In a plain white room at the new postmodern art palace downtown, there's a bench surrounded by 40 speakers on posts like parking meters. Each one plays a separate voice in a choir.
Is it art - or is it Memorex?
Is it art, or just a very cool surround sound stereo like the one in my car? Will it still be art if they put on some George Strait? Or is it just a Radio Shack autopsy of real art by the chorus?
I think my questions were beginning to annoy my host, Charles Desmarais, the director of the new Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, a charming, intelligent man who was doing his best to conceal his suspicion that I am some kind of cultural Unabomber.
And he did wonder why I was so concerned about defining art.
It's a fair question. My definition comes from poet John Keats: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty - that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know."
But apparently, the idea that art equals beauty and truth is as dead as Keats. The new definition in the arts world and on campus is postmodernism: a hangover from modernism, which traded divine truth for soup cans years ago.
"Many modernist works try to uphold the idea that works of art can provide the unity, coherence and meaning which has been lost in most of modern life ... postmodernism, in contrast, doesn't lament the idea of fragmentation, provisionality or incoherence, but rather celebrates that. The world is meaningless? Let's not pretend that art can make meaning then, let's just play with nonsense."
That definition from professor Mary Klages of the University of Colorado is as good as any. In a postmodern world, it's all good. "All value orientations are equally well founded," the postmodern intellectualoids say.
This is not just about artists who walk on flags, play with corpses, dip crucifixes in urine and rewrite the Bible to make Jesus gay.
Art imitates life. And life imitates art. In a postmodern world, there is no true and false. There is no such thing as a lie - only another version of reality. History is rewritten to make victory in Iraq a defeat unless weapons of mass destruction are found. A pathological prevaricator who couldn't remember her address under oath can make millions selling her "memoirs" - and people line up to buy Hillary's book about the performance art presidency.
But there's a hole in the postmodern pretension. Deciding that nothing can be judged is - a judgment. Truth is stubborn. Beauty endures like Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn, that will still breathe sighs of life when postmodernists are dust.
One of the most interesting exhibits in Cincinnati's new art museum is the list of donors in the lobby. Surprise: It includes "conservative" business leaders in "repressive" Cincinnati: Carl and Edyth Lindner, Frisch's Restaurants, GE, John Pepper, Portman Equipment Co., George Strike, Kroger, UDF.
Just a dozen years ago, many were probably disgusted by the CAC's ugly postmodern Mapplethorpe exhibit. But they are donors now because they support free expression in Cincinnati.
There's truth and beauty in that.
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