Art in the 21st Century
The theory of a golden age of artistic civilisation always being associated with a desire for naturalism, holds true in the case of the British Empire, where Reynolds and Gainsborough thought that the most esteemed artists of their time during the height of the British Empire in the 1880s.Similarly I think the same theory largely holds true with the United States, as in the 1940s and 50s before the student protests, American film was at its most celebrated and naturalistic. E.g. citizen Kane, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Vertigo. While at the same time naturalistic artists like Edward Hopper of the social realist movement were widely celebrated. The same can even be said of Charlie Chaplin’s films of the 1910s.
About this Blog
I’ve started this blog as a tool to be used mostly by Art students hoping to learn more about contemporary art.When I first started studying at Art school around four years ago, I realised that I knew almost nothing about the subject. I knew how to paint and draw and that was it. Very quickly, I realised that there were hundreds of artists, movements and texts that I would have to become familiar with in order to be serious about making art.Learning about contemporary art is not an easy task. Going to an art gallery is likely to leave you with more questions than answers. Even listening to artists themselves will probably tell you little about how the contemporary art scene has developed.Because of this, it’s no wonder that the general public couldn’t care less about what goes on in the art world.
With this blog I hope to make it easier for people to recognise trends and traditions that artists are working within today.How to Learn About Contemporary ArtIf you’re even familiar with the term ‘contemporary’ you’re probably already know more than most people about the art scene. In my experience most people use the term ‘modern art’ to mean ‘art that’s made now’. If you’ve ever taken an art course then you know that modern art is supposed to have ended in the late 1960s and that we’ve been living through post-modernism since then.There are plenty of lectures online that will go through the movements of the 20th century, from Futurism to Dada to Arte Povera etc. However, while I will cover these movements, what I really want to do is talk about artists working today and then look backwards to explain how the art world got into the state that it’s in.
The reason this is so important is that most contemporary art histories sort of fizzle out by the time that they reach the 1990s and have very little to say about that decade. Art students are basically encouraged at art school to just find their own way, to find artists that inspire them and shape their practice around that.The problem is, there are literally thousands of artists working in every developed country today. So how do you know which ones to pay attention to? See who’s featured in ArtForum? Go to nearby galleries? Or just randomly hope to find ones you like online?You can do all these things, but there is an underlying structure that governs the current art world. It’s just hard to identify. What I aim to do with this blog is to make clear the different trends and categories that artists can be sorted into. This will hopefully make it easier for people who are current or aspiring art students.Art Lectures and VideosI’m going to turn these posts into YouTube videos, because honestly that’s where I get most of my news and entertainment from. These posts are so I can go into more detail.These lectures will differ from most art lectures, because firstly, I’ll focus more on how art today is affected by changes in the past. And secondly, because most art lectures are descriptive, they simply go through a series of artists and describe the work that they made.
I want to offer explanations as to how these trends developed and put them in a historical context.The posts will also be opinionated. Because I make art myself I have my own taste and preferences. I will try to give as complete an overview as possible but it will still be from my perspective so bear that in mind.I Hope I can help anyone who was in the same situation I was when first trying to learn about the Art World.Any feedback in the comments would be appreciated.Hope to post again soon! Bye for now.
Art of the Gaps: Why People Hate Modern Art
This is something I want to address straight away because this is the number one thing that stops people from learning about art.I’m using the term modern here to mean current because that’s how most people use it. Even though contemporary is the correct term.Anyway, I want to talk about why it is that most people have virtually no time for modern art. There’s a nice quote by critic Julian Spalding that sums this up:‘I’ve never met anyone who loved Modern Art… I have however, met plenty of people who’ve told me that I ought to like it’.
I think this more or less sums up how a lot of people feel about modern art. Because most art made today has no obvious value or technical skill, it’s easy to assume that most people who say they like modern art are really just pretending to like it. My intention here isn’t to tell you what you ought to like, but to make it easier to find artists that you might like. Now I’m not going to pretend that all or even most art that’s made today is good, because it absolutely isn’t. I totally understand how annoyed or bored people are when they go to an art gallery because it happens to my friends all the time.Most people see examples like these white canvases that are worth $15 million, or the $12 million dollar shark in a tank. People see things like this and they usually come to one of two conclusions. Conclusion 1: All modern art is complete bullshit, and the people who like it are just being conned by fake artists with no talent. Conclusion 2: Modern Art is just very complicated and it takes a lot of insider knowledge and a certain type of person to understand it.
Now there are definitely some people who are just wasting their time by going to an art gallery. People who don’t see any value in looking at pictures or trying to interpret something, or just don’t get anything out of that environment and that’s fine. Looking at art just isn’t for them.For everyone else though, a lot of people try to learn about the subject. But all there is to learn is just a endlessly expanding list of movements and important artists and that isn’t that exciting to learn about. And there’s no explanation about how the art world gets from being an institution mainly concerned with oil painting, to the chaotic state that it’s in today.Going to an art gallery is also not going to be that helpful in getting a perspective on current art. In a gallery there’s probably going to be either one artist or a few if it’s a group show. And unless you live near a big city with a state sponsored gallery, there really won’t be that much to see. At most there’ll be a wall text giving some background information about the artist. So unless you go home and do some hard reading, you’re going to be left in the dark.What’s the Truth?The truth I think, is somewhere in between conclusions 1 and 2. Because, yes in the art world, no one ever has any idea whether or not the thing they’re buying has any value.
This could be something that’s really meaningful and super significant, or it could just be the artist being a complete moron who’s made this work without knowing why and it has no value whatsoever. Artists themselves usually are very bad at talking about why it is they make the work that they make. They’re often making things based on gut instinct and so they don’t really know how valuable their work is and that doesn’t get decided by them it gets decided by many other important people.This is why sales in the art world are almost always based on trust. If you talk to gallerists and dealers, they always say that being successful in the art world is about having a good relationship with the people you work with. What this means is that the artist is represented by a gallery, so they know the gallerist, they might have a dealer and the dealer knows a lot about the artist’s work. The artist might even have someone to do PR for them, who can do a much better job pitching their work than they can.It’s not really the case that millionaires are walking into galleries, finding random artworks, saying ‘I love it’ and paying stupid amounts of money for it.
Now I’m sure that has happened but it’s generally not the way things work. It’s also not true that rich people are just getting conned by smooth talkers who are selling them bullshit. People who collect art often know a lot about it, and they often start out as artists themselves. So they have a fairly good idea about what it is they’re buying.But with all that in mind, investing in art is a risk. It’s a risk because nobody knows if an artist is going to have any credibility ten years on and whether their work will be worth anything. So the person buying the work has to subscribe to the same ideology that the artist subscribes to. They both have to believe in the intrinsic value that this work has, that goes beyond its material qualities. Now this could be purely formal, it could be simply that they really like the way it looks, just the way it’s made could be immensely appealing to them. Or it could be that they find the work meaningful and this is where ideology comes in.Aesthetics Versus ConceptBecause art’s value is often symbolic and not intrinsic, it cannot be used for anything directly, it only has value through what it represents.
Just like religious art of the past was valuable because it acted as a vessel for religious ideology. The art of our time acquires value by acting as a vessel for our ideology, or at least the wealthier segments of society.This is how a blank canvas or a shark in a tank can become worth millions of dollars, as art-works that are vulgar or defunct acquire status by being in defiance against an imaginary establishment. This establishment that previously existed was the one held by the academies of the late 19th century. A hierarchy of strict discipline where artists were expected to follow a set of rules. This involved the use of technical skill and a hierarchy of subject matter.
Since the 1960s at least, the art world has sought to rid itself of all structural hierarchies including technical ability, in order to create a more ‘inclusive’ set of institutions where the barriers of entry do not disadvantage people from different backgrounds.Most of this change in the art world began in the 1960s when many western universities were overrun by radical socialists, who operated under the name ‘postmodernists’. The process was largely completed in the 1980s when the idea of anti-establishment art was institutionalised by the neo-conceptualists. The underlying forces driving this peculiar set of events are, like most things, driven by technological change. Eric Hobsbawm’s book; Behind the Times: Decline and Fall of the Twentieth Century Avant-Garde, tells the story of how in the mid 19th century, the Art Academies and Salons of western Europe had very firm control over the production of images and visual culture. He describes how, after the development of detailed photography in the 1850s, the art galleries effectively lost control over visual culture and have sought ever since to find a space for itself as more and more of visual imagery is taken over by technological experts.I find it useful to think of this phenomenon as ‘The Art of the Gaps’.
Just like Bishop Earnst Barnes in the 1930s used the phrase ‘The God of the Gaps’ meaning that the role of religion grew smaller as scientific theories got better, the same thing has been happening to art as its role has been replaced by technology. However as diminished as it has become, the role of art has never died completely. Because artists still possess enough talent to be able to create unique compositions and environments that appeal to people. And they’re often given value if they’re made with the intention of creating a more open and equal society. A Set of ValuesThe problem is, that the niche that the art world has carved out for itself is one that rejects most notions of technical ability and a hierarchy of value. And once you take away that hierarchy, notions of beauty and perfection are simply replaced with notions of solidarity with the less fortunate segments of society. Which is what the art world has devolved into.This is why so many people hate modern art. Once it is no longer grounded in craftsmanship, the idea of art becomes synonymous with status for status’ sake. A field which revolves around self aggrandisement.I believe that there was a point in the mid 20th Century, where the ideas of the postmodernists that deprived art of its value, could have been resisted. And the ideas of perfection and beauty could have been salvaged.
But history played out and this did not take place.However that in spite of all this, the art world is still very much worth paying attention to. All one has to do is to adopt a different set of values, and pay attention to the right artists. In the next few posts I will go into, how exactly the aesthetics of today are shaped by competing ideologies, and how to actually find artists that shine through despite all the rest. In the end the best way I can describe modern art is to compare it to the music industry. 90% of what you find will be dull and meaningless drivel, but if you look hard enough you’ll find that talented individuals are still there.
Art in an Age of Decline
“Self-satisfied incompetence on the part of the artist, complacent indifference if not enthusiastic approval on the part of the public, characterizes an ebbing civilization, leaving little but wreckage and refuse interspersed among the proud ruins of once noble cities. The surviving denizens salute every destruction, every distortion, every successful attempt to lower what is left of the past splendour to their own level of debased and crippled intelligence.’’Bernard Berenson,
Aesthetics and History (1948)Art is reliant on the civilisation that produces it. So what becomes of art when a civilisation is under threat?Civilizations throughout history expand their territory and increase their wealth, but overtime they find that they may not be able to sustain themselves indefinitely.When a crisis point is reached and a society undergoes collapse, what effect does this have on the art that it produces?Such questions have been asked before by early 20th century art historians in the West. Many of whom were convinced that they were living through such a period. Writers like Bernard Berenson saw what he called the ‘aesthetic confusion’ of modern art and judged it to signal a decline in the artistic standards of western civilisation. Today in retrospect, the aestheticians of the mid 20th century are viewed as staunch traditionalists. Such conservatism is considered misplaced and instead this transition is assumed to be a natural progression of a developed society. But what is the truth? It is obvious that technique is less important in the artistic institutions of today. The technologies available to us, change our relationship to artworks entirely, Is this a sign of progress, or lack of it? And what can history teach us, about this process?The genesis of this thesis comes from a quote by feminist scholar Camille Paglia, while at the Battle of Ideas festival in the UK in November 2016. A member of the audience asked Paglia about her opinion on the current transgender question that western societies were so enthralled with. This was her response:
‘Historically, the move to Androgyny occurs in late phases of culture, as a civilisation is starting to unravel, you find it again and again and again in history in.. Greek art. All of a sudden the sculptures of handsome, nude, young, men, athletes, that used to be very robust in the archaic period… suddenly begin to seem like wet noodles, toward the end. And the people who live in such periods towards the end of such culture. . . . feel that, they’re very sophisticated, they’re very cosmopolitan. Homosexuality, heterosexuality, so what? Anything goes and so on. But from the perspective of historical distance you can see that it’s a culture that no longer believes in itself.’
Paglia gives a few examples like Ancient Greece, the 1890s and Weimar Germany, but does her thesis hold up to scrutiny on a broader scale? If the claim is that art becomes more frivolous and less self confident, as a civilisation deteriorates, how does this apply to the majority of civilisations?In the earliest ancient societies, there are often only a few examples of surviving artworks and it’s therefore difficult to draw any conclusions about the timespan of these societies. Henri Frankfort notes in his study of ancient mesopotamia, that the late Uruk period of the Sumerians, sees a considerable economic expansion and then a decline in the quality of art. He suggests that the cause was the demand of artists started to outstrip the supply. After a civilisation is conquered the artwork produced predictably almost always declines in quality, due to either a lack of skills or finance.
However this is not always the case, it may be that more advanced civilisations expand and introduce more advanced techniques to the territories they conquer. This occurred after the conquests of Alexander the Great, who introduced Hellenistic sculpture as far away as Persia and India. A similar event was the conquest of Iran by the Timurid Mongols in the 13th Century, who introduced Chinese-style figurative painting to the region.In antiquity it is certainly true,as Paglia says that Ancient Greek sculpture transitioned from being stoic and monumental to becoming increasingly extravagant in the Hellenistic period. Art Historian R.R.R. Smith, writing about Hellenistic sculpture, describes this period as a ‘baroque phase’ in Greek Art, where sculptures were given more intensive expression. This occurred as the Greek Empire expanded and its people began to absorb more of the surrounding culture.
After the Greeks start to lose territory to the Romans in the second century BC, the more simplified and practical Neo-Attic style replaces its forbearer.Even more revealing is the example of the development of art under ancient Rome. The Romans inherited many of their artistic motifs and techniques from the Greeks. One can observe a revival in naturalistic sculpture that takes place after 146 BC, where after the Battle of Corinth, many Greek sculptors flee to Rome to find employment. In the early Roman Republic, sculptors were commissioned to sculpt the faces of aristocrats in what was known as the ‘Veristic Style’, a hyper-realistic depiction, meant to reveal the likeness of a person to their ancestors. Later on in the Roman Republic, Author Pliny the Elder complained about how Roman art had fallen into decadence and lost its ability to depict naturalistic subjects:"The painting of portraits which used to transmit through the ages the accurate likenesses of people, has entirely gone out ... Indolence has destroyed the arts."The curious thing is that, after a long series of military conquests, the Roman Empire lost significant amounts of territory in the crisis of the third century. A catastrophe brought about by plague, natural disaster and military invasion. During the crisis, Donald Strong, writes that Roman art goes through a ‘Baroque phase’, just like the ancient Greeks. And by the third century, Roman art loses all ability to depict subjects in a natural manner. Sculpture becomes more simplified and abstract.
This is best viewed in the relief sculpture of the Arch of Constantine which shows a combination of the two styles, side by side. This ‘Baroque phase’ noted by both Smith and Strong, is an important part of what happens to art in a time of crisis. There are other examples where this phenomenon can be observed outside the canon of western art. For example, in Qing Dynasty China (1644-1911), the manchu courts enforced a strict code of rules for painters to follow. During the reign of the Qianlong Emperor the Manchu state was at its greatest extent and court painting upheld the most dominant style.During the late 18th and 19th centuries however, the Qing Dynasty’s power started to waver and the established court painters had to compete with other styles that emerged, such as the Anhui Individualist school and the Ming Loyalist painters in Nanjing. Similarly, after the defeat of Turkey in the first world war, a crisis emerged where the Ottoman state had to redefine itself. Differing schools of thoughts emerged over what the arts should be. The main competition was between the ‘1914 generation’ who were trained in formal academic art, ‘the mustakillers’ who were influenced by the new expressionist movements in Europe, and ‘The D Group’ who sought a compromise between the two.
From these examples, it seems that a ‘Baroque phase’ emerges when there is a weakening of control by the authorities over the population. Therefore the dominant ideology that informs the arts is compromised and becomes split between varying factions. It is worth noting that the canonised ‘Baroque’ period in western art occurred as a result of the protestant reformation, one of the most politically tumultuous events in European history. Impressionist Camille Pissaro suggested in the 19th century that the very emergence of modern art, with the French impressionists was a result of democratisation that occurred in modern societies. This political representation allowed other artistic ideologies to manifest themselves without challenging state authority. However what Paglia is talking about is different to this. She is describing a ‘frivolity’ that takes over a civilisation when a certain amount of material prosperity is reached.This occurs when the ruling elites of a society become wealthy and form an aristocracy that becomes out of touch with a majority of its populace. This may be an accurate description of the transformation of Greek art under the Hellenistic period and the general decline of Roman sculpture that Pliny complained about under economic expansion. The Rococo period, a word that itself means decorative or ornamental, found its main patronage in the courts of Louis XVI, and often depicted serene youths and gentile landscapes.
The art style is indicative of a wealthy and disconnected aristocracy that was soon to be overthrown in a revolution. Even the art of the Aztec Empire in pre-columbian Mexico, was described by Paul Westheim in the early 1900s as being ‘the art of soldiers’, deriving from a militaristic and god-fearing society. However, when the Empire reached its greatest extent under Moctezuma II, Westheim claims that Aztec art adopted a decorative style that was ‘frivolous’. Yet another example of how material wealth changes civilisational values that are reflected in its art. When it comes to a society’s artwork as shown previously, a crisis period often produces a weakening of state power and a group of competing ideologies.But the other thing that is indicative of a dysfunctional society is a growing gap between the priorities of the rich and the poor.
This is what Camille Paglia was discussing when she talked about the ‘move towards androgyny’, and this is what many other historians have identified as being a ‘frivolous style’ that takes over a wealthy society when they achieve prosperity.When we think of the art of our own time I think it’s easy to identify at least one of these two symptoms that often afflict developed civilisations. We may not be going through a period of crisis just yet, but the priorities that concern the more artistically minded population, are certainly not shared by all.
Early Uruk period sculpture: The Guennol Lioness, Limestone Bull,3rd millennium Greco-Buddhist art example:
The Bodhisattva Maitreya, The Buddhist Gods Pancika and Hariti,
2nd CenturyIslamic miniature with Chinese influence: Folio from the Shahnama (1530), Miraj of the prophet (1539)
Veristic style example: Portrait bust of a man (60 BC), Bust of Vespasian (75 BC)
The Arch of Constantine:
The Anhui School example: Hong Ren, Landscape with Pagoda (1651)
Ming Loyalist example: Gong Xian, Landscape of the Twelve Months
The 1914 Generation example: Osman Hamdi Bey,
The Mustakillers example: Cevat Hamit, Nurullah Berk
Rococo Style example: Pilgrimage Church
Aztec Art: The Coatlicue, Jar with Ritual Scene (1400)
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