“Modern Art” In Contemporary Society

Ask the average twenty-something what ‘modern art’ is and apart from an indifferent shrug, the response heard most often will be along the lines of “Oh, you mean Warhol and the soup cans?”

Warhol’s take on art was considered by many to be “the end of art”. Within the last year I have begun to realize the unintentional meaning this phrase carries in the ’00s.  To the average consumer, kid, adult and American, “art” is whatever is on television, our favorite films and the video game of the moment.  Traditional art, paintings, sculptures and the idea of a museum has become completely irrelevant apart from those who actively seek it out.  Art has faded into the background as a hobby at best and an unnecessary, exclusive, expensive and outdated luxury at worst.

Some might say, “Well, it’s simply been redefined” — this is ignoring the issue.  Paintings and the idea of putting art upon a pedestal for viewing has vanished from contemporary society and from the practical consumer’s mindset.  Sure, it has been replaced by flashier culture, but it’s only on a metaphorical pedestal, not a literal one, that we view video gaming and television.  What does a painting mean now?  If the term “modern art” means something that is half a century old (‘soup cans’), it’s clear that the very term is hypocritical.

Personally, art has meant album artwork.  This is a medium which many could toss up to containing a cohesive and beautiful statement once every 300 album covers.  Regardless, I have thrived off of my last remaining attachment I have to traditional paintings, even though the pedestal said album art is viewed upon is my laptop.

There is a poster on my wall containing the album artwork of Animal Collective’s 2009 album, “Merriweather Post Pavilion”.  When moving from college dorm A to college dorm B, I had forgotten to take down my posters.  My friend, Ryan, kindly took the posters down and stored them in his car, where they collected dust all summer long.  These posters were rolled together in a messy clump, rendering most of them ruined from being stuck together for such a long time.  However, there was one interesting effect to the Merriweather Poster.  In addition to several white tears, the sunlight had created a fantastic faded blue streak across the bottom of the image.  It gave a precise effect that looked as if it could have only been created digitally — or perhaps by leaving a poster exposed to three months of sunlight.

With no real desire to seek out far-less stimulating culture, the place for massive and vibrant paintings, sculptures and installations has been moved to one of two places:

  1. There are enthusiasts, many of them, who will never say goodbye to the wonder and subtlety that “true” art, found in a museum, provides.
  2. The second place this art has gone to (and the place which gets far more attention) is upon Flickr accounts, various impersonal Tumblr pages and occasionally upon a Google Image search.

If art was an experience to help transcend the trivialities of daily life, if even for a moment, and said experience no longer takes place outside the stream of our lives — what does that say for art?  We no longer have to visit museums to experience a plethora of styles; all we need is StumbleUpon and perhaps a search string.  Such ease allows us a whirlwind of culture, but at the same time, it is easy to under-appreciate the magnitude of the culture itself.

Conceptually, the artist is dead, because there are no longer pedestals for each artist to showcase their work upon.  All art created gets thrown into the digital void, upon one unified pedestal.  This pedestal is shared amongst all artists and with this sharing, artistic individuality has been lost in the digital stream of consciousness.  The artist is no longer relevant so much as the audience, i.e., you, as you have the power to skip to the next image or share it on your Facebook wall.  This is about as much praise as one can practically expect as an artist on a mass scale, apart from the occasional PR puff piece and blogosphere commentary.

The poster on my wall does not ask for my attention, yet it exists outside the internet, in its own museum (my room) on its own pedestal (the wall).  The audience (I and whoever is in the room at the time) is not forced to look upon this poster, but when they do, it captures the overstimulated attention span, if just for a moment.  Modern art is individually-oriented and based around personal narratives — one glance upon the poster reminds of a story.  It calls attention to something I have no control over (sunlight, the forces of nature, destroying my perfect replica of a favorite album) and in its own subliminal way, reminds of my own impermanence.  One may think that this is all a bit hyperbolic, but that’s just it!  There is nothing that is going to exist in our lives which will live up to the mythical shadow cast upon by pre-internet society, when it was impossible to fathom the audience even touching the pedestal, let alone controlling what was seen upon it.

This is why I can look to a sun-faded Animal Collective poster as the highest example of contemporary art imaginable.  This is why the definition of art in practical, contemporary society is exactly what you as a viewer, view it to be.  While artists will continue to make thought-provoking work to be seen in small scales, the masses are still left scratching their head, thinking to 1962’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” as the only example of modern art — before tuning back into the daily programming.  Today, artistic relevance depends completely on what you personally find relevant.  Traditional art made by others will always have beauty, but it will never catch the eye as the heirlooms our lifetime will, however insignificant to an outside observer these may be.

The end of art meant the end of established artistic norms, of an invisible world telling you what you could and could not find aesthetically pleasing.  It began with Warhol realizing that art could be found anywhere, even in the supermarket.  If a supermarket is a pedestal, then it’s obvious that the museum is the human mind and whatever we attach ourselves to can be transformed into a gallery, flimsy posters included.

Defining Music

Before you press play and long after the song has ended, sound can still be heard.  Whether it’s the background noise of a bus or the sound of headphones being removed from the ear — we continuously hear sound each day.  Listening to the sounds of birds in the morning in combination with the natural sounds of the outdoor environment can sooth and perhaps even allow us to hear patterns of melody in the noisy nothingness.  A woodpecker tapping on a tree might match nicely with the sound of the rain – it is in this context in which the listener has transformed what was at first noise, into music.

Music is what we are presently hearing, but only if it is realized to be so.  Turning on an album and then focusing upon another activity – is the album still considered music, or has it become background noise?  The artist may have intended for it to have been heard as music, but when placed in a context where music is unwanted, it is simply one more layer of noise to tune out.  Therefore, music is not a theoretical record yet to have been played, nor is it the next thirty seconds approaching in the song – music is now.  If you consider it to be music, you are actively listening to it in the present moment.

Music is response-oriented – focusing upon the listener’s reaction, rather than the music itself.  Music is not a pop melody unless you recognize it to be one.  It is based on the listener’s state-of-mind and intention.  The sounds we hear are either aimless, formless noise or they are cohesive, consciously crafted statements of creativity made solely for our enlightenment.   At any given moment, we make the decision on how to classify receptive sound.

Thus, focus is the determining factor in musical preference.  Beyond the simple notion of “paying attention” to sound intended (and hoping-to-be-realized) as music, there is the ability to comprehend music at greater levels of clarity.  Simply paying attention in greater detail can allow for an increase in musical understanding.  Imagine a song you strongly detest, regardless of genre.  What caused the discomfort you feel?  Was it the sound itself, or was it the fact that the sound conflicted with a personalized mental attachment to what you consider “music”?  What happens when someone listens to the same song, but this person finds immense enjoyment in the material?  The song matches with their ideal for what can be considered music.  Music is completely response-oriented, and thus, all sound can be potentially experienced as music with a broad enough personal standard.  This standard adjusts at whim.  If you find yourself meditating on a mountaintop, you may find yourself at peace, and all is music.  If you find yourself in a traffic jam, limited patience will limit this standard, etc.

Conscious awareness of the fact that sound exists allows us to perceive sound in a way which goes beyond noise.  Music is sound which, through personalized context, sparks inspiration within the listener.