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The popularization of social criticism, part III

Perhaps the most easily identifiable if not most significant example of the phenomena in which specifically acute anti-consumerist or anti-institutional gestures are rendered in such a way as to serve capitalism and institutions themselves is modern or avant-garde art. Indeed, the two terms are almost interchangeable: ‘avant-garde’ is a term that implies being ahead of the game, original and advanced, borrowing its implications from the military usage which denotes a group of soldiers on the front line of battle. In the same way, to be modern is to be original in some respect. Thus, both terms share similar qualities, aspirations and associations by definition.

In particular, modern or avant-garde art is characterized by exploring “new and overlooked aspects of human experience” (Modern Art: A Very Short Introduction, p. 6). As such, the usual suspects of modern art are regularly provoked to transgress the conventions and apathy of institutional or establishment art and their corresponding values. Thus, what is discovered in the work of modern artists is typically shocking or strange. In a word, it forces one to think beyond habitual thought. One strategy it takes in this regard is satire, mocking both the history of art and its audience. In short, the driving force at the core of modern art is “a spirit of competitive innovation – a rage for the new.” (p. 20).

A key aspect for generations of modern artists has been the recognition that a picture is “not a window onto that world but a constructed image of it” (p. 14). For post-impressionists in particular, the function of art is not merely a mimetic representation of reality. The adherence or correspondence to visual reality is, after all, the least interesting aspect of art. For avant-gardism, on the other hand, the symbolic or expressive function of art is much more important. This facet of art was all the more intensified given the emergence of photography and printing which could mechanically reproduce images of reality. Artists no longer needed the skill or dexterity to represent reality since photography could quickly do so instead. Thus, art “no longer entailed a representational purpose” but combined objects or materials in order to produce works for more psychological purposes (p. 51). As such, an entire revalorization of what counted as art was underway. In fact, what now appears to be relevant is an almost obligatory aspiration in contemporary art to be kitsch. In other words, the dross of the art world is turned into gold. Art no longer plays by the same rules as before but dismantles the citadel of conventional art right along with its artists, curators, critics and art historians.

In addition to the novel and oppositional gestures it flaunts, modern art is socially rebellious, radically critiquing the obnoxious nationalism, sexism and market values of its present situation. In this way, avant-garde art is foremost a medium of culturally independent work that quietly subverts dominant images of modern society. Doubtless, this also includes strategies of contesting the hegemony of institutional art practices and powerful gallery-based museums. Modern artists have commonly responded to this problem by exhibiting their work in cafes and cabarets while private art academies have emerged in opposition to state schools. However, it goes without saying, modern art has mushroomed to the extent that entire museums now house works devoted entirely to modern art and state schools specialize in avant-gardism.

Even at its inception, modern art has been “caught between the market and marginality” (p. 39). Generations of modern artists have desired to be on the margins as outsiders, but have simultaneously required some semblance of monetary support. Perhaps more importantly, the second motor of modern art, in addition to the rage for the new, has been expressive creativity and individualism, an idiosyncrasy of avant-gardism that has fueled Western ideology and consumerism at the same time as it has resisted it. Indeed, the emergence of modern art has been central to the growth of Western capitalism itself. In perhaps my favorite line of the text, modern art is referred to in this manner:

For, despite the avant-garde’s cultural and social marginalization, those very motors that were driving its activities – the rage for the new and internationalism – were also driving modern, consumerist capitalism. At this consumerism was progressively extended through the mid-20th century, so the avant-garde became what one art historian has called the ‘research and development arm’ of the culture industry at consumerism’s centre (p. 27)

And as anticipated above, more and more public art museums are specifically ‘modern’, which entails a new avenue of consumption for books, reproductions, merchandise and even food. Thus, with the flourishing of the avant-garde movement came the growth of consumerism and commercialized entertainment in tow. Furthermore, the market of modern art would have have emerged had it not been for collectors with enough money who were willing to speculate on the then novel and unpredictable form of avant-gardism. So while artists resisted the reduction of their art to the status of a commodity, such a collapse was and still is in some respects inevitable. What is more, modern art has formed its own system of professionalization which is governed by strict, if tacit, protocols and criteria for recognizing certain artists as acceptably modern and rejecting others. In other words, modern art has become a dominant institution itself, even if it owes its roots to anti-institutionalism.

To be ‘modern’ today is to already have qualities that Western societies currently value – vitality, openness to the new, and responsiveness or relevance to the present moment, for instance. In fact, as discussed elsewhere, it seems as though social criticism and resistance to the status quo has itself become a popular way of participating as a consumer in market capitalism. Although modern art was not received well publicly at its inception, it has certainly become quite popular at this point in time. People have grown comfortable and familiar with it. What is novel today is old hat tomorrow (hence, capitalism must perpetually expand and open up new markets).

It is telling then that the currently popular style of street art is caught in the same predicament as modern art was previously, that is, the complicity or betrayal of resistance and marginality to commercial art. Employing its usual wit, the Economist recounts this latest trend:

In the past few years, as street art has exploded from variations on fat-lettered graffiti to sophisticated murals and stencils, works by its top practitioners have sold at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars: a far cry from such art’s usually subversive origins. But whereas many street artists now create work expressively for galleries, starting out—and often, continuing—in the trenches of “outside” art is what gives them credibility and, ironic as it is, market legitimacy

Is there an alternative ending to all this? Is there a way to escape the commodified status of art? David Cottington, author of Modern Art, suggests there is: “Art as art still has power to move, enchant, and enlighten us as viewers” (p. 140). As such, art possesses the possibility of jarring us from our habitual and everyday forms of thought and encounter something new. This is what makes art so rewarding and enriching after all. This of course includes challenging the shortcomings of capitalism:

If we as viewers of modern art are to keep the faith of what motivated much of it in the first place, we are committed to an avant-gardist opposition to institutionalized modern art – that is, almost all of that art – which entails acquiescing in the abandonment of art as art, in favour of putting artistic creativity to the work of critiquing capitalist culture in other, more propitious, fields. But if we allow ourselves to enjoy the creations of modern artists in aesthetic terms, on the museums’ terms, whatever visual gratification we derive from the encounter with their artworks, we gain it through a misapprehension of what they meant by them… (p. 141)

Whether or not this is a satisfying conclusion I will let the reader decide. The point that the author seems to be making is that we should remain faithful to the original oppositional gesture, even if that means overturning the very fabric that we once supported as a means of resistance before it was compromised by the very system it contradicted.