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  Art has faded into the background as a hobby at best and an unnecessary, exclusive, expensive and outdated luxury at worst.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  Sure, it has been replaced by flashier culture, but it’s only on a metaphorical pedestal, not a literal one, that we view video gaming and television.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

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The Crossroads Of Indecision

There are two mindsets we take as human beings every day.  There are actions which benefit the immediate physical self.  Such things such as absurd sexual relief, indulgent eating, experiencing the meta-real (virtual reality/video games) and thus pro-longed detachment from the real — all of these things isolate us from the reality outside of ourselves.  The second mindset is that which benefits the long-term self.  It is this side which benefits the perception of how one will be seen outside of one’s individual bubble of self-stimulation.  However, to dedicate one’s self to more noble “ethereal”/spiritual purposes is to deny life and to dedicate one’s self to more tangible “immediate now” physicality is to self-indulge.

At the crosswords of these choices is that of pre-choice.  At this point is that of contemplated decision and where we are very much aware of both roads, but choose to take either the left or the right.  The one thing these roads have in common with one another is that when both are pursued long enough both lead to isolation.  If one lingers at the foreground, feels the sexual pulsating feeling of lingering pleasure and the mentally enlightening rush of absolute knowledge, but pursues neither, one experiences the place where they know themselves the most.  The longer you delay the decision, the closer you find yourself at home.

It is in this in-between place of indecision that we find our personal enlightenment, nirvana, “God”, as this is where all potential exists but none has been taken.  It is an open road in all directions.  Spend some time in this place every day and realize that this is where all decisions stem from which very directly affect the course of both the left and the right path.  We can choose either path — business or pleasure — but if we take the right path down the road, the further and further removed from the left road we become.  Choices are permanent once made and paths and roads which we walk upon carry us to very real homes of decision.  We can move, however, whenever we like and place ourselves back at the root point of the short-term and long-term and, if desired, simply float there and contemplate our choice.  It is in this contemplation which we find the deepest peace.

Falling back into disarray

During contemplation (and after ‘finding our center’) the most appealing thing to us is being lured OUT of the contemplation.  Whatever drives us out of this state, the fastest, is what turns us on the most and thus we pursue these decisions with no hesitation.  In our delighted success of finally finding “purpose” we live in leisure and at ease with our decisions.  All uncertainties are answered and we feel alive — on top of the world.  This is of course until something from beneath (within the actual world) pulls us back down to remind us that something is not quite consistent with our “we have found our purpose” notion.  At our own clumsiness, we fall once more into the cycle.  The pursual for the escape eventually becomes the norm with no additional realization gained and once more we find ourselves at a loss, out of balance and in need of some serious decision.  The cycle perpetuates…