Day in and day out, our eyes are bombarded with all sorts of graphic messaging. Being human, we only have so much attention that we can lend to everything that was ever put out there with the purpose of being looked at. Do you find this thought inspiring? As undergraduates in Art, this is exactly what we were told. And as someone for whom Art, and especially graphic design is their profession, it does make sense to be aware of this and take it seriously.
Art might be subjective, but how much I manage to get paid for making art is anything but subjective. We live in an environment where there is already so much that wants us to look at it, so what I as an artist make has to really be worth my potential viewers’ time and attention if I’m to compete with all that. That is what the implication is. Depending on how you look at it, you can find yourself quite discouraged.
So what is art? Is it a competition? If for some reason being the object of as much attention as possible is what motivates you, I suppose you’re perfectly entitled to that. But this is the Internet Age, and it seems to me like you’re fighting an uphill battle if ever there was one.
When people think about Art of the present day, people are likely thinking about the absurd kind of art that has been filling museums these past few decades. It is art that makes most of us wonder, “Who actually likes this?” or “How is this art?”
I like this kind of art.
I’m not going to write an exhaustive defense of this kind of art, because there is already plenty of content out there on the matter for whoever is interested. What is interesting to me is the point that this art (shall we call it “Post-modern Art,” because that’s what it is) does not fit with the culture and society at large (and for me that is a good thing, I’ll explain why).
Is it intentional that it doesn’t fit with the culture and society at large? If it is intentional, why do so many people assume it isn’t intentional, and just regard it as “bad art?” Is the artist just playing a big joke on all of us? If that is what the artist is doing, is that a bad thing? Does that make it any less, as far as it being “art”?
Art has a long history of responding to the culture and society that produces it. Sometimes art has been a way of affirming that culture and society, and sometimes art was meant to criticize culture and society.
So what is it about the culture and society that Post-modern Art exists in that is important to understand? What are some of the standards that apply outside of the art museum, but clearly don’t apply inside? What dictates success in other careers, but doesn’t for fine artists?
Pebbles on the Beach
I draw upon a particular idea expressed by Twentieth Century British writer and speaker Alan Watts when attempting to formulate what art means.
Alan Watts once said, “You pick up a pebble on the beach. Look at it, beautiful. Don’t try to get a sermon out of it. Just enjoy it. Enjoy the pebble.” To Alan Watts nature is “purposeless,” and that is exactly the reason why nature is such a big deal.
This attitude very much appeals to me, and it seems that we can just as easily apply the same attitude to Art. Perhaps I’m not supposed to value Art by how well it serves my concept of life’s purpose in the first place. If we take this view, we may create art, consume art, and we have nothing to explain. I find this to be a very empowering idea.
Like pebbles and art, I’m not here for your or anyone else’s approval. Neither my presence nor yours has to be justified by any external assessment of our worth. In societies where a person is as valuable as his level of productivity, the people sitting at home in their pajamas watching sitcoms (i.e. consuming art) get vilified.
But if more of the world’s greedy corporate executives, megalomaniacs, and the soldiers that fight their wars took their lead from the lazy–wouldn’t the world be such a better place? What if none of us have anything to prove? By just being ourselves, can’t that be enough? It seems like the twentieth century artists of the Minimalism Movement took these lessons to heart. I suppose that good art reminds us of this, about ourselves. So actually that is the “sermon” I’m getting out of art, even though that is exactly what I wasn’t supposed to do.
We’re used to marveling at the beauty of great Renaissance Art. Why can’t we marvel at the beauty of the empowering, defiant statements of Post-modern Art? Why can’t we admire Post-modern Art for its ability to thrive in stark contrast to the way the rest of culture and society operates?
For those of us that feel oppressed and repressed by a hyper-competitive culture and society (especially like America), I bear good news; the Post-modernists have turned the art museums into sanctuaries for us. Contrary to art being a competition, I would take the position that art at its best is the one area of life that refuses to devolve into a competition (art contests be damned!). What has given art its appeal over the centuries is its ability to serve as a window to that which is dear to its intended audience.
For example, when the industrial revolution was gaining momentum, art depicting idyllic, unadulterated landscapes were the most sought after. Art very much shows what life is in short supply of, what life has rendered precious. Surely art has changed, but the role it plays has stayed staunchly the same.
I have been able to observe this principle in my own life as an artist. As I review my own body of work, starting from my earliest childhood drawings, one thing seems to be true most consistently; I make art about where I want to be. Our range of spatial mobility is dictated by a host of factors not in our control, we don’t get to choose the time our lives take place in, and we are surrounded by people who have just about as much of a choice in the matter as we do.
For me, art is about creating my own world with my own rules that I can escape to. Interestingly enough, those times in my life that I most struggled to create art were those times when I was most where I wanted to be. When we find ourselves in lives that are sterile and detached, Art is what gives life a human touch.
People, Art, and Machines
I am very much in favor of the direction that art has taken away from competitiveness. If art is just a competition, then sooner or later they’re going to invent a machine that can do a better job. Machines are invented to outperform people in every task they’re created for, so if the art you make is meant to be a mere display of impressiveness, it’s only a matter of time before a machine comes around that makes the kind of art you make except better.
Oftentimes the criticism that is leveled at particular works of art is in regards to the heavy use of technology employed in their creation. But theoretically speaking, why should it matter how a work of art is produced, as long as it has aesthetic appeal? When people say that they don’t like a particular work of art because it was created with the assistance of computer software, what are they really saying, perhaps without realizing it?
With the emergence of Modern Art came artwork that featured what up until then were the most perfect geometric forms that had ever been made. With the emergence of the technology that made executing these forms possible, that is very much what this kind of artwork was endeavoring to showcase.
But today’s technology can do the same thing faster and more easily. If I can better articulate the criticism from the casual art consumer about a piece of art being made with the assistance of a computer, what is actually being said here is that the artist used the computer to create a work of art that doesn’t differ in any significant way from art people were already making before the availability of computers.
The problem isn’t that the artist used a computer, but rather the artist didn’t use the computer as a stepping stool to reach for a previously unattainable vision. The artist could have highlighted the human authorship of the work of art by conceiving of the computer as a way of isolating that which is still human in art, untouchable by technology.
But instead, the artist used the computer to erase any semblance of human authorship, thereby reinforcing some of the larger concerns about technological advancement as it relates to the lives of the people who are prone to be affected by it (you know, everybody). The artist could have demonstrated that the computer gave him something new to think about. Instead, the artist let the computer do the thinking for him.
So, as technology advances, what even is the point of art anymore? If it’s inspiration you’re looking for, there you go. There is your challenge. Make art that you wish you saw out there but as of yet haven’t seen. Do something that no one else is doing. Do something that no one has done before. Come up with a kind of art that is irreplicable by machine, and that never can a machine be invented to replicate your art. Create art that could only ever have been created by a flesh and blood person with actual guts.
Don’t create art to compete; create art to connect. Create art to express.
Create art to experience being human.
About the Author
Clifton lives in Jerusalem, Israel. He continues to study and live Judaism and the Hebrew language. His interests include astrology, tradition, history, foreign language, linguistics, literature, calligraphy, cartooning, and community service. He uses his writing, as well as his fine art to channel his interests.