Updated: Nov 18, 2020
I hate most contemporary art. I believe there is something disingenuous about it, and not in a particularly charming way.
Before I explain why, I need to first give a philosophical & historical backdrop. Here it is.
A common metaphysical approach to understanding the world is to cleave things in two. This is called dualism and here are some examples of this:
Mind /// Body
Function /// Form
Noumena /// Phenomena
Mental /// Physical
Intrinsic /// Extrinsic
Signifier /// Signified
Underlying all these bipartites is the interaction between appearance and substance. The appearance of the body houses the substance of the mind; the appearance of form structures the substance of the function; the appearance of the signifier belies the meaning of the signified, etc. Keep the dualism of appearance and substance in mind – I will be talking about this at length throughout this text.
This dualistic cleave is a manmade illusion – it’s our way of conceptualising the world so we may understand it better. The universe exists as a simple unity. Such a unity is too grand to understand, so we create constructs that allows us to refer to discrete entities within the unity. This is the mechanism of science and language (and all bottom-up systems), and these systems dominate our way of thinking. We don’t even notice it, because we are immersed in it, like fish in water.
To illustrate this idea, look at the world map. The boundaries of countries are drawn by man and not by some intrinsic natural demarcation. As Alfred Korzybski says, “The map is not the territory”.
The (somewhat idealistic) aim of science is to produce an accurate map of the territory of the universe. The idea is that through piecemeal empirical testing, we may build an accurate picture of reality from the bottom-up, with the ultimate grand goal of producing what Stephen Hawking calls the “Theory of Everything” (ToE) – a complete and whole understanding of the universe.
The great purpose of science is to produce a Theory of Everything.
A ToE is a scientific singularity – the conceptualisation of the universe existing once again as a simple unity.
Now let’s look at the purpose of art.
First, we will look at Ancient Greek art. The art of Ancient Greece served a two-fold function: Artistic Mimesis and Idealisation.
The function of artistic mimesis is very similar to that of science – it is that of producing pictures that imitate reality to an accurate degree. This period was dominated by platonic philosophy, which espoused the existence of Ideal Forms – a truth/reality inaccessible to man. According to Plato’s philosophy, human beings live in a kind of simulated matrix. Beyond this matrix lies a perfect and true ideality marked by ideal forms of perfection. (For a better understanding of this idea, google Plato’s Allegory of the Cave). Art sought to imitate the true nature of the perfection of reality, and this manifested itself in the production of sculptures that idealised the human form – of women with perfect waist-to-hip ratios and men with Adonic bodies.
There is a problem with this approach. Although it aims to create an accurate picture of reality, it fails to do so because reality is more than just The Ideal. To speak of both a Reality and a Matrix is to presuppose a grander universe that houses the existence of both worlds.
As such, the Ancient Greek framework of artistic mimesis is one of imbalance. It focuses too much on appearance while neglecting substance.
This is the same with hyperrealistic and photorealistic paintings of today. They certainly inspire awe and belay the technical prowess of the artist, but their only value is one of mimesis: all appearance, no substance.
Throughout the ages, different artistic movements have brought their own flavours to the art scene.
The Impressionists gave life to daubs of colour.
The Dadaists flung faeces and framed the ones that stuck.
The Cubists brought movement to artworks in a way that was both fluid and structured.
Andy Warhol blurred the line between high-brow and low-brow.
The Surrealists created new wonderful and jarring realities. Each art movement colourfully portrayed a swell in the zeitgeist.
Around the 20th century, a new and exciting movement spawned called Postmodernism. The postmodernists questioned the existence of grand narratives, and mocked the idea of universal and absolute truth (that was pursued by the modernists). To postmodernists, there is no capital T Truth – only a plurality of social and subjective relativistic “truths”.
“God is dead” - the postmodernist stops there and does not continue further.
From the kindling of postmodernist ideology comes the fire of contemporary art. Contemporary art moves away from traditional art methods, forms, and subjects, instead producing artworks that are avant-garde in nature. Duchamp shocked the world when he signed a urinal and exhibited it at an art gallery. Jackson Pollock danced with paint and the world shook its collective head. Marina Abramovic cut a pentagram into her stomach and filmed it. The grand narrative that art should be a certain way was being dismantled.
Contemporary art is particularly interesting to me because the dualism of appearance and substance becomes so apparent. Take a trip to your local Contemporary Art Museum and you will find yourself confused over the exhibitions which are nothing more than a pile of bricks, or seven bicycles stacked on top of each other, or shattered glass collected in a giant top hat. The absurdity of contemporary art annoys the scientist and delights the nihilist. But the natural human inclination to search for meaning leads one to read the artwork plaque in a desperate scramble to understand the random pile of materials that lay before them.
And so in contemporary art, we have the following dualism: The Appearance – the artwork itself
The Substance – the meaning behind the artwork.
This cleave is the logical inverse of the artistic mimesis cleave. In artistic mimesis, the value is placed on the appearance (the artwork itself). In contemporary art, the value is placed on the substance (the meaning behind the artwork).
There is something profoundly wrong about this, I think. The contemporary artwork becomes essentially meaningless without some supporting ideological construct! Contemporary artwork needs a justification to exist in the form of a plaque description in 50 words or fewer. There is no intrinsic authenticity, since the identity of the artwork cannot subsist on its own merits – it must survive on the authenticity of the concept married to it.
Postmodernism is oddly nihilistic. There is no structure; man is thrown into chaos once again.
ON THE VALUE OF USELESS ART
One of my closest friends once told me about this story he read. It is about a blind painter, who, in his fervour to create, paints his whole house from top to bottom. He then burns down the house before anyone else can see his creations.
There is something authentic about the painter in the story. He paints not to impart a message or feeling onto the viewer. He paints because there is something intrinsic in his nature to paint. There is no end-goal or use-function of his art. His art justifies itself.
As a result, his art is pure and intuitive.
It does not need to be explained.
When Picasso was asked to explain the meaning of his paintings, he replied:
“Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around one, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting people have to understand. If only they would realise above all that an artist works of necessity..."
The value of art must be divorced from the use-function of the artwork. There is no such thing as a great artwork that is produced purely with an end goal in mind. In a capitalist context, art that is produced with the end-goal of selling a product is called advertising. This is ubiquitous.
That is not to say that all art used instrumentally is inherently corrupt – great art is great art independent of what it is used for. In fact, great art tends to have the most use-value in society due to its authenticity to express the human condition. That is why I do not hate all contemporary art – a lot of it is a result from artists who compulsively create from their intuitive understanding of the world. Some artworks have changed society profoundly and irrevocably. Duchamp’s Urinal was revolutionary – it has now become a symbol for paradigm shifts.
In the beginning I remarked that the ultimate goal of science is to create an accurate picture of reality (ToE). I believe true, real, and profound art creates reality, or at least pushes the boundaries of reality.
Here I offer a solution to postmodernism – perspectivism. I will write about this in another blog.