But is it Art?- Part2
The early part of the 20th century witnessed an explosion of art ideas. There was a paradigm shift in the way artists looked at art and tried out new ways of expressing themselves. They began to look at art as composition of lines, shapes, colours and textures and not as images or stories to convey. Partly this was the result of social and technological changes; the rapid move of people from the rural to urban areas, the development of new political ideologies, the discovery of photography and also the exposure to artifacts from newly discovered worlds. Walter Benjamin in his essay ‘The World of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproductions’, suggests that these changes happened due to the absence of traditional ritualistic values. It made artists to look at advanced technology for ideas which in turn politicized art by destroying its autonomy, by controlling, shaping and marketing artworks. [Benjamin, 1936]
This period also saw wars that sent the world into chaos and disenchantment. Sartre in a lecture, ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ suggested that man should define their own meaning in life by making rational judgments despite living in an irrational world. He felt that there was no purpose or explanation at the core of human existence. [Sartre, 1946] To the postwar artist ‘Existentialism’ became a powerful attraction.
At the same time the basic purpose of art had changed. People no longer wanted to contemplate the work of art. They only wished to acquire it as a sign of wealth, a product for consumption. [Saisselin, 1984] Art as a product was controlled by consumer demand which in turn was influenced by the media of cinema, television, magazines and advertisements. And artists became entertainers for mass culture or radical avant gardists who simply advocated experimental activities and a readiness to participate in them.
Art had become its own subject through the various manifestoes that were made. Artists themselves had no clear idea of what art meant.
The End of Modernism
The 1960’s and 70’s saw a number of political counter cultural movements rebelling against the values of universality that were being thrust upon people who were trying to recover a feeling of reality, of relating to each other and living freely. Americans were moved by the Vietnam War, racial injustice, fear of nuclear annihilation and materialism. In Europe people rebelled against military and political repression. The rest of the world rebelled against them. These conflicts, be it, anti war, anti nuclear, pro feminism, gay liberation, pro environmentalism and hippie culture all peaked around 1968 and were marked by police crack downs, shootings, executions and even massacres.
The utopian vision of Modernism had ended and with it had ended the linear history of artistic development. It was replaced by a plurality where everything was acceptable. As Danto says, if everyone goes off in different directions, there is no longer a direction toward which a narrative can point. Mass media was seen as the new agent of control which was seen to be molding all humans into puppets by pandering to their desire for comfort. The artist lived in his own world, one described by Guy Debord as ‘detournement’ a conscious process of taking disparate bits of images filled with personal meaning and joining them in different ways to create a new synthesis. [Clark & Nicholson-Smith, 1997] He felt that the entertainment based media were simply pacifiers to divert our attention from the loss of control over our own lives.
Robert Venturi suggested a return to richer meanings rather than clean pure ideas, a black, white and grey rather than only a black or a white. [Venturi, 1966] This led to a period of art and architecture that has been called, Postmodern, which, without any shared ideology, simply became the endless manipulation of past ideas.
Some artists and architects suggested the term, ‘critical regionalism’, as a dialogue or rather a self conscious synthesis between modernism and other world cultures to retain the notions of individual identity. But these were all seen as just new terms, as new marketing tools for the media not really art.
Events since then
Today, art projects a new version of beauty that is unconventionally beautiful. Visual perception and aesthetic thoughts have adapted to seek beauty in places never searched before, and often ending up in obscene, offensive and provocative creations. The willingness to be ugly and make that the new standard of beauty seems to be the contemporary taste. [Greenberg 1946]
Much of this is due to the new media based on advanced computing and distribution technologies that is available. It has become the lifeline for the contemporary world, synonymous with speed, with the ability to transmit information of events and ideas instantly. The advanced communications technologies has brought large numbers of disconnected people together but this has also helped to further fragment and isolate them. It has made it easy for anyone to spread any trend, thought or ideology to those who are willing to appreciate it.
Kevin Robins says,
“Cyberspace, with its myriad of little consensual communities, is a place where you would go in order to find confirmation and endorsement of your identity.” [Robins, 1999:166]
This technology is addictive and has permeated into the lives of people in such a way that people have had to integrate them into their daily lives. Much of the graphical and visual content is deliberately arranged to appeal to the senses or emotions of people. It has become a new tool for artists and corporations to dictate and spread propaganda, in a faster and more effective manner than ever before. Speed appears to be the most characteristic element of life. The rapid pace of image and idea transfer has only helped to make people more stressed as they have less time for contemplation. It has allowed superficiality to be the predominant factor in most art works as people have no time to reflect on any deeper meaning.
Meanwhile science is trying to understand in a more scientific manner the concept of pleasure and other cognitive concepts of stimulation, a term known as Neuroesthetics. This has been defined as the scientific study of the neural bases of the brain for the contemplation and creation of a work of art. It argues that beauty when sensed creates a change in the activation of the brain's reward system. Thus aesthetic enjoyment can be investigated using brain imaging techniques on individuals. It is suggesting that Art itself may be the outcome of this primitive neural function of the brain. This it feels is due to the fact that forms do not have an existence without a prior stored experience in the brain, thus, abstraction may have evolved as a necessity due to the limitations of this memory.
Neuroesthetics shows us how our tastes and our ideas are conditioned. A number of factors come into play such as symmetry or asymmetry, novelty or familiarity, proportion, composition, semantic content, significance, stimulus, interestingness, appeal, and even the emotional state, education, historical, cultural or economic condition of the viewer.
What all these studies have revealed is that human beings possess innate standards of beauty with enormous adaptive implications. Thus, we prefer or assess as ‘Beautiful’ those artworks that include features that, in the course of our mental processing, have proved to be beneficial for the biological survival of our ancestors. By translating all artworks as an assemblage of various elements, abstract or otherwise the brain simply analyzes these, using previously stored memories as well as its innate senses for reference. [Cupchik 1986]
George Maciunas wrote in his manifesto, published in ‘Fluxus 1’,
“There was no need for art. We had merely to learn to take an art attitude. If people could learn to take the art attitude towards all everyday phenomena, artists could stop making art works.” [Maciunas 1962]
If the purpose of art is simply to produce and compose things such as lines, colours and textures, and the brain actually comprehends them as such, then we could contemplate ordinary objects, geological formations, natural and unnatural phenomena and see them as arrangement of patterns for aesthetic contemplation to search for the spiritual Beauty in them. In ‘art attitude’ lies the salvation of the world. The aesthetic attitude is a state of mind. Art attitude is the,
“Disinterested and sympathetic attention to and contemplation of any object of awareness whatever, for its own sake alone.” [Stolnitz 1960]
Art still remains a paradoxical, illusive and complex phenomenon. As long as it continues to provide the sensation of pleasure it is still art. It has changed along with time. It has become a commodity, a philosophy, an object of entertainment, an idea, a spectacle and simultaneously remained the personal expression of the artist. There is no art that cannot be appreciated aesthetically and at the same time not criticized. The fact is that Artists today are simply trying to provoke an emotion in the viewer by any means possible and critiques can call them whatever they feel like calling them, it is still art.
What is perhaps true is that there cannot be one single grand unifying theory that encompasses all the notions of Beauty, Art and Aesthetics. Also true is that the incredible variety of art has anaesthetized the viewer and thereby robbed the shock value that seemed to be its objective. Yet, art still has the power of awakening the soul, bringing excitement to our hearts and freeing our mind. There cannot be an end to the importance of Art. Perhaps it is we who need to change the way we look at art, not to look at art for novelty but to look into it through our own intellect. Perhaps this is the time for society to move to the next level of the development of the self, towards spirituality and an art attitude.