Thursday, April 21, 2011

DECODING THE NOW: Modern Art, Mashups & Memes

I recently came across an online forum whereby one contributor to the discussion inquired, "Why is modern art so boring?" It was a hypothetical and perhaps subjective premise at that, but I still thought the question intriguing and wanted to take a stab at answering it. That is, its very open-endedness presents us with an entertaining intellectual challenge, even if the answer we arrive at will be every bit as open-ended as the initial query.

The phrase, 'modern art', itself goes undefined, but I will accept it to mean not only those works produced from the 1860s to the 1970s, as the phrase formally suggests, but rather inclusive of a casual survey of the contemporary western art scene in its entirety –art and artists, and inclusive of all mediums –i.e., what's happening right now.

The question itself also recalls a similarly provocative argument that I heard from one composer that, "There are no good Jazz musicians anymore."

I might say the same thing about Disco singers. However, although many people would presumably accept that statement as simply hyperbole,  if I were a Jazz musician who had devoted my life to this art –and now my art– and especially if I considered myself at the top of my game, then upon hearing that someone had said that there were no good Jazz musicians, I would take real, personal offense.

So, obviously modern art is not boring. The real question is what cultural or societal factors would bring someone to think that it is? It might be that anyone north of thirty is simply jaded –not because of their age, but because they personally experienced some of the variety provided by the Twentieth Century. During that era fashions changed rather radically throughout every single decade from 1915 to 1995, ushering in cultures, economies, living standards and shiny new things to try and buy, the likes of which had never been seen or experienced in the prior ten thousand years. And then came along the Internet, all but transposing our obsession with production, with disruption and its consequences.

It's an irony that at about the same time our tools for communication began rapid evolution, what we once called our culture appears to have stalled. Technology itself will certainly contribute to another general life frame, but in the meantime, we're all trying to balance the zeitgeist beneath us.

And somehow, I think, we may have gotten stuck in the eighties –myself included. I say this because I sometimes get the sense that although language and design evolve at light speed, content in its substance and form remain stagnant. Not to say there is nothing new that can be said employing classic and classical forms, but if there is, why isn't anyone doing so? To put it another way, so what if the bricks have chips in them, if we're still using them to build Tudor styled mansions. Or was that the dream we aspired achieve to all along? At any rate, here he are at the dawn of a new century trading our dollars for Greco-Roman Pavilions furnished with flat screen TVs, in order to watch shows about decorating Greco-Roman Pavilions with flat screen TVs.

–No wonder we're bored.


Consider, also, that even major advances in film making address the technology of capture and perception, but story experience itself has remained largely unchanged for nearly a century. Sorry, but even print to pixel is still a minor advance compared to the quantum leap from stage to screen.

True, film makers oft transfer traditional stories into movies, but the scale of the screen and the portability of the cameras allow for radical perspective change. Smaller screens projecting material from ever more portable cameras do grant wider access to the filmmaker, thereby providing a broader social context, but they can also produce a simultaneous effect of putting blinders on the viewer. Yes, now you can participate in the revolts in North Africa from the comfort of your home, and even pause to brew a pot of tea, but how is that going to help you cross a busy street in London, or Madrid, when your nose is in your phone?

No doubt activists are using technology to dramatically change their social and political circumstances. Not to mention that the disabled now have powerful tools with which to interact with worlds once beyond their physical reach. But equally interesting is how an exponentially greater demographic is choosing an alternate route to the future, that of the urban technologist (or technologista). This person's idea of participation and engagement is limited to a text exchange, and rather than experience the world firsthand, he or she would rather observe it at the comfortable distance provided by a lens.


If it sometimes feels as if modern art collectively lacks the necessary stimuli to trigger excitement in a presumably jaded and increasingly selective audience, perhaps it's because we in the West live not in an age of Artistic Discovery –despite the new tools at our disposal (and presumably new ideas in the air)– but rather an the age of Autistic Discovery, "...characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior."

Indeed, in this way it is also an exciting age of rediscovery and recycling, which a future historian might one day point out paralleled a tandem growing awareness and social movement that called for the recycling of our entire environment.

But whereas once art was the product of recombinant processes, now we simply copy and paste, sample and loop, layer and remix. Or if we are really clever, we establish where points A and B are on a graph and then we take credit for the space between.

We tag a wall, for instance, and it is ours.

Imagine, entire bridges and buildings are for the taking! Tag it, shoot it, share it and revel in your fame. Maybe that's why modern art feels boring – because when faced with an interactive interface, we are still relegated to being consumers, not creators, which is what we want to be, and what we do  become, when at the very least, if we can't paint the Mona Lisa, at least we can take a picture of it.


The image that leads this article is the West African Adinkra Symbol, 'Nkyinkyim' which is a symbol of initiative, dynamism and versatility. The original image can be found at, which allows use of African symbols at no cost for non-profit uses. 

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