You've Got to Admit, Art's Getting Better
Jesse Richards - May 7, 1999

Iím always trying to get my friends to like contemporary art. We go to museums and galleries, I show them art magazines and Web pages, and I explain what Iím learning in art classes. But itís difficult, since most people have a prejudice about modern art: They think a lot of it sucks.

Guess what? Theyíre right.

Donít get me wrong ó I like the majority of contemporary art. I have a greater appreciation of art since Iíve studied the major art theories of this century. But I have to say, while I can understand theories and admire innovations, itís difficult to like a lot of art.

A lot is just plain ugly. Granted, viewers shouldnít be prejudiced against learning about art because itís unappealing at first glance. But itís hard for people to try to understand something when they donít like it to begin with. Itís hard to justify it when I donít like it myself.

But there is hope for the future. After studying art for four years, Iíve made a few amateur predictions concerning the future of the art world.

Listed below are eight reasons why I feel the fine arts are heading in a positive direction. Iíll use visual art as my prime example, but these points generally hold true for popular music, dance, film, and theater.

It may look bleak, but subtle undercurrents indicate that a re-emergence of beautiful, aesthetically-pleasing art is just around the corner. In my opinion, fine art reached its nadir in the í80s. The past decade has been a climb back up.

More female artists

Imagine if art, one of the noblest and most impressive achievements in the history of humanity, completely excluded half the population from participating. Um ... whoops. Well, it took a few millennia to wise up, but female artists have become pretty much accepted into the art world after a tumultuous 30-year entrance.

A hundred years ago, Impressionists Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot could barely paint outside their homes without chaperones. Imagine their increased output if they had been encouraged to follow art! Luckily, this is finally happening. Iíd wager some 30 to 40 percent of currently exhibiting artists are female. But hereís the cool part: More females are in art school now than males. So, in a few years, they will have a majority hold on the art world.

Why is this good? In my opinion, the male mindset has stagnated the art world. Fresh ideas and energy are needed ó and the obvious place to find these is the three billion people who hadnít been allowed to participate before.

Itís not that I dislike ďmale artĒ ó since I suppose Iím creating it too ó but who knows what exciting new art can be produced by women? I donít necessarily mean ďfeminist art,Ē which reached its height in the í70s and mostly exhausted itself like other movements of this century. But changes in the art world are imminent, and more female artists than males seem interested in the next four points below, which are leading to positive changes for art.

Craftsmanship

A white canvas. A found object. Great examples of art that has alienated the public by being intellectually haughty and aesthetically ugly. Yes, anything can be art ó but Duchamp said it first with Fountain in 1917; and do we really need the point hammered home?

Most artists are finally catching on that this is a dead end for art and that the point has been made. More art now is concerned with craftsmanship: producing art using a finely detailed, often repetitive or difficult process.

The cries of ďMy three-year-old could do that!Ē are slowly dwindling from contemporary galleries. Fine painterly works with intricate detail, and representational sculptures and drawings, are replacing abstract, ďsimpleĒ works that owed a lot to Minimalism.

This ties back into a large number of female artists who are using processes traditionally thought of as feminine ó sewing, jewelry, quilting, etc. They combine the rich heritage and underlying culture of these art forms with contemporary subject matter and composition.

The great thing about well-crafted, detailed art is not that it necessarily has more merit than other art ó but at least the public can enjoy it more. Everyone can appreciate the amount of time and effort that goes into this art without having to study the theories behind it.

Returning narratives

For a while, art completely ignored a function that it had been enjoying perhaps longer than any other ó storytelling. But this, too, is coming back. Photo series and video art are both ideal for narratives, and I have seen several examples of these in recent shows.

As opposed to abstract work, narratives can state themes and morals in a clear-cut, comprehensive way and are important tools for communicating ideas to a large audience. A narrative is an essential window into the human condition; art should be trying to discover new ways to make narratives innovative and relevant again.

New media

I believe one reason why this centuryís art had to push toward conceptualism and went through as many movements as it did was the absence of new media. Photography was such a huge innovation that itís largely responsible for Modernism. But since then, no huge artistic innovation has happened ó until computers. The new media created by computers is a vast field ripe for exploration by artists. Anyone who thinks other, traditional media have been exhausted should try out computer art before resorting to last-ditch efforts in vague conceptualism or redundant themes.

Re-emphasizing beauty

Though often secondary to a theory or story, beauty was always a consideration throughout artís history ó except, of course, in this century. But, again, I think artists are coming around. Theyíre realizing again that aesthetic pleasure should be one of the goals of art. Art can be beautiful and still make a point. And like craftsmanship, beauty is something instinctual that everyone can recognize immediately. Beauty is key to getting people to like and be interested in contemporary art again.

Social concerns/Environment

Art has always been a great force for social change. While social themes have never disappeared from the art world, much recent art looks at social issues in an ironic, non-caring way. I think social concerns, especially environmental issues, are starting to be taken more seriously by artists and are being presented with a straight face instead of postmodern irony.

Spirituality

Trends indicating a rebirth of spiritual themes in art (not necessarily specific ďreligiousĒ art, mind you) are harder to see. In this century, art has refelcted the culture and been caught up in materialism, ignoring deep existential issues.

If artists become less self-centered (as epitomized by some í80s superstar artists who functioned on greed) and more socially conscious and responsible with their art, they can start addressing big, meaning-of-life type issues that tie into spirituality. Deep spiritual questions havenít been dealt with head-on since Paul Gauguin asked, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

The history of art is leading toward it

There is nowhere left for art to go but up. A century of experimentation has yielded few permanent innovations. Hundreds of art movements have had their 15 minutes of fame, and are left worn and exhausted.

I believe this experimentation was necessary to prove to artists that these ideas were, for the most part, dead ends. Now that weíve satisfied our curiosity, we can get back to business ó creating art that is beautiful, responsible, meaningful, can affect change in society, and that the public cares about.

Art is getting better
There is a light at the end of the tunnel!