The Emperor Has No New Clothes
by Joseph Veach Noble



We all remember the old fable about the Emperor’s “new” clothes: Some con men convinced the Emperor that they could create a beautiful suit of clothes for him that would be seen only by those with purity of heart. He fell for the idea, but when they arrived with the finished product, he saw only their bare hands pretending to carefully carry the marvelous suit. If he said, “Where is it? I don’t see anything,” he was afraid they would think he was not pure of heart. Accordingly, he faked it and pretended to put on the invisible suit and admire its beauty.

Watching him in a parade before his loyal subjects, his people, too, failed to see the non-existent suit. But, like the emperor, they did not want to admit the truth for fear of being accused of a lack of purity of heart. So they applauded appreciatively and made appropriate comments about the beauty of the suit and the elegance of the Emperor. At last a little boy observing this spectacle blurted out from the crowd, “The Emperor has no clothes!” The truth broke the spell, and the spectators broke into uproarious laughter as the Emperor shamefully rushed off to hide his nakedness.

Does this story have a familiar ring to it? Does it sound like what is happening in the world of “contemporary” art today? Can we see a parallel between the con men who sold the Emperor the invisible suit and the art dealers who sold the public on the exquisite beauty and high monetary value of non-objective art? Now at last, the public and belatedly the collectors are beginning to laugh. The auction prices of squiggly line paintings and found object sculpture are presently falling at a precipitous rate despite the devious art dealer’s futile attempts to stop the plunge.

Yes! The Emperor has no clothes on at all. And meaningless doodles on canvas or aimless piles of third dimensional objects are worthy only of derision. Enough of invisible clothes. The Emperor is naked, let us all laugh.

However, this situation does again raise the age-old question, “What is art?” Dictionary definitions are usually so all encompassing as to be nearly useless. To me, art is a form of communication directly between the artist and the viewer. Art can transcend hundreds of years and thousands of miles. If the art is created well, the artist, living or dead, can speak directly to a viewer with no intermediary. If the artist mumbles visually and the work is not understood, it is meaningless; conversely, if the work is understood it is meaningful.

Perhaps a new definition of visual art is in order: True visual art is a meaningful communication between two people utilizing paint, stone or bronze, to carry a message over time and space. The key words here are, “meaningful communication.”

We can test this out ourselves. When next looking at a work of art, see if the artist communicates to you. Do you understand what the painter or sculptor is trying to say to you? This is a pass or fail test. If you “get” it, the artist has succeeded; if not, the work of art is a failure. Rely on your own judgment. Do not be misled by so-called art critics, misguided museum shows or someone trying to sell you something. Remember the Emperor’s “no” new clothes.

Joseph Veach Noble is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Brookgreen Gardens of American Sculpture, Director Emeritus of the Museum of the City of New York and former Vice Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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