Tom Wolfe, in his essay, The Worship of Art, highlighted two different ways in which people express the rejection of the world, through religion and through art. Wolfe submited that religious prophesies that condemn non-believers and set well-to-do church goers apart from the general masses, assuring them that their spot in heaven is secure, represent a form of self justification; the justification of one’s wealth, which is used, in part, to support the church and those delivering the message of salvation. Wolfe goes on to explain that today we have a hierarchical endowment system for the arts which exists to legitimize the well-to-do and make them look glamorous to boot. Salvation, legitimization, and status are on sale at our religious and cultural institutions. Corporations, such as Philip Morris and Bank of America, are hip to this concept, hence their elaborate corporate art programs that coincide with the level of their misdeeds.
It is easier to move art as commodity when it is released from all societal and cultural obligations and responsibilities. Autonomy in art makes it universal, allowing it to forgo any ties to a single group or tradition, thus making it readily available to anyone, anywhere, for a price. Dematerialization of art releases the artist of utilitarian duties. As Suzi Gablik indicates in her essay, Art for Art's Sake or Art for Society's Sake, art is no longer a “precious object” to be cherished. It is something to look at that you don’t really need. Fine craftsmanship is no longer an expectation and a throw-away society can emerge.
The International Style, mentioned in Mashe Safdie’s Private Jokes in Public Places, reiterates the notion that modernism, when watered down for importation to America, defies cultural and social barriers because it is not tied to or obligated by anything except the few basic rules that define it. This makes it ripe for the picking by narcissists and those possessed by a superiority complex. As Gablik points out, “the artist saw himself as a kind of priest who divined the inner soul, or spirit.” Exactly the kind of self-perception that is required when one is in engaged in the rejection of all historical, social, and environmental contexts in which they inhabit. And what better perspective to adopt when searching for a way to justify one’s disregard for civic duty and social and environmental responsibility? Especially when your local religious institution is always there for you, making it all okay, in the name of god.
When Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson wrote The International Style in 1932, they knew what they were doing. What better way to turn a legitimate movement into an international commodity than to strip it of the very social and political connections that gave birth to it in the first place? Only then can it be bastardized and exploited. And what better place to do it than America, where we are void of an historical identity and desperate to legitimize our lifestyle? It’s no wonder the modernist style (not the modernist movement, as Safdie points out) has served us so well in the justification of the environmental, social and civic degradation that is a by-product of the American suburban drive-in utopia and the corporations that perpetuate it.
Can post-modernism, in combination with the beginning of the end of the oil era, and the financial crisis of 2007–present, or the Great Recession, as it is being called by some, eventually result in the restoration of civic, social, and environmental responsibility in our communities? Or, are we poised for a new cultural movement to emerge from the chaos?