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Contemporary Arts: the situation

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vincent hernot

on 5 February 2015

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Transcript of Contemporary Arts: the situation

Some context
Following the industrial revolution, science came to embody progress:
Science explains the world
Science helps develop new tools
Those tools help us handle the word, and change it
Science is objective knowledge, with objective criteria
With science we know, and what we know frees us, elevates us, improves us.
Science is progress
Marx (and his followers) showed that the organisation of society rests on a complex set of relationships
Those relationships are themselves based on various factors, among which:
Work: those who work and those who benefit from it.
Divisions in society, based on social, financial and other matters.
Here again questions are raised about religion, notably in terms of:
social structures (not God-given but constructed) and
morality (how to define it in a capitalist society)
The desire to organise knowledge led to the search for objective criteria:
To classify (what is X, what belongs to Y)
To organise (what subsumes what?)
To compare (is X better than Y?)

This desire was also based on the idea that
what we see is more complex than what is
(see here cosmology, physics, biology and so on)
Deep impact...
Darwin showed that the external reality of, say, animals, is not the internal reality
i.e. what we see doesn’t in itself reveal what happened, how we got there, or what’s happening now.
He also showed there were differences between the development of an individual and that of a group (ontology: individual; phylogeny: group)
Of course there's a religious consequence to Darwinism: Showing how we have evolved over long periods means:
1.myths of creation (we were created as we are now) cannot be true
2.certain sacred texts contain grave inconsistencies (e.g. the age of the earth)
the idea that there are hidden reasons for our behaviours
The idea that we do things now because of events we’ve forgotten about which happened long ago
The idea that there are objective reasons for people to do the things they do, and for which they may not be responsible: witness the idea of justice!
The basic distinction between the
and the
: ‘
Within the self, Freud discovers the entire microcosm of creation. The self [is] no alien from the natural world: we [became] conscious of being not only subjects but objects of nature among other natural objects
’ (P.Rieff, 1963)

See F. Zeri: paintings before Freud simply ignored psychology
Consider also Jane Austen, or Dickens, in the age of mass psychology: different books!
Two important (Marxist-oriented) questions:
What is the role of an artist in a society?
What is Art in an age of mass production, in which objects take on a symbolic value which far exceeds their intrinsic value?
(that last is a contemporary extension of Marxism)
Art has undergone a profound transformation in at least one way since the mid-19th century:

A move away from strict representational Art towards a more abstract approach
This tied in with the (culturally elitist) idea that Art is difficult, that it cannot be immediately apprehended, that there is an Art to reading Art…
Contemporary Art: a basic issue
This change symbolises at least three important questions:
1. What does 'representing' mean?
2. What is beauty: the one everyone sees, or the one the artist sees?
3. Is Art realised in the form of the object, or its content?
What do you see?
What can you read?

Is Art in the eye of the artist, of in the eye of the beholder?
Or is Art about content, ideas, theories?
Or is Art about the unconscious, the instinctive, the not-thought-out?
Our problem is:
how can we know we're reading a painting the way it was intended to be?
Not only religion affects the reading, time does, too:
...and culture, distance...
'It is the static qualities of the old masters which are abstraction, and unnatural at that: they are an outrage, a violation and a separation. All things run, all things are rapidly changing. A profile is never motionless, it constantly appears and disappears' (Boccioni, 1910)
I adore the figures by Michelangelo, though the legs are far too long, the hips and the backsides too large. For me, Millet and him are the real artists, for the very reason that they do not paint things as they are, but as they - Michelangelo, Millet - feel them' (v.Gogh, 1885)
The 6 principles to judge the quality of a painting:
1.spiritual resonance and lifelike motion
2.use of the paint brush
3.depicting the images or forms according to their nature
4.use of colour
5.placement of images in the space
6.copying of models to learn from the Masters
(Xi He, 5th / 6th century)
'We look at the problems of the ancient world, in all its aspects, through the filter of our own sensibility.
In each period, the contemporary sensibility is the creative source of the works produced, but it changes constantly, the sensibilities of the past no longer exist and cannot be re-created' (F. Zeri, 1999)
All this suggests our reading of a work of Art is largely, if not entirely, grounded in our time:
Our understanding, and our making, of Art is rooted in the now:
'all work of Art is a child of its time. From each cultural era an Art is born which is specific to that era, and which cannot be repeated. We cannot, for example, have the same sensibility as the ancient Greeks'
(Kandinsky 1910, p.51)
That means works of Art lose a great deal of their original meaning with the passing of time.
This might mean that it is
who we are at a particular moment
that shapes the Arts, and not some hypothetical human nature as such.
Or at least, the
of that nature may be time-bound; and the representation is also a conceptualisation, a representation both outwards and inwards. As such, the nature of Man itself can be said to change with time (that is, what we mean by it, what we put into that concept).
This idea is necessary to understand contemporary Art, and by extension
: our beliefs about the world shape our understanding of it, and therefore shape creation. Art is linked (representationally) to a moment.

The contemporary moment is full of theories about human nature, and those theories have informed the making of Art.
Those theories are devised in order to
answer fundamental questions about human nature
If we understand, or know about, those questions, we’ll understand the theory, and we’ll penetrate the meaning of Art objects.
One of our question will therefore be:

are there no features that would be universal, constant, shared by all?
Artistic, emotional psychological, social features?
Sounds, colours, smells?
and more recently...
Another will be:

is Art about communication, or expression?
A move from representation towards abstraction:
Representation doesn't have to mean likeness, or resemblance.
It's not about what people should recognise as image, it's about the artist's vision.
Art becomes an object to reflect on, to theorise:

what is Art?
What is bad Art?
Is good bad Art better than bad good Art?
Is there an anti-Art? A counter-Art?
Is anti-Art a form of Art?
Is the absence of representation the very means of representation?
Contemporary perspectives:
Not to mention the symbolism associated with both time and place

'To the right of the Virgin's head is the columbine, whose name suggests the dove of the Holy Ghost.
Below the foot of the infant Christ are cyclamen, an emblem of love and devotion, and by his knee is a basal rosette of primrose, an emblem of virtue.
Below St John is the acanthus, considered a symbol of the resurrection.
In the cornices of the rock is the hypericum, or St John's wort, its small dots of red representing the blood of the martyred St John'.
(Nicholl 2005, p.201)
And we will also question the nature of an artist:
from the artisans of 16th-century Florence and Rome to the world-famous celebrities via the Romantic notion of the Artist as solitary, elevated genius.
What is the relationship between an artist and his or her work?

Do we appreciate a canvas because we know who painted it, or because we feel genuinely moved by it?

'Adam's left hand was restored in the 1560s and is therefore not Michelangelo's work [but that of] an unspectacular and largely forgotten artist: Domenico Carnavale' (King 2003, p.246)
'We have little idea what the Mona Lisa looked like when Leonardo painted it: its currently crepuscular appearance is the result of centuries of protective varnish, tinged yellowish by oxidation: it is estimated that less than 20% of the original painting remains today' (Nicholl p.362; the Mona Lisa was also cropped in the 17th Century: its original size was bigger than it is now)
Leonardo maintains that, of painting and poetry, painting is the greatest
Art because '
it produces images of Natures truer than poetry's
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