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A Meditation on Contemporary Art


									Ransom 1 Stefan Ransom Junior Ford Forum Paper Professor Carolyn Johnston April 11th, 2006 Finding Hope in the 21st Century: A Meditation on Contemporary Art

Over the ages many have uttered variations of the phrase “art is dead”, such as the painter Francisco Goya, or the eminent art critic Clement Greenberg. In general,

this term is used in the context of feeling like art has nowhere left to go, and suggests that everything in art has been done. Despite those sorts of predictions, the world

of modern art has radically changed within the last hundred years. I am chiefly concerned with the era of art termed

“Postmodern”, which is arguably the era that art is still in today (although, some might say that Postmodernism is dead). I believe that the traditional scope of art has

changed to the point of demanding a new set of standards to evaluate art by, and will also require a new set of modern intentions and expectations for artists and viewers alike. In my opinion, the 21st century is an exciting time of change for the arts, and that they are certainly not dead.

Before discussing art in the 21st century, it is important to know a bit about the evolution of Postmodern art. The First World War was in very Ransom 2 many ways a catalyst for the Modernist art period, which lasted until around the 1950‟s. During that time several

important art movements took place, such as Dadaism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism (Action Painting and Color Field). There were many more, but what is worth

taking note of is the commonality of defiant tendencies that were apart of each respective movement. For example,

the Abstract Expressionists were rebelling against traditional methods of material application and figuratism. The 1950‟s also saw the beginning of several more genres in art, like minimalism, conceptualism, performance, fluxism, pop, earth works, experimental film, and light and space. With the integration of these new movements, it becomes quite difficult to say how, or when, but somewhere around this time, Postmodernism was born. While Postmodernism is

a term that can be applied to a diversity of creative fields, when pertaining to art specifically the arthistory website describes it as follows:
“…that (in art) all forms of novelty and rebellion have already been explored, and that even if that

wasn't true the particular emphasis on rejection of that which is old or already done is only handicapping to an artists self-expression. Seeing as such, postmodernism is a sense arts reconciliation of itself and its past, and post -modernists typically collect influences from all periods and schools, using several media in a given piece in a pastiche like form.” (

Ransom 3 That might explain some part of it, but as I mentioned earlier, it is hard to know how exactly it materialized. offer my own observation that the modernists had begun to reject established standards, but postmodernists took the next step. They brought art outside of galleries, combined I

artistic disciplines, and metaphorically cleared the chalkboard. They made life art, and art life. I believe

that when these things began to happen, so began postmodernism. I think that in describing postmodernism, it is best to take a look at some of the artists who have been most exemplary in shaping its course. Sol LeWitt was the first Though he is also

to use the axiom „conceptual art”.

considered a minimalist, he has much to do with the early years of


In a letter to the publication Art Forum,

he explains his personal stance on this new genre of art that he was actively working in.
“I will refer to the kind of art in which I am involved as conceptual art. In conceptual art the

idea of the concept is the most important aspect of the work… The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. This kind of art is not theoretical or

illustrative of theories; it is intuitive, it is involved with all types of mental process and it is purposeless. It is usually free from the dependency (qtd. In

on the skill of the artist as a craftsman.” Stiles and Selz, 822).

The statement that he asserted was absolutely groundbreaking at the time (1967), and would lay the groundwork for other artists to move into and expand on the ideas within this new conceptual field. On the note of the Ransom 4 time and the context of LeWitt‟s “conceptual work”, I am astounded that many people still believe that real, acceptable, or understandable art is something like painting; that works of art created over 100 years ago are more legitimate than the contemporary art happening now . We are much further along than that.

John Cage, a prolific multimedia sound artist, is another prime example of progress in art. What I like best

about Cage is the infectious joy that he took in making art. He is an inspiration for many. In his early years he

trained under the renowned composer Arnold Schoenberg, who

promised Cage free lessons on the condition that he devote his life wholly to music. The story is that Cage,

who had no talent for harmony and composition, left Schoenberg to try to overcome those formal obstacles without compromising his own artistic vision. In doing

so he established what we now call musical indeterminacy, or chance operation through study of the Chinese I Ching (it translates as “The Book of Changes”), and various other methods to avoid operating within the confines of his own decision making process. He has created

countless musical scores that can never be played the same way twice by using such systems. This idea of

chance operation would deeply affect many other artists and movements, chiefly the Fluxists. Cage relentlessly

perused ways to keep his work from becoming repetitious and stagnant. Before leaving Cage, I would like to

reference a response Ransom 5

that he gave during an interview.

While gazing out

through a window, he was asked what he thought the most important lesson of the 20th century might be. He

responded, “I think that a great deal of our experience comes from the large use of glass in our architecture, so that our experience is one of reflection and collage and transparency. And I think that those elements are very

important and very different from a life that had less glass in it!” (qtd. Zurbrugg,103). typifies a very postmodern attitude. Nam Jun Paik will be the last of the postmodern progenitors that I will discuss, but not arbitrarily. Paik was another artist associated with the early Fluxist movement, but remained progressively active until his death, which was earlier this year. His work utilizes Cage‟s reaction

the influence of technology, film, television and mass media, which he had been working with since the beginning of the 1960‟s. Korean born, he worked across the world

showing alone and in very elaborate collaborations with many other famous new genre artists. One of the most

unifying elements in his work may be the ever-present influence of humor and Zen Buddhism. Those are more on

the side of tendency than artistic vision; as for that,

he has applied much of his work toward the goal of humanizing technology. This was important to Paik

because he felt that technology can be both good and bad, in terms of progress, but if
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humanized, more good than bad.

In Paik‟s own words, “Our

life is half natural and half technological. Half-and-half is good. You cannot deny that high-tech is progress. We need it for jobs. Yet if you make only high-tech, you make war. So we must have a strong human element to keep modesty and natural life.” His constant embrace of new

technologies and quick adaptation to progress are why I felt he is worth discussing to hope in the 21st century. Enough with the postmodern build up. It is time to

cover a few contemporary artists that are working towards expanding the horizons of art as we know it. What is most

exciting about art in the 21st century is that it has crossed beyond the threshold of traditional art and moved into many new territories. For example, the artist Mel

Chen‟s piece “Revival Field” might be confused for research in agriculture or ecology rather than art, but it becomes a measure of concept and intent that defines the work as art. Chen employed the use of plants that would extract metal toxins from a landfill area to purify its soil in his piece

“Revival Field”.

His justification can be found on the

Creative Capital website, a company helping to sponsor his artistic endeavors:
"If Michelangelo takes a block of marble and starts to make a David, he carves it and carves it. The art is this idea transformed into reality. But what happens

if your material isn't marble, but a toxic, dead medium--earth that can't sustain life? Scientific process, not artistic process, has to be the tool. To take that soil and make it live

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again, to sculpt a diverse ecosystem from it--that to me is beautiful." (

It is this sort of attitude toward creating art that explains something about whit is happening in the 21st century. Andrea Zittel is another contemporary artist who blurs the boundaries of art with a smattering of other disciplines, like psychology, sociology and ergonomics. Zittel executes projects that magnify basic human necessities, and often takes part within her own work, feeling that as an artist she ought not be any exception to the art. Some of her ongoing works include designing and

wearing one single uniform outfit everyday for an entire season, and the continuous remodeling of her home to

conform match her current domestic and social needs. Zittel comments, “People say my work is all about control,

but it‟s not really, I am always looking for the gray area between freedom—which can sometimes feel too open-ended and vast—and security—which may easily turn into confinement.” She is working and performing both in and out of the gallery setting, commenting on a social dynamic that society can easily relate to. There is a substantial amount of art that now pertains to art education and community inspired events. The

Turkish art collective Oda Projesi has caused a bit of a stir in the art world through their community driven projects, which have required a re-evaluation of standard criticism methods to judge the quality of the work. Their

projects involve their neighbors and other local populas. With them, the group has prepared Ransom 8 children‟s parades, picnics and community theater events. In a recent issue of Art Forum, author Claire Bishop writes:
“…they clearly see their work as generally oppositional. By working directly with their

neighbors to organize workshops and events, they evidently want to produce a more participatory social


They talk of creating „blank spaces‟ and

„holes‟ in the face of an over-organized and bureaucratic society, and of being „mediators‟ between groups of people who normally don‟t have contact with one another.” (Bishop, 180)

In the end, critics will have to move away from the paradigms used to understand traditional art, and adopt a view that is large enough to accommodate these new sorts of collaborations. This may mean that in order to understand

art today, ethical, environmental and social considerations will have to be further measured and integrated into the standard practice of viewing and analyzing modern art. I have reviewed a number of artists that I think have had a direct hand in the construction of postmodern art, and a few more examples of artist working in the 21st century, but I will make sure to clarify that there many, many more artists that are equally worthy of consideration. The reason that I chose the artists reviewed, is because of their merit in the ways that they have individually progressed their own fields of art, and in doing so have made others question the value of their art (or if it even is art). I view this kind of progress and change as a

positive influence on Ransom 9

modern culture.

The power that artists have to raise

intelligent questions that demand reflection, thought, and eventually, some response to their work, is quite profound. Art should be recognized and appreciated for those qualities, if nothing else. Contemporary art in the 21st

century will be necessarily challenging for artists and viewers alike, but the richness of that discourse ought to make it worthwhile. It will be the continuing

responsibility of the artist to question and challenge, and the responsibility of the viewer to think, to answer that challenge, and to become involved in this new era of artistic expression and innovation. I very much doubt that

art is dead, or that everything has been done; if there is any need of proof, all one must do is go online, or to visit a contemporary art museum. To put it simply, I

believe that art today is a beacon of optimism and hope for the 21st century.

Ransom 10 Works Cited (no author), paragraph 3, Stiles and Selz, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, California: University of California, 1996. Zurbrugg, Nicholas, 31 Interviews Art, Performance, Media, Minnesota: University of Minnesota, 2004. Paik, Nam Jun, tml (no author), paragraph 5, Zittel, Andrea, Art: 21 Bishop, Claire, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents.” Art Forum, February 2006, 180

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