I’d rather not point fingers at specific artists, but I am concerned that there is a lack in much of contemporary art of what I perceive as…
A couple of months or so ago I returned to the academic institution that I am recovering from. The occasion was the senior show for some of the last few students that I had an “investment” in, from their educational experience. My first reaction was that the work was very “young.” That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t good work; much of it showed great potential. One of the finest qualities that the work exhibited was passion. Passion is both an advantage and the bane of student work; beginning students tend to want to put the “entire world” into every piece, as if there is never going to be another. The maturity of graduating students is their willingness to speak to a coherent message, rather than the “scatter” of every concern in the world.
But, the exhibit made me wonder where passion has gone in the wider art world? Consider any of the exhibits you may have seen in the past few weeks or months; was there an element of passion in the (most likely “beautiful”) work? Personally, and it may be my own cynicism, I feel like there is a lack of personality and passion in much of the work shown and sold these days. It’s not a matter of the style or genre of the art presented, but there seems to be an emphasis on something else: sometimes an overarching conceptual base, or an interest only in eliciting an “aesthetic reaction” to beauty, other times a lack of personal vision and sometimes all three.
The preeminence of concept over form or content is about 50 years old now, four or five art movements removed from the fist fights in the Cedar Bar generated by the intense personal convictions of the Abstract Expressionists. At its zenith, conceptual art resulted in truly “non-objective” art, there was no “piece” as such; often merely a typewritten description of a situation that may or may not be concerned with art. There was a reaction, of course, a quick replay of the previous half-dozen art movements and then the “modernist impulse” was declared dead and a “post modern” age proclaimed.
I’m not sure I fully understand all the facets of Post Modernism as a movement, but one major aspect was that the “cult of personal genius” of the artist was decried as less important than a larger social engagement (not that artists are geniuses in the best of times). Other concerns were a reexamination of art history as a subject to be “data mined” and applied to current works, or a critique of “formalism,” referring to art that depended on careful design and execution.
Various theories of art became the basis for much contemporary work, and, while theories need to be acknowledged and explored as part of the zeitgeist of the era, they can remove the artist from the personal “intellectual responsibility” for their art. It’s more convenient to make art if you don’t have to know how to make it, and new mediums or materials only superficially make it new. Having a template for “successful” art has allowed many artists who might not have been recognized to become stars. Spectacle, scandal and scale became the basis for much that has been presented as “cutting-edge” (read: expensive) art in the past few decades and it dominates the exhibits, the secondary market and auctions today.
Perhaps it’s just the times. A hundred years ago, at the turn of the last century, there was a similar malaise; much of the academically supported art of the time was pretty vapid. Several movements came out of that vacuum: Expressionism and Cubism are examples. They were startlingly different styles of looking at the world, but what they had in common was that they were passionate reactions to the insipid status quo.
The logic escapes me as to how the Post Modern reinventing those pasts will bring something new to the collective consciousness of the present. While I respect the AbEx painters and sculptors for their moral aspirations and convictions, I wouldn’t want their aesthetic to be resurrected as the new normal. But, I sure would appreciate a passionate standard of quality of some sort to emerge as something of value beyond monetary. There’s a terrible fallacy out there that great cost always equates to great art. Cost is a matter of quantity; art is a matter of quality. The two are often confused.
Perhaps it’s out there right now. In a lecture years back, critic Dave Hickey stated that contemporaries wouldn’t recognize the “New Art.” If that’s true then I’ll be among the last to know, but at least I’m looking for it. And last night Charlie Rose quoted someone whose name escaped me at the time (and I didn’t have the stamina to stay up to watch the rerun) who said “one person with passion is worth forty merely interested.” I fervently hope that whatever may evolve as the “New Art” will be presented with passion. And so should you; it’s a critical critique.
After writing this, I chanced upon a link to one possibility to be the “New Art”; look at author Bruce Sterling’s Tumblr Art Symposium for insight on a possible “new” art.
Another ramble in this morass is by Dr. Raquel Caerols Mateo of Antonio de Nebrija University in Madrid. It’s a little difficult to follow in this translation, but worth the effort.
Meredith “Butch” Jack is a Houston sculptor working in steel, cast iron, aluminum and bronze. From 1977-2010 he was a professor of sculpture & printmaking at Lamar University, Beaumont, TX.