Reimagining ideas from modern art as one way into thinking around contemporary artmaking

Books on modern art often have a number of things in common. They have primarily been concerned with European and American art. They also have a tendency to be historically structured around named art movements and the personal histories of recognised artists.

If we reject the notion of discrete, hermetic, self-contained, clearly identifiable movements, and get beyond the individuality of the genius-artist, we are able to condense the history of modern art into gatherings of ideas that were constructed within changing social contexts.

This then opens up the possibility of reflecting on the extent to which those outline ideas can feed through into thinking about contemporary art.

What were some of the defining lines of thought that emerged via, and underpinned, developments within modern art?

Lots of concepts ran together within modern art – with fewer clear boundaries and distinctions than is often reported – but with some clear threads within a rich complexity, shaped within times when society was undergoing a range of rapid and substantial changes (as is still the case today, even if the contexts are different).

Society was emerging via a set of shared histories that included lived experience of world wars, economic collapses, increased industrialisation and mechanisation, and challenges to established social orders and practices. Concepts in society were shifting, with emerging new ideas about time, rationality, identities, power and so on.

Art was itself conflicted around the extent to which its role was to confront realities or provide escapes from them (not into utopian dreamworlds but into senses of different realities). Art could ignore social constraints or be used against them. It could be seen as an activity somewhat detached from social pressures, stepping aside from things, or as an integral part of the social fabric. Whatever it was, it was a break away from the institutionalised art of the mid19th Century and earlier.

With increasing urbanisation, shifting networks of artists clustered around various cities. These sustained and promoted themselves through a local exchange of approaches, through writings and through printed manifestos. As national and then international travel became easier, there was a mingling of ideas and practices, including the exposure to the cultures and artistic traditions of other countries, and the incorporation of these into ones own art. Developments may have been long and slow or fast and short-lived, and may have taken many turns – but it all created an artworld that buzzed with ideas.

Experimentation and challenges to traditional ways of thinking about art became standard – even if this took many forms. New approaches could be exploratory; be based on uncertainty and chance; be highly planned or full of spontaneity; embracing collaboration rather than the sense of the individual genius; using the absurd or the extreme. Art could make the familiar unfamiliar; seek the uncanny; deal in ambiguities. Unrelated objects could be brought together, in unexpected encounters, for enhanced effect and heightened awareness, creating a sense of the sublime/ the marvellous/ the disturbing – disordering usual ways of seeing and thinking.

At root, art still had a basic language, a visual understanding of line, form and colour; a syntax based on the physiology of the eye and the mind. In a way, art relied on these same few things – but played with interpreting them differently: via simple outlines; complex shapes; deliberately flattened planes; using broad areas of plain colour; having boldness in form or colour; using shape and colour for a purpose (rather than mimetically); shapes being decisively constructed or rearranged; use of (and portrayal of) space in different ways; interplaying representation and abstraction; direct application of textural materials; and so on.  

The physical subject was becoming of less importance. The world began to be seen less in terms of static/relational objects and more in terms of dynamic forces/influences, or various forms of consciousness (awareness, memory, identity etc). There was some emphasis on capturing sensations – speed, energy, transformation, anxieties etc – and art found different ways of representing these (in shape, in colour etc). Art responded to breaks in consciousness: radical shifts re what had gone before, changes of understandings, new modes of ‘seeing’ (and therefore of techniques). The feelings of the artist, the ideas of the artist, the personal history of the artist, and the gestures/embodiments of the artists became more significant – all feeding into the notions of what could be made as art.

There was recognition of past ways of artmaking but with an imposing of new ideas, moving beyond what was expected. There was more use of imprecisions, of layerings, of additions and substractions, of coverings and uncoverings, of new physicalities and materialities, of stylisations and elongations, of stretching beyond the frame (or abandoning of framing altogether). There were more attempts at suggesting, expressing, capturing – trying to use visual disorientation; or different rhythms and juxtapositions – to stimulate senses in various ways, to produce differing effects. Approaches sometimes relied on work aways being ‘in progress’. Other approaches were based on work being fully conceived in the mind before starting to make it.

Art expanded to include a whole array of new materials, techniques, approaches, methods – to include text, language, sound, light, assemblages, collages, installations, performances – pushing the boundaries of what could be taken as art. The banal, the everyday, the found object, could all be elevated by being approached artistically. There were new materials that could be incorporated into artmaking, and new social practices for art to root itself in. Art increasingly picked up aspects of everyday life: reflecting mass culture, celebrity status, new technologies, social and economic precarities – seeking to be popular or relevant. In some cases, this could lead towards a sense of the transient, the temporary and the frivolous. In others, it could lead more towards the serious, the spiritual and the significant.

Art no longer tried to hide its illusions. It made things open, obvious, transparent – showing the method, the thinking (and the underlying theorisations around colour, shape and technique that were applied more or less loosely or precisely). Art shifted around within theoretical frameworks eg could start with an object and work it to abstraction, or could start with an abstract base and let something emerge; start with realities and move beyond those, or start with ideas and work something out. Art became less a matter of style and more a matter of intentions.

Art had always been made for someone, but there was an increased concern about a generalised audience. Once art was made and put in the wider world, it relied more on interactions with others and less on its source in the ideas of the artist. This became increasingly so with the expansion of mass communication and the popular press. Art became an increased part of everyday culture.

How does any of this feed through into thinking about contemporary art?

Approaches to contemporary art (its production and its consumption) have been developing within a society that is still emerging from exposure to economic booms and busts, international wars, natural disasters, social conflicts, etc – all magnified by mass media. Socially, the drivers have been a long period of neoliberal economics; the financialisation of anything and everything; a pervasive economic uncertainty that creates a sense of precarity; mistrust of elites, hierarchies and authorities; challenges to national/international structures that were part of the post-war international world order; widening gaps in equalities, with an obvious preferential wealth accumulation by those already wealthy and a wealth decline in those who are not; and the rise of particularised forms of populism.

The normalisation of national financial crises and periods of austerity – coupled with a back-to-basics stance by some in authority – has led to reduced state support for arts/liberal studies. At the same time, there has been a massive expansion in opportunities for established artists, who can operate as part of a mesh of global exhibitions, prizes, curations, academic studies and collaborations with other artists. There are strong international networks around nodal cities (beyond those essentially European cities associated with the establishment of Modern Art) across all five major continents. Artists are spread even wider geographically and location is of less importance, although cities continue to act as creative hubs. There is no longer a sense of any requirement for things like an apprenticeship in an art centre such Paris, or involvement in local sociopolitics of specific German cities, or being part of the arts scene in New York, or being a member of a London in-group. Art is more about Individuality rather than Movements. Now, the emphasis is more on artists being emerging or established in their career, building on a history of academic studies. Art itself has become a stronger focus for academic analysis.

Contemporary artmaking is (at least in part) shaped by the ongoing rapid and substantial changes that are strong features of social, political and economic life today. The world continues to change, at a seemingly ever-faster pace and with high degrees of unpredictability. Approaches to art continue to look for innovation and a sense of the new, rather than a reliance on practices from the recent past. There is a social capacity that fosters creativity and experimentation – but in terms of an art market that values economic or financial return on investment.

Technological developments continue to open up new possibilities for art – computer generated creativities; internet-based activities; virtual realities; artificial intelligence etc. The same technologies have also made sharing ideas almost instantaneous. The world still buzzes with ideas – coming at a faster pace from all angles – a surfeit of information with little time to make sense of it all. It is increasingly difficult to judge what is actual. ‘Real life’ (which for some can substantially be actually an online existence) can seem to be happening somewhere else or to other people. This generates a fear of missing out, and a fear of being left behind.

There is an increased awareness that the world is entering a stage where human creativity and activity is having potentially irreversible effects on climate, on legacies from the overuse of materials, and on unsettling shifts within accepted systems. The consequences of past actions are having to be faced up to, without being paralysed by them. Art is positioned to respond to these concerns but is also challenged over its own contribution to them.

Within society’s complexities and lack of transparencies, it is easier to feel that there are few ways for people to exercise control over their own immediate situations, other than by monitored compliance. Things are approached via fragments rather than systemic wholes; via campaigns and promises rather than policies; via soundbites rather than thought-through manifestos. There is a general feeling that the promises of progressive politics have not been fulfilled, and a broader disillusionment that alternatives can be anything but individually (even selfishly, for some) constructed.

One response of art is to focus on explorations of self, of identities and intersections, of ones place in the world, and our relationship to the planet and to the natural world. At one scale, this means finding artistic responses to large-scale migrations, the reasons for these, and the mechanisms by which they take place. ‘Displacement’ becomes a feature, as do erasures, removals, the passage of time, and personal and communal histories. At the other end of the scale, art tries to make sense of the contemporaneity of the everyday, the mundane, the hyperlocal.

The collective thinking about, and making, contemporary art is currently more likely to be done within frameworks that are open – full of possibilities – not over-defined, with the more ideas the better – even if these run into, or across, or in parallel to, each other. This, however, takes place in a social, political and economic context that seeks to label, to categorise, to brand, and to stress difference and uniqueness.

There is, in one sense, little that is new – except a few new materials and technologies that can be used. Methods, materials and approaches all exist as they did decades ago, but are less of a prime concern. The emphasis now is on how art presents itself and what that implies about the present and the rethinking of cultural histories. In opposition to the individualism within society, there are trends towards the collective, the communal, and the engaged as ways of making art.

Whatever the approach taken, or the thinking underlying it, art can be made on its own terms, with a secure acceptance of pluralism in thinking and practices. This creates a myriad of narratives, with so much competing for attention in a noisy, clamorous, demanding context, where things are not always what they seem to be. We can expect art to find new ways of interacting with things – wanting it to do more – probing the gaps in reality and querying how contested realities are constructed (including by the artist as an active participant, not simply an observer of society).

This all adds to the uncertainty about art’s place in contemporary society; what art can do; models of artmaking; and what it means to be an artist in early 20th Century.

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