Modern Art and ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’

June 24, 2020 Updated: June 26, 2020

Ask any writer. Often the most poignant of insights come right after an interview ends, when the notebook is closed, the recording device is off, and often when the conversation goes completely off topic. That’s exactly what happened to me last year. I’d just had a fascinating interview in London with a well-respected art collector from a renowned family of art collectors. As I was packing up, my interviewee asked me where I was going next. 

I’d booked to see the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, a magnificent Baroque banquet hall painted by British artist Sir James Thornhill, which took him 19 years to complete. The hall was designed by architect Sir Christopher Wren. If you haven’t heard of the hall you may have seen it onscreen, as it’s often featured in movies and in TV costume dramas. I hadn’t seen the hall since it had undergone extensive conservation efforts. As I was telling her that that’s where I was heading, the thought of seeing the hall filled me with so much joy that my eyes brimmed with tears. 

Painted Hall
The Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, London, where hundreds of figures feature in Sir James Thornhill’s paintings celebrating Britain’s monarchs and naval and merchant might. (James Brittain)

It was one of those wonderfully unexpected moments that catches you utterly off guard. Slightly embarrassed, I explained how I felt: Many of the traditional art galleries and museums have become so dominated by modern art that these once-bastions of our art heritage have largely pushed out fine art in favor of art with politically correct agendas. The thought of seeing some traditional art and architecture without wading through the rest was like a breath of fresh air.

My interviewee understood. “It’s like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes,’” she said. 

The Emperor's New Clothes
In 1849, Vilhelm Pedersen illustrated the emperor parading through the streets in his magical new “clothes” for Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” (Public Domain)

Stating the Truth or Saving Face

You’ll remember how the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale goes: There once was an emperor who loved new clothes so much that he had clothes for every occasion. The emperor was so obsessed with buying new clothes that he cared little for his official duties, unless he could use the opportunity to pose in his new attire. 

Two swindlers heard of the emperor’s obsession, and posing as weavers they boasted that they could weave the most magnificent set of clothes the emperor had ever seen. Not only would the clothes be stunning, but the cloth had a special ability: It became invisible to whoever was stupid or who was unfit for his job. 

The emperor was impressed; he could gain new clothes and an insight into which of his officials were unfit for office. The swindlers set to work. They hid the fine silk and gold threads that they were given to make the material and pretended to weave. The clickity-clack of the empty looms could be heard day and night.

Keen to know what the material was looking like, the emperor sent his most honest official to see the weavers. The official observed the weavers working on the looms, but he couldn’t see any material. He knew the material became invisible to anyone unfit for office or who was stupid. He surmised that, as he was not stupid, it must mean he was unfit for his job.

Rather puzzled, he returned to the emperor and reported what he found. He said that he’d seen the finest of fabrics, with the most exquisite patterns. He couldn’t admit that he had been unable to see the fabric because that would mean he was unfit for his job.

Other officials couldn’t see the fabric either, but they all pretended they could out of vanity, fear of looking stupid, or losing their jobs. Although the emperor couldn’t see the fabric, because all his trusted officials said they could, he too agreed the fabric was splendid. Soon, the emperor’s magnificent new clothes with their magical abilities were the talk of the town and everyone wanted to see them.

The Emperor's New Clothes
The emperor proudly parades the streets in his new clothes, with his noblemen carrying the cloak’s train, in an 1853 illustration by Hans Tegner. All the townsfolk happily carry on the charade to save face. (Public Domain)

A procession was arranged for the emperor to show his people his fine new clothes. The emperor stripped down, and the weavers pretended to dress him in all his new finery. They even told his officials that the cloak had a train, which the officials happily pretended to carry. 

As the emperor and his entourage paraded through the streets, all his people cheered in celebration of his fine clothes. No one had ever seen anything like it. And no one wanted to admit they couldn’t see the clothes because that would mean they were idiots or unsuited for their jobs. Throughout the town, everyone was full of the same praise.  

Then suddenly, a little voice could be heard, the voice of a child: “But the emperor is not wearing any clothes.” Whispers of what the child said echoed throughout the town, awakening the people from their delusions. The child was right: The emperor was wearing no clothes. 

The emperor, even on hearing the truth of the matter from his people, decided to hold his head high and continue the procession with his officials continuing the facade, holding high the invisible cloak’s train. 

What I understand from my interviewee’s analogy is that just because a large consensus of the population believes that something is right and good, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. The child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” spoke up from a place of innocence because what that child saw conflicted with everyone else. The child wanted to learn the truth. 

The idea of modern art being like the emperor’s new clothes really resonated with me. 

Exposing the Emperor’s New Clothes

I used to believe that everything is art. Now I know better. 

My notion was born from a sincere reverence toward all living things, so this seemingly innocent concept of “everything is art” made sense to me. I didn’t realize, however, that “everything is art” aligns with the work of French conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, who is often associated with the Dada movement that helped catalyze the desecration of traditional Western art.

How Duchamp helped desecrate art is beyond the scope of this article, but to learn more, do read Chapter 11: “Desecrating the Arts” in The Epoch Times publication “How the Specter of Communism Is Ruling Our World.” 

Duchamp created an anti-art movement by making art that went against the conventions of traditional art practices. For example, he started exhibiting everyday objects that he called “readymades,” such as an upturned urinal he titled “Fountain,” a replica of which is on display at the Tate Modern, in London.

Duchamp declared, “An ordinary object [can be] elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” Essentially, Duchamp was saying: Anything is art–if an artist says it’s so. This viewpoint shifts the emphasis from the artist as a virtuoso who captures God’s creations to making the artist a false idol who believes that his or her viewpoint is more important than the work itself. 

Duchamp’s ideology deviates from the 16th-century definition of an artist, which, according to the Etymonline website, is someone “who cultivates one of the fine arts.” The traditional fine arts, as defined in the Renaissance, are painting, sculpture, and architecture. 

Interestingly, “fine” in “fine arts” doesn’t reflect the appearance and level of polish of the art, but it means that the artist has created the art using a purely traditional Western art discipline, according to philosopher David Clowney in a 2011 edition of “The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.”  

The Painted Hall
The back wall of the Painted Hall in Greenwich, London. (James Brittain)

The late philosopher Roger Scruton expands on these definitions, stating in his book “Beauty” that the essence of such art as “True art is an appeal to our higher nature, an attempt to affirm that other kingdom in which moral and spiritual order prevails.”

When painting moral and spiritual scenes, an artist needs to understand how to depict not only the superficial appearance of the subject but also each subject’s entire character. And as artists paint such upright subjects, they imbue their paintings with those qualities. It therefore makes sense that art painted with the utmost sincerity, that embodies the best moral and spiritual subjects, could move a person to tears. It’s why true art appeals to our soul, and when the soul is touched, that’s something that words cannot easily convey. 

Conversely, when art re-creates degenerate subjects (like a urinal) or fleeting subjects such as human emotions and desires outside of the realms of any spiritual or moral context, then this art cannot help but have an adverse effect on the viewer. A painting imbued with these qualities is not a painting that cultivates the fine arts. It heightens negative human emotions that are there as markers for discontent, and should not be immortalized on canvas. Paintings that capture emotions, desires, or selfish actions act as snapshots of a moment in time without showing any consequence from which to learn or improve our character. In true art, as in real life, every action has a consequence. 

Good art embodies reason. There is purpose and there is order to it: It promotes goodness, guiding our morality and inspiring us to be better. Good art makes sense. But modern art, that which deviates from the values of traditional Western art, is senseless. It embodies the irrational, the sensational, and the emotional; it’s without reason—reason in the truest sense of the word: rational. 

Therefore, art as defined by Duchamp fits into the “emperor’s new clothes” category. I believe that most nontraditional art created from the time of the impressionists onward (from around 1860) fits into that category too.

True art always guides the viewer to goodness, and art with any other goal is the emperor’s new clothes.