Contemporary Art in Question


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Nine Year Ritual by Fern Shaffer.

Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions. It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated. Efforts to revive the art principles of the past will at best produce an art that is still-born…..The nightmare of materialism, which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, useless game is not yet past; it holds the awakening soul still in its grip.

Wassily Kandinsky, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”


So wrote Kandinsky in 1911, anticipating a new era of spirituality and meaning in art, a new evolutionary stage of consciousness. Of course, that did not happen.

Contemporary art can be defined variously as art produced at this present point in time or art produced since World War II. The phenomena defined as “contemporary art” can also be said to be controlled by an agenda, a shifting cannon defined and leveraged by marketers and academics of taste within the Western Eurocentric tradition. In non-Western preindustrial cultures, art was, and still is, implicit and woven seamlessly into ritual, myth and everyday life. The word “art” cannot even be found in most of these cultures’ vocabularies.

Beyond the initial question which will be answered by many with gusto and flourish of references to the neo-avant garde I feel that further questions must be asked: Whose art is it anyway? What purpose does it serve (the people)? Is “contemporary art” authentic in any way and if so to whom?

“Modern theory teaches us that revolutions in art occur when styles are challenged,” says Shaffer, whose work appears above. “But they ignore the bigger revolution of context”.

To project from the inner world of the psyche and transcribe it into the outer world of communities and societies has always been a primary need for humans in their environment. In early cultures, this was attributed to the process of myth making. Contemporary art in its global, generic sense can be said to be a transcription of the need to reconcile human relationships and in its study is the revelation of humankind’s striving for clarity and self-realisation. This of course is subject to the nature of the individual psyche and the cultural context.

Once humans appealed to gods and spirits through symbols and rituals, now we explore sexuality, political issues, or the tensions of our fragile existence in complex and conceptual ways.

The notion of a “contemporary art” is rooted in a Western Eurocentric tradition (although the concept is now global).  For many years the “contemporary voice” of cultures other than those centred around Western cultural values seem to have been unacknowledged, even derided by a historical and cultural elitism which cites only a white male continuum from the Italian Renaissance. But what of the contemporary voice of indigenous peoples, for example, subjected to the term “ethnic art” or “tribal art” and marginalised as a consequence.

Metis film maker, Loretta Todd, asks:But what of our own theories of art, our own philosophies of life. Our own purpose for representation? By reducing our cultural expression to simply the question of Modernism or Post Modernism, art or anthropology, or whether we are contemporary or traditional, we are placed on the edges of the dominant culture, while the dominant culture determines whether we are allowed to enter into its realm of art.”

Art is the linguistic outpouring of the present moment. It equates in time with the cave paintings of Lascaux, the dreaming of aboriginal peoples, the spiritual shapings of the Hopi People, yet we limit and restrict its definition by the narrow confines of what we hold as valid within the Contemporary Art World. From the point in 1917 when Duchamp labelled a urinal as R. Mutt, subverting the utilitarian object to a fetishtic entity, he too was asking many of the questions I posed at the start of this essay.

In her book, The Re-enchantment of Art, critic Suzi Gablik speaks of an: “Art moved by emphatic attunement, not tied to an art historical logic but orientating us to the cycles of life, helps us recognise that we are part of an interconnected web that ultimately we cannot dominate. Such art begins to offer a completely different way of looking at the world.”

The degree of appropriation evident in some aspects of modernist and contemporary art practices is a form of exploitation.  We see this in the Western artist’s appropriation of the “primitive”, “insane”, and “exotic”–all taken as evidence of an exciting “other”–and used to spice up the narrative of the Western mind in search of something new.

………bored by the interminable degeneracy of fine art, whose evolution has led to a series of even more vain and intellectualised performances which are hard to follow. A new public is becoming apparent, looking for something else: signs symbols, myths even rituals which can help it survive in this new hyper-sophisticated civilisation which has severed man’s links forever from his peasant ancestors. (Laurent Danchin, 1988.)

There is a magical story by J.R.R. Tolkien, entitled “Leaf by Niggle”. In this story, an artist named Niggle lives in a society that does not value art. Working to only please himself and his love of nature he paints a canvas of a great tree with blue hills in the far distance. He invests each and every leaf of his tree with obsessive attention to detail, making every leaf uniquely beautiful, placing a drop of dew on each leaf. This painting becomes a single vast embodiment of his vision and ethos. There are many mundane chores and duties that prevent Niggle from giving his work the attention it deserves, so it remains incomplete and is not fully finished. Niggle is aware that he has a significant journey to take, a journey we all must eventually take.

A gardener named Parish is the sort of neighbour who always drops by whining about the help he needs with this and that. Moreover, Parish is lame and has a sick wife, and does honestly need help. Niggle, having a good heart, takes time out to help his neighbor. He has other things going on, but he still helps. Then, while running errands for Parish in the rain, Niggle catches a cold.

Niggle wants to take his trip, but he cannot leave. He ends up in a kind of institution, in which he must perform menial labor each day.

In time he is paroled from the institution, and sent to a place ‘for a little gentle treatment’. But he discovers that the new country he is sent to is in fact the country of the Tree and Forest of his great painting (in the home to which he cannot return).  The Tree and its world is the true realization of his vision, not the flawed and incomplete form of his painting.

Niggle is reunited with his old neighbour, Parish, who now proves his worth as a gardener, and together they make the Tree and Forest even more beautiful. Finally, Niggle journeys farther and deeper into the Forest, and beyond into the great mountains that he only faintly glimpsed in his painting.

And so I have the fanciful notion that all living artists, poets, musicians, dancers, dramatists, novelists, sculptors are somehow making art in preparation for a future existence into which they will enter at the point of their death.

The French painter Jean Dubuffet said, “Art does not lie down on the bed that is made for it; it runs away as soon as one says its name; it loves to be incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets what it is called.”

From this forgetfulness, great art re-members its roots and connects with our origins, preparing us for an ultimate reality.

johnJohn Holt is an artist and writer and was a Fellow in Art and Design at Loughborough University and founder of A.I.M. (Artists in Mind).  Follow him on Twitter here.