The Place of the Arts in the 21st century

What if an alien being from another world appeared in your home and proved to you of his harmless intentions and demonstrated his intelligence and sensitivity and wanted you to explain to him what ART was and what was the purpose of ART in your world, what would you say?  Of course there are plenty of subjects that could lead to a comparable conundrum such as religion or even sex, but certainly I think art would be a challenge to most people.


I have spent many years thinking about art, what it is, wondering whether it is best described objectively or experientially and what makes a work of art timeless and what makes it forgotten and ignored. I would like to use this opportunity to meditate specifically on its place in contemporary 21st century society.  I would like to include the fine arts of most major world cultures since they have equally been affected by the high-profile contemporary art culture of the West. I hope to inspire discourse rather than arrive at an answer per se.



Many major cities have prominent, conspicuous and well designed art museums, and aside from libraries are equally being built by some of the world’s most renowned and daring architects.  Such particular conspicuous construction of bold design tends to mark these spaces as extra-ordinary and somehow different public spaces, in a world that seems to threaten the notions of public space. These spaces and buildings tend to be a source of civic pride and seem to have a rarified aura that is akin to religious or spiritual buildings and spaces that are read as apart from commercial, business or political spaces.


On the other hand there are the art galleries that may be equally as impressively designed, but generally do not have the same public space status, and while many people may feel intimidated and are not sure how to behave or even what they should be doing inside an art museum, an art gallery can intimidate even the boldest of intruders even more than an expensive jewelry store or a high end boutique where it quickly becomes apparent that browsing is frowned upon or not even possible. Admittedly I am still fond of attending gallery openings which are sometimes more interesting opportunities for people watching with the art work as an interesting backdrop.


Yet is the current system in which art is displayed and promoted the best system?  I think it is an important question to ask. Certainly advances in the way that art is exhibited and displayed for the maximum experience of the viewer has drastically improved from the hodge-podge littering of every available wall space that was common in 19th century exhibition.


The arts and their patronage have played a tremendous role in the identity and pride of various countries’ self identities.  While many countries still retain a royal patronage system or sponsorship, most have tended to have dissolved royal private collections into the holdings of public museums in the 18th century.  France still retains the National Academy system founded by Louis XIV and reorganized into a state institution during the French Revolution which still survives today, inspired by the Italian Renaissance Florentine Academy of Marsilio Ficino which in turn was an attempt to revive Plato’s Academy.  It is interesting to note that Plato in his Republic denied the citizenship of the artist into his “ideal” state on the grounds that he deals in falsities and illusion, which seems quite ironically a more appropriate characteristic of politicians.


Museum_of_Fine_Arts_Houston Weiss Bldg Wiki


The history of the “shrines to the Muses” or museums as we have come to know them is interesting to trace in their role as institutions dedicated to the display and preservation of world art treasures to the public.  Yet as many museums around the world seek to break with Classical tradition and hire innovative and experimental architects to design startling structures such as Cincinnati’s “Unmuseum” by Zaha Hadid, cultural critics have commented on this phenomenon as an attempt to establish art museums as public “spiritual-secular” spaces. Incidentally, the Unmuseum also has a mission, that is similar to most contemporary art museums, that does not allow for the collecting of works of art but that focuses exclusively on exhibiting new contemporary art to the public in engaging ways. I am reminded of a particularly memorable decidedly un-modern example of Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk, one of the city’s oldest cathedrals that is structurally preserved yet empty of religious furniture and is converted into a public contemporary arts space.


On the other hand is the quote by Andy Warhol that “Making money is art. And working is art. And good business is the best art”.Is the current practice of many museums being run with decreasing distinctions between non-profit and for profit strategies and practices: board appointed salaries for Directors that attract the attention of Forbes magazine in great disparity to highly qualified professional staff members, money making block buster exhibits relying on marketing and promotional spins on material with dubious educational value and recent developments in museums as night clubs.  Has fund raising and development become “the best art” in dissimulation to much of the rhetoric of most museum’s educational and “community oriented” mission goals?

 Art For Sale


There is also the phenomenon of large corporations with separate departments that acquire contemporary art that is rarely displayed and that is purchased primarily for investment purposes. Saatchi & Saatchi in London has one of the largest collections of contemporary art in the world that is hoarded from public view in its private collection, an advertising corporation that appropriates a collection of images like the Vatican’s secret collection. Yet there was a recent survey from the National Endowment of the Arts that showed a recent marked decline in the American public visiting art museums and galleries or attending cultural events.


While historical antiquities have always been associated with high value, it has only been relatively recent in history when works by living artists began to draw astronomical values. How rare is this to happen for a writer or a performing artist (that is outside of pop culture)?  I attribute a great deal of this disparity to the development of the myths of the discovery of modernism in the West.  While it is widely agreed critically that we are now living in a “post-modern” world, these precedents still seem to hold for the visual arts. Tom Wolfe’s rather unpopular 1975 book The Painted Word that sought to expose the contemporary art world as a narrow solipsistic sphere that tended more to the fable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to establish inflated value and to rely so much on “art theory” rather than aesthetic effect that painting becomes transformed into a literature of self encoded signs that could only be properly interpreted by a hieratic caste of art professionals. Yet, I do not think that the current state of the contemporary fine arts being viewed primarily as over-valued, purposeless, and somehow  “special” hyper-commodities came about because of an excess of “theory”, but instead because of a real lack of commonly held critical and aesthetic values. Indeed modernism was connected with the myth of the necessary death of aesthetics. Also much of contemporary art theory is not involved with aesthetics at all and seeks to serve a variety of ideologies that are often irrelevant to the works themselves or utilize a variety of labyrinthian linguistic sophistries that nihilistically seek to dissolve the very goals of meaning.  As nature abhors a vacuum, in the absence of cultural values, ideologies and mythologies concerning the arts, other dominant cultural values take over such as monetary value or consumerist values such as expectations for entertainment, the obvious display of skill and the desire only to see one’s own narrow tastes reflected.


Certainly I am not advocating for any specific totalizing ideology of the arts, and for that matter it is generally safe to say that most art made primarily in service of a totalitarian state and its ideology tends to be recognizably dreadful.  But I think arts education needs to go beyond the hallowed spheres of arts institutions as well as mere facts and dates and seek to challenge and engage the public in discourse on the value of the arts apart from the line from Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray that “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing”.


While I maintain serious doubts that any more “ism”s or any art movement will have the ability to change the world in any substantial way, the creative and experimental work of artists at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries did unleash the genie out of the bottle culturally and spawned and continues to spawn work that challenges fixed definitions and assumptions about the arts in new engaging and creative forms. While this has challenged fixed and preconceived forms, it does not necessitate the end of aesthetics. It is interesting to note that there are a number of prominent Post Frankfurt School German thinkers and writers working in aesthetics today who remain as yet untranslated into English.


I still enjoy going to art openings in search of that experience that transcends my preconceptions and offers a totally new sphere of contact with the aesthetic experience that is essentially inexplicable.  Galleries and contemporary art museums and centers still offer the primary places for this to happen.  I find that it extends my sphere of reference and aesthetic and experiential palettes in real and substantial ways and I am frequently rewarded in my quests.


Should I stay at home and just settle with online images that would offer very little in regards to the actual encounter experience?  Certainly these images from books and online have value in private contemplation and research, otherwise they threaten to become part of the overall ambient visual babble.  There is still no substitute of the actually presence of the art object which is like a certain type of darshan. Abhinavagupta in the first millennium developed aesthetic theories that are surprisingly “modern” in his insistence on defining aesthetics apart from the classical formal codifications in his commentary on the Natyashastra that includes essentially psychological and transpersonal elements. The aesthetic experience for Abhinavagupta was essentially a homologizing and unifying experience that began with the inspiration that the artist originally experiences and that only reaches the fullest fruition not in the creation of the art object, but in the aesthetic experience of the viewer.  It also recognizes authentic creativity and that the aesthetic experience is not static and repetitive but that it arises “ever new” or innovative (abhinava – of his namesake). There is a passage in one of his tantric mystical texts that “urges worship of Siva in state of creative expansion”.


Mannequin Exit

Yet in close observation of the dominant culture of consumerism and its artificially created desires for goods, especially with the nebulous prestige and fascination of brands or labels, that through the act of purchase and consumption, you are able to imbibe that subtle prestige in an act of contemporary secular communion or prasad where the visible results of your purchase help to define your identity in an inverted Descartian dictum of “I am what I buy” or “I shop therefore I am”.


I have a strong intimation that the lure and mystique of contemporary art has much more to do now with this phenomenon than with any particular ideology, theory or revolutionary ideal.  Likewise, along with its collusive bedfellow, whom it takes most of its cues from, Fashion, very much like the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes, it is less and less about the actual object and the experience of its effects than with the mystique of the brand of the artist and the arbitrarily created “style” of the work carefully crafted detached from meaning or purpose yet with the added advantage over fashion in its superior prestige of its label through the concealment of its own commercial status as a mere commodity or consumer item under the cloak of “contemporary art” that is of course for sale, offering the opportunity to imbibe that hyper prestige through purchase as investment. Is this in the end, the best role and function for the arts, and for that matter is the transfer of ownership the best or the only recognized way to gain real benefit from it?


The 1980’s in fashion saw the phenomenon of the cult of the Designer and the birth of the High Fashion boutique as art gallery.  The eighties was the decade of the designer and not so much the people who wore the clothes.  This has changed now to an almost exclusive focus to who is wearing fashion and how it looks on them, celebrities in particular rather than who designed them. This more than likely has been due to the Internet and social media.  In an age where imagery has exploded and has swelled to a state of visual pollution, the primary document of the original object has seemingly become negligible. I can only wonder what Walter Benjamin would think with his early 20th century essay of “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in the age of digital explosion.  The late 20th and early 21st century has already seen a rash of major art work defacement, destruction and theft internationally, all with a conspicuous lack of public concern or reaction. Yet now the preferred image in the midst of our digital visual cacophony is the “selfe”, the image shot of oneself on a digital mobile device, solipsistic graffiti tagging the polluted virtual zone of cyberspace.




While the 80’s was known as the “Me Generation”, I think it has now become the “Look at Me” generation.  Social Media remains as the primary marketing and promotional tool for most organizations today including arts organizations.  Yet the recent National Endowment of the Arts U.S. survey shows a marked decline in the public’s willingness to attend arts events and museums or galleries while the last ten years has seen an explosion of public arts promotional events and activities such as art walks, museum collaborative district events and gallery association events that even provide public transportation, but the development of the museum as nightclub has to be some of the strangest attempts at promotion.  It makes me wonder if my own off-handed remarks while working in the retail store of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, that the museum should have a “rave” to raise money were actually heard.  A notable example is when Grand Master Flash played at the Basquait opening drawing a huge crowd with the inevitable dropping of beer bottles from the upper balcony onto the fine mosaic stone and cement main floors of the Mies Van Der Rohe’s hulking, cavernous International Style building.  This has become a monthly event with D.J.’s and light shows with commercial corporate sponsors.  Most other museums have followed suit from dancing and drinking among dinosaurs to slumber parties at museums and zoos inspired by the movie Night at the Museum. One of the most memorable and incongruous events took place in a local small museum dedicated to printing history that flooded the small galleries with people and D.J.s and cheerleaders from the local soccer team and a strange indeterminate dancing mascot complete with overturned beer bottles onto the carpet all in close proximity to a Gutenberg Bible.


This raises questions about the accuracy of the critical rhetoric of museums as contemporary sacred secular spaces to spaces marketed and promoted to become places as mere backdrops for hipster “selfes”.


While my questions have not been answered about the place of the arts in society, I hope that they may spawn other questions and dialogue.  I also hope that there would be more inquiry into aesthetics that focus on the mysteries of perception rather than connoisseurship that highlight the experience of awe and wonder like the Vijnana Bhairav, that only serve to illuminate what makes us most human.


As an end note, I recommend the Pratyabijna practice of vikalpa-ksaya, of dissolving dualizing thoughts into the active void of an extended concentration on an aesthetic experience…




© Paul Smith, 2013



Photos by Dennis Dodson and Genevie Fernandes

Image of MFA-Houston – Audrey Jones Beck Building, designed by Rafael Moneo

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