The strange new official portrait of Charles III is an occasion for conservatives to ask once more, “What’s wrong with modern art?” And is there any alternative to it, if this painting is the best that even a king can get?

Portraiture and monarchy have little place in today’s world—neither is extinct, though each has been largely deprived of function. The king reigns but does not rule. Portraits have prestige but are no longer necessary for memorializing or promoting anyone’s appearance. Democracy and photography have taken over the work of the old forms.

So the king’s portrait evokes dilution. Charles floats as a head on a hardly visible body, an indistinct figure subsumed by red haze. The color is simple and striking, as it must be to catch the desensitized eye. A royal portrait has to compete with every other meme and image today. Only the bizarre has a chance of standing out.

Charles is a neo-traditionalist in certain respects. He dislikes modern architecture and urban planning, for one thing, and has championed the creation of Poundbury, a town being built in Dorset along New Urbanist lines. But his portrait is placeless and modern, recalling a controversial 1997 depiction of his mother by Justin Mortimer.

That painting, commissioned by the Royal Society of the Arts, had Elizabeth II’s head completely detached from her body, against a blank yellow background. The artist may have been channeling his own detachment from his subject: “I don’t have anything in common with her apart from being English,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2011.

Alienation and crude technique, often coupled with shock or outright obscenity, are familiar characteristics of modern art. What once may have been jarring enough to be liberating has long become formulaic. But royal portraits are a stodgy enough medium that a work like Jonathan Yeo’s crimsoned King Charles can still provoke a few days’ headlines.

The classics of modernism can still stir a reaction as well. A friend recently wrote on Facebook about seeing a Jackson Pollock painting—perhaps better described as just Jackson Pollock paint—at a museum in Philadelphia. He asked the docent why Pollock’s splatters of color weren’t something that any visitor could drip on a canvas himself. He was told Pollock did it first, which might come as a surprise to parents of small children.

In his 2002 review of C.P. Snow’s 1959 book, The Two Cultures and the Scientific RevolutionOrrin Judd of the Brothers Judd blog wrote:

As Snow notes, as late as say the 1850s, any reasonably well-educated, well-read, inquisitive man could speak knowledgeably about both science and the arts.  Man knew little enough that it was still possible for one to know nearly everything that was known and to have been exposed to all the religion, art, history–culture in general–that mattered.  But then with the pure science revolution of which Snow spoke–in biology and chemistry, but most of all in physics–suddenly a great deal of specialized training and education was necessary before one could be knowledgeable in each field.  Like priests of some ancient cult, scientists were separated out from the mass of men, elevated above them by their access to secret knowledge.  Even more annoying was the fact that even though they had moved beyond what the rest of us could readily understand, they could still listen to Bach or read Shakespeare and discuss it intelligently.  The reaction of their peers in the arts, or those who had been their peers, was to make their own fields of expertise as obscure as possible.  If Picasso couldn’t understand particle physics, he sure as hell wasn’t going to paint anything comprehensible, and if Joyce couldn’t pick up a scientific journal and read it, then no one was going to be able to read his books either.  And so grew the two cultures, the one real, the other manufactured, but both with elaborate and often counterintuitive theories, requiring years of study.

And thus we we end up with the formulation of Tom Wolfe’s 1975 book, The Painted Word, where modern art exists almost solely to justify the theory behind it, and as Wolfe wrote, “In short: frankly, these days, without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting.”