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In defense of contemporary art

By Saskia Wilson-Brown

“Modernism refers to the typical forms of a hegemonic culture”
—Harrison & Wood, Art in Theory, 1900-1990

“I define post-modernism as incredulity towards meta-narratives. […] The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero […] its great goal. […] It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative elements. […]”
—Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge


Brentwood, California is a leafy suburb of gritty Los Angeles. Situated west of the 405, it is the balmy, palm-tree dotted home to movie stars, politicos, and what passes for Old Money in forward-living California. It is also home to several well-established and successful old guard art galleries.

I was interviewing for a job at one of these galleries last week, and had the pleasure of digressing into conversation with Lee, gallerist, art-lover extraordinaire, and my interviewer. He was facing me across a cluttered desk, sitting directly in front of a wall-full of books, an astounding library whose titles jumped out at me in my jittery state: Mondrian! Pollock! Klee! I knew where I was, and where I was wasn’t too keen on my sort of art.

Regardless, over the course of a lively discussion which took the better part of the job interview, Lee expounded upon his views of contemporary art, which he compared unfavourably with the Modernists of yore. As far as I could tell, through my haze of nicotine withdrawal, his main point was that the contemporary artistic dialogue in America began in the fifties, with post-modernism and Warhol. This happened at the same time as a growing political and social uncertainty. He saw a correlation: it is always during times of unrest, Lee said, that the artists of a given culture recede into their own shells, as it were. Whereas Pollock had embraced the work of the great Mexican muralists, Warhol was embracing nothing more than Americana. In short, the seeds of contemporary art were based in cultural insularism.

I began to realize what I think is symptomatic of the new rift in the art world. There are Contemporaries, and there are Modernists. While living and dealing within the same parameters (we are all artists, after all), these two factions have little to do with one another. Furthermore, the Modernist/Contemporary rift is not as limited to temporal devices and generational gaps as it might at first appear. Modernist mindset is still at work in contemporary times. Most importantly, it is still being created in young artists in the various schools across the U.S. and abroad. These are the true painters and drawers and printmakers of today; the people you see in their shadowy studios, re-working and re-drawing, and pushing their craft to its best possible conclusion. Far from agreeing with Greenberg that Pollock basically painted us all into a corner, they see further artistic dialogues in their tenacious and relentless brush strokes.

And this, in my view, is the crux of the rift between Modernists and Contemporaries.

Rewind to an imposing grey neo-classicist building along the banks of the Thames in London, two years ago. The Turner Prize announcements have just been made, and Martin Creed is the big winner of this prestigious award. His victorious piece consists of stripping one of the big gallery spaces at the Tate Britain of its art. The pristine white walls are instead decorated by a play with light, alternatively being lit by the gallery’s impressive lighting system or plunged into shadow, according to a temporal pattern that Creed had impressed upon his electricians to rig to the light switch.

Martin Creed, the incredibly hip British artist du jour (if you can define sudden success a few years ago as still being du jour) makes work that is almost entirely devoid of physical output. I can see the Modernists screaming now, as I could then when reading the front page of The Sun, The Daily Mail, and other English tabloids: “But where is the ART in all this???”

Here is my answer: To understand contemporary art, art theory has to be seen as a valid form of artistic _expression. It is art reduced to its purest elements. It is art in idea. Martin Creed has continued the patterns set by the Minimalists in the seventies, abandoned the traditional methods of artistic _expression, and made a head-long plunge into the deepest issues at the heart of visual thinking, finding along the way that the fussing and worrying over abstract vs. figurative painting, pointillism vs. symbolicism, or any other of those little arguments, is truly besides the point.

After all, what is art except for an attempt to illustrate an idea in a visual manner? And what better way to illustrate that idea than by abandoning the traditional visual methods almost altogether, and by pseudo-Platonically attempting to express the idea in its most pure and unadulterated state in whatever manner you see fit?

If the purpose of art is to affect the viewer in some way, and to effectively illustrate the artist’s idea, then these much-reviled conceptual multi-disciplinarian contemporary artists have got it right. By giving themselves the freedom to abandon the symbolic paintbrush and canvas, they have a better answer for that life-long question “Are you a painter, a printmaker or a sculptor?”

“None of the above,” they can say “I am an artist.”

They are then able, if they choose, to pick the traditional Modernist mediums up again and attempt what no Modernist could ever have done through simple painting, abstract or otherwise: express a complex philosophical and theoretical issue. They can be a multi-disciplinarian meta-artist and a theorist all rolled into one!

Make sense now?

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