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Article from the book Frontiers of Knowledge

The Artistic Discovery of the Future

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Modern art emerged from a revolution about two-and-a-half centuries ago, and it is very difficult to prognosticate about its possible future when we are still trying to discover what, exactly, it is. What was traditionally understood to be art until the second half of the eighteenth century reflected the affirmations of the Greeks who invented it. Around the sixth century B.C., they defined art as a selective imitation of reality or nature—not a simple copy or indiscriminate replica of what they saw around them, but rather one that transcended appearances and captured the underlying order of things. The depiction of this order produced beauty, making it clear that the fundament and goal of art was, in fact, beauty. Not beauty as it could be interpreted subjectively, but rather an objective codification of beauty, with a mathematical nature. In that way, the aesthetic qualities that could be demanded of a classic art work always answered to mathematical concepts such as “harmony,” “proportions,” “symmetry,” “rhythm,” and so on. All of these were guidelines for order, but this orderly formal selection also corresponded to the content or subject being represented, because artists could not choose their subjects freely. They had to be socially edifying, that is, they were limited to the instructive actions of gods and heroes from a remote and mythical past. In sum, the Greeks defined art as, so to speak, a good representation of good, in which formal order and moral order were combined. Now this canon held sway at the heart of Western civilization for approximately 24 centuries, creating a historical tradition united by the term “classicism.” Clearly, such a long tradition suffered successive crises, whose gravity sometimes opened broad parentheses, including what is very significantly referred to as the “Middle Ages.” At such times, even though they did not completely disappear, classical artistic principles became highly corrupted. But for that very reason, at the beginning of the modern era, the restorative formula of the Renaissance was invoked, bearing with it the values and criteria of classical Greco-Roman Antiquity. Beginning in the fifteenth century, this restoration of the classical ideal of art, which at first was accepted with dogmatic enthusiasm, suffered innumerable polemical attacks as a result of the profound changes of all kinds brought on by the modern world. Still, art’s doctrinal essence managed to survive right up to the dawn of our revolutionary epoch, which radically changed what had been thought of as art until then.

Perhaps this succinct, synthetic and reductive version of the artistic history of Western classicism will help us to better understand the subsequent revolution. The first hint of this artistic revolution was the insinuation that beauty not only could not be the exclusive fundament of art, but that it was even an unbearable barrier to art’s potential development. Art demanded a much broader horizon. It was then, over the course of the eighteenth century, that art sought ideas that were different and opposed to the limitations imposed by beauty, such as the “sublime” or the “picturesque,” which postulated that “disorder” and “irregularity” could offer humanity new aesthetic experiences that would be more intense and revelatory than traditional ones.

In the first paragraph of chapter three of Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, published in Berlin in 1766, G. Ephrain Lessing wrote: “But, as we have observed, in recent times, art has acquired incomparably broader domains. The field in which it exercises its imitation has spread to all of visible Nature, of which beauty is but a small part. Truth and expression, it is said, are the supreme expression of art; and just as Nature is continually sacrificing beauty to attain higher interests, so too, the artist must subordinate that beauty to his general plan, without looking beyond what truth and expression permit. In a word: truth and expression transform natural ugliness into artistic beauty.” Among many other contemporary testimonies, the clear and forceful explanation offered by Lessing’s text ineluctably confronts us with the problem of our own time’s revolutionary art, which will not be an art based on beauty. Moreover, it can be affirmed that the aesthetic debates and the development of art itself in the second half of the eighteenth century were ruled by a common desire to wage a true war of liberation on beauty, whose classical canon was assaulted with the same fervor that characterized the taking of the Bastille.

Now then, on what could art be based, once it had been stripped of its traditional foundations? Neither the pleasure of the limitless sublime nor the irregularity of the picturesque are foundations in and of themselves. They are, instead, challenges to the traditional concept of beauty. At any rate, it is clear that they change our perspective, a little like Copernicus’s effect on classical physics, because they rebuild, or shift, the horizon, which is no longer focused on what is well known and familiar, but instead on what is beyond the limits and unknown. But how can artists grasp that unknown aesthetic Cosmos without imposing constrictive limits like those of beauty? On the other hand, it is important to keep in mind that this rebellion against the hegemonic domination of classic beauty never signified that supporters of the artistic revolution denied the value of traditional art, nor that they sought to keep anyone wishing to continue submitting to its limits from doing so. What they were combating was the universal obligation to submit, that is, the negation of the artistic value of those who sought to explore new paths. In sum: they realized that the artistic horizon could be incommensurably vaster than classicism, but they had still not found precise limits to define its new dimension, so it is logical that the question would be settled in the most open and negative way possible: by seeking the foundations of art in the foundationless, that is, freedom. Schiller was already expounding this idea during the last and crucial decade of the eighteenth century when, in On the Aesthetic Education of Man he affirmed that it was characteristic of the aesthetic state to “give liberty by means of liberty.” In other words, that the foundations of the new revolutionary art would be, in effect, freedom, whose only circumstantial limitation is not aesthetic, but “technical.”

If the only foundation for art is that, through it, one can reach freedom, which necessarily negates any previous limitation, then how can the new map of art be drawn? The only way would be the obvious one that defines its territory as that which successive explorers discover, or to put it another way, that “art is whatever we call art,” because that is what the artist says, and we accept it. Beyond these hurried generalizations, anyone who observes the material evolution of art from the second half of the eighteenth century to the present will realize that it is not that art has continually changed form or style, but rather that, each time it does so, it entirely redefines what art is. Significantly, if we analyze the reactions of art’s public to each new change in the art of our time, we will see that most of the time, it doesn’t deny the value of its form and content; it denies that it is art. Nor does the opposite attitude change anything, because when, as now, the public accepts all that is new, simply because it is new, then inevitably and symmetrically, it is recognizing that, in fact, anything can be art. In other words, that if nothing or everything is art, then what is constantly being questioned is art itself.

It is true to a certain degree that new art did not produce such a level of perplexity when it still used traditional supports and techniques, but we cannot make that the quid of the question, as has sometimes been done. I mean to say that neither the postulation of an industrially manufactured urinal signed by an artist, nor the development of new techniques like photography or cinema—regardless of whether they were rejected or accepted—resolves our perplexity, which stems from having to constantly discover what art is. This uncertainty has led to a social polarization between those who disqualify, and those who absolutely defend contemporary art. The former cling to the traditional concept of art as its only genuine manifestation, looking only to the past, as it were. The latter symmetrically postulate that only innovative art can truly respond to the current demands of humanity, which places all its expectations on the future. Now, is it indisputable that an irreparable breach has opened up between traditional art and the art of our time? Is the art of the past the only authentic art, and contemporary art mere fraud, or vice versa? Anxiety leads men to make sweeping statements whose crystal-clear theories grow cloudier when they come into contact with real life. Of course it is always easier to explain the past than the present, yet the fact that contemporary art does not answer to the classical canon does not mean that its practice is arbitrary. Instead, it can signify that its practice is not regulated in an objective way. Based on anti-canonical and elastic liberty, the art of our time is necessarily concerned with exploration, which will not stop until art finds a limit. That limit, in turn, will make it possible to determine the new frontiers, but it is clear that such a moment has not arrived. At any rate, two and a half centuries of contemporary art constitute a history that can be understood and ordered, indicating that uncertainty is always located in the present, but not in the past, which is also a modern past. In other words, there is now a solid avant-garde tradition. Successive new art styles have passed through a critical filter and, just as in the classical period, that filter has left out much of what has been done, selecting only the best—what remains relevant as time passes. So not knowing where art is going has not been enough to crush the capacity to discriminate, partially because leaving the beaten path does not automatically mean getting lost. Otherwise, there would never have been any new discoveries. We can close this matter by observing that there is also irrefutable historical proof: none of the most revolutionary modern artists, from Goya to Picasso, innovated without taking the past into account. And while the manner of doing so continues to change as well, it continues to be the case today, as can be seen in innumerable examples.

Moreover, isn’t the same thing happening in all fields of contemporary knowledge and experience? It is certainly true that the currently hegemonic scientific knowledge, and even more so, its technological offspring, are ruled by the dynamics of progress, in which each new step invalidates the previous ones, but it is not clear that this ideology could be applied in the field of art, none of whose changes—even the revolutionary ones—has implied the invalidation of what came before. In reality, appreciating Duchamp in no way detracts from Phidias or Raphael, and their value should in no way disqualify those who do not continue to repeat their formulas. Thus, art has continued to change constantly, but that accumulation of innovations has not lessened the value of antiquities. So shouldn’t we consider this idea that the art of today and that of yesterday are radically opposed to be a fallacy constantly debunked by events? And the fact that we have no guarantee that the same will happen in the unknown and unknowable future certainly does not authorize us to adopt an apocalyptic perspective. Were such an apocalypse to occur, it would certainly be much more serious in any other dimension than the artistic one, whose scope is comparatively innocuous. In general, art is actually the practice with the greatest propensity to build bridges with the past, not only because it does not answer to a monosemous mode of knowledge, but also because it is a constant reflection on, and investigation of experience, of what has been lived and of what has passed. And its main raison d’être is to become lasting, memorable, immortal.

But what mark has the art of our time made on history over its two-and-a-half century existence? It is hard to discern if one does not first understand the modernizing drive that characterizes it. Etymologically, the term “modern” comes from Latin and means “what is current,” so modernizing art means bringing it up to date, that is, making it respond to the present as we see it, with its modes or fashions, novelties and innovations. Modernizing classical or classicist art meant, in the first place, modernizing its contents, its concept of history. For history was its subject matter until then, not the present, and certainly not the present taken in an indiscriminate manner. According to the aesthetic hierarchy established by the Greeks, the most elevated and profound aspect of a story was its tragic mode, the renewed celebration of an ancestral, founding sacrifice whose recreation would have a traumatic—cathartic—and instructive effect on the viewer. On the other hand, the least elevated was the comic mode, whose characteristic was to offer contemporary stories of mortal men. Its instructive effect was much less intense and could even be called “relaxing.” If this scheme is applied to the visual arts, it will be understood that the superior genre was that of tragic narration, while the other, subordinate, and inferior ones represented comic episodes that sometimes bordered on the insignificant. With this in mind, modernizing the artistic representation of what is historical meant not only giving preference to the lesser stories of mortals—who themselves lacked social importance or deep symbolic significance—but sometimes even completely eliminating their direct presence, so that a landscape or any object by itself could attain the same dignity as human actions. In that sense, the modernization of art’s content was similar to its “democratization,” making the subject matter accessible to anyone, and its message immediate and relevant, like an on-the-spot codification of what simply occurs. Anyone who observes this modernizing process will notice how it progressively became an acceptance not only of common stories, but even of the most commonplace and banal of them all, until, around the middle of the nineteenth century, it blazed the way to insignificance.

Once avant-garde art reached the point of telling everything, the next step was almost forcibly not telling anything, that is, “denarrativizing” or “deliteraturizing” art, whose true identity was now considered to be its form, that is, all the materials that make up an art work besides what it symbolizes or represents. This second modernizing gesture, which concludes around the time of the World War I, was what concentrated its revolutionary powers on what had been considered formal elements until then. Elements that constituted what art was, in and of itself. The goal was first to eliminate the inherited manner of painting in perspective, and the second was, so to speak, dealing with the resultant “nothing.” Because, what was left of painting after removing its traditional content and form? The surgical instrument used for this operation was Cubism, which led to non-representational or abstract art. Moreover, it almost immediately led to a complete reconsideration of what art is when it no longer needs a painting or a sculpture, but can instead use anything in any medium, as was somehow implied by the heteroclite and nihilistic movement called Dada. If we recall that, in that stormy second decade of the twentieth century, besides collages and readymades, photography and cinema also became overwhelmingly present and meaningful, we will understand that by then traditional art could be considered completely liquidated in both form and content. And if the modernization of content offered the possibility that new art could be free of any thematic restrictions, and if the modernization of form allowed anything to be art—and that has been the case ever since—then what limits could be assigned to the resulting artistic horizons, that “musical nothing,” as Mallarmé liked to call it?

Eighty years have passed since the avant-garde eliminated the final residues of traditional art. So what has happened since? In a way, it could be said that, following the qualitative leap made by avant-garde art during the first quarter of the twentieth century, there have been no more essential innovations. But that does not mean that there have not continued to be incidences in the art world from a social, economic, and technological standpoint. Nor can we scorn the aesthetic phenomenon of the avant-garde’s own self-destruction, for it failed to survive the final quarter of the twentieth century. That period unceasingly proclaimed itself to be the “postmodern era,” which can be understood as a period characterized by the definitive social triumph of modernity and the inanity of continuing to use a strategy of linear struggle for its affirmation. And today, there is no need for an organized phalanx to support the consumption of novelties. That seems to be proven by the fact that the current art market has become hegemonic, and institutional platforms for legitimization, such as contemporary art museums, are not only multiplying exponentially, but have also become artworks themselves.

And now that we’ve mentioned it, this matter deserves a certain focused consideration. First of all, we must recall that public museums were a creation of “our” time, beginning in the transition between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But so-called “modern art museums” emerged at the end of the nineteenth century and developed during the twentieth. The latter originally emerged as a political response to society’s rejection of successive waves of new art entering historical museums. Indeed, that a Manet or a Monet could be hung alongside consecrated works by the Old Masters produced authentic public perplexity. In order to protect new art from social rejection, the Luxembourg was created in Paris, and it soon served as an example for other countries affected by the same problem, including Spain, which founded its first museum of modern art in 1895. That is when public museums were split into three categories—archeological, historical, and contemporary. Significantly, the first and last of the three owed their identities to the fact that they handled, so to speak, “what was not clearly art.” Around the end of the nineteenth century, the “discovery” of Paleolithic cave paintings was just one of a string of anthropological surprises that occurred around that same time, so it is hardly strange that a place should be sought out for the conservation, study, and classification of an entire series of strange objects whose formal beauty sometimes led them to be considered artistic, but whose original use was completely unknown. In short, archeological museums became the home for everything that awoke interest more because of its age than because of its artistic quality. On the other hand, museums of contemporary art—an art in a continual state of redefinition—constituted a temporary parenthesis while waiting to see whether their contents could be included in historical museums. In any case, the first “positive” affirmation of a museum for contemporary art was the one that led to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1928. It was the result of the brilliant mind of a young art historian and critic, Alfred H. Barr, and two audacious patrons who underwrote that adventure, which we must remember was a private initiative. For Barr, it was not a matter of dedicating a space to art rejected for its strangeness, but rather to art that had its own personality and was generating a singular history. We in no way seek to lessen the unquestionable merit of this undertaking by pointing out that it took place between the two world wars, at a time when the idea of the avant-garde was entering a crisis for the first time. It had already passed the two periods of modern agitation discussed above, but also, for the first time, avant-garde art was receiving social interest, although only among a small elite. The fact is that Picasso, for example, was already considered the fascinating and fearful epitome of artistic modernity after the World War I. Not only did he become internationally known outside artistic circles, he obtained an income worthy of a multimillionaire by the 1920s. This speaks eloquently of the avant-garde in that sense.

Still, between 1930 and 1960, although modern art had generated an increasingly important market and growing social credibility, it was still practically unknown outside minority circles, and was still not the product of mass consumption it was to become from the 1970s onward. Significantly, over the last twenty-five years or so, not only has the number of modern and contemporary art museums multiplied in an overwhelming manner; all sorts of institutional and commercial platforms have arisen to support not just the art of our time, or of the twentieth century, but increasingly, the “latest thing.” This anxious polarization towards newness not only represents the triumph of the modern, but also a rethinking of the contemporary art museum, which has overcome its two initial periods, first as a temporary refuge for a polemical product, and then as a place for its exultant affirmation.

But what problems can a massively appreciated contemporary art recognized by all major authorities create for an institution such as a museum? Some think it is a merely functional problem, limiting the question to the idea that the new “type” of artwork using non-traditional supports and materials demands a new sort of building and complementary services. But one would have to be blind not to notice the aesthetic questions involved. A museum is a cultural archive that not only orders the memory of the past, but also periodically adds new and current products to that sequence. That is what happened during the first century of public museums’ existence and, as we mentioned above, the process was only provisionally interrupted at the end of the nineteenth century in order to calm social disquiet. During the twentieth century, the idea took hold that it was better to keep that environment separate from the contemporary one, whose generation of innovations was broad and complex enough to constitute its own history. Nevertheless, since the 1970s a growing polarization towards the latest art has posed the need to recycle any past that, merely by being past, is unwieldy. In that sense, we have seen how many of the “new museums” of contemporary art decided at first to do without the first half of the twentieth century and later, to begin removing decades from the second half until they have practically become provisional homes to what is fashionable and new, as long as it remains so.

But what does it mean for a museum to be nothing more than a home for changing novelty, as if, like what is now called a Kunsthalle, it were exclusively a platform for temporary exhibitions? And if that is the case, why should we continue to call it a museum? This second question has an obvious answer: no matter what we decide a museum should or should not be, if what now goes by that name has nothing to do with what has defined such institutions until now, it would be better to find a new name, thus avoiding misunderstandings. We must not forget that art has lived almost all its long history outside of museums or anything like them, and so-called public museums, as mentioned above, are barely two centuries old. So it would not be any tragedy if they were to disappear altogether. On the other hand, while an anxious drift towards the latest art by “new museums” or “museums of the latest generation,” is increasingly contradictory to the traditional concept of a museum as a historical archive of the past, or of the present’s constant entry into the past; there is no real reason to lament it. If these new institutions continue along that path, not only can a new and more adequate name be found for their function; that very function can be formulated in another way. It occurs to me, for example, that the art space that houses new work considered artistic at the time, is a space that is, itself, a work of art, rather than only being so when art is shown in it. At any rate, no matter what one’s opinion might be, it seems clear that the question of museums of contemporary art is, so to speak, “all the rage.” The debate will definitely continue into the future, which is exactly what concerns us in the present essay.

I believe the moment has arrived to review what has been written up to this point, because if we are to conjecture about the possible future of art, we must not only ask whether, in fact, it has a future—something both uncertain and impossible to demonstrate at present—but also, to give our conjecture a certain solidity, we must focus on the only thing we know: what art has been until now—its past—and even more so, what we believe is happening now. This is not easily grasped at first glance, because what is actually happening now has practically nothing to do with what is being publicized as “current reality,” for that is nothing more than what is being delivered by the most efficient media powers. In other words, “current reality” is nothing more that what is publicized in the media, that is, publicity.

Still, none of these uncertainties should discourage us, because not knowing everything about something is a characteristic of human knowledge, which is partial or limited no matter what its method or content. By this I mean that what is revolutionary in our time is in no way constricted by the limits of what we call, or used to call, art, nor by the far broader and more diffuse limits of what we seek to include in the field of culture, which is now the subject of much more intense political debates. It is not even restricted by the limits of science, which, with dogmatic ingenuity, we consider the only reliable handhold for us as advanced explorers of chaos. For chaos is merely the overwhelming immensity of what we have not yet managed to discern, unable, as yet, to even minimally sense its real presence. So why should we single out a small, almost insignificant part of this terrifying “vacuum” of knowledge to be attacked simply because it contains not a shred of certainty about anything? After all, unlike all other socially esteemed knowledge and experiences, art has never—neither today nor in the past—presumed to offer us answers. In any case, it serves to formulate questions by bearing witness to what we have been and are, without our yet being able to apprehend its sense. So we could say that art has been, and is, a “memorizer” of those reflections we radiate without really knowing how or why, even though we intuit that their loss—their forgetting—would strip us and our descendants of essential keys.

This perspective should help to attenuate our poorly projected anxieties about art’s “guilt” at being unable to guide our fatal irresponsibility. The antithetical path seems much more fecund to me: becoming a part of the questions current art poses, delving into them, rather than disqualifying or trivializing them. In that sense, the legitimate concern we now feel at not being anywhere near capable of grasping the limits of the territory we continue to call art is accompanied by the even vaster and more complex territory constituted by the increasingly indiscriminate social extension of art’s “consumers.” This “public” accepts anyone who wants to join with no questions about their depth of knowledge in this field, nor their tastes, nor anything else. And yet, it seems clear that the overwhelming vastness of contemporary art’s horizons is commensurate with that of its flock of followers, so any revelations about one will also shed light on the other.

But what does all this have to do with what is periodically trumpeted as the newest of the new, based on banalities such as how unusual its support is, or its renewed panoply of techniques, or any of its symbolic reformulations? I do not believe, for example, that the questions a current video-artist, or any member of that tribe of so-called “immaterialists,” asks himself are any different than those that Francisco de Goya, Michelangelo, or Phidias asked themselves. And I do not believe they have changed because, among other things, we have yet to find a plausible explanation for the existence of Paleolithic cave art, even though from the caves of Altamira to Demien Hirst we continue to radiate luminous creations that we feel are essential to knowing ourselves and living more, and better. So what, then, is the future of art? A good way of dealing with this unanswerable question is to reconsider everything that art has been until now, and is thus part of its past. Maybe none of it will have anything to do with what happens tomorrow, but the only sure way to find out is to survive until then and live through it. So, how will the art of the future and the future of art be? Allow me the truism, “we will soon know,” for that knowing is nothing but noticing how the future “presents” itself to us continually by becoming the present.

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