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  Art has faded into the background as a hobby at best and an unnecessary, exclusive, expensive and outdated luxury at worst.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  Sure, it has been replaced by flashier culture, but it’s only on a metaphorical pedestal, not a literal one, that we view video gaming and television.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

Pyramids: A perfect metaphor for humanity’s ideological progression?

As humans first began to philosophize and contemplate, myths came about, religions gathered worship and philosophers entered the scene — everyone offering their own version of truth to the populous. As time passes, all these ideas get accepted, rejected, loved, hated and eventually — incorporated into human development.

When an idea is first presented, it’s still in the initial forming stages. However, even if it means an idea is rejected, the resulting wisdom eventually goes into future, forming generations. It is only natural that certain ideas become irrelevant as humanity tries to build upon previous ideas.

Do you see how a pyramid acts a perfect metaphor for this? The base level is the largest — the foundation. However, it is not very high up off the ground. As you go higher, as time passes on and ideas are refined, the ideas become more complex and the lesser ones are eliminated.

You continue this pattern until you eventually start eliminating more and more ideas, getting down to the core concepts that really speak volumes of truth — which reflect all that has been learned. Imagine a pyramid, and each level representing an era of human thought. What is at the very top of the pyramid?

A singular point. The divine truth. A truth which encompasses all prior wisdom. For what we do not even realize, is that as we are raised as children today in this world, television programs, societal attitudes, what we find sexy, what we engage in for recreation — all of these things subconsciously incorporate all that has since passed. It’s in our day-to-day living on such an instinctual level, that we do not even realize just how many philosophies and concepts are completely ingrained within our life.

If you could look at a pyramid, and attempt to figure out how such a thing was constructed prior to all this new technology we have, you may be able to directly figure out EXACTLY how human intellectual evolution persists — the very mechanics behind the thing. Interestingly enough, one of the biggest mysteries revolving around the pyramids is the idea that no one really knows how the Egyptians built them!

I propose, however, that regardless how they were built, once you reached the midway point, and had the first half of the pyramid complete, the remaining construction would take hardly any time at all. Think of Moore’s Law and the Singularity:

The construction of the pyramid is likely the same, as why would it take LONGER to put the finishing upper-half upon a pyramid? You already have the foundation laid down, now it’s just perfecting your craft.

Apply the same logic to intellectual progression of humanity — we have come so far and laid down so much foundation. It only makes sense that at this stage, every layer of wisdom will be proposed and incorporated/rejected (but with wisdom learned) into society at faster and faster rates. We are naturally reaching the peak level of society, and eventually, we are going to, as a species, stumble upon a truth which encompasses all prior truths, which answers everything. It is only natural, and it is inevitable — look to how our wisdom has developed since our early days, and look now.

(It’s all very similar to the Mayan calendar’s progression. This “rate” is actually found everywhere. Think about how your life as a child takes forever, then in your 20s/30s things start to go fast and then for the most part, time flies to your death. Another example of this progression: sex/orgasm, literal evolution.)