The (Postmodern) Art of Evolution
Niklas Ferdinand Carlsson | Linköping University
The so-called postmodern era that we are living in now is an era characterized by revolution and evolution. There are constant changes powered by the opportunities of technology and the cultural progression it allows for. Art, our cultural expressive trait, manifests this process effectively. As a phenomenon and as a concept, art has been in a constant entropic flow in parallel to societal development. Constraints have shaped its character, but as those are increasingly dissolving in our postmodern world, the term ‘art’ is in need of a redefinition.
Art is hereby called upon as an abstract means and a function, as a universal language with enormous inherent power; it is pure discourse as per Michel Foucault´s own description. Foucault pointed to how attitudes, beliefs and practices become embedded in society as norms that in turn govern people to act in unison and in accordance with reigning societal structures. People think they are free but are in reality only living in the facades of freedom inside language, norms and the power structures that command them. Art has become one of those manifestations of thoughts and ideas, and that is how it sustains itself in the world today. Already in 1964, American art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto announced that art in the traditional sense of the word was dead and buried in his essay ‘The Artworld’. It was during a visit to The Stable Gallery in New York City where American artist Andy Warhol exhibited his Brillo Box artwork that Danto got this impression. The Brillo Boxes consisted of white-painted wooden boxes with prints purposely made out to be carbon copies of the Brillo brand steel wool soap pad boxes. Warhol was of the attitude that "art is what you can get away with" and his original idea with the Brillo Box exhibition was to just buy some packages in a store, exhibit them in a gallery and sell them off as art. But Danto was unimpressed by what he saw, and he left the gallery with the conviction that he had just witnessed the end of Western art.
For what is art really? Obviously, it is a human manifestation, a process we create where constant movement, constant expression and adaptation to the present gives an entropic effect. Entropy because, like all states governed by the laws of nature, the manifestation of art is restricted by both stylistic and philosophical constraints. This, in turn, leads to the constant revision of the narrative or, if you will, the underlying meaning. The German philosopher Friedrich Hegel stated that “Art is the sensuous presentation of ideas”, and he argued that all of the aesthetic and creative art forms have essential purposes. We need them so that important insights can become understandable, powerful, and helpful in our lives. It is a language we can speak with our emotions and instincts as well as our reason. It is a truly universal language. Art has evolved from being a necessary visualization of people and events in a world without cameras into a religious force and subsequently into an ideological tool for propaganda. This development very much mirrors the way that society has evolved as a whole. Art then became a more personal manifestation in which our subjective attributes served as a mirror to both our inner and outer idiosyncrasies. Imagine Hilma af Klint's abstract visualizations of her innermost thoughts or Pablo Picasso's depictions of war and abuse, for example. But what is the constraint, and in the long run the dissolution of the constraint, in this final stage? Are we not still there in our postmodern era of subjective personal expressions? In line with the entropic idea of art, meaning is corrupted as the constraints are lifted around the creative visual desire for expression. It is a state of chaos wherein any interpretation will do. Warhol showed us in 1964 that anything can be art and thus anyone can become an artist. Meaning becomes the main proposition: what happens between the art and the audience, what we together and as individuals decide that the art is and should be. Art has thus become a language, a manifestation of discourse, a linguistic phenomenon. How do I, for example, make people notice social injustice between people in a particular societal group? By catching their attention. How do I get their attention? Through provocation. How do I provoke? By the language of art. The power of discourse has become multi-modal and multi-dimensional. Think of the French satirist magazine Charlie Hebdo or Swedish artist Lars Vilks. Art has become the means and function for a conversation, an exchange, and thus we can deduce art as a shibboleth, a way of bridging linguistic barriers to reach universal understanding. In principle, art has evolved from a one-dimensional one-way function with a solid-state to being two-dimensional because of the message conveyed to the viewer. It then evolved to become multi-dimensional, and in many ways non-dimensional(!), as it often is today. One interesting illustration of this non-dimensionality to art is to imagine how many people that have actually seen Lars Vilks roundabout satirical dogs versus how many people that have not seen them, yet actually still fully grasp Lars’s message and thus get an idea of the meaning.
Vilks put the face of Muslim prophet Muhammed on a cardboard dog and placed it in a roundabout and thus managed to provoke millions of people, including the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They got the message, and they got the meaning, although most of them probably didn’t even see it because of the strict restrictions for depicting the prophet Muhammed. They didn’t agree with the idea and the act and were thus provoked. Today we find art in discourse, in people’s vocabulary, shrieks in social media, in media reports, and in our memories and perceptions. Art is a language without borders where we give ourselves permission to express what we cannot express in words and where meaning is completely analogous to how we give meaning to words. It is a language stronger than words, with more dimensions and with the ability to impact with both width and sustainability. The reactions to both Charlie Hebdo and Lars Vilks affirm, if anything, the enormous strength of this language and, of course, the risks involved in expressing oneself in a boundless medium, in a boundless language. Both have famously been forced to alter their lives following death threats and, of course, the unfathomable tragedy that hit the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo, which saw twelve people murdered and eleven injured in a 2015 terrorist attack. Swedish artists Anna Odell and NUG can also be mentioned here as they both created art that was both abstract, concrete and only available in the moment it was made and, most importantly, had to be defined by the artist as art for anyone to understand it. NUG sabotaged an active subway train on film and Odell faked having a severe anxiety attack in central Stockholm. They were both making social commentary guised under the definition of art. Again, “art is what you can get away with”. Art as language incorporates words, meaning, images, sounds, actions and in reality, all information that can reach a human being at one and the same time. So, no wonder its force is hitting us with such power… In 2021 an Italian artist named Salvatore Garau even managed to sell a piece of invisible art. He called it an “immaterial sculpture” and in reality, it was nothing except the title (Io Sono), his explanation (he claimed that “according to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, ‘nothing’ has a weight”) and the price tag. Can art be more abstract than that? During a visit to a local art exhibition, I experienced this type of subjective co-creation of art myself as the exhibition showed films that, in different ways, portray identity and prejudice. A short film put on an endless loop showed a man sitting on a sofa talking in his native Montenegrin language on low, not really audible, volume whilst a narrative voice speaks over him in Swedish about how Montenegrins are dull and unwilling to participate in society. Consequently, the concept of the art was to perceive the message, to form an opinion of meaning, which in turn means that the real artwork becomes apparent and, in fact, IS the philosophical thought that is born when we intellectually grasp what we see. Otherwise, it is just a poorly shot short film set on endless repeat that no one would ever consider to be a work of art in itself. Remember Warhol's conceptually similar films Sleep and Empire (both filmed in 1964) and we thus realize again what an absolute historic key Warhol is in the analysis and understanding of the development of art and the dissipation of grand narratives. In a way, he was the death of art impersonated, the antichrist of artistic expression if you will and are feeling dramatic. Otherwise, we can just see him as an historic marker in time, a turning point whence modernism became postmodernism, where meaning became an individual concept instead of a collective understanding.
Of course, an honourable mention must go out to the legendary French artist Marcel Duchamp who started all this already in the 1910s when he attributed artistic meaning to everyday objects manifesting his works Bottle Rack, and famously, Fountain. In reality, Fountain was a urinal that he, perhaps in disdain, submitted as art to a 1917 art exhibition by the Society of Independent Artists in New York City. Later in his career, Duchamp ventured to create a new artistic expression that counteracted art’s evolution through religious, moral and philosophical meaning by creating art that was only meant to appeal to the eye and not the mind. Imagine that.
We can move on with these impressions with newfound insights on prejudice, colonialism, gender, class, and everything else we relate to philosophical thought. The message reaches us in the end, and there is also where we find the actual work of art, which is something completely different from its original form and this also depicts an evolutionary entropic process even in the experience itself. It literally changes in front of (and behind) our eyes as we participate. In the traditional sense of art, of course, it is no great artistic experience to watch a dubbed film portraying a middle-aged man traversing a couch. Or sleeping... and thus we are back in the company of Arthur Danto and Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes. Art is dead, but the thought is alive, it is participatory, and it is in constant motion. Just like everything else.
Niklas Ferdinand Carlsson is a librarian and teacher at Linköping University in Sweden, a behavioural scientist and a published and cited researcher. His research explores the postmodern deconstruction of modern society and how the library is an integral part of this evolution