Excerpt from Death of the Liberal Class
by Chris Hedges, 2010
Alan Magee, whose powerful images and sculptures of war and physical abuse explore the depravity of violence, entered the Illustration Department at the Philadelphia College of Art in 1967. He had no special interest in illustration. The department, however, was a place where art students were permitted to make representational paintings without apology. Fine-arts departments throughout the country, leaning toward the abstract and conceptual, saw representational art as by nature illustration. Those who gravitated to representational art were usually pegged as illustrators.
"As an art student I was searching for a language within the realist tradition that could carry contemporary ideas and issues," Magee told me. "Surrealism provided one example of how representational art could communicate. Outside our classrooms, inspiring work was beginning to appear in magazines, on posters, in European graphics," he said. "There was a lot to look at, to admire and measure oneself against. The magazine and book publishers were, by today's standards, inventive and politically courageous. The best art directors didn't get in the illustrator's way, or expect him to keep his eccentricities out of an assignment."
Magee began illustrating in New York in 1968. He said he was given nearly complete freedom in carrying out his work. "I would be assigned, for example, a series of Graham Greene or Bernard Malamud books to read and to interpret in my own way," he said: I looked for a symbolic or metaphorical equivalent to the writing whenever possible rather than making a literal depiction of the characters. My preliminary sketches were regularly accepted. The cynicism about the profits a book had to make hadn't really settled in, and the media conglomerates hadn't yet acquired the small publishing companies. That happened later, and the resulting erosion of the freedoms I had taken for granted was one of several reasons for my leaving that career and for concentrating on my own paintings.
"During the 1970s, in the fine-art world, the minimalist sculptor Donald Judd was installing polished aluminum boxes in galleries and art museums, Carl Andre was arranging rows of builder's bricks on museum floors, and many artists signed on to minimalism, conceptual art, and similar trends," Magee said. "These movements were no doubt partly aimed at asserting expanded possibilities for art. It was difficult to object to them. But the ascendancy of these opaque art practices did finally cordon off high art from the lives of ordinary people. Since then, ‘significant’ art has become ever more remote and inscrutable."
José Ortega y Gasset and Ernst Gombrich, Magee said, warned that modern art could evolve into a dehumanized enterprise. Ortega y Gasset suggested that intentionally obscure art would be used as an implicit insult to the lower classes when direct slurs were no longer regarded as acceptable. Gombrich predicted that membership in the modernist movement would be worn “like a badge” and that it would make analysis and criticism of particular artists and works of art from within the club impossible. "Both of these predictions came to pass," Magee said: "I began to understand that art-world 'discourses' could not be taken seriously, and I can remember a moment when it became clear to me that avant-garde art was not progressive or humanitarian—that it was, in a political sense, conservative, and was not interested in approval or comprehension from outside its privileged inner circle. I had naively believed that the modern art enterprise remained in some way linked to a gradual pull toward decency, a counterpart to various struggles for equality and fairness that were going on outside the world of art. The opposite was true. Tenderness and empathy had been banished from 'important' art. They were not good for business. Today's sanctified works of art are essentially financial vehicles—stripped of burdensome humanity.
"But what is wrong with frivolity, art-world insider games, or with bewildering art objects being displayed in a museum?" Magee asked: "Nothing is wrong with these things, of course, unless they are piled up as in a blockade to make passage of any useful images or ideas very difficult. What disheartens me when I enter the contemporary wing of the Museum of Modern Art—although it could be any contemporary wing, anywhere, since there is now only one message—is that a once-vital avenue of human connection is clogged with things that rebuke the notion of connection. I watch people wandering through these vast rooms looking somewhat glazed, half asleep, many of them, no doubt, suspecting that they are not clever enough or sufficiently educated to receive the blessing of high art. It saddens me that they came to experience art in good faith, believing that through it they might become uplifted, sensitized to life, as they would be if they had stayed home and read a good contemporary novel. Museum-goers are being deceived about the breadth of contemporary art and what it could offer them.
"Meaningful art is being created today, but as painter John Nava commented, 'the art that's been chosen to represent us all follows from Marcel Duchamp,'" Magee said. "His Fountain, a manufactured urinal signed 'R. Mutt,' which he submitted to the 1917 exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York, was voted the most influential artwork of the twentieth century by five hundred selected British art-world professionals. Duchamp's point, intended to repudiate genteel aesthetics and to 'shock the squares,' was timely and well made, but it didn't need to be repeated for a century.
"My disappointment with the drift of official contemporary art is bound up with my admiration for certain movements and artists that were part of early European modernism—Dada, and German Expressionist art and film, for example— but all the arts seemed to soar in the 1920s and early 30s," he said. "And much of early modernism was moral, as the writer John Gardner used the term, even though, and because, it was brazenly coarse and defiant. Those modern artists, like early Christians, were outsiders. That sense of dissidence may be what attracts me to the graphics, poetry, film, music, and literature from that time and place.
"I have had to rewrite art history for my own purposes," Magee concluded: "Maybe we all have to do that. I have to disregard the hierarchies of the art world to make space for artists in all fields who give me something authentic and who occasionally change my life. Some of these artists are well known. Others are like secrets completely invisible to those we call 'art professionals.' Among the artists in what I call 'my working history of art' are the Czech animator and sculptor Jan Svankmajer, the Italian sculptor Giacomo Manzù, the Spanish painters Antonio Lopez Garcia and Cristobal Toral, the French sculptor Louis Pons, and the Swiss artist of 'poetic machines', Paul Gugelmann. Then there are the Germans: Adolph Menzel, Otto Dix, Hannah Höch, and especially Käthe Kollwitz. I prefer to talk about these people, rather than speaking negatively about the enormous mass of well-funded contemporary art that doesn't help.
Chris Hedges is a former New York Times war correspondent, and author of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning; Death of the Liberal Class; America: The Farewell Tour, and The Greatest Evil is War (2022).