Salon Magazine culture writer Max Cea notes a “troubling trend” at this year’s New York Armory Show, which he makes clear in his question, “Where is all the pretty artwork?” All that contemporary art seems to be about, he says, are issues of politics and other cultural concerns like race and gender. He was specific about what he considers “pretty” – pictures of piazzas as painted by Giorgio de Chirico in the ‘70s, now hanging in the Armory’s Italian gallery. He cited “Piazza d’Italia con uomo politico,” calling it “transporting and gorgeous” just like that of Edward Hopper paintings.

“Few works at the show are as undeniably beautiful.” Hmm.

Empty streets to nowhere

Granted the paintings of De Chirico and Hopper are artful, but aren’t they about more than prettiness? Aren’t they in their own way as dark and perhaps even sinister as the zeitgeist stuff in contemporary art? Both artists offer empty streets utterly detached from everyday life. In effect, aren’t they providing escape from that life? And isn’t that what Cea is after – flight from today’s dreary states of mind? Hopper’s “East Wind Over Weehawken” practically makes that point with its view of a deserted block of houses, with a “For Sale” sign on its front lawn suggesting that someone wants out there. And isn’t escape the origin of Surrealism -- the art movement that De Chirico inspirited?

Likely for Cea it isn’t so much a pretty picture that he pines for but rather a get away from all the strum und drang. Deserted streets are, after all, flights from reality.

Pretty pictures don’t speak of disaffection

In fact, De Chirico’s enigmatic scenarios were a kind of pushback against the horrors of war. He lived through two big ones and painted the same vacant vistas throughout.

It was World War I that pulled artists away from their war-torn world to out-of-place, dreamlike imagery. Or as Salvador Dali would say, “My whole ambition in the domain is to materialize the images of concrete irrationality with the most imperialist fury of precision.” Isn’t that what De Chirico’s cryptic shadows are all about – unplumbed dreams spurred by loneliness and alienation?

And isn’t that what stamps modern life? The artist even named one of his eerie visions “Mystery and Melancholy of a Street,” which pictures a long stark arcade and small child casting a ghostly shadow as she rolls a hoop down desolate pavement.

Estrangement in words as well as pictures

De Chirico’s picture titles even seem to talk about the sad state of affairs these days: “Anguish of Departure” and “The Uncertainty of the Poet.” He spoke of this in his writing, too: “A work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the regions of childhood visions and dreams.” Anything for escape, right?