I have visited the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main on several occasions It is a favourite space and something new is always discovered. But bizarrely I have only just discovered there is a basement full of ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ art. Is it new? I dare not enquire for fear of further embarrassment. It generally takes two days for a proper visit, one day for the first floor, and one day for the second floor. How is this new discovery going to be fitted in? Well, perhaps burn that bridge when we next come to it. I am not generally familiar with, nor a fan, of contemporary art. I am not even sure what that covers. Perhaps everything post the Second World War? That’s quite some stretch of time.
This is a curious puzzle and difficult to explain. Which only intensifies the puzzle and makes it even harder to explain. There are perhaps some loose rules to start with. Don’t dismiss things because they are not understood, resist being reactive in a reactionary way, avoid being crudely determinist whereby all explanations reduce to the current state of capitalism, capitalist relations of production and capitalist society (my own current favourite determinant is capital accumulation). That’s a framework, but that framework has been around for some time now and has managed to encompass Romanticism, Expressionism, Cubism, Impressionism and several other -isms.
If this was to be measured I would suggest I like 10 percent of what I see (which is mainly in galleries, magazines and books), find another 10 percent interesting, am indifferent to 40 percent and actively dislike 40 percent of it. Yes, dislike. Quite a strong word. If I was to measure art from 1300 (let’s start with Giotto) to 1945 (perhaps Max Ernst’s Europe After the Rain as the end point) I would say the measures would be around 70 percent that I like (some immensely), interested in another 20 percent, indifferent to 5 percent and dislike 5 percent (and almost all of that is Rubens).
This 80 percent of indifference and dislike is the puzzle. I don’t like a great deal of current pop music (while I do like pop music) but I never wonder why. I just switch the radio off or tune into another channel. I will make a mental note that ‘it’s crap’ and move on. So why is the interaction with art different? Why is there a feeling that one should engage with it? Perhaps I shouldn’t bother, and treat it like pop-music. 90 percent of that appears to be formulaic, created with the main purpose of making money, promotes a brand and so on, but occasionally a great song comes along.
It certainly needs to be approached in a different way to the the Northern Renaissance, the Italian Renaissance, the Dutch Golden Age and other ‘periods’ of artistic production. A work by Carlo Crivelli or Patinir or Durer or many others can be individually studied for hours. It is not only the technical skill but also the detail and the meanings, messages and symbols both obvious and covert. Then there is the atmosphere these paintings create; that is something in one’s own mind, but it is still a rare power for a painting to create a state of changed consciousness in the viewer. It can literally be, spellbinding. Such paintings were formed within particular social relations which are different to the modern era. The idiom of the time is lost; dangerous times for both artists and their patrons. Artists were not free in the sense that they are now. They worked to commissions and their patrons were powerful individuals or organisations with their own ideas, for political and personal reasons, about what sort of art should be produced and with what forms and symbols. Even the colours and tones were determined through explicit rules. These are some of the reasons why a comparative approach doesn’t work. The meaning and purpose of artists in the 14th century and those in the 21st century are different. Art should have meaning and purpose, yes? It is difficult to see how any human-made object could lack some sort of meaning or not be a representation or carrier of some sort of message or information. Purpose is again a more difficult keyword.
One approach to understand changes in the general pattern of art (as opposed to particular changes in style and fashion) is to try and imagine if art had stayed the same. The first problem is picking a time at which to freeze artistic development. Why should it be 1334 rather than 1434 or 1534? Let us suppose that Jan Van Eyck’s The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb was the final sequence in all artistic development. How could such a painting be completed now? Who would commission it? It is doubtful if any church would. The religious symbols and iconography would mean little to most people in west Europe. The Holy Roman Empire is long gone, and with it the notion and place of ‘Christendom’. How would an artist in the 21st century possibly hope to still be replicating the ideas of six hundred years ago? For not only have many of the ideas changed which produced the meaning in the art, but so too have the forces of production developed and new ideas appeared. Things have moved on. Hegel raised the question, ‘how do we get from one moment to another’ and even he could not properly provide an answer. But from one moment to another, we do thus move.
The Reformation has happened, the counter-Reformation, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, two world wars, electricity, penicillin, atom bombs and the internet. We live in a different world. How could the art be the same? It is an impossibility. This is also one reason why replications rarely meet contemporary needs. It is not only that the imagery seems to lack something – compare the works of the Nazarenes in the early nineteenth century and those of the Italian Renaissance which they copied. Something is not quite right. But also the social relations are different. The concepts are different; of society, the individual, democracy, freedom and much else besides. Artists are compelled to try and develop; that is part of the dynamics of the social relations which produce art in the first place.
Is it Art? This is a also a difficult puzzle. Whether something is art or not will depend on definitions of art. I find it a very tough keyword to explain, along with value, style, taste and bourgeoisie. They are such multifaceted terms that high level categorisation always seems to fail, and then one is left with multiple definitions. No sooner has the category been introduced than endlessly changing contexts seeks to dissolve it but without offering any satisfactory replacement (s). If this is not obvious, read through the initial chapters of Capital and note how much time Marx spends defining value. Ruskin famously refused to discuss value because he did not accept that anyone had properly defined it (there is no evidence he read Marx, perhaps he should have).
I quite like this conflict which ‘modern’ art sets up and am secretly pleased when I like some of it. I very much enjoyed walking around the space looking at it all. The strange thing was that on leaving that basement gallery and emerging, blinking, into the light of the Frankfurt rush hour with cars in all directions, huge glass buildings, people yelling into mobile phones, a woman wearing pink trousers and a red coat, carrying a bunch of flowers, I was glad it was there. It all sort of fitted.
But I still don’t know why. I shall have to go again. And I realised that as I disappeared into the crowd I was singing in my head the line ‘I’m in love with the modern world’.