When we look at contemporary art, do we see ourselves? What is it that we are seeing, anyway?
Much of the works in galleries and museums represent gestures so far removed from the intention that viewers are left wondering if they are either stupid or missing an opportunity to take up art themselves. Traces of the human touch are either removed or works are created by such mundane, everyday objects that their creation suggests a complete lack of importance of anything. Contemporary art is riddled with sarcastic jabs and ironic critiques. There are little answers but plenty of comments, if you can stand to listen to them. I find myself leaving encounters with contemporary art exhausted and mad. The joy is leaving and a frustration is filling the holes—and I am a lover of art and art history. (Imagine how a casual viewer must feel: oy.) It’s not that the content is infuriating but the entire artistic efforts now feel like representations of a (usually rich) in-crowd hoping to comment on the exhausting mundaneness of life. It’s very teenage.
Looking through a breeze of contemporary art, you feel weighed by the need of contemporary art to be both snide and coy, two annoying traits that attempt to mask. If works of art reflect us as a people, we must be awful abstractions of what it once meant to be human. We must be the late phases of our existence, so mired by life that we shrug toward effects by creating massive works for people to stand by. They are gentle illusions intended to disappear as they are consumed. Viewership has been abandoned.
In visiting art museums where you can explore decades and centuries and even millennia of works, it isn’t until the time leading up to the twentieth century that art began being less literal and more abstract and conceptual. Over a century later, today, the erosion of the representational or the literal has manifested as mostly guileless concepts that few see themselves in. Will people in the future see themselves in this art without explanation or context? Likely not. Similar to fiction writing that incorporates modern technology, the effect beyond our generations is the creation of something that few will ever care to understand. They aren’t relating or appealing to humanity at a basic level but instead shifting toward contemporary yuks that comment on some little thing we do now.
What contemporary art gives me is the feeling that we’re all exhausted. We’re not necessarily looking for answers, we’re not necessarily holding hope to breast, but that we’re simply too over it to care. It’s all a fun, fleeting Instagram post. It’s fifteen minutes about to expire. There is no looking inward at the now to reflect it back. It feels like the intellectual opposite of a movement like Symbolism, a late nineteenth century period in art that rejected naturalism in exchange for past symbols to comment on the problems of their time. It feels like the first stroke of the butterfly wings that give us the art we have now.
But what symbolism did was react to time in a unique way where people could still see themselves by way of history. Nicole Myers of The Met explains what motivated Symbolism.
The Symbolists who emerged in the 1880s were a diverse group of artists often working independently with varying aesthetic goals. Rather than sharing a single artistic style, they were unified by a shared pessimism and weariness of the decadence they perceived in modern society. The Symbolists sought escape from reality, expressing their personal dreams and visions through color, form, and composition. Their almost universal preference for broad strokes of unmodulated color and flat, often abstract forms was inspired by Puvis de Chavannes, who created greatly simplified forms in order to clearly express abstract ideas (58.15.2). His muted palette and decorative treatment of forms made a considerable impact on a new generation of artists, most notably Gauguin (1848–1903) and the young Pablo Picasso (1881–1973).
What Symbolism was also reacting to was the incoming of technologies that weren’t clearly understood and that were upending “traditional” living.
The best, most succinct explanation of this can be found in the Musée d’Orsay’s gallery introduction to the brief but profound Symbolist wing.
The century of the Industrial Revolution in Europe favoured technology and materialism, and this in turn provoked a crisis of values and nostalgia for lost ideal. Nevertheless, during the Universal Exhibitions that marked the dawn of the 20th century, the French state acquired a number of emblematic works from the Symbolist movement, such as L’École de Platon (Plato’s School), a fresco by the Belgian artist Jean Deville.
Symbolists were both rebelling from what was happening while using their art as therapy as the representation of industrialized anxieties. While the works were “abstract” by their measures, viewers could still see literal representations of themselves. Even Henri Martin’s Sérénité, a sublime work about departing, somewhat queer souls, depicts what could be seen quite simply as people lounging in a park.
It all makes me wonder: is our art this? Are we in the age of a new symbolism that has perhaps lost its way of connecting the message with the audience? If you look at our art, it feels so removed from the literal present of the human self as it relates to our form: what does it say about us as a people or society? Contemporary art tends to feel exhausted, excessive, and dry, like the ideas have been sucked out for a husk to be examined. Nothing seems real which is itself a hyperbolized symbolism.
But perhaps this exaggeration of symbols has gone so far that the message is being reversed. I find myself longing simultaneously for a simplicity coupled with a hope that we can move beyond the growing pain humps of our coping with technology as artists. We’re instead sputtering our wheels, still talking about fucking Instagram in our art instead of talking about ourselves. Our lives are not online nor are they Instagrams yet they are intertwined and enhanced by these tools. Unless the works are grounded in the current confusion of American politics, they feel led by a disposability and dread, an ironic sense that all is lost and nothing is found. This has always been the case of human life but, instead of seeing ourselves in the work, we’re given a joke where the human is removed and replaced with a facsimilie of an idea that doesn’t earn more than a passing glance in a museum since we will see the work again and again and again digitally, on the photo we took ourselves or elsewhere online.
Perhaps that is what makes this new symbolism—or conceptualism—so radically different, for better or worse: it’s less about the literal experience or our literal selves. It’s more about being digested later, out of the museum or gallery, on our phone or via someone else’s social media. That is fine, yes, but so joyless, so impersonal, so childish. Art instead is a game of telephone.
Instead of being a true symbol for contemplation, the effect of current art is that of an alien relic waiting to be discovered and decoded. We have mostly lost the human element, yielding unplaceable art outside of jokey references to today to suggest the mundaneness of living. So what does that say about us? What does that mean? If we take a step back and look at things literally, we appear to be a meaningless, confused pile of stuff that is occasionally pretty and sometimes reflective of living things.