The 20th century started off so well, not least here in Ireland with John Lavery's many paintings of his beautiful wife:
Or the fantastical frenzy of Harry Clarke's illustrations:
In the early 20th century artists were pushing the envelope, testing the limits of art by expanding into new styles. We end up with gorgeous architecture like the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. The French fashion magazine La Gazette du Bon Ton published exquisite images of modern fashions, heavily influenced by classical styles.
Classical composers began feeling for the edges too, creating challenging works like Bartók's Sonata for Solo Violin from 1944 or this menacing piece from Shostakovich's Eight Symphony, written in the height of World War II's carnage - Russia 1943.
Something happened later, as artists began to run out of new spaces to expand into. By the end of the century extremely experimental works had challenged the definition and purpose of art. Criteria for judging art were whittled away: it no longer needed to be beautiful, moving or entertaining. It need not even be recognisable. This piece, for example...
...Gustav Metzger's Recreation of the First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art, featured a bag of rubbish which a cleaner at the Tate Britain assumed really was rubbish, and dumped.
For many people, this new art was alienating and ugly. Some of it is deliberately alienating, though, deliberately pushing to arouse disgust or annoyance in the viewers. Andres Serrano's Piss Christ is a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's urine.
Anything could be art in this new age, but when so much tried to shock and disturb it grew wearying, because repeated shocks simply desensitise the viewer. Art involving corpses, faeces, urine and blood can only shock for a few years - and with more people growing up on violent action and horror films the strength of that shock is ever-decreasing, rendering offensive art ever more boring and worthless.
So throughout the 20th century high art pushed away from beauty and excitement, seceding this ground as it drifted into absurd, boring irrelevance. But the demand for beauty and purpose had not disappeared. The late 20th century saw it being satisfied, but not by the great high brow artists. Instead low brow genres became ever more ambitious, expanding into the territory abandoned by the elites.
It started as dance music, rocking around the Christmas tree in blue swede shoes. By the 1970s Pink Floyd were taking rock incredibly seriously, using rock to look deeply at human life. Like the high artists, Floyd dealt with alienation and madness, but Floyd's music was beautiful, moving, exciting - they offered narrative instead of noise and in the roared chant 'TEAR DOWN THE WALL', a solution.
With much classical music drifting off into untouchable academic dullness, bands like Pink Floyd filled the space by creating intelligent, ambitious music that was still accessible to millions of ordinary people. Populist film composers like John Williams also satisfied, by creating memorable and thrilling themes to Jaws, Star Wars, Superman and so on.
Derided for their childish appeal to bright colours and simplistic plots, superhero comics had by the 21st century drifted into much deeper territory. Alan Moore's 1986-87 Watchmen explored fascism, Cold War paranoia and moral relativism - yet he used gorgeous, compelling artwork and a driving plot to do this. Watchmen is fascinating, entertaining and serious. Works like this in the 1980s led to the rebirth of Batman in the 2000s as a serious character in two ambitious, exciting but also thoughtful films.
In Japan astonishing animated films by directors like Hayoa Miyazaki (creator of Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and My Neighbour Totoro) united beauty and narrative with deeper themes of environmentalism, religion and feminism. Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 film Akira gave a dark, sumptuous depiction of a futuristic, corrupted Tokyo.
The Matrix Trilogy pushed a new kind of superhero. These films made viewers question their assumptions about reality, while entertaining them with stunning action, a mind-bending plot and flawless cinematography. This, apparently, is "low art", while crapping into a can is "high art".
Always growing more realistic and more fantastic, a single game can give hundreds of hours of pleasure, while Piss Christ gives a few seconds of bored disgust. But the game - right at the cutting edge of technology and human innovation - is low art, remember, while a photo of a crucifix in urine is high art...
The growth of great popular arts over the last few decades undoes a lot of the damage done by the decline of high art. If the elites wish to continue pissing people off, they may. The better popular artists will fill their place with accessible, meaningful and beautiful music, cinema, literature and illustration. Art is not lost; only the artists are.