Defining the Terms
The terms contemporary and modern are synonymous, especially with reference to the present styles and trends in art. The concept contemporary or modern is not geographical, it does not mean mechanisation, it is not fashion, it is not materialism nor theory of social reconstruction. It cannot even completely circumscribe what is existing in the present.
What is it then, that is modern in art, or literature or other creative activity? It is a teasing question and provokes a gamut of varied reactions.
To some, modern is synonymous with the machine and, therefore, something decadent and indecent. To yet others, modern stands for the material civilisation of the west and is, therefore, to be looked down upon from the spiritual heights of India. To the young, the radical theory of social organisation is what is modern, which advocates jettisoning, with impunity, the existing and the traditional in their own society. And these are just a few viewpoints.
The element of the modern is a character of consciousness. It is a particular state of tension or concentration which accompanies human will and effort when it grapples with the changed aspect of form when it battles and strains to grasp the new. It is that which gives a passionate and vigorous direction to the human activity of a period. The operation of this character of consciousness is like the undying force of the universe itself which surges forth at every fresh creation of civilisation.
Contemporary art exists at many levels, in many media, and is very complex. The beginnings of modern art cannot be pinpointed to any single date. It is, however, generally believed that it became a serious movement shortly after the middle of the nineteenth century.
Politically, economically and socially, the mid-nineteenth century was a period of ferment in the Western world. The rise of the common man and the decline Of the aristocracy, the growth of materialism and the opening up of mass markets and other such dynamic forces gave an impetus to break with tradition. Industrial development and technological progress led to the growth of urban centres and new relationships between individuals and groups. Psychologically, the image that man held of himself was significantly altered by radical discoveries in the sciences.
Like the peasant who necessarily became a proletarian worker, in this age of change, the artist was also affected. He had to forego his sources of patronage—the nobility, the church, and the ruling classes. He was compelled to depend upon his own resources. In the process, he won the freedom to create without the confining limitations of a commission. While the worker changed figuratively, from one form of ‘bondage’ to another, the artist found a whole new horizon open up to him. Traditional concepts were not permitted to stand in the way of eager discovery. This is as true now as it was with the Impressionists and Cezanne over a hundred years ago and the various ‘isms’ that followed: expressionism, fauvism, cubism, futurism, abstractionism, dadaism, surrealism, and so on. One of the continuing characteristics of modern art has been its constant search for form and expression as is evident from the developments in art history.
Art forms are usually shaped by the forces of the time. European culture, for example, is a blend of two strains—Greek civilisation which is the dominating strain and that of Christianity which is eastern in origin. These two strains have determined the direction of the life and attitude of Europe- and till the Renaissance. Renaissance onwards, the new factors like Reformation, French Revolution, industrial revolution and mass entertainment brought significant changes in the cultural climate of Europe. The resultant new and unique approaches to art led to many innovations. The significant among these was the rejection of representational imagery.
The artist in pursuing his search for expression gave a great deal of importance to the characteristics of his materials. The painter reaffirmed the flatness of the pictorial surface and insisted on a basic commitment to the colour and textural qualities of pigments. The sculptor began to think in terms of mass and movement rather than a static likeness. The architect-designed to enclose and manipulate space in terms of new functions and values.
The actual depiction of objects was no longer an important artistic consideration—it became an obsolete idea. The camera had taken over this function in a manner the artist could not hope or wish to compete with. In his search the artist also explored the sensuous possibilities of his media at great length. Surprisingly, however, in this exploration of artistic sensuality, the artist turned for his creative cues to nature and the established traditions of art.
The artists of the Renaissance had held a mirror up to nature and created an illusion of reality or verisimilitude in their work. Impressionists, with the help of the new scientific knowledge, held a prism up to nature in their work by depicting the break-up of light into seven colours. The Renaissance tradition of visual perception which began with Giotto and culminated in impressionism was broken with the emergence of contemporary art as a force to reckon with.
Hans Arp, a modern artist, is said to have remarked: ‘The artistic fruit of man shows, for the most part, ridiculous ambition to imitate the appearance of other things, I like nature but not its substitutes.’ Cezanne, therefore, aimed to ‘recreate’ nature; the cubists dissected and analysed nature; the surrealists dug beneath nature to discover a new reality behind it—the inner nature; the dadaists roamed in the world of dream fantasy in search of new milestones; the abstractionists created their own representation of nature, devising abstract patterns of forms and col- ours. The futurists attempted to express time and space in the normally static art of painting.
But in seeking inspiration in the traditions of art, the artist did not confine himself to one period or one master or even one civilisation. He borrowed from prehistoric art and the art of earlier societies as well as the art of children and early man. He considered these sources to be as valid as the teachings of venerable masters. Man’s complete artistic endeavour was used as a take-off point for expression, experimentation and inspiration.
With the freedom to utilise the experience and understanding of the range of artistic expression, the artist developed the next obvious step. He turned his understanding of inward. The entire range of human emotion and psychological functioning became a source for creative ideas. The artist became his own model; his psyche, the laboratory of his experiences; his personality, the compelling influence on his style. The artist insisted upon the dignity inherent in all individuals.
The artist, in stressing Individual viewpoints, created new pictorial problems. He resorted to allusion for displaying introspective notions. Through allusion the essential meaning of the experience was symbolically expressed and conveyed in sensual terms; his work created its own quality of reality, exist- ing as a thing in itself. Art had arrived at a point where it could be itself and possess an autonomous character. It developed a directness and force that spoke authoritatively. It achieved direct and symbolic meaning that required no interpretation other than the integrity of individual human perception.
With growing psychological awareness, the artist not only mirrored the contemporary world but gave it diverse forms. In addition to rejecting representation, the artist also dispensed with conventional norms of pictorial composition. Pictorial action became closer to contemporary life, some- times fractured or randomly distributed. Cubism, for example, rearranged the pictorial universe of the canvas in a way that its construction followed the artist’s sensibility and feeling.
The artist’s concept of space and time from the previous and more mechanical serial order was freed and created a sensitive awareness of the infinite variety of the artist’s field of vision. Art dictated its own values: for the apples in a Cezanne still, life or the newspaper in a Braque collage were as ‘relevant’ and important as were the nymphs in the works of the academics. The artist created his own myths, transforming his experience and his environment in a new evocative manner.
Artists were no doubt involved in their own work, arriving at aesthetic solutions, resolving their individual artistic problems, such as those of the pictorial space, colour and other relevant visual elements and materials. Yet, in developing a style, larger human factors are always present; styles partake of the temper of the times.
The artist swims with the tide of history and draws his sustenance from the total human spirit. A civilisation’s complexities and contradictions are reflected in its art. Contemporary art integrates the sharp, ordered, yet cluttered components of technology onto the canvas, such as in Leger and Maholy Nagy. The higher reaches of science and mathematics find an echo in the intricacies of Cubism or in the abstract harmonies of Mondrian, Brancusi and Pavasner.
The turmoil and insecurity of much of today’s ideologies are mirrored in the distortions of a Picasso and the abandoned movement of a Wols, a Pollock or a De Kooning. Earlier the intensity of life was seen in Van Gogh, Munch and the German expressionists. Psychology and its probing of human motives later found visual allies in the Surrealists and artists like Dubuffet and Giacometti. Science has now become the controlling factor in the development of society, as also art. It has made possible amazing discoveries and exciting explorations. The electronic microscope and the gigantic telescopes have uncovered strange patterns. Op art is an expression of such explorations.
The scientific discoveries as already mentioned, have drastically changed the image man had of himself, even as of the universe that man inhabits has drastically changed. Modern art not only reflects the obvious qualities about it but draws from more profound sources, the inherently humanistic attributes of mankind. The modern artist has rediscovered the sources of intuition. The very junk and discarded bits of contemporary living that many contemporary artists have been motivated to employ, affirm the limitless reservoirs of spirit, paradoxically creating ‘beauty’ from ugliness, stressing contemporary meaning rather than senseless routine. ‘Happenings’ attempt to capture the direct qualities that are a part of everyday living.
The pop artist has taken the actual forms of the visual glut that surrounds him and utilised them as a base material for creating new images. The subjectivity that currently prompts researches, centred around the man, is already a highly developed avenue in art. The art of today is primarily an interior art and is subjectively oriented. Though it is mainly experienced through its visual elements, it also communicates on a philosophical and psychological level.
Contemporary Art in the Present Century
Contemporary or modern art indeed signifies the bubbling, exciting state of activity in the arts in the twentieth century. Some have called this art the mouthpiece of the present century’s incoherence. They say that behind this outburst of activity there is no feeling or faith. There is no wholeness of vision in the modern art movement. Modern artists seem to see the reality of life only in parts. But consider what Cezanne is said to have told his friend Villard, ‘It is easy to paint a vision, It is most painful to paint sensations.’ Most of the modern artists were searching to realise sensations and not to paint visions.
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There have been protests against the analysis of forms undertaken by contemporary artists. The criticism is that modern artists seem to think one has to kill before he can dissect. It is felt that in contemporary art humanity has been sacrificed for the sake of scientific dogmas.
Some critics hold that the painters of the twentieth century have regarded art from an angle that is too exclusively technical. Formal problems have engaged attention so much that artworks remain laboratory experiments. The highly intellectualised aspects of contemporary art which are responsible for withholding active participation in its experiences by a larger audience have also met with disapproval. The surrealists, who delight in psychological adventure in their paintings, have also failed to find favour with audiences who love art. Pictorial representations of what are in-depth experiments of the human soul do not seem to evoke a positive response. Similarly, visual expressions of the fantastic and supernatural world do not find their vivid realisation in the work of contemporary artists.
However, one cannot deny the extraordinary variety of modern art and its Intense search for new directions. It has brought about the functional coexistence of the major arts of painting, sculpture and architecture. Quite a few twentieth-century painters have been accomplished architects and sculptors and vice versa. The evolution of all three arts has, in fact, remarkable parallels. All three have common aims—simplification; study of the potential of various materials, old and new; concentration on formal problems, in particular the organisation of space.
The technological developments, giving rise to a fearsome mechanical imposition on our lives, cannot be rejected outright as inappropriate environments for the arts. The new media processes and engineered efficiency possess a beauty of their own. The recognition of needs is calculated against the conditions in the environment and the social mood. Subjected to men’s analytical and creative attributes, it results in a product that answers certain individual needs, and at the same time conforms to the spiritual and economic needs of culture.
The applied or accompanying arts of advertising and design provide an intriguing challenge to mobilise the aesthetic instincts in modern man with his trading, manufacturing and social inclinations. Technology today is not only a source for products and wealth; it is also a fundamental source Of philosophical understanding as well as a generator of creative visual forms.
There is a genuine and fundamental belief in the limitless possibilities of technology and the ability to shape its products within acceptable and pleasing aesthetics.
There is a general line of evolution from realism through a modified naturalism to abstraction and non-objectivity. There is a break with the older traditions and they have cast off all the shackles of romanticism, eclecticism and formlessness. There is a forthright directness of approach and an effort to get to the fundamentals. This has resulted in clear, precise forms which bear direct and indirect relation to science and technology.
The contemporary movement in arts, indeed, has broadened the scope of the artist and provided him with a wider outlook. Is contemporary art the pioneer of a new style? Where will this movement eventually lead? One cannot say. We already hear that the modern art movement ended in the 1970s and that now we are in the post-modern period.
However, the relevance of this development in Europe to the Indian scene has yet to be studied and clarified. It may be that the function of the contemporary movement in art has been to cleanse the traditional styles of their overly great emphasis on verisimilitude and eclecticism and to revive and revitalise the older traditions of art.
The significance of the contemporary art movement, perhaps, lies in its dynamics. It has inhabited many recesses of human personality, which is bound to be of deep significance in the enrichment of life. Sensitivity to surface, colour, texture, line, and shape, and the evocation of images deeply embedded within us, have made life more enjoyable. For, whenever men have turned their eyes inward, beauty has been poignantly revealed.
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Though contemporary art has grown out of a mental environment which is entirely European, and though the focal centre of this art movement was Initially in Paris (and more lately in New York), yet its influence has spread to all parts of the world, both the East and the West. This spread reminds one of the great cultural migration that took place in the early history of India when Indian civilisation spread to Central Asia, China, Japan, and the countries of south-east Asia. Similarly, the influence of contemporary art has spanned oceans and continents and come in grappling contact with the regional arts everywhere. Its expressive forms and the implications of the forces that it has released are of immense significance in the development of. present-day art and the direction it is taking throughout the world, India is no exception.
It is not only in India that there is an indecisive approach to contemporary art. Everywhere, even in Europe, contemporary art has piqued and intrigued people. It has aroused passions for and against it,. leading sometimes to panegyric, sometimes to abuse and sometimes to caricature. This has happened, in all probability, because contemporary art is very different from all earlier art, and the new forms of expression are less easy to understand. The critics have not made it’s understanding easy either. In their painstaking efforts to explain the intricacies of contemporary art, they have made it more mystifying, and perhaps brought the enjoyment of art to a halt. Critiques and manifestos were written by the artists themselves or by writers and public relation people engaged by them. They have not, in all cases, been more elucidating, perhaps, because they were intended to propagate merely their views. To add to the confusion, popular prejudice against the newer forms of art has been aroused by the whimsicalities of the modern artist himself, both in his life and in his work. For example, an artist left a canvas blank and titled it ‘Ecstasy’ or left a stone unchipped, in its natural form, and called it ‘Purity. ‘ Another artist affixed to a framed canvas a slaughtered duck and a pipe and then argued with all the logic at his command that he had created a masterpiece.
Salvador Dali hired a palace wherein he placed an egg which was, in fact, a cube and not oval, entered the egg, and in the presence of a crowd of eager lovers of his art, came out of it to symbolise the act of creation. He drank tepid champagne, kept his telephone iced and even exhibited his own moustaches. Such eccentric publicity has not encouraged respect for the work of the modern artist. It is also unfortunate that in spite of experimenting with new forms, new tools and depicting new sensations, contemporary art has not so far been able to become a part of the life of the people as art did in a society where it had a definite function.
The lack of an understanding audience has, perhaps, stood in the way of a general acceptance of contemporary art and, therefore, there has been an absence of participation of the people at large in this art experience. How- ever, It cannot be denied that contemporary art has practical bearings on our times. For instance, we are so accustomed to seeing the shapes of modern architecture that we no longer see them as geometrical forms and these shapes, as we know, go back to the modern painters.
Typography without capital letters was the Italian Futurists’ way of protesting against the accepted good taste of 1912. Cubism worked its way through our pattern of life from advertising to the displays in the world fairs and exhibitions. Magazine covers are the kind of paste-ups Braque and Picasso made. As already noted, the international reach of the contemporary art movement has brought it in grappling contact with regional styles of painting in different parts of the world. To review the results of these contacts would be a formidable task. But it can safely be said that contemporary art has affected deeply and completely the regional arts of America and all other countries where the root of civilisation is European.
Thus, they produced their Cubists, Futurists, Surrealists, the Ops and Pops. But in countries where the indigenous traditions have been strong, the issues have not been finally settled by the modern art movement in its favour. In Mexico, for example, where a strong native and indigenous culture has existed, the contemporary art movement has only been able to stimulate the latent capacities in the direction of a break from the European towards more authentic national expression. In the countries of the East, contemporary art is still digging its talons deep to make a widely noticeable and effective change.
The contemporary expression of the modern, no doubt has its source in the West, but the world has now shrunk so much that its influence is world-wide, and the significance of contemporary achievements is not confined to any one region.
Mechanization, indeed, has given man today a new sense of power and domination. Its by-products like the radio, television, cinema or the car and aeroplane are merely the identification marks of a mechanised world. In the same sense, fashion is not mere frivolity, but the reflection of a deep restlessness, an urge of contemporary life, and man’s attempt to keep pace with the tempo of change. Similarly, materialists, by exploiting human selfishness (that is by thinking of others first in one’s own interest and serving one’s self best through serving others), have ensured high wages, abundant purchasing power, the production of cheap goods and have provided people with more comfort and more enlightened leisure. Similarly, the stamping out of age-old social injustices is indicative of the rousing of social conscience.
None of these changes, however, either singly or together, can wholly represent the modern. The modern is a new sensitivity of which the basis is knowledge and experience—both of which are grist to the mill. Man’s interest in the practical and positive, and his craving for insight into the fundamental or final truth, are not regarded as incompatible. Poetic truth is not regarded as less real than scientific truth. The modern belief lies in an independent world of mathematical, measurable sequences and from this spring all the characteristics of the contemporary expressions, that is, clarity, exactness and its refusal to be content with what is only approximate or ill-defined, Qualities of precision and economy, poise and lightness are representative modern qualities. The perceptive powers of man have been forced to be so lucid as to See through both the abstract and the humanistic in order to be able to communicate the experience in terse and concise terms.
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The artist’s will to form has struggled at every step to discover aims and motives in order to be able to assist in the remaking of the universe. The period from Manet to the surrealists, from dada to the pop, and self- expressionists and the post-modern performers (creating installations and happenings), is littered with the corpses of many ephemeral art movements. The ardent tension or the sensitising, soldering sensibility of man was seeking in each successive movement to rebuild and reshape.
The net result, however, has been that after much revolutionary achievement, the period of great technical experiment has more or less ended. All the modern art movements, such as impressionism, post-impressionism, cubism, futurism, abstractionism, fauvism, expressionism, surrealism and dadaism, have contributed, each in its own way, to the preparation Of new rhythms.
The gain, indeed, has been immense. The modern has produced a startling exactitude of vision in the works of painters. It has been responsible for the most singular innovations by giving freedom to both poetic and chromatic sensation. It has opened new vistas, extended its reach by the introduction of ‘föreign’ element, found sanction for its technical departures in Japanese colour prints, Indian sculpture and paintings and the sculptures and forms of Polynesia.
The dead-weight of tradition which thwarted and stifled attempts at original expression has been challenged. The modern has made possible for artists to see colour afresh. It has enriched their sensations. It has endowed their technique with the firm and new Instruments. The surrealists, by their exploration of the Inner reality, rehabilitated intuition. The reason, as an individual instrument for passionate investigation, spelt that all objects in nature may be reduced to the cone, to the cylinder, to the sphere. It is the extreme of -synthesis following upon the extreme analysis of neo-impressionists. Like other systems, modern art has provided discipline to painters.
The constructive efforts of cubism were the stirring symptom of a new intellectual order, which was followed by fauvism, futurism and surrealism. The present tension has in the welding of intuition with reason; for already it is being indicated that intuition IS a flame that spurts forth only through contact with an infinity of previous analysis and accumulated reasoning. Only that work will be endowed With inherently vital significance which shall be in accord with this tension. In a work of art, it is expected that the linear and chromatic elements will be substantiated by the integral function which they fulfil in the pictorial statements which the artist’s sensibility perceives in the motive forces of contemporary life.