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  Art has faded into the background as a hobby at best and an unnecessary, exclusive, expensive and outdated luxury at worst.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  Sure, it has been replaced by flashier culture, but it’s only on a metaphorical pedestal, not a literal one, that we view video gaming and television.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

Lyrical Analysis: “Bizness” by Tune-Yards

The lyrics are found here.  Here is the official music video:

“Don’t take my life away / Don’t take my life away”

The manner in which she sings this, rapidly and frantic, suggests that this song may work best if you take the lyrics on a literal level before analyzing interpretatively.  In the main chorus of the song, it sounds as if Garbus is describing a mugging.  From the opening line (“What’s the business?“) asking just what the hell is happening, to the realization that the mugger is moving closer (“From a distance“) finally to the attempt to try to empathize with her perpetrator (“I’m a victim!” / “I’m addicted!“) It all paints a very visual picture.  The intensity of this image obvious increases with every repeated plea (“Don’t take my life away!“).

WhoKill as an album seems to deal with similar subject matter upon the surface, and then on a deeper level one can interpret these things to act as metaphors for more intimate personal issues and insecurities expressed in song.  If you look at the opening verse in this same “Mugger” mindset, you can see how well it fits with just about every line.  The opening, in particular, makes much more sense on a surface level when analyzed from this perspective:

“If I represent the one that did this to you / Then can away the part that represents the thing that scarred you”

It seems to be an extended plea intended to be said to the mugger, only to be mentally pondered.  Muggers obviously don’t personalize or discriminate in terms of the individual; though if they are robbing you chances are you have a look of wealth or content.  She rationalizes, “If you are mugging me because I look like everything you aren’t and desire to be (in terms of wealth), then you need to get over whatever it is that personally traumatized you.”  Such a powerful, opening line.  Obviously, we are starting to see the deeper intentions of the song.

Immediately after this declaration of “Fix yourself before you hurt me”, she declares (“Get up / Stand up / Get on it!“) both the listener and herself to defend against the situation as to change the outcome (“I am no longer who you thought this one would be“).  A victim can be mugged, but a victim in self-defense is not such an easy target.

After this confidence boosting declaration, it’s revealed that she (as a victim) still ends up running into this mugger once more (“We end up around the mountain that I climb to lose you“) and despite how bold she was just moments before, meeting this mugger causes her to enter a state of shock (“Ask me, Tell me / but all my wisdom departed“).  Finally we enter in the main chorus, the confrontation, where all she can ask is “What the hell is going on / How did I get here / Don’t take my life away / I’m just like you!”

This entire time we have seen how simply the song reads in a literal manner, but it’s during the third verse where we start to realize that the song works much more beautifully on a symbolic level.  Regardless, finishing up the mugger theme, the victim in the song tries one final plea.  She states how “I’ll bleed if you ask me”, and we see how the mugger’s response is a simple “No” (“That’s when he said no“) before we enter back into the confrontational chorus once more.  I’d like to point out that the song ends asking the question “What’s the business?” repeatedly, as if Garbus is restating her disbelief of the entire situation.

Obviously, you can replace the whole Mugger / Victim theme with many concepts and interpretations, but what will remain consistent is the general narrative between the two parties.  If you go for the relationship-route, the song becomes a symbolic tale of frustration between two would-be lovers.  I see it as someone meeting someone who has been hurt in a prior relationship, so badly, that they see all of that heartbreak in every new person they meet, including the protagonist of the song.

This is very similar in subject matter to the song “Abducted” by Cults (I analyzed this here), the major difference is that Garbus is attempting a solution to the problem, whereas Cults focused on the sad cyclical nature of the whole thing.  The first verse then declares the protagonist of the song to be their own individual and not connected to any horrific past relationships.  The second verse reveals how the protagonist of the song does NOT enter into the relationship (“The mountain that I climb to lose you“), but ends up meeting this person again in life anyways (“We end up around the mountain“), this time demanding why things can’t work out (“Answer me this!“).  At the same time, there is a realization that no one wants to throw their time away with someone who is just going to hurt them (“Don’t take my life away“), so the protagonist is repeatedly asking in the chorus “What’s the business” — what hurt you before/are you ready for this/I don’t want to be hurt — before finally revealing she does fall in love (“I’m addicted yeah!“).

Writing this, I see a plethora of abstract and less direct ways (ex- an internal dialogue) of looking at this song from several perspectives, but the two general interpretations I’ve provided do indicate that the song is a song about frustration stemming from misunderstanding and miscommunication.  The protagonist attempts to overcome this (in whatever the medium is which the frustration is occurring, depending on personal interpretation), and in the end she finds herself addicted.  The real question, is to what?  To heartbreak?  To falling in love with those who are scarred?  The song’s brilliance lies in how many windows it can be seen through, and I hope my interpretation has provided some insight into whatever your personal interpretation of the song happens to be.