Modern Argh: Uglification of Culture Gets Royally Bad

Aaron Chown/Pool Photo via AP

Yes, yes, yes, I know. The world is falling apart. Joe Biden and the Left are dismantling American institutions. Israel and Ukraine are fighting for their lives. China is gobbling up the South China Sea. And the World Health Organization wants to play The Brain in taking over the world while having the intellectual capacity of Pinky. Narf!


With all of that said, though ... this actually matters, too:

Is King Charles being frozen in carbonite? Did he decide to take a dip in a Jell-O mold? Does this depict Charles' attendance at a Mostly Peaceful® rally in an American city, circa 2020? I'm no art critic, but allow me to propose that this is one of the ugliest portraits I've ever seen, and I saw Barack Obama's. At least Obama didn't appear to pop out of a 1970s porn set wall, and the hands and head were in better proportion than they are here as well.

If this were just a painting for the pleasure of the artist and the sap -- er, fortunate soul -- who bought it, the moment would have less meaning. But this mess was commissioned as an official portrait of the British monarch, not as an insouciant Soho criticism of the monarchy. 

Speaking of which, that criticism certainly appears to be implied in this portrait. Did no one at Buckingham Palace notice that His Majesty appears to be bathing in blood? Or were they just too enamored of the butterfly on Charles' shoulder as an homage to his environmentalism?


In case you wonder whether the artist may have had that in mind, read CNN's report on artist Jonathan Yeo (via NRO):

While the celebrated artist works mainly in oils, he has dabbled in another medium: collage. In 2007, after a commission to paint former President George W. Bush fell through, he decided to make an “ironic homage,” according to his website, by collaging cutouts from hardcore pornographic magazines to create a portrait of the then U.S. president, a satire on “the assumed moral superiority of the extreme right in American politics.”

Lest anyone think that criticism of this example of modern portraiture art comes exclusively from The Pouncing Republican Club, the Washington Post's art critic also calls this a "stylistic mess." Sebastian Smee tried very hard to find something to like about the ugly Portrait of Blood, and came up empty:

You spend most of your time as an art critic trying to express why you think art is, if not great, then somewhere in that postcode. (Falling near the edges is where most of the fun lies; a lot of criticism is about border disputes.) But it’s always instructive to reflect on straightforwardly bad art.

Here, then, is a handy example. Thank you, Jonathan Yeo. Thank you, King Charles, for commissioning him.

Yeo’s royal portrait, unveiled Tuesday at Buckingham Palace, drew an immediate and polarized response online, with comparisons to video game bosses, hell and “Ghostbusters 2.” To my mind, the painting is like the last will and testament of an uxorious libertine. It shouldn’t make sense — and guess what? It doesn’t. So many ideas — or really, so many decisions avoided — in the one painting! Do we want pretty or gritty? Abstract or figurative? Symbolism (note the butterfly, standing for Charles’s transformation from prince into king) or realism? Illusion of spatial depth or a flat, all-over effect? Dignified royal reserve or palpable collapse into pathos? It’s all there. A heap of oxymorons, a pileup of platitudes.


One has to admit, however, Yeo's embrace of ugliness has the virtue of timeliness. Our age, particularly in the arts, values nothing more than the nihilistic and ugly. But it's not just limited to the arts, as anyone who peruses social media already knows or intuits. Share after share, reel after reel, people feel compelled to embrace ugliness as a standard, not merely aesthetically but substantively as well. People transform their appearance and their expressions through all sorts of different methods to substitute anger and rage for beauty and/or grace. 

We live in an Age of Ugly, where virtues such as truth and beauty are mocked while nihilism and rage are embraced as the Authentic State. Our art simply reflects that these days, one could argue, but that leaves the art world off the hook. The purpose of art is to reflect truth, to be sure, but also to act as a catalyst for the best impulses of a society -- to promote aspiration toward truth, beauty, and wisdom through various media.

Instead, the caricature prevails over the truth. The mocking degradation overshadows grace and temperance. The mottled image eclipses an honest depiction. NRO's Madeleine Kearns remarks accurately that Charles' face resembles a corpse, but the portrait demonstrates the decay of Western civilization more accurately than it does the regnant monarch of the moment.   


And we are all the poorer for it. 

Addendum: Last month, I interviewed sculptor Timothy Paul Schmalz about this very topic while guest hosting on Relevant Radio. The interview starts about halfway through the recording. I hope you enjoy the discussion. 

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