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Why We Can't Make Pretty Art Anymore

11/20/2015 02:24 EST | Updated 11/20/2016 05:12 EST

Not long ago I was listening to a new jazz release by saxophonist/composer Rich Halley -- Creating Structure, an album of four-part jazz improvisation. The first track is called Analog Counterpoint. It's percussive and insistent with an urgent sax line -- Rich's instrument -- above a dry staccato on the drum skins. I'm struck by the juxtaposition it presents in my mind between the urgency of this contemporary jazz Counterpoint and the measured, elegant beauty of counterpoint in the music of Bach, et al.

It also links, in my mind, with a video that showed up in my Facebook feed not long ago, one made about a year ago but that keeps popping up now and then. In it, a curmudgeonly OWG (old white guy) decries all modern and contemporary art as ugly and postulates on the reasons therefore. He comes up with the usual suspects -- let's just summarize his argument with the statement that he holds the Impressionists to be at fault for dissolving the notion of realism in art and thus setting off the slide down the slippery slope towards ugliness.

The idea is this beauty is the goal of all artistic creation. It is a beauty that is pure, as defined by classical Greek standards, and unsullied by any other consideration. It is an illusion of beauty and art that exists in a rarefied state, inalterable, a place that has nothing to do with the dust, grime and sweat of the real world. It does not respond or react to anything except in the context of that classical standards devised by the ancient Greeks -- high art in a bubble and a time warp that never changes.

Modern art, though, broke from that paradigm about a century ago and that is the source of our curmudgeon's chagrin. And he's not alone by any stretch. Just reposting the video with a negative comment on my own timeline, people wondered why I would disagree.

It's not that I don't understand the appeal of classically defined beauty. For me, its most reliable form is in fact the music of the European Baroque period -- Bach, Handel, Purcell, Vivaldi. They never fail to satisfy, never fail to resolve all of their chords with a definitive flair. It is a music that is majestic and also solidly reassuring. These men, these composers, they believed in God -- you can hear it in the music. They believed firmly in the divinely ordained laws that ruled their universe and that is what allowed them to create such beauty.

For it was not only that they believed so firmly in God and His laws; they believed equally firmly in their own place within God's lawful order -- a place just one step down from the divine, at His Right Hand.

In the ensuing centuries, that sense of certainty has deteriorated. You can see its dissolution in the world of visual art over time. I remember being struck by that thought in a show I went to see in 2010 at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). The exhibition juxtaposed the etchings of Dutch Baroque master Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn and contemporary British realist Lucian Freud -- the former's full of warm, holy light and space just as the latter's writhed with angst and disconnection. Lost was any divine sense of rightness, any certainty at all.

But that certainty, I think, had shaky foundations to begin with. Because all that majesty and pure beauty coexisted seamlessly in European society with acts of the most abject cruelty and inhumanity.

Let's look at what else was going on during the European Baroque period -- or Age of Enlightenment, as it is still sometimes called. In the 1600s, slavery was a growing phenomenon in British, Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish colonial territories. Slave colonies supplied the vast British Empire with most of its goods. In 1660, in fact, King Charles II -- then newly restored to his throne -- granted the first royal to a slave trading company that went by the euphemistic name of "Royal Adventures into Africa."

As pretty music played, the slave trade accelerated. By 1750, about 45,000 new slaves were being kidnapped and brought to the Americas each year. Rembrandt's time is known as the Golden Age of Amsterdam and the rest of the Dutch Republic as its traders sailed the world looking for riches. The Dutch East India Company was founded during this period and began taking over ports critical to its trade routes in Asia, including Jakarta, on the way to becoming what was likely the world's biggest single slave trader in history.

When I left the Rembrandt/Freud show, I literally turned the corner of the gallery and stumbled into a show by Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu. Her pieces examine notions and stereotypes of black female beauty in a vibrant cacophony of motifs and textures - a tumultuous complexity that responds to a real world issue. She had wounded the very walls, where holes in the plaster bled red paint. The show was intensely beautiful in a way that defies notions of classicism; she needed only the certainty of her inquiry and the clarity of her vision.

Art is a kind of counter thread of truth to the glossy fictions of pop culture. Western society lost its moral certainty about a century ago and rightfully so. If artists are to confront truth, the truth is so often, so ugly.

And that's why we can't make pretty art anymore. But perhaps we can still create a kind of beauty that still seems terrible and new -- even after a century or so.