The Decline of Art in the 20th Century...In a Nutshell 1980s



 The excesses and decline of modern art are a result of the horrors of 20th Century life, which left artists and the rest of society fearful, rootless and desperate at the loss of age-old values and traditions, with little of substance offered in their stead.


 Art totally collapsed following World War II, especially after the Abstract-Expressionists, when weaker artists: stripe painters, pop artists, minimalists and conceptualists creating watered-down versions of the work of Mondrian and the Dadaists, were reduced to the shallowest of aesthetic manipulations devoid of content, that most empty and meaningless of human activities; the contemporary equivalent of counting angels on the head of a pin.


 Cubism and all related movements (including Mondrian) up to present hard-edge painters and minimal sculptors, in their insistence on machine-echoing geometric forms, are clearly the often mindless reflection of the specific dehumanizing effects of the mechanization of society and the human spirit by the 20th Century technological leviathan.


 Expressionism is the cry of societal and individual suffering under the pressure of this robotization, proclaiming their humanity, maimed as it is, through sinuous distortions of form and shape, savaged paint and tormented color.


 Surrealist artists, also finding the outer world too deforming, escape to the inner world, only to discover it equally loathsome, the result of external conditions.


 The desire for the primitive or childlike . . . too often the childish and simplistic . . . which may be found to some degree in nearly every 20th Century artist and art movement, as well as society at large, points to the devastating extremity of the world problem, and the desire to slough off the stifling, disillusioning and dangerous over-complexity of what appears to be a futile civilization, to find a simpler, truer, more meaningful existence where our natures are fully explored and used. Paul Gauguin realized in the 1880's what we in the 20th Century know all too well: a materialistic civilization giveth, but may much more taketh away.


 But adult artists and art-lovers literally trying to retreat to childhood, to a state of pre-consciousness, by admiring and identifying with the work of the naive, innocent or even the insane, speaks--in total--of a near complete loss of spiritual and psychological balance, any constructive purpose and direction in life, or sense of what it means to be an adult human being interacting with some sense of poetry and maturity with life, art and the world.


 Dadaism, an outraged, often smart-aleck reaction against societal decay (childishly choosing to fight decadence with decadence, thereby only making matters worse) and contemporary manifestations of anti-art like Pop Art, Funk Art, etc. self-destruct in cynicism, nihilism, and in the case of the Pop Artists, commercial opportunism.


 Photo-Realism, in its reliance on the camera which separates the artist from direct visual and emotional contact with his subject while painting, the artificiality of the ready-made two-dimensional pattern of the photograph and, in many instances, the use of the airbrush, is a continuing example of the mechanization of art and the human spirit, though this movement is also evidence, weakened as it is, of a desire that art once more represent the visible world.


 By an inversion of values brought about in our time by the art world publicity machine and the inability of artists to face the task of making art from a difficult world, superficiality, artificiality and triviality replaced profundity, integrity and significance as requisite characteristics of art. Down became up, black became white, death became life in the topsy-turvy world, the never-never land of contemporary art.


 It is extremely important to our artistic, psychic and societal health that we find our way out of abstract decorative trivialities and impersonal sterilities toward an art of substance based on reality that creates symbols expressive and supportive of humanity in a time of very great danger to the human spirit.


 This new art must not ignore contemporary problems, but unlike most art today which wallows in, echoes and, through its negative images and superficial aesthetics, entrenches the sterility and depersonalization of our time, the new art will transcend coldness and negativity to embrace and enhance humanity and the objects and environments of our lives, so that we may see who we truly are as part of God's universe and the community of man, not robots or non-beings that dehumanizing segments and pressures of society and the art world seem bent on creating.


Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms