If you have viewed any quantity of art, you are aware of the tectonic shift in style that the 20th century saw. From recognizable forms, themes and objects, much of art shifted to meaningless shape and color. Pollack and Rothko are just a few artists who led the graphic art world into the new way.
Having become accustomed to the newer forms, and not wanting to be seen as old fashioned, most do not criticize this shift, but merely accept it. I am not able to be quite so accommodating.
Of course art should have deeper purposes beyond mere design and decoration. Any medium that can depict the events of our past, the realities of our present, and our hopes and vision for the future is too important a thing to waste on meaninglessness. To succeed, art must communicate, which implies that it must depict things having real objective meaning for the viewer. (Artists today will assert that their works do indeed have meaning, but the very fact that you could mix up the titles in a postmodern gallery and nobody would be the wiser proves that such works do not really have inherent meaning.)
So how did such a radical change come about in art? Several factors are responsible.
In the twentieth century, art went from something largely available only to the elite, to something everyone could own. The overall increase in prosperity, coupled with the decrease in the cost of printing, made sure that everyone could own copies of art if they desired. Art became common. In that environment, artists had to branch out quickly and radically to differentiate themselves. That created a race to the bottom, as the available forms and styles that could still be distinguished were quickly exhausted.
(Many artists would say that it was the old, classical forms that were exhausted, and so modern and postmodern art simply had to forge new trails. This required that artists desiring to be successful push the envelope of what was considered “art”. I don’t accept that this was the only choice, if it meant that art had to lose touch with reality.)
Coupled with this was the discovery that in a postmodern world, art could be marketed with skillful words substituting for skillful art. This enabled artists to create far more works in the same period of time than a classical artist every could. Whereas Bouguereau or Leighton would take weeks to paint a canvas, Picasso could finish one per day. By wrapping a hasty work in a veil of obscure postmodern language, one can still be successful.
It will be said of me that I “just don’t get” postmodern art, or that I’m a neophyte, or worse. And thus we come to the next leg upon which art stands today: elitist snobbery, art prices, and the guru effect. To be in the club at the highest level, you have to agree that the avant garde is where it’s at. Coincidentally, the people defining club membership are those who happen to own the avant garde works. They have no choice but to protect the value of the works they have bought. And who wouldn’t want to own a Picasso? After all, it’s…a Picasso! The emperor’s clothed state must be defended!
Lastly—and this is certainly not an original thought of mine (see How Should We Then Live, by Francis Shaeffer for more), it is quite possible that too many artists have nothing visionary to say. This aligns with my concerns for the future of Western civilization in general, as artists can be the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, culturally speaking. As we seem to be rudderless in general, so did art presage this by getting itself lost in a dense fog with no apparent direction or purpose. (Of course there are artists attempting to backfill the art landscape by painting in more traditional styles. But they are not considered members of the club.)
Where can the graphic arts go from here? Not much farther in the direction of nihilism and randomness. That area is already filled with an undifferentiable melange of color and shape. Might I suggest instead a return to depicting some noble ideals, or a lofty vision or two—with all possible skill? Until that happens, I’ll be browsing the art here: http://artrenewalcenter.org/pages/search.php