Posts Tagged ‘art history’

A Short, Irreverent Art History, Part 5

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010


Things Come Back Together

Our story so far: Impressionists revolted against realistic art that was little more than an excuse to make soft core porn, then a bunch of artists got more and more abstract, until subject matter was gone entirely. Artists hit a brick wall, because art couldn’t be any more abstract, so artists started to deconstruct the subject matter and just about everything else about art by making and doing weird stuff.

That brings us to today. Or, maybe a few years ago. Or a decade ago. Or somethin’.

And I’ll be honest. I don’t really know what I’m talking about. The only reason I think this is OK is nobody knows what they are talking about.

I haven’t come across any good theory explaining what the “story” of art is right now.

Modernism is over. They successfully deconstructed subject matter. Post-modernism is over, they successfully deconstructed everything else. (If you don’t know how, read my last two entries)

Things are all deconstructed, so maybe art today is about reconstruction. Maybe the job of the artist is to figure out what pieces and fragments of this “art thing” are important to them, and to reconstruct them into something all their own.

When artists find out how they want to reconstruct things from this mess, they will be use these pieces and fragments to make art that is personal, and universal (the secret recipe of relevancy).

A dab of abstract, a bit of impressionism, with some performance and some reflections of our culture. Artists can take the most meaningful bits and methods from all of art history as we see fit, to make whatever is most fitting.

The tricky thing: there are so many bits, that no single artist will be able to pick up all of them. There are so many methods available now, so many ways to make art that have been proven valid, and some of them even contradict each other. Each artist is picking a few different approaches, those that are the most important to them, and doing what they will with them. Reconstructing them in their own personal way.

Is there a linear narrative to describe what is going on now? We probably won’t know for 50 years or so, when someone writes the new irreverent art history to talk about what they think the 21st century has been all about.

Because, I don’t think we really know. And that makes things pretty darn cool.

In the meantime, I’m gonna be reconstructing things.

A Short and Irreverent Art History, Part 4

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010


Things Fall Apart… When they are forcibly disassembled

The modernists went as far as they could go, they proved the thesis of Modern Art – art didn’t have to have subject matter, it could be a “pure” creation, subject matter and the materials used to make it were one and the same.

In the 1950s, a couple of upstarts thought that was boring, and did something different, and they drew (no pun intended) subject matter from ordinary, daily things. Flags, numbers, soup cans, and shoes. Pop Art was invented.

It’s hard to explain how Pop Art was a radical departure from modernism, but the main departure was to say, “art isn’t some hoity toity, amazing thing, a reflection of ‘high’ culture; anything can be art”.

And then all hell broke loose.

Honestly, it is hard to write this entry of my “short, irreverent” history, because so much happened in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s that was so different from anything that had previously been called art, it doesn’t fit into a linear narrative as well as Modern Art does. It was an explosion that went in many directions at once.

There was performance art, installations, pop art, assembelage, video, conceptual art, digital art, and other bizarre ways to make art. Art addressed gender, nature, consumerism, space and environment, kitsch, and religion.

A lot of art from this time was “shocking” (link is NSFW), and a lot of people would say, just plain strange or uncalled for (another not quite SFW image). Often, when people see post-modern art, the response is, “how is this art?”

It seems like art became random in the post-modern era, but I think there was a common thread, just like there was a common thread in the Modern era. The thesis of Post-Modern art is that there isn’t a distinction between art and life. Anything can be art, if attention is brought to it as art, and anything that was art could be part of life.

Art wasn’t a “thing” to be “made” that would sit in a gallery or museum to be looked at when someone wanted to “experience art”, it was something that happened all around us, all the time. Life is art, and art is life, it has the meaning that we give it, and it obtains meaning when we draw attention to it.

The wall between art and life was brought down. Post-Modern art disassembled the meaning of art, each movement and method unravelled the meaning of art in a different direction.

That’s pretty damn cool.

The problem is that it leaves art completely deconstructed, completely disassembled, lacking any definition and structure. This sucks for artists now.

There are a whole lot of pieces laying all over the floor now that the post-modernist are through with it. It is the morning after a raging, drunken party, and we wake up, the house is trashed, and we have the mother of all headaches.

Up next, the fallout, and where we are now.

A Short and Irreverent Art History, Part 3

Thursday, July 1st, 2010


How Modern Art backed itself into a Corner

This is Part 3 of this series, in which I talk about what Modern Art means. Part 1 talks about the rules of art for hundreds of years, and how impressionists broke those rules. Part 2 talks about how the stones the impressionists threw turned into an avalanche of abstraction. You should read part 2 before reading below (if you haven’t already), because this entry picks up where it ends. This entry is really the second half of Part 2, I cut it into parts because of length.

Like before, clicking on the links below will launch a pop-over image, without taking you away from the page. (Though there aren’t many links in this one)

On to pontification.

Abstraction Hits A Wall

There’s one thing I wonder about when I look at the Modern Art period, and the background for this question addresses why folks sometimes have difficulty appreciating Modern Art.

The most interesting thing about Modern Art was the road that artists traveled down, the ways that artists changed the philosophies of what art is during the first half of the 20th century.

Individual works of art are a record of the road they were on, but it turns out that the journey down the road was more interesting than any of the individual stops. Each of those stops along the way, cubism, fauvism, expressionism, whateverism, don’t always make a lot of sense on their own, because each one is a move further down this “Modern Art” road. They build upon the progress that came before, and push further down the road towards pure abstraction.

When I look at a painting of a white square, I look at it as a step towards pure abstraction, a step towards proving that art doesn’t need a subject, a step towards demonstrating that art was about raw art materials, and what could be done with them. Outside of that context, however, a white square isn’t very interesting and doesn’t make much sense.

This is where Modern Art loses a lot of people. The context is missing. An abstract collection of shapes isn’t always interesting or beautiful, at least from an objective view. The meaning and importance depends on the context in which it was made, and how it expanded the boundaries of art.

The history of Modern Art is the history of this march towards pure abstraction, taken one step at a time. I sense that it was a proud march, artists bravely pushing boundaries and courageously proving art could be more and more abstract.

Getting back to my question about this, what I wonder is, did they realize this road was a dead end?

There is a natural limit to abstract art. There is a point at which art cannot be any more abstract, because it is as abstract as is possible with a tube of paint and a canvas. That limit was reached in the 1940s and 1950s, and this was the destination of the Modern Art road.

When artists reached this destination, everyone discovered that the road wasn’t a road at all, it was more like a pier. There was no where left to go.

Modern Art was a dead end, artists had moved in this direction as far as was possible. Even worse, it was the getting there that was interesting. It isn’t nearly so interesting to stay there. They could either hang out at the end of the pier, or walk back to the shore. Both options are boring.

Luckily, a couple strange guys, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, saw a third way; they decided to jump off the pier into the ocean, and that’s when things really got wacky.

Tomorrow, this series continues with the cleverly named Post-Modern art that came after Modern Art.

A Short and Irreverent Art History, Part 2

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Art History is a mess of people, pictures, and strange “isms”. Some of it looks great, some of it… can be harder to appreciate. I’ve got my own take on what Art History is about, and what was important. If you haven’t read my irreverent history of art up to impressionism, You should read it first, because this picks up where that ends.

Clicking on the links below will launch a pop-over image, without taking you away from the page. Hover over the image for an informational caption, click next to the image to make the image go away.

Let’s continue the story.

…and then a bunch of upstart impressionists made all other art styles irrelevant with their sloppy smears of paint on canvas. Monet’s painting of a woman out for a walk may seem downright tame and old school today, but at the time, it was new and original.

The revolution of the impressionists is that they allowed the paint to be seen. The impressionists didn’t smooth out each brush stroke out and blend every color like artists had for (hundreds of) years before. You could see every dab of paint, and every brushstroke, on the canvas.

These small pebbles of change started the avalanche that is Modern Art, an avalanche that would end with subject matter indistinguishable from the materials used to make the art.

[A quick note about the term Modern Art – it can refer to both the time frame (1865-1950), or the styles developed in that time frame (impressionism to abstract expressionism). These art styles followed a certain progression, and explored a certain philosophy of art, which reached a culmination in the 1940s and 1950s. For better or worse.]

Impressionism made the rounds for a decade or two, until some folks started to expand on this “painterly” thing. The result was the keenly named post-impressionism, which features artistic super stars like Cezanne, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, and Van Gogh.

In the early 1900’s, this Spanish guy named Picasso made a painting of some women, and depicted them out of a bunch of flat, angular shapes. The art world was rocked, and cubism was invented by Picasso, along with his buddy Braques. Picasso became super famous, even though he was still alive.

After cubism rocked everybody’s socks off, a bunch of other folks developed a bunch of “isms”: suprematism, futurism, expressionism, surrealism, DaDa, etc. These were all just a bunch of new weird ways to paint things, but they all had one thing in common: the paint, and how it could be used to depict things, became far more important and interesting than the actual subject matter. (Except DaDa and surrealism, which were just weird)

This is the time when artists depicted things very abstractly, and more and more, paintings became pure combinations of shape and color, and did not depict anything “real”.

This culminated in Abstract Expressionism. External subject matter was gone completely, the subject of the paintings was the paint itself. This is the era when Hans Hofman smeared paint on his canvas with his palette knife, Jackson Pollock danced around his canvases and flung paint on them, and Mark Rothko painted cloudy squares of color on his canvas.

This is what Modern Art is all about – art became less and less about the subject matter, and more and more about how the materials were used to depict the subject matter. Eventually, subject matter disappeared entirely.

This series continues tomorrow, I will talk about what Modern Art means, and how it was just a dead end road.

A Short and Irreverent Art History, Part 1

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

[Note: This is the history of Art as I see it. Expect liberties. Every link in this post launches a popover image that exemplifies the art or artist I discuss, run your mouse over the image for a caption. Click liberally for the full experience.]

For the longest time, Art was all about the church and the bible. Paintings and sculptures and stuff were all about the Glory of God. This makes sense, because for most people, all they did was work in squalor, and go to church, and nobody wants to be reminded of squalor.

There were lots of neat paintings and sculptures by Renaissance artists (if you can remember all 4 Ninja Turtle names, you know them). Eventually, some artists started branching out, and painted mythic scenes, rich people, and bowls of fruit. In Holland they invented the “landscape painting” and paintings of “normal people“. Painting was very realistic, and the more realistic, the better.

All this realistic, “highly skilled” type of painting got stale eventually, and by the mid 1800’s in France, paintings were basically softcore porn, with the excuse that they depicted “mythic” or “historical” scenes. But always with naked chicks.

In the 1860’s this young upstart named Edouard Manet thought this was lame (at least, the “calling it mythic” part – he still liked the naked chicks part). He made a couple paintings that at the time were called “crappy“, and are now called “groundbreaking” and “revolutionary”. The paintings were “painterly“, rather than photorealistic. Before Manet, artists tried to “hide the paint”. Paintings were meant to look like the color had magically appeared on the canvas, not applied with a brush. Basically, they tried to make paintings look as lifelike as possible. Manet ignored this, and made his paintings look a bit more like they were made out of, well, paint.

(By the way, Manet wasn’t just a crappy painter, he actually could paint in the style that was “proper” for the time, he just chose not to – Modern Art wasn’t started by a talentless hack.)

A bunch of guys and gals (Monet, Renoir, Cassatt, Morisot, Pissarro, Degas, etc) thought Manet was on to something, and the Impressionism movement steam rolled forward. The era of Modern Art had begun.

Tomorrow: Modern Art, the style, the era, and what it is all about.