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When it comes to comparing the contemporary works of art with the artistic masterpieces of the past, it is important to know what accounts for the main qualitative difference between the two. In my opinion, this difference is concerned with the fact that, whereas, many (Classicist, Realist) artistic works of the past can be enjoyed by just about anyone, this is far from being the case with the examples of contemporary art, associated with the artistic styles of (Post-Modernism, Fluxus).1
The reason for this is that, in order for an individual to be able to appreciate any artistic works, associated with the mentioned art-styles, he or she would have to be capable of interpreting these works’ actual significance within the narrow framework of what can be deemed the most circumstantially applicable theory of art. In its turn, this creates a certain paradox – there is not much of the de facto ‘art’ in today’s art, but mainly a theory. In this paper, I will explore the validity of the above-stated, in regards to the art of Eustache Le Sueur (Classicist), Ilya Repin (Realist), John Armleder (Fluxus/contemporary) and Joseph Beuys (Post-Modernist/contemporary).
The Classicist paintings’ most prominent feature is that themes and motifs, contained in them, often relate to the philosophical, literary and aesthetical legacy of Greco-Roman antiquity. The validity of this statement can be illustrated, in regards to the painting Melpomene, Erato & Polymnie by Le Sueur:
After all, Melpomene, Erato and Polymnie used to be referred to by the ancient Romans, as ‘muses’ – the semi-divine/never-aging females, who were believed to endow poets, musicians and artists with the sense of an artistic inspiration.
As it can be well seen in this painting, all three depicted women radiate the spirit of serenity and calmness, while appearing to be in the middle of reflecting on some abstract subject matter. They can also be referred to as thoroughly healthy, in the mental and physical sense of this word – their bodily physique leaves only a few doubts, in this respect. There is also an acute sense of order to the painting in question – all three ‘muses’ are located in the painting’s center, with the images of trees and blue sky in the background, ensuring the three-dimensional integrity of Le Sueur’s masterpiece. The message that this painting conveys is thoroughly clear – young women are able to inspire men by the very virtue of their physical beauty.
In light of the above-staved, we can well conclude that the painting Melpomene, Erato & Polymnie is rather ‘democratic’. That is, despite having been essentially concerned with visualizing the motifs of the ancient Roman theology, it nevertheless can be enjoyed even by those people, who happened to be utterly unaware of what this theology was all about.2 It is needless to mention, of course, that this contributes to the painting’s aesthetic value rather considerably, as the art’s actual purpose has traditionally been considered the fact that it is able to please/enlighten individuals, regardless of what happened to be the particulars of their social status.3
The same idea applies, within the context of discussing the Realist painting Religious Procession by Repin:
In the formal sense of this word, this painting depicts the religious procession of Orthodox peasants in the 19th century’s Russia. It does this in the strikingly realist manner – the painting’s visuals are not only spatially but also psychologically plausible. That is, the expressions of the featured people’s faces are thoroughly compatible with the time-tested idea that strongly religious individuals can hardly be considered intellectually bright and behaviorally adequate. Thus, Repin’s Religious Procession, can be well referred to, as such that does not also allow spectators to experience the sensation of an aesthetic pleasure, but also as such that ‘educates’ them, in respect of what accounts for the imperfections of the society’s functioning, and what causes these imperfections to be there, in the first place.4
After all, it is indeed very likely that, in the aftermath of having been exposed to the paintings in question, spectators would be tempted to associate the notion of poverty with the notion of religion, which in turn should increase their ability to address life-challenges in the circumstantially appropriate manner. This confirms the validity of the suggestion that Realist art, which reached the peak of its popularity in the 19th century, indeed deserves to be referred to as such that benefited humanity in so many ways – especially, in respect of how it used to prompt people to adopt a rationale-based stance in life.5
Consequently, this can be interpreted as yet an additional indication that, just as it happened to be the case with artistic Classicism, artistic Realism (as a style of depicting the surrounding reality’s emanations) does represent an objective value of a ‘thing in itself’.
Unfortunately, the analysis of what can be deemed the most typical examples of contemporary art, does not allow us to refer to it as being anything else but essentially degenerative. To confirm the validity of this suggestion, we can mention the 1991 painting Untitled by John Armleder, who is being considered one of the most prominent enthusiasts of the artistic style Fluxus.
As it can be well seen above, upon having been exposed to this ‘masterpiece’, it would prove rather impossible for onlookers to come up with the comprehensible idea, as to what Untitled actually depicts. After all, this painting creates the impression that the process of its creation involved the author smearing some dirt (possibly feces) on the canvas in the vertically wise direction. People would also experience a hard time, while trying to define what motivated Armdeler to begin working on this painting, except for the hypothetical possibility that, after having woken up one day, Armdeler realized that he felt very bad about life, in general, and consequently decided to depict such his feeling artistically.
This, however, would not be quite the case if one were to evaluate Armdeler’s painting within the discursive framework of Fluxus. Given the fact that artists, associated with this style, always strived to defy the ‘perceptual oppressiveness’ of the spatially stable geometrical forms6, the message that this painting conveys, can be interpreted as follows: Untitled depicts the skyscrapers of New York, which are embedded into the mechanistic matrix of today’s living that causes people to experience the irrational attraction towards filth. The depicted implies that there are other three-dimensional continuums, except for the one in which we happened to exist – hence, the aura of ‘fluidity’, which Untitled emanates. In its turn, this is meant to emphasize that there is a certain dichotomy between how we perceive the reality around us, and that happened to be our unconscious anxiety to be submerged in the realm of ‘unrealness’.
It is understood, of course, that despite sounding pretentiously sophisticate, the above-provided interpretation is essentially unintelligible. Yet, this is what modern art is all about. Unlike what it used to be the case with art of the past, it is not about artists creating their masterpieces, but rather about the hordes of ‘art critics’ making a good living, as a result of being able to indulge into the superficially sophisticate art-related rhetoric.7
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The validity of the idea that the notion of ‘contemporary art’ is largely synonymous with the notion of ‘degeneracy’ can also be explored, in regards to the Post-Modernist painting Wooden Virgin by Joseph Beuys:
As it can be well seen, the painting depicts a human-like object that lies on its side. There are the unmistakable undertones of lifelessness to the ‘wooden virgin’, which the mentioned object is meant to symbolize. We can only wonder what prompted the author to believe that there indeed may be a link between what it being depicted in this painting, on one hand, and the notion of ‘virginity’, on the other. Nevertheless, given the fact that Beuys has never been a stranger to alcohol,8 we can speculate that he must have worked on Wooden Virgin, while experiencing a severe hangover.
The fact that the painting features only the color of ‘dirt-gray’ has a symbolical significance of its own. While assessed through the lenses of psychoanalysis, the qualitative subtleties of the painting’s gamut can be considered indicative of the artist’s deep-seated sense of pessimism, as to humanity’s ability to stay on the path of progress. What it means is that Wooden Virgin poses a certain danger to the potential onlookers, as this painting appears more than capable of triggering the sensation of depression in people, which is hardly the quality of what it being commonly referred to as ‘high art’.
I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in relation of how contemporary art differs from the art of the past, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. It is understood, of course, that people should refrain from thinking of their personal opinions, in regards to a particular piece of art, as such that represent an undisputed truth-value.
However, it can be hardly doubted that there is indeed a fully objective criterion for distinguishing real art from the extrapolations of people’s mental inadequacy, which are now being frequently discussed in terms of art. This criterion is concerned with the fact that, as opposed to what it is being the case with the mentioned extrapolations of one’s mental pathology, real art appeals to people on an unconscious level.9
In its turn, this makes it possible for just about anyone to land its view, in regards to what can be considered the actual significance of a particular ‘classical’ artistic piece. If we were to apply the mentioned criterion to the discussed examples of contemporary art, it would appear that they cannot be considered even slightly valuable. The reason for this is apparent – these formally artistic creations do not seem to relate to the notion of ‘aesthetics’.10 As such, they can only represent interest to either the self-proclaimed ‘experts on art’, known for their ‘bohemian’ (decadent) ways, or to the healthcare specialists that work in the field of psychiatry. This once again confirms the soundness of the paper’s original thesis.
De Duve, T. “Joseph Beuys, or the Last of the Proletarians.” October 45, no. 3 (1988): 47-62.
Friedman, K. “Freedom? Nothingness? Time? Fluxus and the Laboratory of Ideas.” Theory, Culture & Society 29, no. 7/8 (2012): 372-398.
Goggin, M. “’Decent’ vs. ‘Degenerate’ Art: The National Socialist Case.” Art Journal 50, no. 4 (1991): 84-92.
Henderson, N. “Le Sueur’s Allegory of Magnificence.” The Burlington Magazine 112, no. 805 (1970): 213 – 217.
Jackson, D. “Western art and Russian Ethics: Repin in Paris, 1873-76.” Russian Review 57, no. 3 (1998): 394 – 409.
Oren, M. “Anti-Art as the End of Cultural History.” Performing Arts Journal 15, no. 2 (1993): 1-30.
Petrov, P. “The Industry of Truing: Socialist Realism, Reality, Realization.” Slavic Review 70, no. 4 (2011): 873-892.
Pinchas, N. “A Theory of Art and Aesthetic Experience.” Psychoanalytic Review 100, no. 4 (2013): 559-582.
Smith, T. “The State of Art History: Contemporary Art.” The Art Bulletin 92, no. 4 (2010): 366-383.
Truitt, W. “Realism.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 37, no. 2 (1978): 141-148.
- M. Goggin, “’Decent’ vs. ‘Degenerate’ Art: The National Socialist Case.” Art Journal 50, no. 4 (1991): 84.
- N. Henderson, “Le Sueur’s Allegory of Magnificence.” The Burlington Magazine 112, no. 805 (1970): 214.
- P. Petrov, “The Industry of Truing: Socialist Realism, Reality, Realization.” Slavic Review 70, no. 4 (2011): 876.
- D. Jackson, “Western art and Russian Ethics: Repin in Paris, 1873-76.” Russian Review 57, no. 3 (1998): 403.
- W. Truitt, “Realism.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 37, no. 2 (1978): 142.
- K. Friedman, “Freedom? Nothingness? Time? Fluxus and the Laboratory of Ideas.” Theory, Culture & Society 29, no. 7/8 (2012): 379.
- T. Smith, “The State of Art History: Contemporary Art.” The Art Bulletin 92, no. 4 (2010): 375.
- T. De Duve, “Joseph Beuys, or the Last of the Proletarians.” 45, no. 3 (1988): 56.
- M. Oren, “Anti-Art as the End of Cultural History.” Performing Arts Journal 15, no. 2 (1993): 9.
- N. Pinchas, “A Theory of Art and Aesthetic Experience.” Psychoanalytic Review 100, no. 4 (2013): 563.