Our present moment of incipient socialism is inexorably changing art. The globalization of the past decade was supposed to destroy cultures and languages, but in fact, has done just the opposite, unifying groups hitherto incapable of reaching each other. Information is more readily available, because of the Internet, the great democratizing tool, and its structures of social grids. Meanwhile, emerging markets around the world demonstrate in action a global community, a notion the Great Recession confirmed. The world today has sorted some of the struggle against chaos that postmodernism mourned during the 20th century. Granted, we are still descendants of destruction, but the evidence shows up less. Last generation was the American Golden Age, and the while, the threat of a WWIII and apocalypse plagued the collective unconscious. But the Millennial generation never lived with the devastation of World War – the year 2000 brought no end to the world, and neither will 2012. The only end will be that of the American empire. A concentration of sustainable ideas will take its place.
These abstract notions are manifest in artistic theory. In the 20th century, strains of avant garde art followed the Duchampian school in repudiating the objet d’art for concepts. Resultantly, the readymade and notions of mechanical reproduction shaped the tenets of 20th century art. Walter Benjamin’s notion of the original’s diminishing aura was represented by Andy Warhol. Pop art deskilled art– technicality withered and abstraction flourished. But today, reproductions are not purely mechanical. The goal of the millennial artist is to return meaning to simulacra. Although reproductions diminish the aura of an original, they remain representative of originals, containing shards of the original’s meaning. For example, telling a Chinese boy who knows nothing of Western art about the Mona Lisa does not help him to understand what it is. Googling the image, albeit nothing like seeing it hanging in the Louvre, approaches the meaning of the original. While Benjamin and Warhol described a world devoid of pathos in a culture of reproductions, millennials acknowledge the potential for simulacra to evoke.
We are as gods in this new community. It is a new age of gods, one different from the first age that Vico assigned to Ancient Greece. Instead of lending symbolic meaning to nature, we assign virtue to the nature that we have created. Culture, as a second nature, was established during the second half of the 20th century; hence the dismay at losing what is real, and the resulting irony pervasive in postmodern art. Yet that decline has led to a rebirth. We are beginning to comprehend living together as a world with global signs. Nationalism is passé – it was a 20th century ideal. Ours is a society of imagination, a society of metaphor.
The fact that advertising’s banal mechanization was subsumed by Pop Art almost two generations ago has normalized advertising in our society. Playing with advertising creatively is art, a notion demonstrated by Poster Boy’s “Human Pop.” Signs that everyone recognizes, from the simple image of a dog, to the corporate symbol of the McDonald’s arch, are already charged with meaning garnered from subjective experience. In a post-structuralist and post-deconstructionist world, signs are glorified in their ubiquity, and carry meaning for the individual in recognition and association. In our reign as a global community, we can comprehend Vico’s language of symbols as we assign meaning to cultural signs.
The goal of contemporary art is to evoke memories and significance through universal signs. Since we have more signs than ever before from which to choose, the effect is diverse, and rarely sentimental. All emotion, ranging from disgust to admiration, is important. The artist works to give the viewer a pure exposure to his subject or themes. Pure exposure cannot be achieved in front of television or the computer – although these technologies relate shards of meaning to simulacra – but must be achieved in the real world. And yet, accessibility doesn’t mean immanence. Posterboy’s work is camouflaged in subways and on billboards. The effect suggests through likeness. Suggestive abstraction inspires the viewer to conjure their own associations. The slightest change to an everyday sign creates more individuality in a world burdened with routine.
Along with advertising, Noah Kalina’s “Everyday” video is a prime example of how the contemporary artist utilizes culture to generate art. The idea of taking a picture every day for six years is simple, but difficult. Mr. Kalina becomes a symbol for the passage of time, something to which everyone can relate. He also demonstrates how anyone can succeed if they own the necessary dedication, time and creativity. This is a new technicality – one of simplicity and relation. The goal is to make art as accessible as possible, literally and thematically.
Aakash Nihilani’s work, in its interactivity and its transience, is a continuation of the postmodern strains of conceptualism and minimalism, but without any inherent irony. These movements created art with relation to its presentation in the gallery. Similarly, before he creates, Mr. Nihalani uses the confines of his environment to shape his work. Whereas postmodernism recognized that art takes shape according to the physical and mental parameters of its adherents, and replied to this realization, Mr. Nihalani takes this notion further by blending mediums. His use of colored tape fuses sculpture, painting and architecture, incorporating even the most benign signs and symbols, like the crosswalk or a stop sign. He thus shatters the aforementioned parameters through an urban palimpsest. His work is subject to being ripped and torn, and furthers awareness of “real time,” because the work will inevitably be destroyed. It is as lasting as the experience of itself, which is reflective of the age of immediacy. Together, the urban and the internet contexts remove the illusion of artistic “space,” with art appearing literally anywhere. Placement of the work, whether on the street or online, gives the viewer an idea of how to understand it.
As a result, the viewer’s place in today’s art is increasingly important. His ability to choose and interpret affects a level of self-consciousness distinct from postmodern narcissism. The art of the 70’s and 80’s became obsessed with itself as art, and the result was heavily ironic. Today, art is still conscious of itself, but in a way that doesn’t vacate its content. Art relies on the viewer for its propagation. Thus, the work’s attraction is of foremost import. This is evident in the success of the blog, which uses the technique of catchy second person addresses to engage the reader. In an age of self help and internet searches, the success of self-conscious art is also evident in novels like Dave Eggers’, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The title of this book demonstrates the self-consciousness of the text, and the subjects of creation and inspiration take up much of the plot. This self-consciousness is a remnant of postmodernism, but instead of irony, it aims at a joie de vivre in the tripartite balance between artist, art, and viewer.
The heightened self-consciousness of today’s art playfully encourages the viewer to interact, in the same way that the viewer clicks, browses and sorts his way through the internet. Here, however, there is no place for irony; the focus is on making the viewer emote, a notion that postmodernism mocked. Signs and symbols pervade culture, but we’re used to it by now. Today these signs carry inherent meaning for the individual, because they are lodged in our unconscious. Whereas postmodern art was all about the art’s ego, today, the ego of the art relates to the ego of the viewer. Spectators of art actively choose how and what they view, optimistically search for varying and diverse ideas, and the while think about making it all cohere and stand alone as something unique and different.