The Emperor Has No Clothes

The Emperor Has No Clothes

If 96% of the people walking past an “art installation” on a busy public street don’t take any notice at all is it because they need to become more educated or because it’s just bad art?

In this documentary, “The Tuynmans Experiment,” the artist, Luc Tuynmans, called “the most important Belgian painter and one of the most important painters working today in the world,” whose artwork sells for millions, painted a wall on a busy pedestrian way in Antwerp. One critic guessed that 90% of passersby would stop to admire it. “It will stop people, make them think wake them up,” another predicts. The experiment, however, was an abysmal failure. Only 4% of the people who walked passed actually paid notice to the large painting that “referenced a diorama from a Japanese fertility museum that showed monkeys copulating as humans.”

The documentary makers hope that the numbers will wake people up and make them appreciate art. To me the numbers tell a different story. They make me think the artists need to wake up and realize their art doesn’t appreciate people.

What does it mean for an artist to be “important”? Important to whom? The insular elitist art world? Does his work reach beyond those bounds? Evidently not. Important why? Christies Head of Contemporary Art says his pictures “tell the truth” but she doesn’t say what that truth is. What does he have to say that I should listen to? She speaks in code words and jargon. She says his paintings have “difficult subject matter”. Does that mean most people would find them offensive or just obscure?

She says he’s not “obvious, simplistic, or reductive in his message”. That sounds like excuses for why ordinary people can’t “get” them. And why should I care about paintings that fail to speak to me? If the man on the street gets it does that automatically mean that the work was too obvious or too simplistic. If the meaning can be explained is that reductive?

We are told that “there is something subterranean, below the surface, that lurks, that has tremendous moral gravitas.” That sounds good, sort of, but what does it mean? And that it is “relevant.” Relevant to whom? He’s “pushing the outer envelope” in terms of aesthetics and subject matter. What does that mean? Is that a good thing? Why is pushing the envelope a good in itself? Somehow I suspect that pushing the envelope in terms of subject matter means exploring subjects that in other times and places would have been considered of limits. the literal meaning of the word obscene is that which happens off stage. If we push the boundaries of the stage further out to bring it on stage is that a good move? Some things should be out of bounds, some things shouldn’t be depicted.

It’s interesting that the video never gives us a clear view of the art. It’s always at a distance and with someone standing between the painting and the camera, between the viewer and the art we are supposed to be viewing. How symbolic. The filmmaker seems to emphasize that we need an interpreter. We can’t judge the art for ourselves. We should just take the experts’ word that it is great. We see a gallery fully of people that lets us know how popular he is and hear gushing critics and admirers.

What is art? What is the purpose of art? it seems like the “art world” has lost touch with the basic questions. A gaping chasm extends between their understanding of “art” and that of the rest of us who are not in the club.

99% of what passes for art today leaves me cold. It isn’t beautiful or true, it doesn’t elevate or inspire. You need to have some sort of education to be able to appreciate it. You need to understand the “context”, the “vocabulary” the history and the techniques.

Now one could argue that to fully appreciate medieval religious art one needs to know the context and vocabulary as well,that you need to understand the history and the techniques. But there’s a difference. Between us and them there is a gap of hundreds of years; they are not our contemporaries. But in their day medieval artists spoke in a vocabulary the common man on the street could understand. A farmer walking into a gothic cathedral didn’t need to be told how to read the art there. It spoke the language he’d been brought up speaking since the day he was baptized.

If we need to be educated to read it it is simply because the language we speak has been degraded and we no longer understand the sacred vocabulary that our ancestors lived and breathed. But I would argue that even the uneducated could not walk past a Madonna or a painted altarpiece or a Gothic cathedral without recognizing it as an object of transcendent beauty, without identifying it as art. They might not fully understand the piece in the same way that I don’t fully understand Japanese paintings or Hindu temples; but they won’t dismiss it as trash or junk as they will so much of modern so-called art.

Contemporary artists and art critics exist in a small self-contained world all of their own. They speak an academic vocabulary of experts, the small social clique of those in the know. The man on the street is excluded and when presented with a multi-million dollar work of art frequently can’t even tell that it is a work of art. In fact, it seems that nowadays obscurity and inaccessibility to the masses is a prerequisite for something to be called art. Anything that the man on the street might recognize as art is dismissed as “obvious” and therefore unworthy of the attention of the art world’s literati. 

We are presented with blasphemous images of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a stripper, with obscene accounts of artificial insemination and induced abortion and told that these are works of art meant to challenge us and to inspire dialogue. The implication: If we are offended and disgusted we are simply closed-minded philistines or intolerant bigots.

And so I return to Jen’s definition of art that I blogged about the other day:

Art is the secret handshake of the children of God, the inside joke among those with souls. The spark that is ignited within us when we are touched by a work of art is a spark of recognition: the artist has brought us a souvenir from our homeland beyond the material world, the place that none of us should know about, but all of us do. To connect with a piece of art is to connect with the artist as a fellow traveler, to realize that you are both walking the same rocky road, and that he is homesick too. And it matters because true art, art that seeks a connection of souls, makes it harder to devalue and dehumanize one another. It reminds us what it means to be human.


If art is fundamentally about our relationships with each other (and our recognition that we are children of God) then a true work of art should be accessible to everyone (barring physical handicaps like blindness or deafness).  In the same way that the intellectual genius of St Thomas Aquinas didn’t make him any holier than the unlearned Venerable Solanus Casey. Holiness is judged by one’s closeness to God. Any person is capable of having a relationship with God, even the newest baby or the most mental deficient adult. Art is the same way, it’s about communication with another person. Anyone should be capable of having a relationship with a work of art and through it with the artist, not just the few who are in the know.

What does it mean when the artists, who should be the torchbearers of our society have lost touch with the rest of humanity? What does it mean when they don’t have the same ideas about beauty, truth and God?

And the critics all stand and praise the beautiful set of clothes on the naked emperor while the child who speaks the truth is ignored by all those who are older and “wiser.”


Further thoughts by Julie D.

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  • Yes, that looks like an azalea bush.  My mother had a row of yellow azalea bushes.  The blooms never last long, but oh that signals spring to me! 

  • Rododendron or azalea, I always confuse them… We have plenty here where I live, and it’s soooo beautiful! I always make a mental note that, when we have our own house, our yard will have to be full of them grin The only bad thing is that they attract all sorts of big bees, hornets, etc.

  • I was kind of leaning toward azalea. I guess that’s the consensus. In any case, it’s a lovely sight to look at while eating my oatmeal.

    I have noticed the sudden proliferation of bees. No hornets, though.

  • Azaleas are part of the Rhododendron family but don’t grow in clusters.  Their leaves are also usually thinner.  But both azaleas and rhododendrons have special “pores” at the ends of the anthers where the pollen comes out.  You’d know for sure what you have if you saw those. 
    This link might work—or not.

    it works; but I prettied it up. MB