In 1917 Duchamp parked a urinal in the gallery of The Society of Independent Artists. In 1998 Tracey Emin trashed a bed and public ideas of what could constitute a piece of art. In 2010, Marina Abramovic hosts an epic staring contest and possible piece of performance art.
You may gather from my tone that I have a certain amount of scepticism for this sort of thing, and you’d be half right. By and large, when you think of the visual arts, you think of Botticelli’s Venus, or Michelangelo’s David, or something similarly naked from the Renaissance era: you don’t think about half a bicycle (Picasso’s ‘Bull’s Head’ (1942), right) or someone pulling a piece of paper out of their vagina (Carolee Schneeman’s ‘Inner Scroll’ (1975)).
Gone it seems, are the days of Raphael and Parmigianino, of Michelangelo and Titian. There is a reason though, that older images conform more closely to ordinary concepts of beauty. By and large, the most direct way of presenting something attractive is to mirror something pretty that exists in the real world. For artists in the past, to do so was quite an achievement. Merely rendering accurate, realistic images was a monumental challenge that took years of training and great expense in of itself. Today, I can do this by taking a photograph*. Indeed, if you want to appreciate an old master, you need only open a book or your web browser.
It’s not a new idea that at the introduction of photography art (including photography as the craft developed) had to find another reason for being beyond primarily recording what we see around us. This brings me to my main point. Whatever art happens to float your boat, it surely cannot be argued that it must evolve. Art ceased to be merely about what you can see long, long ago.
This article may seem irrelevant on a website that deals with writing, but although I have used visual art as an example, that’s not the full extent of what I mean. One of the primary drives behind creativity must be seeking new forms of communication. This is where conceptual art has to be taken seriously. Regardless of whether they were ultimately effective in conveying their various messages, the obnoxious avant garde is monumentally necessary.
The examples I used at the beginning are already growing obsolete. Damien Hirst, who I must admit I still think of one of those troublesome new rabble-rousers was at the height of his pickling powers back in 1991. New media has already made an enormous impact on Fine Art. The rise of digital self-publishing and blogging is changing the face of the written word.
Now I find myself wondering about this continuum of unusual ideas and unsettling execution. Where does it lead in our barely-born millennium? How can we capitalise on the extraordinary bounty our generation finds laid in our hands? As creative people, how could we live with ourselves if we failed?
*That’s not to say that photography isn’t a valid art form, but there’s a distinction between recording the natural world and communicating the truth about it. In this case I’m talking about whipping out my smart phone and taking a picture of a duck. Not taking wonderful pictures of interesting subjects in a carefully considered manner.