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  Art has faded into the background as a hobby at best and an unnecessary, exclusive, expensive and outdated luxury at worst.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  Sure, it has been replaced by flashier culture, but it’s only on a metaphorical pedestal, not a literal one, that we view video gaming and television.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

Boredom & Purpose

We’re bored. Collectively. It is a nice thing to be conscious, because we can be aware of this boredom, and furthermore correct it. The awareness that “nothing is being done which resonates with me as an individual” — we cannot stand this. Typically, we turn to family, friends, culture, sex, entertainment or whatever it is that satisfies this individual boredom. Some may turn to work, some may turn to creative endeavors, some may converse and some may internally meditate. All temporary answers to a very real question — we are conscious, and thus, bored.

There is a desire, it would seem then, to alleviate this boredom. During peak experiences in your life, boredom is the farthest thing from your mind, and this is because in these moments, you are fulfilling a purpose. Purpose is the antidote to boredom, and excitement stems from a fulfilling of said purpose. We’re bored, because we are conscious that we have unrealized potential that could be channeled towards a purpose.

However, just as boredom comes and goes so does that which alleviates it. You can play a videogame and enter a world where your purpose becomes scaled down to singular objectives and tasks. You can work in a career with stepping stones and promotions and an entire system suggesting a greater purpose. You can write the great American Novel, every chapter, every sentence, every word defining a thought — each seemingly reaching a greater plane. Something beyond.

All these things are temporary solutions. All fades. Purpose can be realized. The problem is not with boredom — the problem is with purpose. Boredom is completely natural, and is an instant reality check into one’s personal situation — a mental inventory for one’s greater well-being. Boredom is alleviated through purpose, and purpose is defined through the individual.

Purpose is not an infinite concept, and is very much defined through human perception. This limitation suggests that there will always be an end to your chosen purpose, and thus, a point where you find yourself bored once more. The moment you become boss, the moment you finish directing your debut feature film — all of these are but peaks upon an ever-rising mountain-range of illusionary achievement. We fulfill our boredom by creating systems of purpose which we can dedicate ourselves towards, and we care not if these purposes can be fulfilled in our lifetime. In fact, we strive to find purposes that can be completed before our death, and this explains why we so frequently run into boredom.

“The meaning of life”, is almost entirely subjective. There is, however, one objective aspect that anyone can observe, and that is whether one is bored or engaged in purpose. Someone can dictate their meaning for life, but in those quieter moments of contemplation, in the midst of exciting personal success, there are certainly moments of “blah” suggesting something lacking.

This is the ultimate guilt of conscious awareness. The minute we achieve something is the same minute we find ourselves in the same place we were prior to said achievement — once more with unrealized potential, bored and lost in the in-betweens of our lives. Instinctually, it would seem that the only lasting, eternal purpose would be that which is dedicated to the human species as a whole — this is where the concept of a family comes into play as being the only thing that can ever truly matter to us as bored, individual, conscious humans.

While it is nice to conceptualize the idea of grand human progression through microcosmic action, it is not enough to satisfy the immediate ego. The individual ego is always bored unless it is engaged in distinctive, macrocosmic purpose. Just as the greatest philosophers live by example, the greatest humans live through their succeeding sons and daughters. Those who struggle for the human collective and greater good are doing so for future generations — to provide a safe zone for the youth to contemplate the absolute nothing.

There is never an answer to boredom. To be completely free from such a thing is to be dead. Purpose drives us each and every single day, to the point where we as a species can sit around the collective fire, contemplating life and all within. Contemplating our actions, reflecting upon mistakes, attempting to allow our future selves (our children) to be gifted with the wisdom of said mistakes — and maybe someday we’ll get to a place where all that wisdom is truly, genuinely applied. This is the only eternal purpose we should strive for — that day during which, after a long day’s work, our children look up to the stars, speechless as their boredom has long-since been replaced by awesome purpose. Each star, reflecting a possibility. This is all that will ever relieve our inherent boredom — the idea that tomorrow, there will be a world, and that in that world our children will flourish and prosper. Each child — a complete realization of human achievement.