The fiction called ‘modern art’

Much hate has been said about ‘modern art’ and its pretentions, such as the video below:

and the more popular but lengthier one:

Yet most disturbing is the popular glorification of ‘skill’ and ‘reality’ supposedly against the claims of modern art enthusiasts for intellectual superiority, specifically in their pretentious claims to understand an artwork as gross and as unsophisticated as a man shitting on a plate or a urinal being sold for more than a million dollars.

But what is ‘modern art’? Do we refer to modern art as in contemporary art, or only to those who have rejected ‘classical’ definitions of art and were therefore considered modern?

The glorification of skill and the rejection of conceptual art somehow manages to gloss over how modern society has popularized ‘modern art’ elements. Modern rock and metal would not be possible without the aestheticization of the electro-acoustic glitch called ‘distortion’. Punk is based on the rejection of musical skill and its elitist tendencies, thus its celebration of noise and primal energy against formal musical aesthetic. The Italian and Soviet Futurists preceded minimalism by decades. Duchamp’s urinal showed exactly this process of commercialization of art. Therefore, the so-called pretentions of modern art shaped our society as we experience it today.

Perhaps what fuels the present hate on modern art is the rising popularity of art’s fetishized status, the aestheticization of everyday life (paintings of favelas, underpass graffitis, spoken word in depressed areas, etc) and the growing divide between the privileged and the unprivileged. Most practicing artists work with some sort of social buffers, economic or political nets that would save them from poverty if ever their ‘art’ gig ever comes to some desperate down. We have to admit: art is an endeavor which does not have an immediate or pertinent usage in society. Artists are not like doctors or construction workers who help build actual things.

This is why there is a need for art to resist the temptation to merely entertain. Of course, art has the function of entertainment, but it would be ridiculous to claim that art’s only function is to make people dance or cry at some cheesy love poem. Art, at its very core, is an attempt to make us think about our conditions and our experiences. Michaelangelo changed the way people look at the world in the same way as John Cage shook the world when he was invited to perform a piano piece and did nothing. When Seurrat decided to paint with points rather than with strokes, it was not different when Thelonious Monk decided to dance when it was his turn to solo.

People who devote themselves to art and abstraction (academic work, philosophy ,etc) possess the tendency to alienate themselves from society. This is what precisely makes them vulnerable to the  exploitation from culture industry, and to narcissism. Profit-hungry art speculators manufacture hype in order to simulate demand and increase the value of certain art works. Artworks are exposed to the market, not on account of their impact but the hype they make. Because artists, like most people, are always on the verge of poverty and precarious existence, it becomes practical for them to ‘sell’ themselves and their works by following the logic of the art market. Their ideas are made tame by their price tags. In short, art is reduced to another tinapa in the tinapa supermarket.

This is not the problem of ‘modern’ art but a problem inherent in class society itself. ‘Modern art’ is simply a scapegoat to vent out our frustrations on the commodification of our very humanity and artfulness. Art becomes a contest on who knows how to draw or dance the best. But art is not about the hype nor the talent. It is about the ability to present something new, to create ripples of affect through the audience not because they aim to ‘shock’ but simply they are what they are. Art is the celebration of our discoveries, triumphs and follies, of our very being as living, experiencing, struggling human beings.

Let’s not hate the artists or those who appreciate them. Hate the very conditions which shape our methods of production ,consumption and definition of art.


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