“But I don’t see why they have to use language like that,” Mrs. Bowman was saying.
“For some reason,” Mr. Magundi replied, “Hollywood equates vulgarity with honesty. In fact vulgar language is usually calculated and insincere, especially in young people. Habits of vulgarity can ossify, and a middle-aged vulgarian is probably quite unconscious of his vulgarity. But young people teach themselves to use vulgar language because they are ashamed of not using it; and they are ashamed especially because Hollywood has told them that vulgarity is the mark of sincerity. But in evaluating the messages we receive from Hollywood, it is helpful to remember that the movies are not in the business of sincerity, and that Hollywood itself is a community of arrested adolescents.”
“It’s another movie about a comic-book superhero up to his eyebrows in angst,” I said. “I’m getting a little bored with those.”
“Two aesthetic ideals have taken over our popular entertainment,” Mr. Magundi said: “the aesthetic of the comic book and the aesthetic of the soap opera. It’s worth remembering that, when you and I were growing up, those were considered just about the two lowest forms of entertainment. Now we see men in colored underwear whining about their love lives, and we treat them as though they were Shakespearean tragic heroes. But they are not. Shakespeare will survive as long as there is drama, but Angst-Man will be forgotten in a generation.”
“He wants me to get a tattoo like his,” Brielle was saying, “but I’m just not, like, totally sure about it.”
“Then you should stick to your guns,” Mr. Magundi said. “Remember that a tattoo is permanent. It will still be with you in twenty years. Would you really want to be wearing 1991 fashions right now?
“But aside from any aesthetic considerations, I think tattoos have a strong tendency to stunt your intellectual development. What I mean is this: I don’t think much of someone who has the same tastes and opinions at fifty that she had at twenty. If you aren’t constantly refining and improving your own mind, how is your life worth living? But a tattoo is an indelible record of what you thought was beautiful and important at one moment in time. You’re stuck with it unless you take drastic measures. It’s more irrevocable than just about any other decision you can make—far more irrevocable in our society than a marriage, for example. And I know human psychology. You’re very likely to persuade yourself that a decision you can never revoke was a good and right decision. And so your taste and opinions will stagnate, at least as far as they’re represented by the tattoo, because you cannot allow them to change.”
“If you can draw, you can do advertisements or comic books or something,” Brielle was saying, “but it’s like art museums don’t take art seriously anymore.”
“For most of history,” Mr. Magundi replied, “the question we asked about art was ‘Is it beautiful?’ Now we ask, ‘Is it meaningful?’ In fact, I think many, perhaps most, artists today would be insulted and appalled if you told them art was supposed to be beautiful. But I think without beauty we lose the meaning. Too much of the art I see today is little more than a punch line. You get it, and you laugh, or you say that it’s clever, and then you’ve got everything there is to get from it. There’s just one joke; it may be thought-provoking, but it provokes only one single obvious thought. But if you look at Picasso’s Guernica, you see infinitely more. Picasso could have scrawled ‘War is hell’ on a bedsheet and hung it on the wall, and that would convey a message. But it would not fascinate us, and it would not move us. What moves us is beauty, even in horror. What fascinates us is complexity and subtlety, something that engages us in a conversation rather than simply declaring a fact to us like a newspaper headline. In histories of art two centuries from now, I think our era will be portrayed as the one-joke era of art, and it will be dismissed in a paragraph. The next paragraph will turn with a sense of relief to the era when beauty was rediscovered as the primary goal of art.”
“Why do artists think the world owes them a living?” Mr. Bates asked rhetorically.
“I don’t know,” Mr. Magundi replied. “Why do lawyers think the world owes them a living?
“It’s like, they don’t care about drawing,” said Brielle, the art student. “And I like to draw, but I think I’m already better than the teachers. I’m not bragging, I’m just—you know—complaining.”
“An artist I know,” Mr. Magundi remarked, “once told me that Picasso spent the first sixteen years of his life learning to draw better than Rembrandt, and the rest of his life learning to draw like a six-year-old. Many people who derided his art never knew how perfect his technique was: he could paint exactly what he set out to paint, and what was on the canvas was exactly what he meant to be on the canvas. But far worse are the artists who think they appreciate Picasso, and yet have no idea how perfect his technique was. There’s a great difference between an artist like Picasso or Mondrian, who painted abstractions because he could paint anything, and an artist of today who scrawls ‘AIDS is bad’ on a canvas because he can paint nothing else. Picasso and Mondrian we justly call geniuses; the AIDS-is-bad artist seems more like a fraud to me.”