Beauty and Nausea in Venice

"On or about December 1910, human character changed," wrote British novelist Virginia Woolf in 1924.  "I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless."

Woolf's famous quote refers specifically to an exhibition of naturalist paintings.  More broadly, 1910 marked the approximate date of a huge shift in the world of art: out went the traditional goal of creating beauty, replaced by the modernist goal of promoting ideals and imparting a political message, especially one that would épater la bourgeoisie (shock the burghers).  Toward this end, rudeness and ugliness are inherent in the progressive goal of irritating, disturbing, and teaching.

Italy, home of the Renaissance, widely considered the apogee of artistic achievement, offers a striking place to observe this contrast, as my recent travel to twelve Italian towns brought home.

Since the Grand Tour began in the seventeenth century, the traveler's dominant experience in Italy has been to go and immerse oneself in its beauty.  In part, it's the country's natural attractions, from rolling hillside vineyards to dramatic seaside vistas.  But mostly it's the Italians' artistic accomplishments: Roman statuary and ruins, Renaissance piazzas and paintings, Venetian canals and bridges.  The lesser arts also hold their own: pastas, sauces, and olive oils pay homage to the fine art of cooking, celebrated nowadays even in gas station stops along limited-access highways.  Like innumerable foreigners before me, I have been captivated since my first visit in 1966 by the classic Italian devotion to beauty, by the historic areas and their remarkable cultivation of beauty.

But that's just the historic areas.  Leave those, and ugly modernity quickly intrudes.  In Bologna, for example, once you exit the Renaissance town center, you bump into Stalinist-style buildings, hideous storage tanks, and oppressive graffiti (an Italian word, by the way).

If architecture is the most ubiquitous expression of decay, painting, sculpture, and music suffer from the same woes, a point extravagantly proven every two years by the famed Venice Biennale.  Opened in 1895 and held during odd years for an interminable six and a half months, its contents contrast spectacularly with the transcendent beauty of its host city, Venice.  Among the unique blend of canals, gondolas, medieval palaces, and baroque churches, neighbor to the highest of the arts, sit a former factory and warehouse full of the sad and miserable excrescences known as modern art.

I traipsed from hall to hall of the 57th biennale, expecting to find didactic, pedantic, and politically radical exhibits.  To my relief, overtly left-wing politics were nearly absent; instead, I found the dreary vacuity of mostly pointless shapes, pictures, and words.  Most artifacts seemed childlike, relying on boisterously primary colors, simple shapes, and simplistic messages.  Skill, beauty, and meaning were all conspicuous by their absence: a hammock loaded with random papers.  Hanging sneakers with plants growing from them.  A mural made up of audio cassettes.

Only a perverse exhibit of mock corpses that featured rotting organic matter contrasted with this blandness; the catalogue has the nerve to call these nauseating figures an "aesthetic and ecstatic transfiguration" creating "a new magical world."

It came as no surprise to learn that the New York Times' review of the biennale's current iteration berated it for being too apolitical in the age of Brexit and Trump.  Fine, but calling the decayed corpse exhibit "sexy" appalled me for its implication of necrophilia.

I felt tempted to shout out to the horde of art-worshipers, "The emperor has no clothes.  This is a fraud.  Leave this bleak place, and instead visit Venice's exquisite streets, waterways, churches, and palaces."  But exhibit-goers had each paid an entrance fee of €25 (US$30), and, judging by the many photographs being snapped and the learned discussions underway, the biennale cheerfully satisfied their artistic tastes.  So I stayed mum.

Two concluding observations: Venice is arguably the world's most exotic and beautiful city; how ironic that it spawned among the most prominent purveyors of dreck masquerading as art.  One hundred seven years after Woolf's December 1910 turning point, one wonders how much longer the farce of modern "art" will continue – when leading artists will repudiate politics and instead rediscover the ageless goal of creating beauty.

Mr. Pipes ( has enjoyed the arts in 88 countries.