Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The death of fine art in the West over the last century

Writing in The Smart Set, Michael Lind observes: "As far as I can tell, very few college-educated people under the age of 50 pay any attention to the old fine arts at all." This, he says, is how and why it happened, capitalism:
The truth is that the evolution (or if you like the degeneration) from Cezanne to Warhol was inevitable from the moment that royal, aristocratic and ecclesiastical patronage was replaced by the market.

Having lost their royal and aristocratic patrons, and finding little in the way of public patronage in modern states, artists from the 19th century to the 21st have sought new patrons among the wealthy people and institutions who have formed the tiny art market. It was not the mockery of Pop artists but the capitalist art market itself which, in its ceaseless quest for novelty, trivialized and marginalized the arts.

The dynamic is clearest in the case of painting and allied visual arts. Markets tend to prize fashionable novelty over continuity. The shocking and sensational get more attention than subtle variations on traditional conventions and themes. Capitalism, applied to the fine arts, created the arms race that led to increasingly drastic departures from premodern artistic tradition, until finally, by the late 20th century, “art” could be everything and therefore nothing.
Perhaps. Lind continues on:
The textbooks in my college art history classes lied about this. The texts treated the sequence from Cezanne to Picasso to Pollock as purely formal developments within a tradition unaffected by vulgar commercial considerations, like fads and branding and bids for attention — unlike, say, the rise and fall of fins on cars.

In fact Picasso, like Warhol and Koons after him, Picasso was rewarded by the market for pushing the boundaries a bit further for a progressively-jaded audience of rich individual and institutional collectors. The novelty-driven art they produced for private purchasers was and is different in kind from the traditional art commissioned for church and state.
On the first paragraph, no, "not formal developments within a tradition" – do the textbooks really say this? – but the dissolution of the old tradition, the one birthed in the Renaissance (aka the Early Modern Era), and the search for new modes of aesthetic expression. That is to say, with that first paragraph I believe Lind is going off the rails and the derailment continues. He's not taking a long enough, and deep enough, view of the cultural process.

He continues:
The process of escalating sensationalism ultimately reaches its reductio ab absurdum in any fashion-based industry. In the case of painting and sculpture the point of exhaustion was reached by the 1970s with Pop Art and minimalist art and earth art and conceptual art. Can a row of cars be art? Sure. Can an empty canvas be art? Sure. Does anybody care? No.
Yes, it's confusing, and there's a lot of crap being marketed as art. Much of it isn't art at all, not in the old sense, and much of it is crap as well. But some of it is aesthetically valid, and thus not crap, but not art either. It's something else. And the future holds more Something Else.

1 comment:

  1. "Does anybody care? No." That says it all.