There can be little doubt that Western Art is in decline. Any comparison of the great masterworks of the past 500 years with the pathetic soup cans of Andy Warhol, not to mention the flayed cows and elephant dung creations that now pollute our museums, indicates that the artistic culture has progressed well beyond decadence and is now sliding down an increasingly steep slope toward total creative rigor mortis.
Architecture devolved into primitive geometrics some time ago, but actually appears sober in comparison with the delusional self-parody of modern sculpture. The art of painting has not only been stripped of beauty by its artless practitioners, but the basic techniques have been lost as well, producing works that are cruder to the eye than the pre-perspective images of medieval times.
Music, too, has fared poorly. A top producer such as Dr. Dre could no more write an orchestral score than could Britney Spears tackle Verdi’s “La Traviata.” I say this with confidence, having penned two Billboard-charting dance hits myself, despite barely being able to read music. About poetry, the less said the better, as even the treacly, but delightful wordsmithery of A.A. Milne looks downright epic in comparison with the state-subsidized, overpoliticized tripe published today.
Of all the arts, it is only the novel that has held up well. This may be in part because it is a younger art, and one more amenable to modern sensibilities. If there are no sculptors to compare with Michelangelo, no musicians to compare with Mozart and no poets to compare with Byron, there are still novelists, who, while perhaps falling short of true literary greatness, may at least be mentioned in the same sentence as their historical antecedents without provoking mirth and scorn.
It is true that the works of Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie and Neal Stephenson may not quite rate with Tolstoy, de Balzac, Austin, Bronte, Flaubert and Dostoevsky, but the comparisons are not wholly absurd. Even so, I was troubled after reading “The Rice Mother,” an excellent first novel by Malaysian writer Rani Manicka.
This was not due to any dearth of writing skill – which is considerable – or an absence of character development, plot or story arch. Her portrait of Malaysia is realistic enough that one can virtually smell the jungle surrounding the pathetic wooden huts constructed on stilts, which provide joint habitation for a family as well as the chickens that sustain them. Her description of the intrafamilial poison that is passed from one generation to the next is disturbingly lifelike, and the characters who populate the novel are masterfully drawn.
“The Rice Mother” is a beautiful and brutal book. At times, it could almost pass for an Oprah Book Club novel, chronicling the self-absorption and petty martyrdoms of the modern American woman. But the genuine cruelties of reality intrude too harshly and too often to force the book down that mysteriously popular literary dead end.
What is sad is that for all Manicka’s Eastern heritage and well-honed artistic talent, the power of her art has been drained by that great vampire of Western literature, amorality. Ted Chiang, the award-winning science-fiction writer, has written that “Hell is the Absence of God,” and this certainly is true for the author who aspires to literary greatness. There is no drama without conflict, and “The Rice Mother” offers very little of either, as both the author and her characters are wholly bereft of any moral vision against which the reader may contemplate their actions.
Thus, even the book’s most ghastly events are stripped of their horror, and so of their dramatic power as well. Where would be the drama in “Oedipus Rex” if the incestuous usurper simply murmured an embarrassed apology about the terrible misunderstanding and quietly replaced his queen with a more appropriate lover? Would the reader follow the twisted meanderings of Raskolnikov’s mind with such interest, if, after taking an axe to Alena Ivanovna, he ate a sandwich, watched television and forgot about the matter? And without the Puritanical strictures on adultery, would there even be enough color to Hawthorne’s famous letter to render a short story worthwhile?
The horror of “The Rice Mother” is the way in which it reveals that our most talented artists have been stripped of the most vital tool of their trade. An amoral society may have its advantages, but a fertile field for literary greatness is not one of them. This is the end of Art.