What is art today?
A possible background
by Claudia Galhós
Art today, as modern art already was in the beginnings of last century, is an art of sounds, of images, of mixed media, of the confusion between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Art today is still about honesty and sincerity. But is not any longer about how deeply existentially tortured the artist is. Or about a genial enlightened condition that elevates the artist into a superior level of common human beings.
Shocking was easier in times passed. Maybe was possible to shock in the vanguards of the turn of the XIXth century into the Xxth, or even in the ruptures of 60s and 70s post-modernism, with the carnal and mortal inscription of the body in performance art of that time. There was an intensification of horror, paranoid behaviour and provocation that went on in contemporary dance, theatre, performance and visual arts until mid 90s. And all converged in visions of the apocalypse in the exhibition “Apocalypse – Beauty and horror in contemporary art” (presented at the Royal Academy, London, in 2000). But even with all the loathing, destruction and violence, it was not possible to imagine a 9/11 or an Arab Spring, and everything that came after. Between the tragedy, death and destruction there was also visions of beauty and utopia in the works of such different artists as Maurizio Cattelan, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Jeff Koons or Chris Cunningham.
The 80s and the 90s were the times of the maturation of the “new” that arrived as “new dance” and “new theatre” during the 70s and 80s in Europe. The roots can be found in the literary world of “nouveau romance“ of the 50s in France. By then, each novelist experimented a singular and particular style each time they approach the writing, rejecting the codes, standard rules and conventions of past literature history, and valuating the individual perspective that each work of art expressed. What they shared was the possibility of voicing their singularity, and by doing so, their difference. “Tropismes“ (1938) by the French Natalie Sarraute is said to be the inaugural “nouveau Roman“. The trend came to cinema with the “new wave”, and it arrived in dance and theatre some decades later.
Jerome Bel did his “Jerome Bel” in 1995. It was a clear statement of the, from then on, enfant terrible of European dance. But before him other had showed on stage the most ordinary and basic functions of human body. The world of art and even of performance art was already full of images of the most private action, like pissing, and of the most troubling, touching and fragile approach to human life, as is the case of the presence of old bodies that exposed themselves in the same level of importance as a trained, efficient and young body.
In 1991, the choreographer Meg Stuart did her striking first piece “Disfigured Study”. In it she sketched a reconfiguration of the human through the expression of deformity, disharmony, disturbance when proposing three dancers moving as in a psychological nightmare from a picture of Goya (1746 – 1828). Another connection may be established: with the disfiguration already existing in Francis Bacon “Figure Study“ (1945).
But before Stuart, there was already Steve Paxton, in mid 60s, in the context of Judson Theatre Church (New York), experimenting the possibilities of choreographic language just by composing movement from ordinary life actions, such as sitting and standing up, going to the floor and standing up. Contemporary to him, a sometimes considered less important figure of dance history, Paul Taylor, was experimenting with so-called non-dance, while dialoguing with other arts – namely with painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. In 1956, Taylor did “Seven New Dances”, and the show made history not only because the use of natural postures that created a performance without movement to the sound of a telephone time signal, but also because it led to a scandalized review from specialized critic Louis Horst, who decided to have just his name signing a blank space in the magazine Dance Observer. But before any of them used domestic and daily life gestures, Marcel Duchamp was revolutionizing art through the idea of ready-made with the sculpture “Foutain“ (1917).
Going back to the body and the exploration of its limits, there was also Marina Abramovic in the 70s. With her, the performers body becomes itself a stage where viewers, or public, are invited to perform their most inner desires. This was the case of one of her most famous pieces, where audience could be the active part of a relation in which she, the artist and performer, was the passive target of an action from the public. Each spectator could choose to inflict on her pain or pleasure, through a range of 72 objects that the Abramovic made available in a table, like a whip or a flower – this was “Rhythm 0” (1974).
In late 60s and beginning of the 70s, Vito Acconci, one of the leading names of visual and performance art, said that “there was already an atmosphere of shock in art before”, which made him feel that there wasn’t anything he could do that would have shock value. But art followed its own way to keep alive the spirit of provocation and disturbance.
After all the radical actions and experimentations in art and in life, what is art today remains a question. The philosopher Theodor Adorno is usually misquoted (for simplification reasons) as being the author of the statement: “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz“ – firstly appeared in 1949 essay, “Cultural Criticism and Society”. One of the most controversial comments on 9/11 is said to be from the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 – 2007), that qualified it as “the greatest work of art ever”. He argued that was misquoted and apologized. Nevertheless the question remains, but maybe transformed: after all the terror, horror and violence in life and art, what remains as meaningful for art and for life today? Maybe the fact that they are intrinsically connected, even when not literally traduced one into the other. And maybe there could a reconsideration and reconfiguration of what shocking and transgress might mean and be…