Art, stability and change

Art can be viewed through the lens of change or through a lens of stability, in relation to a number of things:

  • The purpose of art in society: its ability to reflect change or to support stability.
  • The consistencies and variations within the work of a particular artist or a group of artists.
  • The adoption of new techniques, styles and technologies, or the adherence to fixed canons.
  • The extent to which art saw its purpose as celebrating progress and development, or regretting the passing of the established ways.
  • The interplays between art and any wider social changes.
  • The overt use of change and transformation as tools for the making of art works.

In current culture, a key role for art is being able to reflect on change, or to challenge change, or to push changes further, faster and deeper. Without this relationship to change there can, from this perspective, be no art of any consequence. Art simply becomes neutral landscapes, still lives and portraits or, worse, becomes a source of resistance to change, a carrier of nostalgia, an ideological proponent for stability in all things.

More than 2000 years ago, however, in ancient Greece, there was no role of any kind for art. It was dismissed by Plato as a distraction from thinking about the realities of life.  Aristotle allowed a minor role, in that viewing art might introduce young people to the realities beyond, but art was still largely a social irrelevance. If it was of any value, under the growing influence of later Roman and Greek mathematicians, visual art was there to demonstrate formal spatial relationships.

Throughout the medieval era, art was viewed as a craft to be learnt through a master/apprentice relation. Its main function was the portrayal of established religious certainties. Work was made to sets of rules concerning which biblical figures could be included, composed through a perspective of meaning (where the key figure held central place), and with figures that were expected to be symbolic rather than realistic. Art was there to capture and project something of religion, tradition, morality and to reinforce the order of things. 

By the time of the Renaissance, art academies were centred on the skill of drawing of standard classical forms based on Grecian/Roman notions of well-proportioned beauty. Although this was a drift away from set iconography it didn’t imply freedom for artists to produce work based on their own interests. They were valued for their individual abilities but were in demand for the reproduction of classical scenes and stories, in addition to a continued need for religious imagery – all with an emphasis on compositional and painterly skills

Art in the C15th to C18th was supported by the Church and by influential families. These families wanted art that demonstrated their wealth and that could also portray individual continuities and lineages, anchoring these in a particular setting. Artistic reaction to established views and practices may have existed but was not sanctioned, not funded, not officially recognised as Art. Things were as they were and there was little impetus for change.

The art structures of the time determined that it was mostly men who took on official roles as artists. This is not to say that there were no women artists, many of whose contribution to art development is only latterly being fully recognised, (eg Artemisia Gentileschi, known for such works as Susanna and the Elders, 1610, and Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1618) but this under-representation of women in the art world continued as a feature well into the C20th. (It is only 50 years since Linda Nochlin wrote her Artnews, 1971, article ‘Why Have There Been no Great Women Artists?’).

In the early 1700s, and on into the 1800s, there were the beginnings of signs that society, and art with it, was changing structurally. Artists like William Hogarth produced critical satirical commentaries. The Romantics may still have had a base of notions of classical beauty but wanted their art to touch the emotions of the viewer. Goya was a recognised court painter but was a rebellious one. Certainly, his The Shootings of May 3rd 1808 (1814), with its central figure as a martyr rather than a heroic character, and even more so his Saturn Devouring one of his Children (1821), were very different kinds of paintings than ones normally produced at the time.

Similarly, Gericault’s (at the time scandalous) The Raft of the Medusa (1819) had moved from simple social description to criticism of the established order, depicting the horror of a real event. Delacroix’s (1830) Liberty Leading the People, with its vivid colour and composition to stir the soul, had the artist firmly on the side of the revolutionary rebels.

Since then, this stability:change dynamic has been written into considerations of art. Art history has been interrogated for periods of stability and periods of change in the work of individual artists or group of artists. This led to the identification of schools, movements, periods, trends and turns within what was probably a far more fluid and organic process than that would suggest … more swirling streams and eddies than linear boxes and leaps: Certainly not a matter of relentless linear progress.

Within this ongoing evolution of art practices there were a number of significant break points – moments where things pivoted: times when things changed dramatically. Examples might be Matisse and other Fauves at the time of industrialisation, urbanisation, global interests, colonisation etc.  Their brushwork and use of colour were unlike what had gone before; the artistic form was itself the means of expression.  Other radical shifts in the topic of art itself were Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square (1914/15) with its aesthetic rejection of narrative and the figurative; and later, the shift to a focus on the inner world of dreams and surrealist imaginings.

Some changes can be attributed to changed circumstances of the individual painter (eg Gaugin relocating to Tahiti); or to changes in technologies (new dyestuffs and artificial colours); or new forms of communication (such as the influence of photography). From a wider perspective, however, changes within art cannot be seen as independent of the wider changes in the society within which the art was being made. Society moved on closely around them (eg Houssmann’s late C19th redesign of Paris, with its effects on areas favoured by painters) and artists could respond by depicting change as a nostalgia for what is being lost; or as admiration with movement, speed and change as with the Futurists; or with some sense of awe in the face of increased mechanisation in examples such as Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill (1913-15).

Art was breaking away from any expectation that it would necessarily reflect accurately the appearances of the real world. Shapes, colours, materials took on meaning and purpose in their own right. It was the onset of the broadly-termed Modernist era.

These changes were the start of an accelerating process of challenge to artistic convention, with strands on through Mondrian and De Stijl; the Bauhaus influence on art and design; itself carried over into work done eg at Black Mountain College in America; leading on further to art linked to various social revolutions: the social libertarian, anti-war impacts in the  1960s/70s; and the focus on  equalities, human rights and social justice.

This cumulated in an increased array of artistic practice across a repertoire of performance art, kinetic art, pop art, op art, video and film art, conceptual art and land art. The role of art was certainly no longer seen as being there to foster stability and prevent change.

Did that period (say from 1960 onwards) represent a startlingly different approach to art?

Certainly, it would be almost impossible, in 1950, to imagine art delivering any of the works listed here:

The Battle of Orgreave (2001) Jeremy Deller

Valerie’s Snack Bar (2009) Jeremy Deller

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) Damien Hirst

State Britain (2007) Mark Wallinger

My Bed (1998) Tracey Emin

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) Cornelia Parker

Slavery! Slavery! (1997) Kara Walker

Deadpan (1997) Steve McQueen

Dancing in Peckham (1994) Gillian Wearing

Truisms (1972-79) Jenny Holzer

Interior Scroll (1975) Carolee Schneemann

Cut Piece (1964)  or Fly (1971) Yoko Ono

House (1993) Rachel Whiteread

The Weather Project (2003) Olafur Eliasson

Kissing Coppers (2005) Banksy

and yet, within a couple of decades, these were established works of art, publicly exhibited or recorded in art documentaries, and used as taught examples in fine arts degree courses.

Since those 1960/70 shifts in society, art has included various new devices including broken, cut, bent and fragmented surfaces; an extension from still image to moving images; use of time and transience as part of the work; tendencies towards fragmentation and uncertainty; use of electronic technologies; social engagement in the making of art; multimedia work; and the use of change itself as an artistic tool in the production of art works.

More recently, art has taken these existing cultural trends, mixed in a post-colonial turn, and pushed forward on the unique concerns of now. These features of ‘the contemporary’ include factors such as the interaction of the hyperglobal and the hyperlocal; changes at scale and pace that appear to be uncontrollable; an interest in the stability and instability of identity and the nature of memory; personal transitions, journeys and barriers; an increased self-awareness and the consumption of experiences where the content is the self. Art’s concern has become as much about the stability and change of the individual as about that of society.

This brief wander through some aspects of the relationship of art, change and stability has stayed within the last 2000 years, recognising that there was a long history of cultural activity for millenia before that. It has also restricted itself predominantly to art within the ‘Western’ tradition, recognising that there are rich and diverse cultural practices across China/Japan, India/ Middle East/ Central Asia, Africa, South America, scattered across the islands of the Pacific, and rooted within the (often nomadic) communities of the Arctic polar region.

Within that limited tradition and across that prescribed timescale, art may be regarded as having slowly swung from broadly supporting various social stabilities and traditions, to a more fractured position broadly characterised by ever-faster and broad-ranging challenges and changes.

We are left with the conclusion that there is a stability – and the stability is that society will keep on changing in evolving leaps (possibly at an ever-increasing rate) and that art will change in line with that.

The ever-increasing pace and variety of change in cultural thinking and practice has left contemporary art at a juncture where it is fragmented by so many considerations that maybe it currently has nowhere left to go.

Comments are closed.