Can we talk about the end of art?
Art has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and an essential part of humanity for as long as we’ve existed. Mankind has always felt the need to create because Art is fascinating, mysterious, changing and constantly evolving. Some say it might be dying. But what does this mean? I would like to further understand the place and purpose of Art in our contemporary society and how its evolution has tremendously shifted in the past century. How did we go from Michael Angelo’s perfection to Duchamp’s “Fountain”? At the end of the 19th Century, Nietzsche brings to the table the idea that “God is dead, and we have killed him.” The radical change of Western moral values revolutionized the way creatives approached, perceived and made art. I will discuss this shift by exploring what I believe to be two key pieces in the History of Modern of art: Paul Cézanne’s “Le panier de pommes” (The basket of apples) and Duchamp’s “Fountain” and the ideas behind two revolutionary men.
Arthur Danto, in his book “After the End of Art” states that art has disappeared. But don’t worry, the statement is more apocalyptic than the reality of it. Let me clear one thing before we start, when I talk about the “death of art”, I’m not talking about the end of the artistic production, I’m talking about the way we perceive and talk about Art, as well as its purpose in our society. In the 20th century, life changed. The industrial revolution turned the world upside down, and the World Wars and the Holocaust possibly destroyed mankind, demeaning the sacredness of human life and the meaning of existence. All of these factors heighten the crisis of morality in Western civilization and their impact on the creative minds is worth exploring. What does being alive, good or evil mean? The debris of this time of turmoil is best expressed, at least visually, in the interpretations of great artists trying to create a new vocabulary.
Arguably, the first responsible for this shift in Art History, is Gustave Courbet. The French painter of the 19th century and author of the realist manifesto, was the first one to rebel against traditional art, against its richness, idealism and platonic heroic perspective, in favor of reality and truth. He shined a light on a hidden part of society that we have always tried to ignore. His ideological stance regarding painting and the purpose of art sets free the ship of modernism, going against the idealist luxurious lie that is classic art. Society slowly becomes aware of the outdated distortion of Western Civilization and its Judeo-Christian values bringing a great deal of anxiety and confusion to the people.
During this crisis of thought, we witness an attempt to see what’s real in a society that is coming apart. A re-evaluation of our way of thinking. Artists begin their restless search for a vocabulary of aesthetics, that still remains unresolved to this day. This fragmentation of thinking gives birth to the genius of Cézanne. This fiery French painter becomes the central figure that changes the direction of the ship of modernism. Chances are Cézanne wasn’t aware of the importance of his work, but his innovative and radical approach to painting would influence the leading artists of the 20th century. His still life, “Le panier de pommes” (1895), is a great example of his brilliance, stopping the viewer on the surface, and denying the entrance into the three dimensional picture, the alternative reality that illusionism provides. For the first time, Cézanne breaks the laws of the “window approach”. That’s how, going against every rule of illusionism, he became aware of the anatomy of the painted rectangle or canvas, creating a unique vision of form, composed of multiple perspectives. The control over the image itself and the rendition of form is lost to subjectivity. We are not talking about an awkward distortion of space, that fellow post impressionists relied on, like Van Gogh, Cézanne has a breakthrough. At a time where still life was undermined, he took the chance to renew the view on a neglected subject, free of iconography and symbolism and reinvented the meaning of the most meaningless subject: A basket of apples, opening doors to many others like Picasso or Matisse. From this point on, the beast was set free, allowing many movements to flourish and evolve, such as Fauvism or cubism. The definition of art is meaningless after Cézanne, without an agreed upon language or set of rules.
Danto claims there are three major events in the History of Art: The birth of Art in the 15th century with Vasari’s redefining the craft of relic and icon making as a quest for more and more perfect representation of beauty; the rebirth of art in the 1880’s when illusionism and beauty were replaced by the progress of purity and “truth to materials”; and finally, the death of art, with Warhol’s “Brillo Box”, blurring the lines between art and non art, or high brow and low brow art. However, I believe the piece that brought death to art was Duchamp’s “Fountain”, still animating debates to this day. I still can’t decide if it’s a masterpiece or a social statement. From that point on, from the moment Marcel decided to put his urinal on a pedestal, everything was permitted. Duchamp is a legendary trickster, and the most influential artist on contemporary art education. Suffice to say he was the inventor of the ready-made. He took pre existent objects, and by changing their context, and putting them where they didn’t belonged, turned them into works of art. The first one being “In advance of a broken arm”, when he hung a shovel in Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery walls. This way, he became the father of conceptual art, giving more importance to the idea than the art work. The meaning is derived from the way we see the object, not the object itself. Talk about a revolution!
The triumph of his vision takes the form of a urinal in 1917, more than two decades after Cézanne’s basket of apples, when he places the object on a pedestal, signs it R.Mutt and sneaks it into the submissions of the first American Avant-garde art show. Evidently, the piece was disregarded as a joke, but was eventually exhibited at 291, Stieglitz’s gallery and the rest is history. Duchamp confronts us with the ultimate expression of Courbet’s realism and the anti thesis of traditional art. He creates a celebration of the banal, the unoriginal with his outrageous and subversive masterpiece. If we can’t agree on a vocabulary of culture, then the vocabulary doesn’t have meaning, so why not have some fun with it? With his “Fountain”, Duchamp destroys once and for all the precious, unique and elitist status of art and becomes a symbol of the dada movement. The anti-art group channeled the terror and chaos of war into absurd, yet brilliant art, challenging, like Cézanne or Courbet did, the rules of art. They created from trash, leftovers of life, the mundane and forgotten and mocked society with their ingenious silliness. Even though dada is linked to an escape from the harsh reality through non sense, theories point that they may have been making fun of an upper middle class and critiquing war and capitalism. Despite the darkness laying within, dada is a fun, childish response to a crisis that we all love. Courbet’s mundane heroism, morphed through the dadaists ultimately hits pop artists like Warhol, and still remains a big influence today.
To compare “The fountain” with Cézanne’s basket apples might seem silly. They are, after all, two completely different aesthetic solutions. Cézanne’s painting has nothing to do with Duchamp’s ready-made sculpture. I think what ties them together is their revolutionary nature, and the way they took the most banal subject and put a spotlight on it, turning them into a masterpiece. Both resigned control to follow a more interesting path, disobeying the guidelines of art and exploring the unknown, the prohibited. In a way, they became symbols of experimentation. Cézanne took the painted aesthetic and turned it upside down, Duchamp took the concept of art itself and confronted it to society. They both played and mocked the pre conceived notions of culture in their time, notions of hierarchy and aesthetic. By tearing apart the traditional aspects of art, they both started an intellectual dialogue with their audience about perception and structure. However, their artistic personas couldn’t be more different. While Cézanne was a frustrated artist, who’s basket of apples made history as an unresolved depiction of his genius, Duchamp enjoyed his status of trickster artist, refusing to put the creative production in a pedestal, and mocking the artistic community. On the other hand, Cézanne tried to fit in it without success. One meant for his work to be subversive and to start a conversation, the other indadvertedly did so, but what an amazing accident it was.
Modern art has become the unresolved solution of that endless search for a vocabulary of aesthetics and a moral code after the death of Christianity, that Sartre’s existentialism points out so well. What does it mean to be alive after the atrocities of the first half of the century? Modern art is traumatic art in many ways, an embodiment of the violence and frustrations of a time of insecurity and crisis. It pushes aside the Judeo-Christian shadow over art, destroying power structures and hierarchies. It is an attempt to understand the the previously unconceivable paradox that reason doesn’t lead to salvation and happiness. It’s a shot at processing the chaos of the universe and the ever shifting identity of Western Civilization. Modern artists found different ways to explore the universal meaning of art, wether it’s through rebellious shifts of form and perspective, like Cézanne or subversive ideas, like Duchamp. Both recognized the widening of aesthetic solutions challenging the definition of art.
In these “post historical” times, we are liberated from the “dictated” style. We can enjoy the terrifying freedom of endless possibilities where nothing is excluded. Ironically, we could say that Art History has become a victim of capitalism, and artistic movements, as well as masterpieces, have grown to be raw items sitting on a store’s window, waiting to get picked up, consumed and recycled into the latest art work of the contemporary artist. And in the same fashion, Museums, like supermarkets, feed the hungry creatives with imagery to borrow and styles to adopt. Art has become the triumph of American capitalism. After all, what is the difference between capitalism and culture? It has become our identity. Put it that way, Art does sound pretty dead.
Art as it was, no longer exists. It’s not about craft anymore, Art is what you like it to be. But to think of the modern era as the end of Art, or death of Art, we need to believe in Art History in the first place, the “grand narrative” that Art Historians have created and shaped for us. It seems as movements have logically succeeded each other through time. However, this narrative is full of contradictions, exceptions and odd figures struggling to fit in a made up timeline. For example, we could argue that Hieronymus Bosch, a painter of the 14th century, was the first modernist when we explore his eccentric imagery. He doesn’t’ belong to any movement of his time, yet his paintings stand still in our books and relate to modern times. He is the first one to defy the idea that the painted image needs to make sense. Bosch proves that threads in Art History are contradictory and confusing. Maybe, just maybe, we could dispute that there was no narrative in the first place, that it was all an invention or an illusion created by historians to make us feel better, to give us a structure, a logical explanation of the uncontrollable evolution of creativity.