ESSAY/ARTs

Conceptual stone sculpture by Jacek Tylicki/Palolem Island, India: Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

THE FUTURE OF FINE ARTs
The past, present, and future trends in fine arts. By PETER EKSTRÖM

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here is a widespread opinion that the future of fine arts can not be predicted, while predictions in other areas of the society are common. In many countries, there are institutes of futurology that work on such predictions. They have indeed developed serious and scientific methods that are key to predicting the future. I believe that some of these methods can be employed, if we attempt to see the future of fine arts. Here, four principles are especially useful. First, the lessons of the past. How did fine arts develop over the course of history? How long were the

époques of art? What signs were visible when it was time for a change? What was the relation between different historical events and the currents in the area of fine arts? By trying to answer questions like these we can form theories that can be used to tell the future. Second, the rule of the pendulum. This is more of a praxis or theory. As the rule goes, changes always take place towards the opposite extreme. For example, when an era of abstract or experimental art is ending, the pendulum moves over to the exact opposite – traditional, realistic art gets a new life, as was the case when

the very experimental Dada period ended and the era of New Objectivity started. Third, the disgust or apathy we develop for what has just recently been modern, popular, fashionable. Most fashions or vogues, even the most idiotic ones, can have multiple revivals. However, any such revival is always preceded by some years of forgiving. The things that were in vogue last year are often discarded. It might be okay to wear, quote, or use old stuff – but never something that was in fashion yesterday. I am tempted to say that this is a very strict law in the fashion industry. When it

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Fountain by Marcel Duchamp: Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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comes to trendsetting, fashion is, in many ways, similar to fine arts. Fourth, the questions of society and politics. The relationship between fine arts and society is not direct, but there always remains an important link. Works of art are not created in vacuum. For some artists, this is an opportunity, while others might not even be aware of it at all. When an issue is widely discussed in a society, it generally also has an impact on the art scene. We can cite the example of feminism, that has clearly visible impacts on our society and art. If one does not have the basic understanding of the recent feminist discussions, one would not understand quite a lot of the contemporary arts. To move forward and use these four principles, we also need to take stock of where we stand today – where do fine arts stand now? The current époque of fine arts has a notso-satisfactory name: contemporary art. This name might stick or might change in the future, as many other art époques got their final names later, in retrospect. When it became obvious that a new époque has started after modernism, no one used the term contemporary, as the way we do today. In the late 1970s, it was fashionable to call this postmodernism. However, today postmodernism is only a part of contemporary art. In the near past, postmodernism was well appreciated and very much in vogue, but today very few take it seriously. Modernism ended and the contemporary era arrived in around 1976. Like all the past époques, the exact time of this emergence varied from cultures to countries. In Sweden, for example, architecture and industrial design pioneered in the transition while fine arts took the leap later. In the United States and Western Europe, contemporary era was already blooming. Eastern Europe had to wait until the fall of communism in 1989.

Postmodern art were produced as reactions against modernism, to counter what modernism was: rational, functional, void of ornaments and frills, rejection of tradition and history. Postmodernism brought back the irrational, the non-functional, ornament, tradition, history. And, all of that was peppered with ironies and and twists. Now, if we add new attitudes and techniques to postmodern art, we will have some of the ingredients of contemporary art. For many years, one development in fine arts has been the move from physical, sellable objects to events and experiences. This is a major feature of contemporary art. However, this expanding field has room for old ideas alongside the new ones. With contemporary art, much is added all the time and nothing is retracted. That is why together with technical innovations, we have also seen some periods of revival for painting. Today, concept is also one of the important features of fine arts. In the United States and Western Europe, many art schools have actually ceased teaching traditional techniques, as they prefer to emphasise on concept, philosophy, and theory instead of tradition or workmanship. A typical example of contemporary art is relational art. According to French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud, relation art is “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” An artwork within this context could be eating together or having meetings for all owners of yellow motorbikes, as the artwork would be a social event. Another major example of contemporary art is political art produced as a form of social commentary. There are times when artists actually take over the role of investigative journalists. In Western Europe, 1970s is regarded

In the United States and Western Europe, many art schools have actually ceased teaching traditional techniques, as they prefer to emphasise on concept, philosophy, and theory instead of tradition or workmanship.
as a very political era with abundant examples of politically radical fine arts. I am tempted to note that the contemporary period is much more political than the past. Here, one political idea that overshadows all others is modern feminism. This is much more than the question of women’s liberation. Feminist ideas are used to crack open all sorts of socio-political questions – who holds the power in the society; how do we see the other; who decides what is allowed in cultural salons, and so on. We now look away from the old centre of culture created by middleclass, educated, white men, and gaze into the dark periphery where nonEuropeans, outsiders, and women dwell. Another art theory in fashion in the contemporary époque is the institutional art theory. This was originally formulated by US critics Arthur Danto and George Dickie in late 1960s. It was not until 1980s, the theory had its break-through. Institutional theory is in many ways a reaction to the concept of the ever-expanding horizon of art, the idea of the expanding field. This is something the art market had great problems dealing with. The idea of the expanding field is that anything can be art – an idea that is not good for business, or for anyone looking for investment opportunities. Institutional theory tries to deal with the problem by narrowing down what could be considered as fine arts.

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Joseph Beuys: Via Wikimedia Commons.

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In short, the theory argues that the art world and its institutions – curators, art dealers, critics, gallery owners, museums bosses – have the authority to decide or approve what is art and what is not. The modernist era went on from the end of 1900 to around 1975 – three-quarters of a century. The contemporary era started in 1975 and is ongoing for thirty-five years, just a little more than a quarter of a century. Will this hold as long as modernism? That is hard to say. It is easier or more tempting to talk about what the next era will probably look like. However, we need to note certain signs telling us that the contemporary era is coming to an end. Well, the very fact that there are people looking for these signs, is an indication in itself. Then, nothing much is taking place in the contemporary art scene today as it seems to have drained out of contents. Big exhibitions in recent years tend to look backwards instead of forward. For example, the 2010-11 Düsseldorf Quadrennial focuses on old-time favourites like Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik, and Marcel Broodthaers. Now, even if we do not know when exactly the new era of fine arts will begin, we can be quite certain that there will be one. And this is where I would like to use the four principles we discussed earlier. First, no art époque has lasted forever. Each of them came to an end. Romantic art lasted for almost 600 years; Gothic art for 400 years; Renaissance for 100 years; and, Modernism for 75 years. The tendency of shorter and shorter lengths in time is to be noted seriously. The contemporary era may end soon within a few decades, and the époque that will follow could well be even shorter. Often, the time for change in fine arts was when the society needed art for newer purposes – when a new generation could not cope

with the tradition; or, when there were revolutionary inventions (for example, oil paint). Big social events like war, colonisation, famine, and natural catastrophes cause migration, that had been the source of influence and new ideas. In our time, there are many events that can prove to be very important. The unification of Europe; global warming; the lesson that war can actually break out in our neighbourhood; international terrorism; globalisation of world economy; the return of religion as a strong force in the society; the growing neo-Nazi tendencies in politics, and much more. These will surely affect us in many ways. Maybe, there lies hard times ahead, and fine arts will also affected. Will fine arts be even more political, and deal with all these issues? We indeed have experienced a period with lots of political ingredients in fine arts. Therefore, I think the next era will be more or less non-political. Feminist ideas will of course continue to have influence, but not much on fine arts. Same goes for other typical political issues. Second, if fine arts have been dealing with events and experiences instead of objects; concepts instead of elaborate pieces of work; expansion of the concept of art instead of a strict framing; philosophically radical ideas instead of conservatism, then as the rule of the pendulum suggests, we should prepare for the extreme opposites. We need to remember that the art market now is a very strong player. Even when we have a financial crisis worldwide, we have an art market that is richer than ever. Money talks and the art market wants sellable pieces of art, not heaps of soil, or cardboard boxes, or strange events where people are invited to eat noodles. I believe that in future there will be a very strong emphasis on good workmanship, elaborate artwork, and

Painting has been pronounced dead many times in the past, from the Dadaist period and onwards. Each time it regained life and made a come back, filled with new vitality. It can well be said that painting has its own pendulum.
traditional art forms. For a long time, liberals and conservatives kept their heads down. Now, with the dissolving dominance of the left-wing in politics, we can see them emerging from hibernation in all areas of the society, including culture. Right-wing intellectuals are beginning to dominate the cultural discussion and with them the conservative ideas of the supremacy of beauty; loyalty to the authority; and, the eternal value of classics, are dominating all over again. Third, feminism is not fashionable any more. It has become a thing of yesterday and therefore can not be appreciated today. Videos, installations, photo-based works, digital-works, relational artworks were in vogue yesterday. And that is why those will probably be ignored or pushed aside in the coming years. On the other hand, graphic printing and textile art were very unfashionable for the past two or three decades. When these will become fashionable again, it will probably be impossible to get hold of decent teachers – one worry I have as the principal of an art school. Predicting the fate of painting is more difficult. Painting has been pronounced dead many times in the past, from the Dadaist period and onwards. Each time it regained life and made a come back, filled with new vitality. It can well be said that painting has its own pendulum movement that does not correspond

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Die Partei, Arno Breker’s statue representing the spirit of the Nazi Party: Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

with the general changes in fine arts. Fourth, it is rather odd that a burning issue like global warming has almost been neglected as a topic of fine arts. And, I think in future the issue will not have much influence, unlike the influence of feminism on contemporary art. Weather is simply not so sexy a issue like the question of gender and sexual identity. Of course the developments in fine arts will contribute to global warming in other ways, as big art events will be set in places in far away lands. Shanghai in China is increasingly becoming an important centre of fine arts, Sao Paulo in Brazil too. As large number of Western art enthusiasts travel to these new capitals of culture, they do leave a large carbon footprint. A big change that I think will have a more direct impact on fine arts is the return of religion. Religion is a rising force in our society, and all signs indicate that this will grow larger. For me, there are strong reasons backing this prediction. To

start with, fine arts and religion have a very strong historical bond. It is so old and strong that the 200 years of secular art can well be described as a mere parenthesis. The bond between fine arts and religion has been the norm, not the exception. Then, during the contemporary era, there are strong remnants of the modernist idea of rationalism. Now, rationalism is finally out of fashion. During the modernist era, nationalism was something that was looked down upon. In postmoderism, it became something to be toyed and played with. In the contemporary era, it became a source of alarm. Nationalism too is on the rise worldwide, and in future we will surely see non-ironic fine arts based on strong nationalist themes. Some of these predictions are of course more educated guesses than others. We can be certain that fine arts will continue to exist, and we can be sure this will involve changes. That is why we need to take the four

• Wikipedia article on fine arts www.tinyurl.com/eqaya • Art History Guide www.arthistoryguide.com • ArtLex article on feminism and feminist art www.tinyurl.com/6ka3j8w

principles of change seriously. However, that leaves us with one last question: What shall we call the new coming era? I think that the name contemporary was a very bad choice for the present époque. Maybe we can come up with something better for the next one. Any suggestions?

Peter Ekström is an art theorist and artist, based in Örebro, Sweden.

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