by Charles Greene
From the time the Greek philosophers first posited the concept of art (techne), art has been used primarily as an expression of the gods, God, or some semblance of the godhead, be it divine rulers, patron saints, or some other powerful, otherworldly force. The early Christian church, whose teachings forbade the creation of images as idolatry, would eventually relent to the persistent demand for religious icons by the faithful. By allowing the limited use of images for the purposes of religious edification, church leaders could justify bending the rules of the second commandment – a compromise made ostensibly for the betterment of the laity, but in actuality a political maneuver to keep the church from splitting apart. With this, Western art – our art heritage – inaugurated a tradition of the close alliance of art and God. It is a state of affairs that has continued forcefully into the modern age with the imagery and ideas of the church manifested in the works of the greatest art of European and New World traditions. The Word made flesh, (metaphorically speaking). This incarnation of divinity, with images so real they appear able to walk out of the picture plane or off of their pedestals and into our lives, came to be commonly termed traditional art. Of course during the time of their creation there was no need for the qualifier “traditional.” Art was simply art. But with the steady departure from narrow canonical constraints beginning in the mid nineteenth century we now have to contend with another incarnation of art – contemporary art.
So, what is contemporary art? Is it the opposite of traditional art? Given that traditional art is allied with God, is contemporary art then the art of the devil? Though there are many who feel that contemporary art is hell-spawn and should return from whence it came, I take a more charitable, perhaps even a more catholic view (small “c”) and answer in the negative; it is not the art of the devil. Still, given the historical nature and uses of traditional art as expository of the sacred, a compelling case (or at least an interesting discussion) could be made for endorsing such a metaphorical juxtaposition.
When I use the term traditional art I am referring to a style of art that is largely representational or at least decorative, displaying a mastery of materials and techniques such that the average person could not perform, and oriented decidedly toward the beautiful. Think Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, or Donatello (not the Ninja Turtle versions but the originals – the four giants of Italian painting). This is what I will call, (for the purposes of the metaphorical juxtaposition), the art of God.
So what is it that makes contemporary art the art of the devil?
While overly simplistic, the easiest way to describe contemporary art is to say that it is, indeed, the opposite of traditional art. And despite the simplistic nature of this definition, the contrast will suffice for the current conversation. Contemporary art spans the range of media going far beyond mere painting and drawing and photography and sculpture to include video, performance, audio, and even the land and sea. It often presents as mixed or multimedia, often incorporates found objects, and is sometimes comprised only of found objects. It frequently manifests in collage, montage, assemblage or installation, and is sometimes interactive, and frequently provocative. Any thing that is a thing can potentially become part of a contemporary art piece, and even nothing can be contemporary art. One of the most interesting “artworks” I have ever heard of was done by conceptual artist Michael Asher. It is a work that one can only hear of, like a myth or an urban legend, as it no longer exists in space or time. In fact, in some sense it never did exist. The work consisted of the removal of a wall in an art museum, revealing the bureaucratic operations of the museum masked by the façade of beauty and creativity, which the wall ordinarily held. Asher’s artwork was a subtraction of art. It was less than nothing.
Like Dante’s hell, Contemporary art is chaotic. And like the great Satan himself it is known by many names; avant-garde art, modern art, or even conceptual art. In more sophisticated circles it might be called postmodern or perhaps post-historical. Perhaps most importantly contemporary art eschews morality, throws its audience into confusion, and blurs the lines between right and wrong. Unlike traditional art, which elucidates, contemporary art obfuscates. Traditional art promotes conventionality and stability, while contemporary art challenges the status quo. Traditional art provides clarity, while contemporary art represents vagueness. Traditional art has customarily been produced in the service of something; the church, the community, beauty, or commerce, but like God’s most beautiful archangel Lucifer, contemporary art refuses to serve.
A roll call of some of the more famous (or infamous) works of contemporary art might give a better idea of the genre – it is a list that would make a traditionalist cringe. Many are familiar with Andy Warhol’s exact replication of a box of Brillo™ pads done in the early 1960s called Brillo Box, and if you’ve read this column before then you probably also know about the urinal presented by Marcel Duchamp in 1917 under the title Fountain. But there are also to be found unmade beds (My Bed 1999, by Tracy Emin), piles of bricks (Equivalent VIII 1972, by Carl Andre), bisected sharks suspended in tanks of formaldehyde (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living 1992, by Damien Hirst), a film of a performance art piece of a man living in a room for three days with a wolf (I like America and America Likes Me 1974, by Joseph Beuys), a painting with clumps of elephant dung (The Holy Virgin Mary 1999, by Chris Ofili), and a giant inflatable hamburger (Floor Burger 1962, by Claes Oldenberg). And these represent just a very, very small fraction of the cast of characters populating the world of high-end, gallery/museum quality contemporary art. The list is endless and, at times, ridiculous. Those who align themselves with traditional art typically hate this brand of art, believing it to be fraudulent and a blow to the standards of “real” art. But not me, I love it.
Well, I don’t love all of it. In fact there is much that passes itself off as contemporary art that is to be despised. But I love the idea of it. And I love the possibilities present in the concept of it. Contemporary art is the proverbial “darkness in the light that lightness could not comprehend.” And among the dozens, or maybe the hundreds of contemporary works that I like, there are two that I want to make brief mention of now. These are not necessarily my favorite works, but they serve as exemplars of what good contemporary art has to offer, and illustrate why we need a little bit of the devil in the details of our lives.
The first piece, by Nam June Paik, is called TV Buddha (1974). Unfortunately I have never seen the TV Buddha in person, I have only encountered it in photographs, but from the first time I saw it I was immediately amused and impressed with the piece. TV Buddha is comprised of found objects, which is to say that none of the elements of the work were produced by the artist’s own hand. It is elegantly simple, made up of a replica sculpture of the seated Buddha in meditating lotus position, a television set, and a video camera. The Buddha is set facing the small, space-aged looking television, and behind the TV stands the video camera trained on the Buddha, projecting his image onto the screen. Thus situated, the Buddha sits meditating on his own image on the TV screen. Beautifully profound.
The second work is a bit harder to talk about because I remember neither the name of the piece, nor the artist. However, having managed to find a photograph of the piece, I can more easily explain the value of the work as contemporary art, and through it the value of contemporary art itself. The work is of a swing made, presumably, by the artist herself. (I am at least certain that the artist is a woman). I have actually seen this work in person – twice in fact, at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France, in the summer of 2003. The Swing, as I have come to call it, was hung from the ceiling like any normal child’s swing, a simple seat suspended with two pieces of rope, but with one important addition: rising out of the center of the seat were two protrusions, a little longer and thicker than fingers, one a bit longer and thicker than the other. I remember my reaction the first time I saw the Swing. Wandering through the immense exhibition space of the Centre Pompidou, which took up the entire main floor, where the works of dozens of artists were being shown, I happened upon the hanging swing, looked at it, noticed the two protrusions in the seat, and I thought “that’s pretty stupid, if you sat on that you’d get pretty good…” And that’s when the joke suddenly clicked, and I thought “oh!” and I laughed out loud. Then, a moment after, a second wave of comprehension hit me and I thought ohhhh…
That second wave of comprehension was my realization that the Swing was not merely a quirky art object or a comical idea, but that it represented a cleverly disguised feminist statement. What the exact statement was I couldn’t say for sure. It was there for me to determine, or to construct on my own. The artist gave me just enough visual information to begin the process of contemplation, and it was up to me to make sense of the image before me. This was also my experience upon viewing of TV Buddha (I first saw it on the cover of a book for an art theory class I was taking) – first a blank assimilation of the image, then a primary recognition of a humorous moment, followed by a second deeper revelation of something more profound being communicated. And herein lay the essence of a good work of contemporary art; it requires active looking, an effort toward understanding, and most importantly, it yields rewards. Contemporary art is purposefully incongruent, begging the extended gaze instead of the fleeting glance. It is a cipher in need of deciphering. It allows us to make meaning instead of prescribing it for us. While it is not always beautiful, it is almost never dull.
The art of looking at art seems to have long ago become a lost art in our society. Or perhaps it was never an art at all, but a socially conditioned reaction, a kind of communally learned or commonly understood way of looking. As far back as 1936 the famous art and literary critic Walter Benjamin, recognizing the shift in viewing habits that was taking place in the modern public would write, “A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. He enters into this work of art the way legend tells of the Chinese painter when he viewed his finished painting. In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art”. Today it seems that we hardly take the time to really look at images, to look at them in a way that invites contemplation. It is not a stretch to say that in our current culture of 30-second sound bites and flickering TV images we have become well conditioned to be the distracted mass.
This state of affairs is unfortunate because we live in an age where art needs our attention more than ever. As implied in Benjamin’s statement, all great art requires an investment of our time so that we may fully appreciate its offerings, and today’s contemporary art is particularly needy in this regard. When done well, even the most obvious traditional image has a depth of meaning not apparent to the superficial glance. We might take as our example da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Read a book detailing the specifics of this work and you will be amazed at what you don’t pick up in the superficial glance. As anyone who has experienced contemporary art can attest to, there is nothing obvious about it in the same way that the Mona Lisa is obviously a simple portrait of a woman. It is the initial incongruity of the contemporary art object that creates the need for heightened contemplation. Simply put, it is too enigmatic to be taken for granted.
Benjamin was prescient in his early identification of the changes that were being wrought by the then growing popularity of the mechanically reproduced image, how it was altering our relationship with art, changing the viewing dynamic from one of slow contemplation to one of quick absorption. It was in our ability to mass-produce and mass-distribute the image, and in the nature of the motion picture, which does not grant the eye a fixed image upon which to rest its gaze, that Benjamin saw the deterioration of contemplative viewership. With the image’s dominance of contemporary society now in full effect, the manifestation of the image has now reached a point of super saturation, and we are beset on all sides by the “anxious image.”
It is time to slow our eyes down and to slow our minds down. It is time we relearned how to concentrate before an artwork and be absorbed by it, and it is time we learned to release ourselves from the seduction of the easily absorbed image. The story of the art object doesn’t end at beauty or recognition – it begins there. God provides for our needs, but we can become complacent in the heaven of traditional art. We need to take regular walks through the hell of the contemporary gallery and museum to keep us on our toes. God’s art makes life beautiful, but Satan’s art makes life interesting. So, if you’ll pardon my mixing of rock n’ roll metaphors, I entreat you to take a walk on the wild side, and have a little sympathy for the devil.