I know how it is. We post pics of our niece’s crayon art to Pinterest, frame a purchased poster of Edward Munch’s The Scream, and lament the loss of theimpending liquidation of the DIA. All the while, we casually and carelessly call each of these “art.” If put to the test, I know we would discriminate of course: Little Deborah is hardly a Gustave Dore, and you can’t buy a Matisse for $7.95 at Kmart.
But I think our slovenly language has made more inroads into our culture than we suppose. Slowly, perhaps inevitably, the classical idea of art has been slipping away. No longer do we invoke Rembrandt, Breugel, and Degas as icons of Western civilization. Sure, we still admire them from afar, but ask the average American to name a single work by any of these stalwarts—let alone discuss it—and we are met with blank stares. Can’t we, they beg, talk about Miley Cyrus or Banksy instead?
Perhaps this is why, while many protest the affront of an Emergency Manager’s pricing of the Detroit Institute of Storeroom Art, the protests are far less numerous and evocative than those about sexy photos of the Glee cast. No, it’s time to understand what has happened to our classical definition of art—and it won’t be pretty.
Art, says the traditional conservative view, represents the timeless articulation of Idea, the discipline of form and perception, the height of human thought, and the beauty (or at least Truth) of experience. Yet when our attention is locked upon the timelessness of a Jean-Luc Picard facepalm meme, the hard-crafted discipline of South Park animators, and the beauty of “Wrecking Ball” videos, we have to wonder if the casual blurring of our definitions is so easily cured.
Elitists and those who still cling nostalgically to the wonder of Impressionism over street tagging or the purity of a kouros over a Mapplethorpe or Ofili know (and often become righteous because) their numbers dwindle. Just look at the subscription figures for the Detroit Opera House as it now offers Tigers tickets. As traditional definitions fade, so too do traditionalists.
Which leaves us with the post-structural and digital cultural irrelevance of today’s art. New art can never be timeless, it’s Ideas now merely an idea. Discipline and form are replaced with inspiration and Flash animation. Human thought in the classical sense must be met with the derision it is due. And the Truth of experience becomes today’s favorite Twitter joke. The honesty of this new definition is repulsive, I know, but this does not alter its accuracy.
This is, of course, why Ylvis’ “The Fox” is today’s beacon of light for our new artistic compulsion. It begins and ends as a collaborative joke instead of a singular impulse to enlighten. It eschews discipline for cheap costumes, common lyric, and tawdry lightshows. It brazenly mocks human philosophy and the teleological. And its great truth reaches the level of a six-year-old’s quest. With over 100 million hits on YouTube to date, it puts Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony to shame. More, when it vanishes in three months from most human consciousness (apart, of course, from Tumblr geeks and a few Eurozone groupies), our cultural amnesia will only reinforce the self-same new definition. Ylvis is funny, but he is only today’s temporary successor of VMA twerking, Psy’s Gangnam-style, and that other thing that everyone remembers—you know, that thing.
And amidst all of that doggerel and ironic claptrap, the Ylvis video manages to skewer even the idea of art I here argue. We laugh at “What Does the Fox Say?” because we laugh at what we have become, self-styled and self-accusing morons masquerading in theosophy. Some fans don’t get it, building arguments for the video’s zoological veracity. And the brothers Ylvis make the talk show rounds laughing at their own Vegas/Potemkin Village joke.
And perhaps laughter is more bearable than facing Tragedy.