Who shapes art: in 1908: monet; in 1998, disney
Popular culture, now shaped by television and movies, once meant 'finer things.'
LOS ANGELES — Nov. 24 - Turn off your television, take off your headphones, put down your CD player.
Ever wonder what folks did for entertainment (or, gasp, edification) before all that technology? In honor of 90 years of continual reporting on the cultural life of what Henry Luce in 1941 called "the American Century," the Monitor is taking a step back across the decades to appreciate, if just for a moment, some of the stories from the arts and entertainment world that led up to the chapter we're living today.
However, in deference to the multi-media environment expect-ed of our time, a sound track is included.
CUE: "The Maple Leaf Rag," Scott Joplin's seminal composition, published in 1899. Ragtime was the nation's first "pop" music.
FADE IN: February, 1913. New York City's Armory Show, in which Cubism arrives on the American art scene. Dubbed by art historians, the most important art event in American history, paintings by such artists as Pablo Picasso and Marcel DuChamp shocked the 80,000 visitors who flocked to the controversial show.
This exhibition can be seen as the art world's official announcement that this century demanded a new way of looking at reality, a "modernist" outlook that included a willingness to use whatever materials that such a new vision might require. These ideas gave birth to Picasso's space-fragmenting cubist masterpiece "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," and Marcel DuChamp's "Bicycle Wheel," a "found object" triumph in which an actual wheel was mounted as sculpture for viewers to touch and move.
Of course, the roots for this liberation from conventional realism came from deep in the previous century, with important predecessors such as Impressionist Claude Monet (his late "Water-Lilies" series, in particular).
The French painter opened the way to a new abstraction which in many ways heralded everything from architect Frank Lloyd Wright's New York City landmark, the Guggenheim Museum, to the Abstract Expressionist drip paintings of a Jackson Pollock, the musical reductivism of a John Cage and ultimately, the digital internet art of a Friederike Paetzold of today.
The Armory show also pre-shadowed another significant event of 20th century American cultural life - the post World War II rise of the mass-media.
Before the World War I, the automobile, or airplanes, the new middle classes, spawned by the industrial revolution, began to find themselves with time and money to spend on art. In this era, before consumerism and technology created a global entertainment culture, what is now called "high art" (symphonies, museums, ballet) was considered mainstream, popular art. After the World War II, that began to change.
As returning soldiers settled with their families, pursuit of the American Dream began to drive a merchandising bonanza. Soon, TV and film spread American fads around the world. An entertainment-oriented culture, particularly films and fashion, occasionally drew from the fine arts; but the entertainment culture essential overshadowed fine arts, and began to dominate. This phenomenon has reached an apotheosis in today's vast media conglomerates, such as Disney or Time-Warner.
Indeed, Disney's flimsy cartoon fable ("Beauty and the Beast") gave birth to a lavish stage production. In turn, that begat several sequels to the original story, based on a multi-million dollar merchandising strategy. All this is certainly a late 20th century phenomenon quite foreign to the sorts of diversions enjoyed by folks at the dawn of this century.
Those audiences were, however, getting some hints of the future. At the same time the Armory Show had New Yorkers up in arms, Parisians were enjoying a glimpse of the modernist winds blowing down the century as ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky kicked up a storm in Paris.
CUE: Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," music for the ballet which premiered May 29, 1913.
The athletic Nijinsky may have jumped higher and hovered longer than any dancer before him, but it was his raw sexuality that, according to accounts of the day, sparked fist fights and even duels in the aisles during the ballet premier. Beyond that, the audience saw his pure passion for the art form as a sort of pagan rejection of God and organized religion. The philosopher Frederic Nietzsche prefigured this modernist move when he announced several decades earlier that "God is dead."
As cultural historian Marc Aronson noted in his study of the avant-garde, "Art Attack," "the homage to spring and rebirth on the stage of the Thatre des Champs-Elyss announced the arrival of the modern age."
Implicit in the modernist theories was the notion that by changing the way people looked at reality, artists could affect the way they thought, which would in turn change their lives. This restless assault on all the conventions of the day that was the heart of modernism was buoyed by a near-religious sense of optimism about the promise of new technologies. If irons, light bulbs, automobiles and the like were appearing every day, what would be next?
Many artists, the Futurists in Italy and the Constructivists in Soviet Union, in particular, felt the machine age would be the salvation of mankind. This was true as late as the 1939 New York World's Fair, whose motto was "Tomorrow's World - Today!"
But the horrors of this century's wars dispelled that notion. Many artists, across a wide range of disciplines, from the design arts to sculpture, painting, dance, music, and architecture found themselves in the middle of the century engulfed by a deep sense of alienation and loneliness at the core of their experience. Technology had proved not to be the salvation but the near destruction of mankind.
For some, the answer was to dig beneath conscious experience. In 1924, surrealist Andre Breton published the Manifesto of Surrealism, an art theory which focuses on accessing the power of the unconscious over the rational. The theory is loosely based on the psychological teachings of Sigmund Freud.
Picasso's 1937 monumental black and white depiction of the savageries of the Spanish civil war, "Guernica," stands as a supreme example of the artist's protest against social evil. It also served as a bridge from his earlier cubism, in which space was fragmented, to a simultaneous use of surreal images and an emphasis on an artist's responsibility to respond to the need for social change.
CUE: Jazz pianist, Thelonius Monk's "Straight No Chaser."
In 1947, Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock created his first drip painting. The whole country was retooling from war to peacetime activity and the new jazz sounds set the pace. It's easy to see in those wild paint drips the same sorts of voyages off the edge of the known world that the avant-garde jazz musicians were taking with their new, bold sounds.
Largely fueled by the vast stream of European refugees fleeing both Hitler and Mussolini, the center of the art world shifted after the war from Paris to New York. At the same time, a little-noticed arrival, Edward Bernays, nephew to Sigmund Freud, marked another important turning point in American culture.
Widely regarded as the grandfather of public relations, Bernays utilized theories of the subconscious combined with the power and passion of the art world's graphic imagery to launch the consumer/celebrity culture that has achieved a global reach by century's end. Cosmetic giant Lancome's use of top actress Juliette Binoche is a perfect example.
It was New York Pop artist Andy Warhol, who best symbolized the intertwining of high art, popular culture, and consumerism as well as its ramifications for society. His soup cans and iconic celebrity prints of Marilyn Monroe, which appeared on the surface to be facile retreads of popular imagery, were in fact a bitter criticism of a materialistic, celebrity-obsessed society.
During the last quarter of the century, fragmentation has best defined a wide panoply of artists who have gone in many directions trying to reach an increasingly cynical and entertainment-saturated audience. Musicians Steve Reich and Philip Glass went minimalist in an effort to get to the heart of a musical experience. Dancer Merce Cunningham pursued pure form and "chance choreography," collaborating with chance composer John Cage who used anti-intention concepts from Zen teachings in an effort to remove the imposition of structure from musical composition.
Musicians from the Beatles to today's Alanis Morissette have dipped into musical styles from around the world, while visual artists have experimented with happenings, performance art, body art, land art, arte povera, and numerous other movements in an attempt to move the forms forward.
This wide frame of reference has come to be called the entire post-modern experience in which the world does not know what it is, only what is just ceased to be.
Not surprisingly, for a period in which boundaries have been breached with such increasing speed, Philosopher Arthur Danto proclaimed "art is dead" in the 1970s - the same era in which the film industry reached what is widely considered its golden age, defined by the perfect intersection of a high degree of artistry and commercial success. This was the decade of "The Godfather," "Chinatown," "Taxi Driver," and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
But this convergence was overtaken by George Lucas's phenomenally successful "Star Wars," which marked the beginning of the blockbuster mentality in 1970s Hollywood. This coincided with the flowering of a post-modernism that embraces a wide range of art forms as well as a longing for more direct meaning in art.
Today, says Thomas Hoving, former director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, "it's for tired art historians to figure out what's going on." In a period characterized by quickly evolving technologies and artistic territories, it is perhaps both refreshing and depressing to note that many of the themes that occupied artists at the turn of the century still present the same challenges today. How to break away from stifling conventions of the past, how to best use new technologies, what is the role of the artist or the art in society? And this-end-of-the-century culture has added a question of its own: How do we bring meaning to a society saturated with consumerism and entertainment?
In the meantine, as the artists of today forge tomorrow's answers to yesterday's questions, in the words of both Cole Porter and Alanis Morissette "anything goes."
CUE: Singer Alanis Morissette, "Thank U," from her new album, "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie."