Academic discourse and artistic production are a reflection of what surrounds them. The people that form the arts world, have obviously also internalised the needs of the system in which they live and have developed theories that adapt to that system.
Exceptionally, a revolutionary theory such as postmodernism is produced. Postmodernism is to art what socialism is to politics: a good idea that nobody seems to know how to apply in practice. Postmodernism claims that we are free to discover beauty everywhere, and not only in the objects that are considered art. The arts world tries to tame the concept and pretend it is not there, because postmodernism destroys the authority of the arts world on the subject of beauty and aesthetic significance.
However, the arts world had already lost this authority when it stopped being the instrument of propaganda of the system. Beauty was the only concept the arts world retained any authority on, after the art for art’s sake claim, but postmodernism came and dissolved the authority that was left.
Photographic documentation and its use in the media snatched the authority that the arts world had over the concept of truth. Beauty was liberated by postmodernism. Advertising is the authority on subjects like taste, form, status, etc. By declaring that the only aim of art is art itself, the arts world dismisses its lost authority on these subjects as irrelevant.
The art for art’s sake claim, which includes socially committed art (which is why it does not work), saved the arts world when it saw its existence threatened by photography. But the walls that it built became a prison. From its golden cage art pretends to be rebellious, it refuses to see itself as the perfect product that it is: elitist, empty and superfluous.
If art is not interested in truth, which it does not want to see, has nothing to say about beauty, and does not admit any other function that is not that of self perpetuation, does it make any sense that it continues existing?
In the world of art the lack of significant artistic criteria is perhaps even more acute than the lack of criteria in the rest of society, precisely because art declared itself as a luxury item.
Within the arts world, the analysis of the quality of objects that are declared art objects, appears to be missing. It seems politically incorrect to say that an artwork is good and why. Even in elitist artistic circles floats the fear of taking responsibility for an opinion and defending it with arguments based on knowledge.
The Socratic maxim that the more one knows the more one knows that one knows nothing is probably not the motive behind such lack of willingness to decide what one considers artistically significant. Rather that the arts world, in general, is confused and is scared of what it perceives as its irrelevance. As with any fear, the reaction of the arts world is defensive. The artistic jargon is more and more convoluted, each time more has to be studied to learn that beauty is everywhere and that the artistically significant is decided by the market, based on the price that can be obtained for a given artistic product.
Perhaps for fear of contradicting the market, the arts world learns from advertising and promotes amongst its members the anxiety not of not having, but of not understanding.
The accusation of not understanding what a work of art is about hangs heavy over artists and critics heads, threatening to fall. (Is it full of coal or paper?).
The reaction to this permanent anxiety is, again, defensive, and hides behind opinion. If we do not have criteria at least we have opinion. It is our democratic right. Thus, artistic criteria gets reduced to ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t’, ‘It works for me. I buy it.’
The arts world in the current context is part of The art of commitment, my Research Paper for the MA in Fine Art that I did at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London in 2007.
All the articles in The art of commitment: