First God died, now this. What to do? The London Tate Modern museum is a perfect example of how various forms of Western ‘post-modernism’ – i.e. minimalism, ‘found’ objects, random agglomerations, quirky ideas, shock or grotesque art, performance ‘art,’ ruined art, shaky black and white films, the absence of people or representational reality - replaced the art movements of most of the 19th & 20th century. Post 1914 and World War I, art changed forever in European society, as the high noon of bourgeois art – Impressionism – came to a crashing halt. Impressionism was the apex of the use of color, the brandishing of light and shadow, the freedom of brushstrokes, the rule of nature and ‘peace’ – all creating an airy, optimistic, enjoyable atmosphere. As Piketty observed, this was also a high point of inequality and wealth.
Then came WW I, which punctured the bourgeois equilibrium. Constructivism, cubism, surrealism, dada, protest art, socialist realism and futurism emerged from that tragedy, which continued through the world Depression and into WW II. Even today, a visit to the art galleries of Berlin shows the effect World War II still has on Germany. It took years after WW II for art to regain a foothold as American regionalist art, then New York ‘pop’and ‘op’ art, poster art, and various forms of abstract art. Today that smaller burst of optimism in art has now ended in various forms of post-modernism. An ash-tray on a stool, anyone?
Confirmation of this came with visits to another gallery in the London area. Outside the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park are two boulders balancing on each other, paid for by the gallery. As anyone who has hiked knows, nature can also put two boulders on top of each other – and create magnificent ‘art’ pieces without trouble. Yet the gallery paid two ‘artists’ for these two boulders to be placed on top of each other – in effect doing what nature does for free in certain places. The question you ask, is ‘who needs artists and art like this?’ In fact, does this actually exist?
Inside the Serpentine was an ‘art performance’ by a world-famous Serbian, Marina Abramovich, who essentially stares at and whispers to people who come into white but quiet rooms. She had been doing this for 18 days for 8 hours a day, the poor soul. The ‘art’ consists of visitors (who have removed their electronic devices and watches) standing or sitting with sound-blocking headphones on, closing their eyes and/or putting on blindfolds, and perhaps walking a floor at least 7 times. This is to ‘center’ you and make you aware of yourself and others. This is based on yoga ‘mindfulness’ practice. A friend talked to Ms. Abramovich for a time, asking her how she could put up with it for so many days. Abramovich said that she was somewhat surprised ‘people took it so seriously.’ My friend asked why a form of meditative yoga was now art, and Abramovich had no real answer.
So what we have here is a well-paid person basically pretending yoga is art. “Art’ has disappeared, and so has the artist, except as a practitioner of a performance deception. Obviously tricks like this will not fool enough people enough of the time. Instead the BBC described to my mind the next phase of ‘optimistic’ art – electronic arts of various types – which they covered in a new show in London. Participants hook themselves up to electronic sensors and make images move the way their bodies move. Electronic images of various types pulse on big screens, much as screen savers and algorithms produce images on your little computer screen. Lights beam down on objects or visitors, creating shadows or spotlighting the individual under it. And so on. Colorful, busy, self-referential, simplistic, decorative, hip and ‘modern’ – everything you could want in a society dominated by commercialism. Lady Gaga is the supposed blend of this ‘art’ and pop – the new Andy Warhol. Yet without the brushes, just the clothing, the surface but not the body.
Don't get me wrong, I actually have a piece of computer art in my house.
The antidote to these kinds of easily commercial art is living outside the galleries and the curators of museums, though it too is moving into them. “Street Art,’ which is the sophisticated version of ‘graffiti,’ has come to London, especially Shoreditch in the east. Similarly in Berlin the remnants of the old ‘Wall’ are now covered with panels from street artists all over the world. This is also happening in New York. Yet London is its center, perhaps mainly because London money was smart enough to see the value of this kind of art quickly, and also because a secretive anarchist street painter named Banksy moved there from Bristol, England.
Street art is an extension of Mexican muralism, but more temporary. Murals are nearly always painted with permission, while street art can be added to by other artists, covered up by landlords or commercial posters, or destroyed by angry people or by souvenir hunters – or it can be painted with permission as well, even very high up on a 4 story building. It is not commissioned by anyone. Shoreditch around Brick Lane and Hackney Wick are the centers of street art in London.
Banksy made street art, and he made it political and anti-authoritarian, using ‘actions’ to publicize himself. His first show was outside the back of a van full of his paintings, which he stopped in the middle of a narrow street to serve free beer, which attracted a quick crowd in crowded London. The cops showed up because he had stopped traffic. His stencil paintings make fun of authority, cops, war, capitalist governments, corporations, poverty and systemic ills. In New York one day while on a residency, he sold his paintings anonymously in Central Park for cheap, and few bought them. Yet when they are labelled ‘Banksy’s” they now sell for massive amounts. This act showed that ‘art’ now is nothing but another form of commercial branding. New York has smartly covered each Banksy work as it came up on the streets with plexiglass, to protect it from being destroyed.
Street art is free, fluid and is getting more widespread – done by artists from all over the world. Some is sculpture crafted to walls or poles. Some duplicates Soviet revolutionary propaganda. Here at Mayday, we had a stencil of a black kid with an AK-47 stenciled to our brick wall in 2 colors, saying 'Lets Riot." It lasted for 3 years. We think the city 'graffiti patrol' patriotically cleaned it off. An American street artist, Shepard Fairey, did the “Hope” poster that was adopted by the Obama campaign, and whose supporters sticker his images on light poles everywhere in the world. But like anything else, now non-political decorators are moving in (even a Hare Krishna), and the art is moving into the galleries due to the obvious talent. Fairey himself is no radical obviously, as his work about Obama shows.
Regular art movements are dead and empty, lacking excitement and instead provoking laughter. Nothingism is their moniker. The only artistic life that rises above decoration now comes from what I call ‘critical art,’ which reflects the future, from the lower classes, ethnic minorities, from third-world or second-world nations. It comes from areas outside commercialism, outside the ‘first’ world and outside the bourgeois power structure. Street art is their herald.
(Mayday Books carries Banksy's work in two picture books, Vol I & II.)
(Mayday Books carries Banksy's work in two picture books, Vol I & II.)
July 7, 2014