What is the point of producing artwork in the present moment, or any moment? Western art history describes an evolution from illustrating the sacred, whatever that may have been thought to be at various points in time, to the present, where it is widely believed that there can be art without content, purpose or meaning.
I want to explain what I think I am doing as an artist and why.
Modernism is alleged to have ended sometime in the 1960s. Much that has been written about this alleged transformation is confused, if not nonsensical, and, in any event is unhelpful to an artist trying to situate himself or herself in the 21st century. A refreshingly useful exception is the work of Hans Belting, particularly The Invisible Masterpiece, and Art History After Modernism.
In Invisible Masterpiece, Belting chronicles the history of the idea of the masterpiece and how its significance changed in the Renaissance as the role of art changed from religious explanation to individual expression. Belting describes the diminution of the importance of the individual artwork to the point where it can be presently asserted that a work itself is unnecessary. He describes the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1913, and how the theft contributed to the commodification of this painting, a process that continued through Duchamp’s moustache and goatee recreation. Belting goes on in great detail about conceptual art and other recent manifestations of post-Modernism.
Duchamp in the end reasserted the primacy of autonomous art with detailed instructions for the posthumous completion of an installation titled Étant donnés (Invisible Masterpiece, 329-32).
As Susan Buck-Morss puts it with respect to the work of Walter Benjamin:
The Passagen-Werk suggests that it makes no sense to divide the era of capitalism into formalist “modernism,” and historically eclectic “post-modernism,” as these tendencies have been there from the start of industrial culture. The paradoxical dynamics of novelty and repetition simply repeat themselves anew.
Modernism and post-modernism are not chronological eras, but political positions in the century-long struggle between art and technology. If modernism expresses utopian longing by anticipating the recognition of social function and aesthetic form, post-modernism acknowledges their nonidentity and keeps fantasy alive. Each position thus represents a partial truth; each will recur anew,” so long as the contradictions of commodity society are not overcome.
For more on Modernism click HERE.
My view on what constitutes a work of art has evolved over the years.
A work of any kind is currently considered acceptable, from painstakingly executed technically demanding pieces to ephemeral actions requiring neither manifestation of technical competence nor creative risk. An artwork can even be imagined.
The assertion of the elimination of the work, let alone the masterpiece, as a possible outcome of the process of making art is unconvincing.
In fact, the work has had its range expanded. Alfred Leslie’s move to, if not invention of, hyperrealism in the 1960s could be considered reactionary, especially when viewed in light of the subsequent trajectory of realism, at least in North America. It was, as he stated at the time, confrontational. Leslie’s subsequent work bears out his progressive intentions.
The issue is the context within which a work is produced. A metaphysical, let alone divine, source for subject or content is not susceptible to rational discussion. The Marxian argument for socially useful work falls short as it denies the autonomy of the individual.
After working through Brecht’s dialectical approach Benjamin concluded that the “. . . images of the unconscious are thus formed as a result of concrete, historical experiences, not (as with Jung’s archetypes) biologically inherited.” (Dialectics, p. 278.)
I understand an artwork to be the product of an autonomous artist, not beholden to theocracy, the bourgeois market place, a need to be socially useful, nor even the desire to resolve dialectic tensions.
I add to this my compulsion to produce tangible works of art, products of innate talent, informed by study and practice, and refracted through an intensely militant individuality.
I do not rely for a living on the sale of my work.