Monday, 19 January 2009

On art and modernity...

The Giant Mountains (1830 - 1835) by Caspar David Friedrich, a 19th century German Romantic painter.

In commentary of this image, courtesy of Wikipedia, which quotes the art historian Linda Siegel: "Friedrich sought not just to explore the blissful enjoyment of a beautiful view, as in the classic conception, but rather to examine an instant of sublimity, a reunion with the spiritual self through the
contemplation of nature". Or Christopher John Murray, suggesting his paintings direct "the viewer's gaze towards their metaphysical dimension".

This quote to me surmises the essence of art. With technical proficiency taken to virtually unsurpassed levels long ago achieved by masters such as Rembrandt, and the camera making possible perfect imitation in the modern era, it is hardly surprising that art increasingly has had to undergo a radicalisation, or reinvention, through several tangential directions: abstraction, impressionism, surrealism and a certain rationalisation or "conceptual art", etc., it order to continue to make itself relevant.

For me, art - in the widest definition of the term, encompassing music, literature, any creative pursuit... - is about suggesting, or a "pointing-towards" the sublime, the transcendental. That which goes beyond the limitations and necessary constraints of everything that can be communicated rationally and by and through mere concepts. It is inherently non-empirical. It is most definitively not merely logical positivist.

So, at heart, I perhaps most closely identify with the Germanic Romantic movement (I use the term relatively loosely) across all levels: its many superlative achievements in fine art (such as pictured), its music; Rachmaninov, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms..., its literature (particularly philosophy); Kant, Schopanhauer, Nietzsche, Goethe, Schelling, Fichte, Heidegger...

Hence why, in many respects I grow increasingly anti-modernist. Of course nothing is truly polarised, and one must always admit the incredible range of achievements and works of art in the modern era.

But. Modern trends in all fields of art (as epitomised, perhaps, most clearly by the Turner prize), perhaps obviously as a result of our increasing trend towards secularism, scientific physicalism and hence materiality, rather than aspire towards the metaphysical "pointing towards" that most deeply characterises human experience at its most mature, and correspondingly, most sublime, rather aims at a "closing off" as an existentialist expression: it is often about firmly relocating human experience in the mundane, generic, and aesthetically empty plane, devoid of ambition or betterment. To compensate for the resultant absence of beauty - which we could describe as the harmonising and regulating principle that allows us to recognise a congruence between that which is the object of the "pointing towards" and that which most deeply comprises our innermost essence of Being - we therefore find, instead, socio-political commentary and a form of cultural reactionism designed to generate interest though provocation. Art used as a tool for exposing and challenging social, cultural or religious biases and prejudices.

Is this what we really aspire from art? Is this really what we consider art to be today? Do we really need further existential prodding to recognise the ugliness, banality, and emptiness so prevalent in the [post-]modern world?

Should we not still be striving towards, that which is beyond the ordinary and the mundane, through that which elevates, uplifts, or cathartically reveals that which cannot be clearly communicated through specific concepts?

If we pre-formulate - that is, contrive - a particular "intellectual conception" of what a piece of art is supposed to represent, and those representations are directed purely towards objects or concepts in the plain material sphere; in essence, if we make it a piece of empirical art; are we not then depriving it of the true qualities of that which is art?

Death (2003) by the Chapman Brothers. Is the above image art, or simply social/political/cultural commentary, or perhaps rather, an attempt at antagonism?

Or, under the guise of an attempt at the type of "intellectual" art described previously, is The Lights Going On and Off, an empty room with lights repeatedly going on and off, another Turner prize winner, really contributing to the richness of our world?

Under modern definitions one would certain have to admit these examples as being "art". But is it good art? Does it have any quality?

Or rather, does it suggest that in the modern era we are simply moving towards banality and reactionist pseudo-intellectual posturing, a type of contrived culture; perhaps in recognition, of which no one wishes to admit, that the type of aesthetic genius that the world of antiquity provided in abundance across the globe across countless ages, is slowly disappearing, since virtually none have the necessary quality or skill to match it any more, or more importantly, even choose to strive towards it?

What does such modern art say about the current state of the world?

Well might Tamonten, Lord of the North, a deity from Japanese Buddhism, look down on the modern era, with great divine displeasure. And yet, perhaps, we might detect just a hint of a great sardonic mirth; for perhaps he recognised, and expected, such a degeneration.

And sometimes I cannot help but recognise the same look in myself! :-)

And we duly do look up to Tamoten, as we look up - in all senses of the term - in the work of this Edo era sculptor, an example of a great art.

Or perhaps, for example, such exquisite detail and symbolism from the bow of the Oseberg Viking ship:

Plentiful examples abound. This whole topic of thought for today's post was prompted by a splendid - that is, rare, since the opportunity for such quality of conversation face to face scarcely arises in my life - and very wide ranging conversation with a new friend at work today.

Her views on this subject are probably significantly different to mine (and I wouldn't presume to know at all what they are), but it was the fact that we had such a conversation that provided the inspiration for this blog entry.

And so, it seems only fitting, that I end with one of the photos she has taken of her art (since she herself is an artist), which, I am delighted to say, in my opinion, is both beautiful and most definitely has the necessary qualities to be considered real art, that does indeed on some level point towards the metaphysical - in this case, by evoking, perhaps indeed, even invoking, nature. Marvellous. :-)

Click on the link for her online Flickr gallery.

parquet (2006), by Amy Davies.

1 comment:

vesperinlimbo said...

I adore existentialism, but I hate bad art. Bad art is just bad art.