It seems that in the modern era, artists, if they aspired to be elevated to the level of “important” artists like those in the art history books, have had to come up with something new to say or, at least, come up with new ways of saying something. They’ve had to be original.
I’ve kept my old high school art history textbooks from the 1960s and early 1970’s (The Story of Art, Gombrich and Mainstreams of Modern Art, Canaday ) and in these books one can see the transformation of western art through the centuries. If we open Gombrich at the sections covering the late Middle Ages and early renaissance, we see artists harking back to the achievements of the ancient classical world and striving not just to emulate but to improve on the ancients. This led to the mastery of perspective which the ancients never really came to grips with and to new techniques for rendering form and creating light and shade. In short, it led to heightened realism. This striving for visual realism culminated in 19th C with the slick Neoclassicism of David and Ingres. And then things changed again. Instead of realism with a classical flavor, artists wanted something more exotic, and Romanticism was born. Then artists like Courbet found they were over the classical past and had tired of exoticism and wanted to paint the realism of the everyday life around them without historical allusions or heady romanticism. This movement, and those that followed, succeeded in ousting classicism from center stage. Impressionism and the dissolution of form in favor of the effects of light soon emerged. This was quickly followed by a host of other “isms”: Pointillism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism and very soon after, complete abstraction was upon us. The artists at the center of these changes were saying new things in new ways and because of this, have been elevated to the pantheon of great artists. They are the artists in my art history textbooks. From the Middle Ages to the 20th Century, we go from Giotto to Rothko and, in the last century or so, instead of marveling at realism, people have had to marvel at urinals, at masses of paint dripped onto canvases with sticks and at white squares on white backgrounds. At this point, it was hard to imagine what more artists could have done if they aspired to get into the art history books – especially if they were realists. All that seemed to be left was to shock. So that’s what they tried. But even that has now become passé. Duchamp’s Urinal, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, and many in a similar vein, can really only be done once. People aren’t shocked easily by art anymore. In art circles (if not religious circles), it’s hard to imagine Serrano’s Jesus on the cross submerged in a container of urine eliciting much more than a yawn these days. *
So, this week’s question is about what you think there is left to say that might be new. And about who will be in the art history textbooks that cover the 21st Century. Will they have said anything new? Is there anything new left to say? Or has the idea that great artists need to say something new also become passé?
*(I am aware that professional art historians would frown on my extremely truncated and hopelessly incomplete potted history of western art. But I only have a paragraph.)