Each issue, the New Art Examiner will invite a well-known, or not so well-known, art world personality to write a speakeasy essay on a topic of interest. Frances Oliver has published seven works of fiction and self-published three memoirs. She was born in Vienna, grew up and married in the US, and has since lived and travelled in a number of countries. After her husband’s death she and their daughter settled in Cornwall, where she devotes much time to environmental campaigns.
Truism: art reflects a society that produces it – not the whole of society, but its prevalent morality, its leading ideas. And art – what previous ages called art as opposed to folk art – reflects the tastes, demands and foibles of that society’s dominant class. In the Middle Ages, the age of faith, art centred on the church, reflecting not only the beliefs of the period but the power of the institution that paid for the art. With the Renaissance and the rediscovery of the classics came more realistic portraiture and landscape, a new sensuousness, worldliness, interest in the natural… Sorry, I continue to list truisms.
When art moved away from representation, from picturing likeness, whether faithful or idealised, partly through having lost that essential function to photography, it was in a time of new radical ideas and politics, economics, psychology, and sciences; a time of the dethroned gods. Some art moved away from representation altogether, into the abstract: realms of pure shape and colour or pictures of the fantastic, dreams, nightmares – here again reflecting society, its increasing scepticism, anxiety, and losses of faith. Another obvious truism. The point is that art remained, nonetheless, as did art objects. Statues and paintings, however bizarre, however seemingly unrelated to anything in the real world, were objects not only to be admired but owned and passed on. This new art reflected also the power of middlemen, of dealers, galleries and museums; for the paymaster was no longer the rich merchant who wanted his portrait, but the gallery – the place to spot talent and then push a trend or a brand.
And then came conceptual art, the death of the transmittable object itself. A half cow in formaldehyde is not a thing anyone wants in the living room, and will certainly be difficult to hand on to one’s descendants. Installation art, performance art, is art as immediate experience, art as ephemera, opposed to all previous art with its striving for permanence and immortality.
An installation is transitory by definition. It is also frequently dependent on high-tech, and procedures transient and vulnerable in themselves; if the video breaks down, the sound isn’t synchronised, if there is an electrical fault, the entire experience fails. Such concepts often require enormous space and are extremely wasteful (wrapping buildings in plastic, doing concrete casts of buildings, etc.) Individual artists may be concerned about the ecological crisis, art is not. When this new art does turn back to objects, those getting the most attention seem, interestingly, to be ones made from what dies or comes from neglect or decay (a head sculptured with the artist’s blood, paintings done with elephant dung, an unmade bed, the half cow carcass etc.)* This new art then, whatever else it says or pretends to say, is a tribute to impermanence. Though it may here and there involve craft, its concept is what asks to be judged, so it is in essence divorced from craft, and there are no criteria. It depends wholly on the fleeting experience of the individual viewer.
So does conceptual art reflect our society? Only too well. The throwaway society produces throwaway art. It speaks to and for a culture of instant gratification, rabid consumerism, the triumph of mass taste divorced from any roots, the glorification of technology and individual selfishness, the worship and power of big money. Our society, yes. But an art form that is wasteful and ephemeral by definition also says something more profound. Previous civilisations died but left artefacts, often of great beauty, behind them. This one has chosen to make a virtue of their absence; and here is the important message for all those unconcerned about the state of the world – about climate crisis, overpopulation, planet exhaustion. Your art is telling you we don’t need anything to leave to posterity – because posterity may well not exist.
*A reversal of this is the making of interesting artefacts out of pure waste; I think of the brilliant work of David Kemp, where waste is turned into objects of possible lasting value. Our Friends of the Earth group did a beach clean with David Kemp contributing to his skull pyramid formed from plastic bottles; we had hoped to get the Newlyn Gallery to host a permanent sculpture in its garden. We were turned down.
Volume 35 no 2 November / December 2020