The Art Atlas
By John Onians
Abbeville Press Copyright © 2008 John Onians
All rights reserved.
Excerpt from The Art Atlas
Art, Ideas and Technology 1900-2000
Art has always been connected to the worlds of ideas and technology, but in the twentieth century the connections tightened. Indeed for many the idea’ has been that twentieth century art should directly reflect technology, and this notion lay behind American skyscrapers, Italian Futurism, Russian Constructivism and the International Modernist architecture of the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier before the Second World War, and Jean Tinguely's motorized sculptures, Nam Jun Paik’s video installations and Tony Oursler’s projections after it. One reason why this convergence occurred was because, thanks to new technologies, ideas could be disseminated much quicker and more effectively than before. Another was that some of these technologies, such as those of the cinema, television and computer screen, are themselves visual.
Of the many other ideas that affected twentieth century art, none were more recurrent than those of nationalism and internationalism. The search for visual expressions of national or regional identity, which has roots in tendencies humans share with other animals and has long been important in culture, strengthened in the nineteenth century before further intensifying in the twentieth. For many communities, as in the countries of eastern Europe that acquired independence after 1918, the starting point was a new awareness of vernacular and folk traditions, but in Fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany new political and moral ideologies were also involved. Outside Europe, on the other hand, where the suppression of local artistic traditions had been part of the policy both of colonial powers and of the classes that succeeded them, aesthetic and political ideologies were more likely to be combined in some revival of local cultural traditions, as in the Mexican revival of Aztec and the Indian revival of Hindu imagery. In such movements are was an important way for a people to strengthen its sense of a political identity recovered after Independence. The vigorous new regional and ethnic art forms that emerged after 1950 were ore economically driven, only loosely inspired by earlier traditions that were fostered and marketed, often by just one or two individuals. Prominent examples are the stone sculptures of the Canadian Inuit, of the Shona in present-day Zimbabwe and of the Makonde on the borders between Tanzania and Mozambique. But the most successful, perhaps because painting is always liable to be taken more seriously than sculpture, has been the acrylic paintings of the Australian Aborigines which, since 1970, have allowed male and female members of one of the world's most victimized communities isolated in the desert to become world-famous celebrities. These successes, however, have not been easy. For many ethnic communities the regional arts are much lower in the scale than art that claims to be international, as does that displayed in the great international exhibitions in the tradition of the Venice Biennale. Artists represented in such venues, whose work may consciously betray a background in the savannah of Africa or the jungles of Southeast Asia, often prefer to play down their origins and claim instead to be artists in a sense that corresponds to some transcendent European and US norm. Their overriding idea is that they are not craftsman, but artists’.
One of the sources of the concept of an international’ art is the socialist theory of a worldwide human community, and socialism, in its different forms, has been the idea shaping the work of many individuals and movements. Sometimes it has been associated with conservative tendencies, as in the Soviet Union, where, after the brief innovative episode of Constructivism, there was a move to Socialist Realism with its nineteenth-century roots. The same style was then taken up by many other countries in the Russian orbit, and when China became Communist in 1948 it, too, adapter the same mode until after the Cultural Revolution. Sometimes socialism has been associated with more progressive tendencies, as with the worldwide post-Second World War diffusion of architecture in concrete, a material untainted by elitist associations and inherently sharing properties with the masses’. Le Corbusier was the leader in this trend but he also had many local followers, such as Oscar Niemeyer in Brasilia. Other types of art driven by socialist political ideas were the more aggressive mural art of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the softer, but still threatening, art of Latinos in the United States. Less necessarily political has been the much longer tradition of Black or African-American art, which now has its parallels in Britain and elsewhere and in art of People of Colour by immigrants from Asia and Africa. Another art which may be more or less political is that driven by the idea of feminism, which emerged strongly in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, before manifesting itself in most other countries in an effort to reclaim an activity from which women have been systematically excluded. Around the world art has now been harnessed to a myriad causes or ideas’.
Finally, there are categories of art that relate to an idea embedded in art-making itself. Dada set out to smash artistic norms, while Surrealism, taking its cue from Sigmund Freud's writing on dreams, sought to give all forms of creativity a new starting point in the unconscious. These two connected movements were centered on Europe and the United States, the post-Second World War Conceptual Artwhich typically argues that art is less about making, and more about an ideahas, from the beginning, engaged artists worldwide. Its success, like that of so-called Post-Modernist art, often depends on the use of different technologies, videos, lights, lasers, and even containers of formaldehyde. As such it illustrates to what extent, by 2000, art was often only an idea embedded in a technology. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Art Atlas by John Onians. Copyright © 2008 John Onians. Excerpted by permission of Abbeville Press.
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