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21st Century Art: A Beginner’s Guide (simplified version).               




Art today looks very different from what it did one hundred years ago. Painting has survived – disproving the argument that the age of the traditional portrait or landscape was over. But it has been joined by a confusing variety of objects, projections and performances. Indeed anything, it sometimes appears, can now be read as ‘art’. Fortunately, however, there are only a limited number of ways things can be treated in order to make them into art. In order to understand 21st century art we only need to be able to count to six.


(I) First we have the survival of the Image. Reports of its death were always grossly exaggerated. This category includes painting, photography, video and film, computer-generated or computer-altered images and, of course, the use of the Internet. New technologies do not so much produce new art-forms, but are yet another means of doing what has been done before. The painting traditions we inherit from the first half of the 20th century suggest that all image making can be divided into abstract images with little or no reference and recognisable images that refer to objects in the real world - this latter category can be further divided into the realistic and the dream-like or ‘Surreal’. On the other hand, the revolution whereby anything may be called art simply because placed within a frame continues, with all manner of previously excluded content being granted the status of art.


(II) Second there is, what is for most people the most shocking element of new art, the collection of all sorts of rubbish, the finding of any old object, and its placing in a museum, with the label of ‘Art’ firmly attached. Actually this tradition is already over a hundred years old! The Found Object tradition dates from the early years of the 20th century. The Western ‘Still Life’ genre, bottles and fruit on a table, already depicted the everyday objects of life as art; now all manner of objects themselves are liable to be collected and displayed - including (the most) inappropriate! This leads directly to Pop Art (the coke tin as art) and Assemblages (the collection of the everyday and its re-arrangement as art). As well as to ‘Land Art’, which ‘found’ the landscape and added a mark or an object, then photographing the result for us all to see.


When we apply this idea to processes and human societies we have the next category…From Found Object to Found Experience.


(III) The comparatively recent trend of Found Experience or ‘Little Anthropology’ is made of ‘found’ (that is, recorded) experiences. Citations from our own and other people’s lives, often made up of videos of everyday events. This art form, above all, focuses upon ‘othering’ ourselves, that is seeing ourselves as others might see us, and experiencing Others (whether from our own culture or from another). Referring to real life events, often employing narrative-like processes, this form is perhaps the true heir to the politically engaged Conceptualism of the 1970s. This classification may be read as including everything from the presentation of real anthropological research, all the way to the ‘little anthropology’ of the reality TV show.


(IV) Minimalism. Simply, this is the pre-dominance of simple shapes, pure form, perhaps a reaching out after an impossible ideal form. This trend has been most successful in Music (with the music of Phillip Grass and Steve Reich and its influence on ‘Electro-pop’ and dance music). A kind of Sculpture, we are often presented with giant cubes or geometrical forms in iron or other raw material.


(V) Performance. This art form involves pulling the spectacle we normally associate with theatre, with drama, and also with the world of ritual, into art. Performances can take place anywhere - in the museum or on the street.


(VI) Perhaps the single most important development in art in the last 50 years has been the move from Conceptualism to Post-conceptualism. Conceptualist, a major movement in the 1970s, involved keeping records of processes and events, often employing documentation. This was an art form demanding that we reflect upon what we see; what was important was the idea, which was much more important than the art before us. Post-conceptualism emerged in the 1980s as the dominant trend in America and is currently the most commercial form of art (after the most popular form of art which remains painting, but is actually consumed in the form of posters). This is all too often the art of a quickly exhausted shock value, we are surprised, but then find little else to keep us in front of the art work; a ‘single-idea’ art – very much (the) art of the moment. This element of short-lived surprise has become a central feature in a process which has now absorbed the Minimalist and the Found Object traditions. The Post-conceptual trend now fuses with others to form a ‘New Fusion’ where artists use whatever combination they wish in order to achieve surprising or humorous effects. The result is a new International Style or better, a Globalised Post-conceptualism in many aspects identical all over the world.


In summary: Take a stone as your model, reproduce it within the bounds of a frame and an institution (gallery, museum, shop, home) and you have the representative or figurative art of the Image (traditional painting, etc). Take the colour or texture (or free line) only from the stone and reproduce it and you have Abstract Art. Place the actual stone in an institution or gallery and you have a Found Object (a ‘ready made’). Now arrange a number of stones into a circle, also in an institution, and you have Minimalism, so arrange them in a landscape and you have Land Art. Rearrange them to form a word and you have Conceptualism (a ‘consumerist‘ found object, such as a tin of beans, reproduced or introduced into a gallery, individually or in large numbers, will give you Pop Art). Either multiply the number of stones or increase their size until they fill a given space and you have Installation Art. Include the stone in a practice (a ritual) and you have Performance Art. If the practice is part of the life of a community (and reproduced in some manner) then we have a Found Experience, or ‘Little’ Anthropology.


Globalised art now looks the same all over the world. In China, the writing is (usually) Chinese, in Russia, the Cyrillic alphabet is used, in the West we find a predominance of Latin script. Some art-works show people from their own countries, some quote their cultural history but in general it all looks the same and conforms to the model described above - an art recognisable, by (and so buyable ) by all…




Copyright 2008, Peter Nesteruk