Picture credit: Eduardo Briones/Europa Press via Getty Images
Artillery Row

The ugly truth

Genuine art needs more material support

Bimbling around Madrid’s stunning Museo Nacional del Prado is an exquisite experience. 

So much beauty and sublimity bouncing off the walls — not to mention the craftsmanship! The museum’s reputation as housing one of the world’s greatest collections of art is not unfounded. Just room after room exhibiting the thrilling trajectory of human artistic flare from the 12th century onward. Pure creative compound interest at play, spilling forth out of the human soul.

From El Greco’s surreal renditions of Christ’s life and death, to Goya’s upbeat and glowing snapshots of Spanish pastoral life (before he went dark and had Saturn biting off the head of a son, also in the gallery), to Ruben’s monumental Saint George and the Dragon. Did members of our species really manage to render such astonishing detail, expertise and imagination simply with their bare hands? Nowadays most of us struggle to compose a legible shopping list on a piece of paper.

But after a few hours, I began to find the Prado an increasingly unsettling experience — precisely because of the degree of beauty on the walls. It illustrated through stark contrast the dire state of the art world today, a state of affairs that extends across the entire canon of human artistic endeavours. Hence we now have to endure the conventional leftist complaint about the likes of their non-binary, DEI-fueled adaptation of Shakespeare not making them rich. How about talking to a real artist about the state of his or her bank account. 

The Prado’s walls also illustrated something about the general state of the rest of us, especially the ways in which some are set on navigating how the past relates to the present. 

“Only the West says its own traditions are, per se, illegitimate because they match the demography of the European continent,” Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of When Race Trumps Merit, says in the Spectator’s Americano podcast.And we are teaching students to view our artistic legacy through the crippling, poisonous lens of race and sex.”

As Mac Donald notes, money plays a big part in the current problem, with corporations and donors jumping on the anti-white-men bandwagon. Back in the likes of the 15th and 16th centuries when the (predominantly Christian white male) painters featured in the Prado were producing their glorious works, most usually had sponsors and benefactors who supported them financially in the long term. This meant they could devote their lives to their art, constantly experimenting and improvising, improving their craft: with astonishing results.

Nowadays though — as with publishing — the majority of the art world gatekeepers are ever more myopic, risk averse and conformist, daring only to support what is “hot” or on trend. That feeds into the money going to an increasingly small coterie of “celebrated” and hyped-about artists, producing what the market rewards and, guess what, it’s not at all that nice to look at usually. We are told that it is “provocative”, which these days is a euphemism for covering up what is in fact ugly, crudely banal and obvious, typically “daring” to deal with some on-trend platitude about minority rights, racism, sexuality, gender identity, etc.

… genuinely talented artists … get scant if any financial reward

Meanwhile, as the modern art world gorges itself on its own hype, genuinely talented artists, as with writers, get scant if any financial reward, especially if they choose to simply deal with any of the universal themes of human life that all of us have a stake in — love, parenthood, ageing and death — and which the artists at the Prado engaged with so powerfully.

That part of the problem lies with gallery owners and those directly involved in controlling the art industry to suit their agendas. But those of us outside that rarefied field also contribute to the malaise through the general consensus on what is deemed worthy of financial remuneration. Today it is judged that the financial rewards should go to those working in the likes of investment banking, private equity, marketing and sales, tech and consulting. 

Management consultants have been coming in for particularly intense criticism of late, based on mounting evidence that not only are they overrated, but they have contributed to many of the problems afflicting the economy and fuelling the shift to an ever more callous capitalism. 

After every upheaval — the 2008 financial crisis, Brexit and then Covid — the consultants have swooped in and swept up the contracts and mega bucks. The average person could justifiably point out that they had nothing to do with awarding a government contract. But for too long we’ve thought along such lines: Well, it’s beyond my pay scale, you can’t pin that on me, mate. We are all part of society—a society doesn’t exist without each of its constituent parts. We all have a vote. Even if just in miniscule ways — through what we choose to spend our money on — we contribute to whom and how society rewards. 

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of essential workers going on strike, the recent deluge of walkouts has forced a conversation about the fact that nurses, for example, have continually been deemed not as worthy of financial compensation. Their cause has benefited through leveraging the politics of Covid. There are many other low-paying jobs that were crucial during the pandemic but which aren’t being discussed. 

Artists are even further down the ladder. As the saying goes: You get what you pay for. Increasingly, society does not pay for beautiful art or support those who might produce it. Instead, it is paying for all sorts of weird, bleak offerings, including plenty of dark revisionist reinterpretations. All around us the bleaker and uglier results are there to see. “Once we start to celebrate ugliness, then we become ugly too,” as Roger Scruton succinctly put it. 

To make matters even worse, the sorts of progressive arbiters backing (governing) today’s awful art are also now trying to cancel certain words — including ugly. I guess the truth hurts.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover