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Tag Archives: art theory

The End of Modernism

The death of Tom Wolfe reminded me that amongst his many publication Wolfe wrote a short book about modern art, The Painted Word. The blurb on the book’s cover sums it up. “Another blast at the phonies! – The author of the The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test exposes the myths and men of modern art.” In the end Wolfe’s predictions about the future of art were wrong; modernism did not have a hard landing and the art critics are not more famous than the artists.

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Modernism was over by the time that The Painted Word was published in 1975. Modernism was not a fad, it was not a fantasy that was sold to the world by con artists or imposed on it by dictators. Rather it was a reasoned, articulated theory supported by empirical evidence. This doesn’t mean that it was right only that the conservatives own position of royalism, nationalism and tradition was less reasoned, articulated and supported by evidence.

Wolfe’s, and other conservatives, aversion to the ‘theoretical’, the “word” in his “painted word” is a conservative reaction to any explanation other than his own (and I use the masculine pronoun here deliberately). They assume, that ideas and words spring straight from the world into their mind and concocted ‘theories’ are corrupting influences on this allegedly natural state. In this way the ‘theoretical’ could spoil your enjoyment of art or life as if theories are like a vampiric thoughts sucking the joy out of living through understanding.

Ironically (and irony is his middle name) the great debunking of modern art had already been done by Marcel Duchamp. However, the vitriol that the conservatives have for Duchamp blinds them to this and, because Duchamp’s attacks were a kind-of pre-post-modern deconstruction of modern art, rather than by defending traditional values. It was Duchamp’s critique, rather than the conservatives, that laid the grounds for the end of modernism.

However, instead of a total collapse of modernism, as the idealism drained from the market modernism had a soft landing. This was facilitated by changes in the technology that allowed greater growth in popular culture: television, portable music technology, internet, etc. Music on demand used to be the high point of culture available only to the very rich; now everyone has the ability to listen to music or watch videos any time and anywhere and private tastes can be developed without the approval of friends or family multiplying the market for the arts.

This meant that the domination of the state art institutions and funding by ideological forces during the later part of the Cold War was rapidly and successfully short circuited by artists who reached a mass audience through popular media. The popular arts provided an economic way to bypass the moribund system of academic/institutional arts grants until the academic/institutions adapted to the post-modern world.

The idea of an ideological domination of post-modern thinking is an absurd misunderstanding of a decentralised non-hierarchical system. Few of the leading contemporary artists paint and most of them use aerosol paint cans. Tom Wolfe is dead but his attitude that modern art is a con is still an article of faith amongst many conservatives.

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Contemporary Framing

What is the best frame for contemporary art? I don’t mean, a physical wooden frame around a painting or drawing, but the architectural, psychological, intellectual frame around a work of art.  It is the frame that gives the context of art. The idea of art is itself a conceptual frame in which to view art for ultimately the word ‘art’ is a frame around a set of things. The proscenium arch frames traditional theatre. Television programming frames tv shows. The covers of a book, libraries, bookshops, even Kindle digital readers can all frame a work of literature.

Lucas Maddock’s New Hypothetical Continents

Lucas Maddock, New Hypothetical Continents

It is the difference in frames that explains why people, so often, say that a band is better live than in recordings. For the frame is not neutral. It has its own energy. It is a nebulous area, like the halo that exists around the sacred. There is the magic of stepping out on to even an empty stage.

Art is created for particular frames and sometimes these frames are determined by other factors. The playing time on a 45rpm record determined the length of a pop music single or the hight of the stairway up to Francis Bacon’s studios determined the maximum size of his painting. However, instead of the modernist dream of art breaking out of its frame, an act that would ultimately destroy any exclusivity to the category of art and led to its complete merger of art with life, contemporary art has created a contemporary art frame around itself.

Contemporary art stands alone. A single video projection or an installation fills the gallery space entirely. Frequently contemporary art demands a whole new gallery building separate from other art. In many cities a separate specialist institution, a contemporary art gallery, has been established. Contemporary art stands alone, insulated rather than framed, in the gallery. Standing alone removes the juxtaposition of hanging/installing works by different artists together. Framing by isolating removes contemporary art from any context other than its own.

Contemporary art makes more demands on the exhibition space than previous art, to the point of physically altering it. Never before in the history of art have so many plasterboard walls been built for art. These demands on the exhibition space because contemporary art is self-conscious and aware of its dependence on the space as part of the context of being exhibited.

Although installations, video installations and other contemporary media use the space in a different way from traditional or modern media, contemporary artists are often like the modern artist before them in thinking that only their art is relevant and important. (At least the modernists had the excuse of ignorance and often had radical ambitions.) In an article on the NGV David R. Marshall’s point that the promoters of contemporary art are “pluralist with regard to modes of contemporary art, but not with regard to contemporary versus non-contemporary art”.

What is the best frame for contemporary art? I wish that I could answer this question but I’m realistic enough to accept that there isn’t one.


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