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 (World) Art in the 21st century: A Beginner’s Guide.                                     





The Global Backdrop (World Art History). From the 17th century onwards regional forms from across the world are influential upon, as well as influenced by, European forms and techniques (witness the evolution of Indian, Chinese and Japanese Art).


From the 19th century onwards western forms of representation accompany and augment traditional forms in most non-western cultures (with the ‘return’ of local forms where appropriate, such as in the Americas or Africa). These developments bequeath a rich tradition of representational art to the 20th century (as well as wealth of representational and non-representational decorative forms).


Bequeathing the following heritage to 21st century art:


(I) From the 19th century: Representational or ‘mimetic’ art; mainly in the form of oil painting (but with some regional variations); the varieties of traditional sculpture.


(II) From the first half of the 20th century: the explosion of previous forms by a tradition of experimentation, including Abstract Art where the traditional object disappears (a tradition ‘culminating’ in American Abstract Expressionism). The Found Object tradition also begins (bringing all and every kind of object into the studio, the gallery and the museum); but initially remains limited to generational gesture.


(III) From the second half of the 20th century:


The experimental expansion of ‘art’ continues with the exploration of various spatial combinations and the inclusion of all and any conceivable objects and experiences. The second half of the 20th century offers the following inheritance (count to six…): the traditions of (i) the Image, (ii) the Found Object, (iii) Minimalism, (iv) Conceptualism/Post Conceptualism, (v) Performance, (vi) ‘Little Anthropology’ (the ‘Found Experience’). A ‘thumbnail’ introduction to these diverse ways of doing art follows below.


But first a brief historical comparison. In the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, indeed well into the early 19th century when innovation appeared to be born again, two trends, the Baroque and the Classical, co-existed and dominated the landscape of Art and Architecture (in painting represented by the traditions that followed Rubens and the realism of Caravaggio respectively). A pluralism of styles is therefore not a new phenomenon in the history of art – and may have even contributed to the expanded time-span of this period. This was the Baroque Period proper, when time appeared almost to have stood still. The ‘Long Baroque’. The 21st century, therefore, looks set to be a continuation of a new ‘Long Baroque’, this time inherited from the 20th century, as all of that century’s key trends continue to flourish and interact in the new century…


The 21st century therefore begins with the following inheritance (count to six…):


(I) The Image. In the world of the Image, we find the following: painting (and other traditional fine art forms of representation), photography, video/film, computer-generated or altered images and the use of the Internet. This process includes regional traditions (for example Indian or Chinese art) as well as Western ‘Pop Art’ and its aftermath. New technologies do not so much produce a new genre, but are yet another means of doing all the established genres. The inherited traditions of the first half of the 20th century suggests that all images are divisible into abstract and figurative - with the latter further divisible into real and dream-like (‘surreal’) representations. Insofar as the figurative image is also referential this kind of art is still the most immediately comprehensible in terms of its critical, satirical and political content. On the other hand, the revolution whereby anything may be called art simply by the fact of inclusion within a frame continues with hitherto ‘low’, or even abject, content being accorded art status.


(II) From Found Object to Found Experience. The Found Object tradition dates from the early years of the 20th century. It can be read as the movement from the depiction of collections of objects (the Western ‘Still Life’ genre) to the collection, re-siting and arrangement of the objects themselves - including (the most) inappropriate objects (as a means of opening up the field to all comers). So to Pop Art (representational) and Assemblages (the depiction and collection of the everyday). Which when applied to processes and human societies gives us:


(III) ‘Little Anthropology’. Found (recorded) experiences. Citations from our own and other societies, often made up of videos of processes and events. Also records of processes – showing its debt to Conceptualism (also using the Internet). This art form, above all, focuses upon ‘othering’ ourselves and experiencing Others (whether of an internal or external source). This tradition may incorporate Found Objects and elements of Minimalism and Conceptualism, as well as (obviously) Performance. Referential (often employing narrative-like processes) so often political; perhaps the true heir to the political conceptualism of the ‘70s. The remit of this classification may be read as encompassing everything from the presentation of real anthropological study all the way to the ‘little anthropology’ of reality TV.


(IV) From Conceptualism to Post-conceptualism. From records of processes, self-reflexive regarding the making of meaning and its problems (the politics of representation) an art form conducive to, even demanding, reflection, we end with a quickly exhausted shock value, a single idea art – very much (the) art of the moment. Formally, the resulting trend offers the vaunting of the process of de-familiarisation, of ‘unlikely, even of ‘shock’ elements, as the easiest form of (content) transgression. This element of short-lived surprise has become a central feature in a process in many ways absorbing the Minimalist and the Found Object traditions (formal transgression was a feature of the previous, ‘modernist’ period where it was form of the content that was transgressed and transfigured). Post-conceptualism emerged in the 1980s as the dominant trend in America and is currently the most commercial form of art (after traditional or popular art which remains painting, but is usually consumed in the form of posters). The Post-conceptual trend now fuses with others to form a ‘New Fusion’ where artists use whatever they wish in combination to achieve surprising or humorous effects. A new International Style or Globalised Post-conceptualism.


(V) Minimalism. Formal - even form-obsessed – the pre-dominance of simple shapes, pure form, a reaching out after ideal form. A new beginning based upon pure or simplified forms. Most successful in Music (where repetition and variation produce the ‘process aesthetic’, Minimalism’s time-hungry sister). Also a trend sharing ground with Sculpture, the Found Object and Conceptualism. Finally achieving its apotheosis as a megalomaniac expansion in Land Art. (Minimalism in practice often took the form of a combination of found object + an abstraction or idealisation based upon, or suggested by the object, as, for example, by its texture when repeated). Land Art ‘found’ the landscape and added a mark or an object.


(VI) Performance. Pulling drama, and also ritual, into art. Including or culminating in the ‘little anthropology’ of found or reproduced experience or processes reproduced or re-enacted as ‘performance’.



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, introduced into a gallery, individually or in large numbers, will give you Pop Art, as will the representation of these). 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.



Other modes of classification are also possible. Subsets of (all) of the above might include: the politics of representation (communities of identification, gender); single issues (environment, war); the sacred in the real or everyday (the a-temporal in the contingent and the question of value); and the transgressive (both content based and formal). This latter category remains largely generational, the myth of the (old) avant garde as (still) represented by (mainly) middle class, urban (white) young males, a continuation of the politics of generational gesture. The new dominant can perhaps be found, in a trend opposing that of the Image (but often incorporating images, found or made), in a New Fusion made from combining many of the categories listed above and exploring many of the issues described here (a globalised, incorporative, Post-conceptualism).



Genealogies/Canons. Clearly all of today’s trends are continuation of previous trends; not now imagined as a ‘single line’ or ‘progress’ (always the tell-tale sign of a ‘fundamentalist’ thesis) but as a constellation of multiple strands, side by side, cross-fertilising one another. The fecund creative mixing of these trends together (as happened in practice pretty much with all styles before the tabula rasa of International Modernism) is, in today’s terms of classification, very ‘Post-modern’; a defining feature of Postmodernism (the art, architecture and writing of the 1970s bearing such effects). As with ‘Baroque’ so ‘Post-modern’, is perhaps the style-name that offers the best overall label for our epoch. The Post-modern (or Post Modernity for philosophy and criticism) is probably still the best label for our aesthetic or semiotic epoch, the epoch of the ascendancy of mass culture - operative now since the late 1950s.


So from six basic trends we might anticipate a reform (that may already be upon us) into three broad global categories:


(I)                 The realm of the Image (representational/abstract);

(II)              Little Anthropology (found experience and performance);

(III)            A ‘New Fusion’ or Globalised Post-conceptualism incorporating the Found Object, Minimalist and Conceptualist traditions (a fusing of the trends begun by the ‘neo-avant garde’ of the ‘60s and ‘70s). Definition or categorisation may often depend upon which aspect the critic chooses for their particular emphasis.


If we compare two recent exhibitions, both held in 2006, then we find the Dashanzi International (Beijing) is still dominated by a gestural Post-conceptualism - with paintings (the Image) running second. Whereas in the British Art Show (where Post-conceptual trends have a longer tradition) Post-conceptual/New Fusion type works still make up half of the works on view, but are followed by Little Anthropology (a quarter) with the Image/painting running close behind.


The question of quality or value is now the question of a judgement that can no longer prioritise any trend; rather works of value (or a range of such works resulting from a competition of values) can be found existing within all existing trends. Often an evaluation will depend upon the artwork’s depth of use of the object, its relations with its context(s) and the resulting affect (the complexity or otherwise of the emotions generated in the artwork’s audience).

But not one proclaiming shallow use as symptomatic of something – a ‘negative dialectics’, or ‘via negativa', by-product of Adornonian aesthetics - as this kind of argument can be used to excuse (to value) all. Worse, is to choose (to value) the worst only to illustrate ones thesis (the true meaning of the phrase, ‘ideology in the bad sense’).



Value: (as opposed to price) perhaps dependent upon of depth of meaning:


(I)                 An art of ‘fast meaning’ (a ‘fast art’ to complement ‘fast food’): art as (i) gimmick (single idea) or as (ii) the emptying out of meaning (perhaps as symptomatic of XYZ, more usually symptomatic of a poverty of ideas). The latter in truth only symptomatic of the passing commercial fashions of the market or gallery system.

(II)              An art of ‘slow meaning’: art as demanding time, as temporal in its reach, as posing questions of past, present and future, or of memory and the collective anticipation of regional or global developments. An art for now: rather than the art of the ‘now’.


Another view; all trends feed into an art divided between decorative (‘popular’) or collectable (‘fashionable’). Since the 20th century at least (if not since the inception of Romanticism) a division also describable as that of the Beautiful and the Sublime. The two halves of today’s art market.








Copyright 2007, Peter Nesteruk