If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Modernism & Post-Modernism

In art, Modernism (1850-1950) is a historical period, with a beginning and an end. Modernism has ended. We are now in the Post Modern age (for lack of a better word). Modernism was concerned with looking at real/everyday life in new ways, partly in response to photography. If photos could be used for family portraits and journalism, then why paint? What made painting different? As some artists began to reject rigid academic training, and new art materials allowed for greater variety of color, new ways of art making developed – impressionism, expressionism, and fauvism/primitivism. Impressionism was concerned with capturing a moment, like a camera snapshot with paint. The details didn’t matter, just the colors. Impressionism was spontaneous – each brush stroke was lively and charged with energy.

Grainstack at Sunset, by Monet

This notion led to expressionism, where realism no longer mattered. Artists like Van Gogh and Picasso wanted to show what they thought of their subject by distorting it – by emphasizing the brush strokes. Instead of a photo likeness, you get to see their opinions of the subjects they painted.

The Guitar Player, by Picasso

Picasso painted “Cubism” which some say is separate from expressionism, but really, cubism is a kind of expressionism – it was just a new, angular format for distorting things and stating/hiding one’s opinion. Expressionism is very popular in American schools today. There’s this notion that if kids just put all their anger/emotion into pictures, they’ll be happier, healthier, and less violent. It's a nice idea, but it's frustrating when that becomes the entire focus of art education, especially when it's used as an excuse for low quality work.

Primitivism/Fauvism was a rejection of formal schooling, returning image making to the level of a child. Painting became a way of remembering your inner child. The foremost artists of this manner were:

Paul Gauguin:
Two Women On the Beach
Henri Matisse:
Madame Matisse, The Green Line
Henri Rousseau:
The Dream
and Pierre Bonnard:
At The Window
This manner of art is now called Art Neuf, meaning naïve art, and I feel it’s disappointing. These days, all these “childlike” artists make the same images over and over. There’s too much borrowing, and not enough originality. True primitivism – when an artist works in seclusion, away from outside influences, can often be wonderful, but it's actually pretty hard to find. Most artists don't work in seclusion, but go to schools and follow the styles of other artists, including Art Neuf.

The last big part of the Modern movement was abstract expressionism, which was merely a more extreme version of Van Gogh’s work. Here the subject mattered so little it was ignored or side-stepped. Artists like Rothko and DeKooning wanted to express their personalities, their souls, and their feelings into their work. When DeKooning painted a woman, it didn’t matter what the model/sitter really looked like, only how he felt about her, which you can decipher in his painting.

A Woman and Bicycle, by Wilhelm de Kooning

Artists like Rothko worked in big blocks of color, experimenting in the effect it had on your eyes and emotions. This little movement in art was called "color field".

Orange, Red, Yellow, by Mark Rothko

Despite the scientific nature of these experiments, spiritualism was at the heart of it, as well as with Jackson Pollock – who experimented in spontaneity, randomly (seemingly random) throwing around paint, all in order to express who he was.

Convergence, by Jackson Pollack

Post Modernism

Modernism came to an end (or did it?) with a host of new philosophers around 1950-60 called post-structuralists, most notably Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. These philosophers claimed that it was impossible to express yourself in a painting because your “self” doesn’t exist. Far from being unique, or a free thinking individual, you are a product of your environment. Society shapes you. Without your parents, community, church, school, technology, language, etc. you’d be nothing. So, art should focus on the things that make us who we are – it should critique society. This was a popular notion in the 1960’s when America was at war in Vietnam. You can think of Post Modernism as protest or hippy culture. It uses sarcasm and visual puzzles to make statements – like a socio-political Sudoku.

Also remember two things. First of all, Post Modernism is an umbrella term for many smaller kinds of art making that are unrelated. It's an academic attempt to organize and make sense of what's happened in the art world since 1960. Second, remember not all artists working today are interested in Post Modernism, or reading any of the philosophy involved. If an artist working today paints portraits or landscapes, he/she is contemporary, but probably not post-modern, although little bits of the post modern world sometimes slip in. For example, when I draw and paint, I have zero interest in any of the major figures of post modernism nor their philosophies and arguments.

Artists who did follow these philosophers developed many different kinds of art making: conceptual art, installation art, pop art/appropriation (plagiarism), and performance art (not to be confused with performing arts like dance and theater).

Conceptual Art

Conceptual art is any work where the idea is more important than the final art object. The idea is the art. The object merely presents it.

Everything is Purged, by John Baldassari

This first came into being much earlier with Dadaism (1916-1922). You can think of conceptual art as a triumph of Dadaism, fifty years after it died out.

Bicycle Wheel, by Marcel Duchamp, 1913

Pop Art

Pop Art has to do with exposing the uglier side of American culture as a way of critique. Artists like Andy Warhol would show images of car crashes, or John F. Kennedy being shot, and print it multiple times on one canvas, as a way of showing how everything in modern society has become a commercialized product, to be reproduced and sold:

Green Disaster #2, by Andy Warhol

Warhol often superimposed images with company logos.

The Last Supper (Wise Potato Chips), by Andy Warhol

The movement also had to do with changing every day items to make them more artistic, but this had already been done for thousands of years, and just beforehand with art-deco. Pop art in fashion and design had to do with spicing up the drab modern designs of the minimalist movement which came before.

Appropriation (Plagriarism)

I mentioned appropriation above. This is when you take (steal) an image from some other artist, and call it your own – while admitting it’s not. The most famous example is Sherrie Levine who photographed several famous photos by artist Walker Evans, and claimed she'd made something unique in the process, her own interpretation:

Walker Evan's original is on the left & Levine's "interpretation" on the right.

Walker Evans was dead by this time, but his family disagreed, and sued for copyright infringement. Why would anyone ever do this? Well, according to wikipedia:

“By appropriating these images, Levine can be said to be raising questions about class, identity, the political uses of imagery, the nature of creativity, and the ways in which context affects the viewing of photographs. The Estate of Walker Evans saw it as copyright infringement, and acquired Levine's works to prohibit their sale.”

Installation Art

Installation art is like sculpture, only on a bigger scale. Instead of making one object, which you could put anywhere, you decorate and/or change the appearance of one place in order to make a statement. This might involve drapery, lights, painted walls, slide projectors, televisions, or any found object.
(click the photo to see some great examples!)

The idea is that you adapt the installation depending on where it’s put (small room, large room, windows, no windows, etc). It won’t always look the same, but the idea will always be the same.

Performance Art

Performance art is where the artist does something instead of making something. The artist “performs” in front of an audience. Some performances are recorded, and some aren’t. The artist might say a short speech, do some weird dance, make some strange noises, or perform some strange act, like cutting up a piece of meat. This is still one of the most controversial forms of art. Here are some quotes from favorable reviews that appeared in High Performance Magazine (one of the leading journals of performance art for 20 years).

1. La Fura dels Baus
The Spanish industrial performance art group, La Fura dels Baus is so good it makes "all other industrial performance art groups stink like a Nazi pissing on the festering ashes of the Reichstag." Here is how La Fura uses performance art to provide insight into "the shit of politics:"

Two raving maniacs burst through a cinder block wall with sledge hammers....The performers come closer and I smell the unwashed suits they wear. With disgusting relish, these Hammer characters set upon three apparently harmless Slime men who have been rolling around in metal barrels chasing the audience mindlessly....Then they pour on buckets of liquid which must boil and burn for the Slime Men writhe in paroxysmal pain, horrible to behold.... I interpret the Slime men as Everyman, emerging from the dark and trying with limited faculties to organize something, anything which can be called their lives. The hammer men are oppressors.

2. "No Art" Performance


High Performance has been getting queries from other magazines wanting to know the status of Teching Hsieh's work in progress. But since July when Hsieh announced that for a year he would not do art, look at it, speak about art or think about art, we have been unable to find out any more first hand information than anyone else. Friends speculate that the piece grew out of the frustration he experienced trying to organize a one year torch-carrying piece that required a minimum of 400 recipients. Even after running full page ads in the East Village Eye and other publications, Hsieh was only able to come up with around 200 interested people, whereupon he dropped the idea and announced his "no art" piece. Fallout from the piece has been that he refuses to visit old friends because they have too much art on their walls and avoids Linda Montano, his friend and collaborator for his last year long piece in which they were tied together, because Montano is doing a seven year art/life piece in which everything she does is declared art. (italics added).

3. "I'm an Ass Man" Performance
Karen Finley's performance, "I'm an Ass Man," zeroes in on sexual tyranny, substance abuse and frustrations of marginal existence. Finley attacks New York's Eurotrash, recently moneyed and titled immigrants who flaunt their wealth and recreational drugs. At the same time she pours milk, honey and instant tea into an open purse, shakes it up, and sloppily drinks a portion...Sexual assault abounds in Finley's psychotic world....A slob at a subway station sees a fat lady and fantasizes about raping her, only to discover she is menstruating. Here, Finley opens a bottle of beets and a can of red kidney beans and pours them together, rubbing her hands in the red mess. After describing attempted child sexual abuse by an adult male on a young girl, Finley squishes several bars of melted ice cream sandwiches, smearing it all over her black dress. In graphic detail she disdainfully tells how a real "macho" man will have anal intercourse with a woman.... My main complaint is that Finley did not go far enough. This version was too short and tame....Art audiences need to be shocked because many come from sheltered middle class environments with no first hand experience in the seamier side of life.

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