Archive for July, 2010

So, class, today I’d like to discuss why it is that twentieth-century art has been so important (considering that most people consider art to be worthless and at best frivolous), at the same time that it sucks.  So let’s start with a simple and obvious proposition:  twentieth-century art sucks.  Then, we can go into why it has nonetheless been hugely important, and we can end with some observations on the positive impacts that it has had, basically despite itself.

Before we can discuss why this art sucks, we should discuss the ideas and the technological underpinnings which have by and large shaped the direction of twentieth-century art.

First, some definitions.  What do we mean by twentieth-century art?  Well, we are speaking in the broadest meaningful terms.  In general, we can talk of this art as the sum of the cultural movement which has come under the rubric ‘modernism’ and which started about the time of the first world war.   Under this heading we can put classical music, painting, sculpture, architecture, and literature, including whatever sub genres you like.  All of these fields have been influenced in broadly the same way, and followed broadly similar trajectories, since the dawn of European culture in the middle ages, and they have continued to do so up to the present day.

Thus, we come to the ideas that have shaped this art.  First is obviously the western cultural tradition, which has been evolving since the middle ages, and has taken the form of a dialogue between plato and aristotle:  between the idealism of plato and the scientific desire to continually improve one’s knowledge represented best by artistotle.  Since the renaissance, at least, European artists have seen themselves as being part of a continually evolving, and usually improving, tradition, where artists of the present are in dialogue not only with their peers, but with their forebears.  Up until about 1900, artists in this tradition believed for the most part that by improving their art, they were striving and perhaps reaching ever closer towards the platonic ideals of truth, beauty, and beauty.  They also, many of them, at least paid lip service to the notion that these platonic ideals were also the ideals that formed the best parts of the christian tradition:  in other words, when Bach wrote  “ad maiorem gloriam dei” at the top of his compositions (“to the greater glory of God”), everyone shared his sense that he was making things beautiful because one of God’s commandments to huanity was that they should continually try and achieve the perfection which He embodied (viz, truth, beauty, the good, justice, etc.). 

After about 1910, however, everything changed in the art world:  in general, it became fashionable, due to the influence of Marxism, to see “traditional” art (i.e., all art before 1910) as “bourgeois,” and thus as part of the culture of “oppression,” which had previously dominated all societies.  And this makes sense on many levels:  because the cathedrals and churches which were the centres of so much western art were so obviously just monuments to the oppression of clerical elites, and arguably of theocratic voodoo pushers who wished merely to keep the masses dumb by feeding them opiates, it was not too difficult for an increasingly sophisticated intellectual elite to grasp the notion that all previous art had been the product of oppression.  Even neoclassical art was the product of “bourgeos” rulers who wished to awe the people into thinking that they were the “most reasonable” and obviously had a monopoly on beauty, harmony, and truth.   So, sure, this was one reason to suspect previous art.

Another reason was the recent “death of god” proclaimed by Nietzsche, which was shored up by the findings of Darwin, Freud, and Marx in their respective fields (which together covered most of human knowledge).  If God had always been the underpinner of the platonic ideals of truth, justice, and beauty, but he was now dead, then were these ideals of truth beauty and the good just farcical lies?  If god was just a big lie perpetrated on the people by ruling elites, then were not the very ideals of truth, justice, and beauty just sublimations of the same thing?  One had to throw out all the old notions of beauty if one wanted to create a “new art,” which alone would be “free” and alone would be “liberating” to “the people.”

So 20th century art was born in a notion that it would:

a) expose the lies of the bourgeoisie (i.e., show that they had been for centuries creating a property system, a capitalist system, which mimicked feudalism, insofar as it exalted a rich few who exploited the masses for their labour and stole their birthright from them). 

b) find new modes of expression which were based on a truer and freer truth than ever before.

c) in doing so, it would create a “new beauty” of its own which was not defined by theocrats, or some long-dead culture’s notion of what God is, but rather a beauty of proletarian solidarity.

Note that, after the 1980s, these ideas are seeming pretty stale, these notions of the proletariat, etc.  This is because economists have realized, even left wing ones, that Marxism doesn’t really work that way, and so the underpinnings of a proletarian beauty have been proven to be wrong.  Not to mention, we’ve all now had ample experience of where a quest for “other forms of beauty” gets us:  both communist regimes,. and twentieth century artists have now spent decades proving to us that their quest was sorely misguided.  The rusty i-beam sculptures which ruin many public parks across the world are eloquent testimony to that, as are the architectural skylines of almost any city built between 1930 and 1990 (when things started to pick up, a little). 

Note, too, that pretty soon after the initial rebellion against beauty, most artists kind of forgot the original purpose of these movements, but instead just followed what they learned at art school, which was that what their art teachers did was the fashion. 

Now, we can talk about the technological underpinnings of twentieth-century art.  

1)  Painting vs. Photography.  One of the key components of 20th century art which few people remember to discuss is that changes in a few basic technologies drastically and permanently changed the nature of art, the relationship between people and artistic media.  By about 1900, photography had become so common and convenient that it began to supplant painting.  Remember that prior to this, for thousands of years, the only way to record, or remember a person or place was to paint it.  Thus, prior to about 1900, painting was a necessary art form, which filled a basic functions that could not otherwise be fulfilled.  Nowadays, it’s an extravagant luxury.  After 1900, however, painters began to develope some pretty radical reactions to th efact of photography chasing them off the field of usefulness altogether:  the surrealists attempted to take painting into a place that photography couldn’t easily go.  Again, it’s arguable if this was very useful, since for at least 60 years now painting has had next to no cultural signficiance.   

2) Music in the age of the phonograph.  Argument:  classical composers, live performance, and the orchestra form, became mere luxuries, instead of being necessary to the production of music.  A few stars could now monopolize the market.

3) Poetry in the age of the phonograph.   Argument:  poetry was killed by recorded music. 

4) Drama in the age of television.

5)  Literature in the age of television and movies.   

So, we’ll have to leave it here for now.  This is a draft post, but the issue is a complex one, so it may take a while to finish.  In the meantime, if you are inspired to do so, please comment! 


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