Neo-Modernism: The Revitalization of Western Culture

Jackson Pollock’s action paintings traced the cosmic dance for art enthusiasts in the 1950s. Today, there is only mediated expression. All we see are artifacts of an earlier time. Over the years, the transcendental experiences and emotive content of Modern art were lost to the inroads of academic reductionism and commercialism. By the end of Modernism (as a movement in the fine arts), artists were left with an almost lifeless product. They would resign themselves to exploring the parameters of art in a dialogue between artists and critics with little regard for the role of art in society. Often enough, the art that followed would be brilliant and deserving of its status, but seldom did it inspire the viewer.

The art establishment never lost a step in the transition from Modernism’s transcendental aesthetic response to the propositional aesthetics of postmodernism. While the subjectively-realized value of Modern art was important to artists and the art audience, it was not a primary concern for the rest of the art establishment. The careers of most art professionals are centered around art as an industry and begin after the creative process is complete. Gallery directors, art critics, art historians and aesthetic theorists are either focused on finding discursive explanations for art or exploiting its commercial potential. From their perspective, the viewer’s intangible response is not relevant and is almost always left out of their explanations for attributing value.

The art market is controlled by a network of galleries, museums and publications centered in New York. Gallery directors, with dollar signs before their eyes, court an exclusive market predisposed to acquire their product. Mainstream galleries represent the work of the most popular artists of the period. At the apex of the art establishment hierarchy, their art becomes high dollar commodities sold as empowering symbols of the ruling class. The elitism of mainstream art at the end of the late modern period parallels the role of art in the French academy in the second half of the 19th century; in the period concurrent to the arrival of the outsider art of the Impressionists and the beginning of modern society as we know it.

The art establishment continues to rely on the tired premise that cultural values trickle down; which is to say, art objects are exclusive commodities with intrinsic value that will eventually have a positive effect on society. The trickle down approach for attributing value to art does not account for the subjective value of the cultural experience, nor does it seem applicable in a high tech pop culture where everyone resents the authority of the capital elite. For art to have an impact in today’s society, it has to function as cultural mediator for more than esoteric and elite audiences.

The graffitied trains of the New York subway system in the 1960s represented a revolutionary approach to art. For a brief period, graffiti artists were anarchists existing outside the art establishment. As emerging artists took advantage of the opportunity to exhibit marketable sofa paintings, graffiti art was commodified and commercially exploited. Relatively small art-ified canvases, displayed on gallery walls, did not carry the impact or implications of the original format. The graffitied canvas was a bastardization of a revolutionary grassroots art form. Policed by establishment values, graffiti art in the gallery was subjugated to the very ideals street art opposed.

The art establishment system of accreditation defuses and absorbs revolutionary art forms before they can affect ideological change. Do not expect a significant shift in cultural values to emerge from the current arrangement of galleries and institutions. In a catch 22, mainstream art is a pseudo-autonomous discipline limited by its own ideology. The idea that art is independent of non-art is a means of control. Autonomy in art is a misnomer that masks the artist’s obligation to the market.

In order to affect the underlying ideology, art must gain recognition for its cultural significance without becoming a commodity with resale value. Fortunately for artists, the self-serving priorities and institutions of mainstream art are distinct from those of local galleries, community art organizations, mural art and graffiti art. These are venues where artists are free to explore alternative solutions for interfacing the context of fine art and society; specifically, for exploring art outside the context of Modernism/postmodernism.

To some extent, the vitality of the encounter with graffiti art carries over to the sized canvas where it bolsters the fading relevance of mainstream galleries. Regardless of its role in the gallery, graffiti art on the street withstands attempts to assimilate the art form. It continues today as the vanguard of a cultural movement independent of the art establishment ideology. It is not based on Modernism’s (or postmodernism’s) underlying maxims of ‘art for art’s sake’ and ‘art as artifact’. With street art, nonobjective imagery carries an implicit social context and finished pieces are often painted over within hours of their completion. The beliefs and practices supporting graffiti art represent a clear break with the art establishment.

The paradigmatic shift to neo-modernism in the arts is taking place through peripheral venues such as graffiti art and mural art. These are blue collar brothers of the erudite high art found in mainstream galleries. Wall paintings, whether schoolyard murals or boxcar graffiti, subvert the mainstream ideology that reduces art to dollars and sense. They are not bound by economic and elitist priorities of the gallery and cannot be resold as a commodity. The encounter with wall-painted art transcends social barriers to work its magic on every passerby. Everyone, from every social stratum and age group, assesses the aesthetic value of the art. It is not exclusive. In an art world dominated by commercial galleries and elitist art, wall-painted art is a cultural mediator.

From Giotto to Diego Rivera to Keith Haring to Bansky, wall paintings constitute their own art form. Examples are found in every civilization in Western history. Apart from the role of religious frescoes in the early Renaissance as progenitors of Modern art, wall paintings are usually considered a colloquial art form; often recorded as an afterthought in the footnotes of history.

As an art form, non-commercial wall paintings play a role in society independent of the priorities of the gallery. Throughout history they have integrated marginalized audiences into belief systems implied by the composition and associated with the site. Wall paintings offer symbols of cultural transformation in locations conducive to the experience. Where the value of gallery art is determined by its sticker price, the value of graffiti art and mural art is determined by their resonance within the subculture or community. Their impact in the community is social and political as well as aesthetic.

There is a subtle difference between the viewer’s response to gallery art and the wall painting. Both frame and gallery distinguish fine art as an aesthetic commodity set apart from the everyday context. By contrast, passersby identify with wall paintings as part of their community. Painted directly on neighborhood walls, mural art and graffiti art attach a fine art context to the site in a way that framed art cannot. Painting and encountering the wall are contiguous acts with the potential to produce a vital experience not available to traditionally displayed art. A stronger bond exists between artist and viewer. The potential for a meaningful cultural experience is greater. Wall painted art constitutes an energized visual language equally connected to fine art and community.

Communities take pride in their distinguishing features and turn to artists to create the defining symbols of their heritage. Amateur and professional artists from a broad range of backgrounds incorporate locally relevant content into a fine art context. The wall painting, whether it is a community mural or graffiti art, presents a physical matrix between artist and viewer, between community and outside world, and between art history and art as cultural mediator. Through the microcosm of an idealized event, the viewer recognizes the universality of the human experience in a community-specific fine art context.

The wall painted mural has power as an active cultural force in society. While it expresses the ideals of the community (or subculture) to outsiders, inwardly it works as an initiating experience for integration into the local culture. A ‘leap of faith’ occurs as viewers identify with implied values expressed in the art. Rather than simply representing the interests of the group, the mural evokes subjectively-realized value that defines and unites them as a community.

It is not the pedagogical, commercial or entertainment value of art, but the magic that sometimes happens when producing or viewing art that gives it power. Regardless of non-objective subject matter or conceptual intent, art never escapes its role in the actualization process. Through appreciation of the art object, inspiration oversteps the boundaries of reason to incorporate the viewer into the belief system implied by the art.

As the wall-painted mural celebrates value-related features of the community, it unites the community with a common aesthetic experience. Cultural value derived from the encounter cannot be explained within the contexts of Modernism or postmodern theory. Its significance suggests an aesthetic based on cultural integration. Graffiti art and mural art provide aesthetic bearing for the paradigmatic shift to neo-modern culture just as the outsider art of the Impressionists became the empowering symbol of the bourgeoisie at the beginning of the modern age.

While meaningful cultural experiences do not transcend the perceptual veil of the ego as it was once believed, the myths we live by are recast by them. Culture has always shaped the individual in society. Whether the epic poems of ancient Greece or the paintings of the Modernists, art provides glimpses of the self in transition. Artists search for the hypothetical image that best fits the needs of actualization in the changing world.

A kind of hybrid vigor is enlivening the Western cultural experience as society adjusts to rapid advances in personal communication and information technology. The cultural icons of the modern age, devalued by commercialism and the despiritualization of culture, fall to the wayside as artifacts as the graffitied screams of a new age fill the void. Wall-painted art -- this oldest and most egalitarian of art forms -- is now at the leading edge of the societal shift from disenfranchised late modernism to revitalized neo-modern culture.

The postmodern deconstruction of Western culture will prove to be the dialectic preface to an empathetic movement in the arts. The longer controlling ideologies deny the inevitable truth that man is more than reason, the greater will be the rebound of transcendental aesthetics. We are in a period just prior to a cultural revolution that will inspire symbolic experiences rivaling any in the past century. At the end of the current reductive phase in art, a revitalisé-garde, freed from the misconceptions of transcendental idealism, will explore art as a means to bring about social change through transformative cultural experiences.