“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  Art has faded into the background as a hobby at best and an unnecessary, exclusive, expensive and outdated luxury at worst.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  Sure, it has been replaced by flashier culture, but it’s only on a metaphorical pedestal, not a literal one, that we view video gaming and television.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.

Existence as system-like whole

Imagine a relationship between two concepts:

  1. The essence of existence as a functional, system-like whole, and…
  2. The perspective of one functioning part in that existence (this being realized through conscious awareness).

Macro:Micro. Creator:Creation. The “creator” is the designer, the architect, but will never be able to enjoy it’s own creation, for that is reserved for the inhabitants within said creation. Being that the universe is here and we presently find ourselves within it’s confines, it makes logical and rational sense that we use our conscious awareness to develop our sense of what’s positive and what’s negative.  This allows us to perfect the filtering of the negative to enhance our overall experience in this existence. The premise being that “The Creator” is simply existence itself, and that we can choose to see any aspect of it in any life imaginable, because the endless nature of existence allows for this creativity/freedom.

In the metaphorical sense, it makes sense for the creations of “The Creator” to enjoy that which has been created solely for unlimited experience. Suffering is undergone and enjoyment is undertaken, but clearly both are the resulting choices of each individual creation, particularly for conscious humans, as we experiment with the endless situational and reactional possibilities.

From The Creator’s perspective, it’s entertaining to witness all the variety, but to see creations so happy with the creation no doubt encourages The Creator positively. This metaphor allows us to grasp the notion that perhaps existence itself is conscious in some abstract manner which we as individual parts of a grander system could never truly understand (much like cells, bacteria, insects, and other smaller lifeforms than ourselves all either form larger life or contribute to a  grander ecosystem).

Essentially, Earth happens to be a place in the universe where everything lined up just right and existence finally had a chance to experience itself consciously (through human awareness).  There are smaller worlds within our Earth, just as we are but one small portion of life upon our planet, as it is one portion of our solar system, which is one small part of our galaxy, etc — but none of this takes away the significance of conscious existence.  From our vantage-point, it does seem as if we are in the exact middle of a scale where the smallest and largest components of our universe are similar in measurable extremes.

This is a fallacy of conscious awareness, however, as regardless where we find ourselves on “the cosmic scale”, if conscious, we would likely perceive the smaller degrees and the larger degrees of life in relatively equal proportion. Technology naturally allows us to see to our absolute limits, but this will always be seen in a relatively “even” light.  Why would we be able to traverse to the edge of the universe but find ourselves unable to zoom in beyond bacteria, or vice versa?

The underlying point here is that because of this fallacy, regardless how primitive or advanced we actually are as a global community, our existence is profound.  It is profound because without our awareness, the universe would continue to exist with all it’s mystery and absolutely no one to soak in the experience of it all.  We’re aware, and regardless how limited of an awareness, it is still very much an awareness.