardums while driving a jackhammer into your skull, you find yourself wondering if there is anything worth saving of the sewer that is modern "culture".
The answer, of course, is "no". But this isn't an affliction unique to this day and age, and it isn't a problem unique to Western society. This has happened before.
Legends of antiquity tell us that as the Western Roman Empire began its final plunge into the abyss, the emperors of Byzantium in the East wisely saw that their artists and sculptors did not yet have the skills required to replicate the magnificent sculptures and paintings from the past glories of Rome. To avoid the loss of their culture and their identity, and to allow future generations to learn from the works of past masters, the Eastern Empire took the finest works of the West to Constantinople as guides for the artists of the East. In so doing, they preserved the best of Rome while building their own unique cultural identity.
But there was no stopping Rome's artistic and cultural collapse. When the fall finally came, Imperial Roman culture had lost whatever virility and strength that it once had- weakened from without by war and famine and disease, weakened from within by a suicidal multi-generational compact with barbarian tribes from beyond the old imperial borders. And when Rome did collapse, not with a bang but with a whimper, as the last Roman emperor simply stepped off the throne and handed it to Odoacer, Europe underwent three hundred years of turmoil and uncertainty that we now remember (not entirely correctly) as the Dark Ages, in which art and artistic appreciation regressed to (supposedly) barbaric levels. (Again, in reality, the Dark Ages weren't really that bad- it's just that the great public works and artistic achievements of the past went to pot during this time.)
A similar cultural catastrophe has befallen us now. You can see it all around you- this putrescence of so-called "modern art", this excrement that permeates all around it with its stench, does nothing to elevate the mind and soul of Man, but instead tears it down with its insistence on jarring the senses as thoroughly as possible. Where the art of old seeks to inspire wonder, to show off the artist's virtuosity, to ennoble Mankind through brilliant use of light and colour and space, the "art" of today is hardly even worthy of the label.
Fortunately, the remedy, however palliative and however temporary, is not difficult to find.
All you have to do is walk into a museum or art gallery displaying the works of old masters. All you have to see is a single painting of ingenious brushwork and magnificent skill, and you'll have reason to be hopeful once again. That's all it takes.
The current Sargasso of ugliness and absurdity that we find ourselves swimming in will one day clear out, to be replaced with real art and real morality. Real artists with real skill- not hacks who think that dunking a cross in urine, or "performance art" pieces consisting of a movie star sitting in a room with a paper bag on his head, are valid modes of artistic expression- will make a comeback. We'll see real paintings, sculptures, and music come forth once more.
Until that time, though, the simplest cure for this horrible throbbing hangover can be found in any decent art gallery that displays decent old-school paintings. Go there, spend the afternoon with a hot cup of tea and the company of a good woman, and I promise you that you'll find reason for hope and joy once more.