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Contemporary Art usually refers to art produced since 1945, which was the end of World War II. Similarly, Pop art, which utilizes aspects of mass culture, such as advertising, television and ordinary cultural objects, was also introduced after World War II (more specifically, the mid-1950s). High Art is seen by many as an ageless piece that deserves recognition and respect within the art world. It was serious, complex, beautiful and elite. Conversely, Low Art is often seen as something that is a sign of the times rather than something that has held up against the test of time. It is frivolous, sentimental, cheap and popular. High, Low and Pop art all tie into Contemporary art in that in that they all influenced it by using media and advertising in one way or another. Contemporary artists such as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer are prime examples of this, as is the group AdBusters. All three fit into John Berger's theory "selling the past to the future."
Barbara Kruger is an American artist who challenged cultural assumptions by manipulating images and text in her photographic compositions. She layers found photographs from existing sources with concise and hostile text that involves the viewer in the struggle for power and control that her captions speak to. One of her more famous pieces of art is "Your Body Is a Battleground," which shows an oversized image of a model's face that is divided into two sections. Placed across the image is the phrase "Your body is a battleground," by which she called into question the objectification of women and raised the issue of women's reproductive rights. This image has been, and still can be, seen in museums and galleries worldwide, as well as bus cards, posters, public parks and train platforms, among other things. By manipulating and recontextualizing imagery, Kruger sought to question the way accepted sources of power, in this case the mass media, present female identity. Her grounding in the theoretical connects her with contemporary developments in conceptual art.
Jenny Holzer is also an American artist, mostly known for her large-scale public displays that include billboard advertisements, projections on buildings and other architectural structures, as well as illuminated electronic displays. The main focus of her work is the use of words and ideas in public space, often referred to as truisms. Electronic LED signs are her best-known, most spectacular method; they also reflect the military-commercial-entertainment complex that, bit by bit, her art exposes. Occasionally cliché-like and sometimes contradictory, both the truisms and her methods of presenting them have been influenced by the world of commercial art and advertising, appearing, often, to be no more noticeable than a conventional advertisement. They can be seen on posters, t-shirts, stickers, and even carved into the stone of public benches.
AdBusters is global network of culture jammers and creatives working to change the way information flows, the way corporations wield power, and the way meaning is produced in today's society. AdBusters is anti-advertising: it blames advertising for playing a central role in creating, and maintaining, consumer culture. Culture jamming is the primary means through which AdBusters challenges consumerism. The goal is to interrupt the normal consumerist experience in order to reveal the underlying ideology of an advertisement, media message, or consumer artifact. Culture jamming aims to challenge the large, influential corporations that control mainstream media and the flow of information; it is a form of protest. There are many examples that AdBusters uses to achieve their goal, including the "Joe Chemo," "Absolut" and "Obsession" ads.
John Berger, an English art critic, says in his book Ways of Seeing that publicity has to "sell the past to the future" and that it is nostalgic. He cites specific examples, saying "Cigars can be sold in the name of a King, underwear in connection with the Sphinx, a new car by reference to the status of a country house." Berger says that these images "belong to the moment but speak of the future." What he means is that the average person will come across these images, whether walking by them, seeing them in a magazine, glancing at them on the television screen and not notice them until a later time. Kruger, Holzer and AdBusters are all selling the past to the future as well with their words and images. They are hoping that the work they have done, and continue to do, will one day be as dynamic as they want it to be. Unfortunately, the reality is that advertisements that are produced right now are geared towards the present and having a direct effect on society now, not in the future.
Information has never been more completely and readily available to everyone. There is a place for responsible advertising, but the truth is that advertising can strongly and powerfully influence an unsuspecting and uninformed public. Ads can tell society what is modern, popular and indispensible and can help teach the masses into believing that certain positions are preferable to other positions.
Osborne, Richard, and Dan Sturgis. "The Modern." Art Theory for Beginners. Danbury, CT: For Beginners, 2009. 116-17. Print.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972. Print.
Adbusters Culturejammer Headquarters | Journal of the Mental Environment. Web. 11 Dec. 2012. <http://www.adbusters.org/>.
Russian Constructivism was a movement that was active from 1913 to the 1940s. It was a movement created by the Russian avant-garde, but quickly spread to the rest of the continent. Constructivist art is committed to complete abstraction with a devotion to modernity, where themes are often geometric, experimental and rarely emotional. Objective forms carrying universal meaning were far more suitable to the movement than subjective or individualistic forms. Constructivist themes are also quite minimal, where the artwork is broken down to its most basic elements. New media was often used in the creation of works, which helped to create a style of art that was orderly. An art of order was desirable at the time because it was just after WWI that the movement arose, which suggested a need for understanding, unity and peace.
The Mexican Mural Movement was the promotion of mural painting starting in the 1920s, generally with social and political messages as part of efforts to reunify the country under the post Mexican Revolution government. It was headed by "the big three" painters, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. From the 1920s to about 1970s a large number of murals with nationalistic, social and political messages were created on public buildings, starting a tradition which continues to this day in Mexico and has had impact in other parts of the Americas, including the United States where it served as inspiration for the Chicano Mural Movement. Both movements, while being different in some ways, are also similar due to their connection to Marxism.
Marxism is a theory and practice of socialism including the labor theory of value, dialectical materialism, the class struggle, and dictatorship of the proletariat until the establishment of a classless society that was developed by Karl Marx. Marxist theory about art and culture, as part of a general theory of social history, was a major influence on Constructivism. It professes a belief in cultural evolution and progress. Marxist theories about art and culture determined the content of Constructivism. Discussions revolved around three topics: political motivation, counter-objectivism (Materialism), and style. One of the major themes of the Mexican Mural Movement was a Marxist political orientation, which included a pronounced emphasis on class struggle.
John Berger was known from being a Marxist critic. His Marxist humanism and his strongly stated opinions on modern art made him a controversial figure early in his career. For example, he titled an early collection of essays Permanent Red, in part as a statement of political commitment, and later wrote that before the Soviet Union achieved nuclear parity with the United States he had felt constrained not to criticize the former's policies; afterwards his attitude toward the Soviet state became considerably more critical. Berger himself even admitted, "Yes, I am still a Marxist among other things."
Diego Rivera was a prominent Mexican painted whose large wall works in fresco helped establish the Mexican Mural Movement. The idea of such an art was conceived as a counter to the tradition of easel art, and was stimulated by debates on the social role of art following the Russian Revolution. On mural art, Rivera calls it the most significant art for the proletariat. "In Russia mural paintings are projected on the walls of clubs, of union headquarters, and even on the walls of factories," he says in "The Revolutionary Spirit in Modern Art," an essay he wrote in 1932. "But the easel picture is an object of luxury, quite beyond the means of the proletariat."
In 1936 the Moscow show trials served to dramatize Joseph Stalin's treatment of political opponents and independent intellectuals. Two years later, Andre Breton visited Mexico and was introduced to Leon Trotsky by none other than Diego Rivera. Together, the three of them wrote an essay "Towards a Free Revolutionary Art" in which they defended the art they did. "To those who urge us, whether for today or for tomorrow, to consent that art should submit to a discipline which we hold to be radically incompatible with its nature," the three state, "we give a flat refusal and we repeat our deliberate intention of standing by the formula complete freedom for art." Their aims are the independence of art for the revolution and the revolution for the complete liberation of art. With Russian Constructivism and the Mexican Mural Movement, both of their aims came to fruition.
Harrison, Charles, and Paul Wood. "Freedom, Responsibility and Power." Art In Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003. 421-24, 532-535. Print.
Sacred art is artistic imagery using religious inspiration and motifs and is often intended to uplift the mind to the spiritual. Sacred art involves the ritual and cultic practices and practical and operative aspects of the path of the spiritual realization within the artist's religious tradition. It is more of a relation of art to a natural landscape. In her book But is it art? Cynthia Freeland goes into detail to explain the use of both the sacred and the spiritual in art. Modern Western art is also connected with the sacred and spiritual, as is the sublime.
Freeland talks about how a Zen garden "symbolizes a person's relation to nature and higher reality." While these gardens may look 'natural' to Westerners, she says they are all purposeful with their trees, rocks, winding paths, ponds and waterfalls. Zen gardens represent a setting for human activity and are an expression of individual worlds of thought. Japanese art reflects Shintoism in art forms such as bonsai trees, ikebana flower arrangements, etc. Shintoism is an indigenous spirituality of Japan and the people of Japan. Although someone else may not fully understand the meaning behind these Zen gardens, they can still enjoy them just the same and get self-examination, spiritual refinement and enlightenment from them.
Freeland's explanation of the sacred and spiritual is connected to Barrett Newman's statement that "the first man was an artist." The first man, relieved of the remains of a dependent reality and the weight of history, is a nonentity for a new art, a new self, and a new reality. Newman says, "Just as man's first speech was poetic before it became utilitarian, so man first built an idol of mud before he fashioned an ax. Man's hand traced the stick through the mud to make a line before he learned to throw the stick as a javelin." In that same sense, man first had to be one with the natural components of the Zen gardens (stone, plant, wood, sand, etc.) before making way for the man-made elements (bridges, pathways, lanterns, etc.). Sand represents water. Gates made out of wooden fences or cloths are called torii, and symbolize boundaries. Stones are major elements, and can symbolize eternity, fertility and are considered more important than trees. Man-made elements must be made out of wood or stone, as they mean a natural atmosphere, balanced environment and peaceful meditation spot.
The beginnings of modern art, especially abstract art, have strong spiritual roots. Wassily Kandinsky, Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Barrett Newman, Mark Rothko and most of the other giants of early and mid-twentieth century painting shared common spiritual roots. For many of these men and women, art was primarily about spirituality, and was perhaps the most appropriate vehicle for expressing and developing the spirituality that the new century called for. In his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky says, "Literature, music and art are the most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt. They reflect the dark picture of the present time and show the importance of what was at first only a little point of light noticed by the few. Perhaps they even grow dark in their turn, but they turn away from the soulless life of the present toward those substances and ideas that give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul."
Denis Diderot, a philosopher and art critic during the French Enlightenment period, expressed boredom with the new neoclassical style and religious art, suggesting that a more open, realistic and moral kind of art was necessary. He represented a belief that accepted traditions, like those of the church, were a thing of the past, and that critical reflection was the way forward. He admired the style of "genre painting" as he thought it was moral because it was humble, not based on the church, and reflected ordinary people's experiences.
Alexander Baumgarten coined the term aesthetics to describe what he was doing when he reexamined ideas about beauty in the 18th century. He used it to think about art, about what makes a thing beautiful, pleasing or ugly, or indeed fine art rather than craft. Baumgarten said we all make "aesthetic judgments," as we see certain artworks as superior to others. Immanuel Kant's perception of beauty involves imagination and understanding. Kant says the other aspect of aesthetic experience is that of the sublime. In Kant's idea of beauty there is a form of order, of necessity, but in the sublime, by contrast, there's a principle of disorder, of purposivelessness. There is no order and no limit to the idea of the sublime. Examples of the sublime can be a heavy storm or a huge fire: it is like our awe of some supernatural presence, of some grandiose natural spectacle of limitless energy.
In her article "From Huacas to Mesas: Altars as Mirrors of Ecstatic Experience" that appears in the book Dialogues with the Living Earth, Debra Carroll discusses the sublime and spirit of place when she writes of her experience on the northern island of Kaua'i in Hawaii. Her friend had told her to go to the dance platform and make an offering to the goddess Laka, who brought the people of Kaua'i the sacred dance of hula. "Through the Hawaiian grapevine I had been given permission to visit the shrine of Laka," she says. "Now I stood, a little breathless and more than a little awed, at the entrance to the very place where the native people of Hawaii believe their sacred dance form had first been conveyed to an ancient leader." She goes on to describe the cliff of the platform as "gnarled blackness" and compares it to the "open maw of some primordial monster." Eventually, Carroll casts off her fear and allows herself let go and just feel ease, but for that moment when she first goes to the platform, she feels the sublime that Kant describes.
"The Sublime is Now" is an article written by Newman where he asks "if we are living in a time without a legend or mythos that can be called sublime, if we refuse to admit any exaltation in pure relations, if we refuse to live in the abstract, how can we be creating a sublime art?" He answers his own question by saying, "Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or "life," we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings. The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history." He talks about the struggle between notions of beauty and desire for sublimity and claims that the impulse of modern art was to destroy beauty. He specifies that European art cannot achieve the sublime because of the desire to exist in the reality of sensation. Essentially, Newman is stating that the sublime is now more about your own feelings and what you have in mind rather than resorting to history to try to create it.