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What is Modern Art?
I started hearing this question frequently after the publication of my several articles dealing with conceptualism and surrealism. This is quite a broad topic, so I want to limit myself in this instance to a small article that I hope will clarify at least in general my position on this issue. So here goes:
I have no use for the term “modern art.” The “historical time” is so different in different places on Earth that the notion of modern art cannot be fit into one particular scheme.
For example, North Korea has a historical time of its own, and it is reflected in modern Korean art differently from other countries. Their art is mostly the art of the poster. Hong Un Sam, Pak Tong Chol, Jang Il Jin, Kim Ryong, and others represent that country’s art in unusually joyous colors. One can, of course, make a biting remark along the lines of “what gut-busting joy,” but their painting in itself has technical merits. It exists in the present time, and it is quite valuable in itself to a society so closed from the world. From the North Korean artists’ paintings—which have their own ideological foundation—one can determine the country’s historical time and the specific traits of art in contemporary Korean life.
In this same modern earthly epoch, art is entirely different in African societies, and there it reflects its modernity as well. In tribal cultures, totemic art prevails, while in the more historically advanced African societies, art is different yet is still founded in the African totemic culture. In the tourist hotspots, local creators adapt their handicraft items to sell, frequently merely imitating their own art: a piece can be the very same “little god” but with three or four heads. Sacred traditions become mixed with entertainment for tourists and appear to symbolize something African for them. This stuff goes on to be sold! There you have it—the contemporary trend of African art.
I want to note here that as a rule, everything manufactured specifically for sale destroys the depth of the artistic image. This is true of every kind of artistic expression, from folk art to modern art in the most advanced capitalist countries.
From my perspective, modern art can be examined only by country and by trend. In one and the same historical time, in one and the same country, extreme modernism, realism, impressionism, expressionism, and all other forms and kinds of artistic painting coexist. One’s adherence to these “isms” depends on a multitude of factors, including social origins, health, and the influence of teachers, of the milieu, of society type and ideology, as well as on one’s personal purposes for art, on the purpose and meaning of the artist’s own life in art, and so forth.
Chinese culture is five thousand years old. To this day, the culture preserves as a great treasure those artists who protect the traditions of their very complex art and pass on from hand to hand (just as in ballet, “from the leg”) the great mystery of this magical painting art. Even within this tradition, there are plenty of charlatans. They think that drawing a slant-eyed face and dressing the character in rags is all it takes to create Chinese painting. Or take the spread-petal flowers that are sold and briskly bought in Chinese bazaars under the pretense of Chinese art; it is in fact a disgrace, an insult to Chinese art. Such fakes are usually sold with the conventional inscription: “painted by hand.” Of course it is painted by hand, but that doesn’t mean it is authentic in essence! Authentic Chinese painting has its laws, which are formulated in books—books that are no longer in print and are available only in major libraries, for example, the library of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Ignorance of the traditions—of the “cosmic Chinese geometry” and of Chinese painting aesthetics—is the greatest sin of those art critics who endeavor to evaluate Chinese painting. A critic who learned his craft on European works of art is almost guaranteed to err in his evaluation of Chinese painting. True connoisseurs of Oriental arts can be counted on one’s fingers.
One of the points stated in the mandatory canons of Chinese painting is this: copy the works of Chinese painting classic masters. This is like a commandment for serious artists. Such copies are always considered to be original works of art, since the artist who copied something from a classic understood the meaning of the brushstroke, the essence of what the predecessor had said with his work. The touch itself, the stroke, so to say—the force of pressure, thickness, flight quality, curvature, thickness of the ink, rhythmic quality, and so forth—these are the essence of the depicted object’s character; they are its language. Correct spelling, so to speak, is not in itself sufficient. The objects must also have contact with each other or with the accomplice, that is, the viewer. The images must be positioned in space according to that very mysterious geometry that is supposed to divide the space into parts, and much else besides. All elements together comprise the image that is inseparable from the aesthetics of this kind of art. The contemporary artist who has made the same voyage of mastering the complexities of Chinese painting will pass it on to the next generation, preserving this magic for ages. I repeat: this art is five thousand years old. The authenticity of Chinese art is determined by the correspondence of the character of the stroke to the character of the image. There must be no fraud, no falsehood in this. Is he who creates authenticity of art in our day modern?
In the West, no one understands Chinese copying. God forbid you should copy someone’s soup can. What, someone copied my soup can!? Sue him! The copyright is mine! In the exact same fashion, the Chinese fail to understand why one can’t copy the model of a Dior handbag and manufacture one just like it. One can even “copy” its genuine essence. This Chinese tradition of copying originates from their geography, their language, and their hieroglyphics. Copy or perish—such is the imperative!
Modern Chinese culture is eclectic. Time has bound together art and the marketplace; it is very difficult to sort out authenticity today. The masses are applying pressure with their wares. On every corner in China, you can hear hawkers exhorting people to buy “masterpieces from antiquity” that were actually manufactured just around that corner. A merchant of “art” is unable to sleep unless he has duped someone. A crowd of dealers disseminates fakes as they create objects to satisfy the demands of visiting foreigners. This is neither good nor bad. This is just the historical time with its laws—except that this stuff comes very cheap, far from the price of true relics.
I want to draw your attention to the fact that one should not confuse an artist’s manner and that artist’s affiliation with a school in art, including modern art. The manner is manifested—same as in handwriting—in the line, in the motion, in “breath”; however, one and the same manner can be used to paint different content, from beauty to abomination. One and the same beautiful handwriting can be used to write, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” and right next to that line, “You’re trippin’, dude!” It is the same in Chinese painting where you have the simple art of Qi Baishi and the simplified craft of a Chinese “Joe Blow”—different worlds, different epochs in the same historical modern time.
I anticipate the question “Is it even possible to develop Chinese art under such dire constraints?” The answer is yes. What I described above is only one of the canons. However, further movement is impossible without having an understanding of the art itself. The historical time and the artist’s individuality provide new themes. For example, new inventions are made in the technique of Indian ink painting. That, however, is a separate topic, which requires a special analysis. I only wish to note here that one cannot bestow the name of Chinese art on works that were not created following the laws of Chinese art. The new art form must have a new name, whether Indian ink painting, or mixed technique, or gouache, or some other painting on paper “using Chinese motives,” or some other such name.
Note well! Chinese painting is not merely painting produced by a Chinese person on canvas or even paper. It is not Chinese subjects, no matter who draws them. It is not oil painting in imitation of Chinese painting. Chinese painting is a method, which includes philosophy and painting with Indian ink on Chinese paper (or silk). Chinese painting is Chinese painting even in Africa if the artist studies it conscientiously, the way one studies a branch of science, such as physics or biology. Chinese painting can be classical or modern in one and the same historical time.
As for copying—or, rather, cloning, to be exact—nothing compares to Japanese art. It is no accident that in Japan, the art of painting is little developed, unlike the art of the print. Painting is the art of individualities, something that is impossible in Japan. In Japan, individuality is censured; it is considered improper there to “stick out.” In China, the print as art form is almost nonexistent; it is made there on extremely rare occasions. In Japan, meanwhile, that “non-individual art” achieved incredible beauty and refinement! The thing that to a Chinese person is merely a print, a copy, a repetition “sounds” entirely differently to a Japanese person—like this, for example: “This is the art of a nuanced print with its specific culture of the line and a technique that has its own deep cultural traditions. It is severity in combination with a special Japanese emotionality that is hidden from the non-comprehending view.” Is this modern or not? The answer has to do with the country’s history and geography.
Multiple repetition is the essence of the efforts undertaken by all that is small in order to survive, to join into groups, to become unified. Life in a land that has no natural resources taught this to the Japanese. It is an art in itself to build an economically powerful country without losing the Japanese spirit—the art of preserving their originality in modern times.
Of course, Japanese art also includes some crazy modernists who refuse to be “faceless Japanese.” They enjoy the support of some of the most influential and wealthy museums—the Mori, for instance. Those, however, are tourist spots where “everything is for sale!” since Japan, for all its communal essence, is also at the same time a capitalist country.
It has been known for a long time that Japanese tourists love taking photos more than any other. “Hiroshi was here”… and another “Hiroshi,” and another, and another. All Japanese visitors follow the same tourist routes, including the same museums, and just keep printing themselves again and again against the backdrop of tourist attractions. Everyone is like everyone else; we are a nation! That is the message “sounding” from their photographs and prints. Every Japanese tourist has floor maps for the museums on his or her itinerary; indicated on these maps are the paintings that a Japanese person must view. I once witnessed a very funny (to me) scene: driven out of his wits by the size of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the number of paintings displayed there, a Japanese tourist was running through the halls and, without looking at the paintings, simply putting check marks in his guide brochure to record that he had visited those halls, with characteristic Japanese thoroughness, without omitting anything.
Thoroughness and thriftiness cause the Japanese to polish everything, including art. What is better: the golden Japanese nightingale or the live Chinese one? This question should be addressed to the creator—i.e., to the geography, which caused people to create in accordance with the laws of their survival. Is this modern or not? Modernity, after all, is not art-world “sticks and stones”; it is history written/created by people in time. As for diseases—especially the psychic disorders of some very individual creators who have been “kissed by god” in every spot—they always existed and always will. It is just that such disease must be identified and prevented from doing creative work; such are the rules of conduct in art.
The rules of foreign art, however, often migrate to other countries, which is natural in today’s world, and not only in our time. For example, French impressionists (with few exceptions) studied Japanese art. Van Gogh did, for one; however, having translated the principles of Japanese strokes into his own French means of painting, he obtained a special effect. Van Gogh’s talent was so great that the convincing power of his works executed in the new technique became organic as a new direction in painting.
An entirely different kind of translation also exists. I have seen monstrous fakes done in a supposedly Japanese spirit. I have seen oil-on-canvas paintings (what does this have to do with Japanese painting?) depicting “Japanese” women wearing kimonos and resembling East European ladies clad in Chinese kitchen robes. The Japanese visage (the lines and shape of the face)—something that cannot be replaced by any other face type—turns into a large-nosed countenance. In such paintings, the sakura—a tree with blossoms that have a particular shape and branches that have a particular twist—resembles instead daisies spread chaotically over a meadow located in the sky. And when the fraudsters attempt to draw bamboo, it almost drives one to tears: instead of bamboo leaves, their newly fashionable technique depicts banana bunches. These miracle-workers are unaware that bamboo grows in a certain projection and that the intersection of its leaves is not chaotic. This is described in the ABC books of Chinese painting (and of the Japanese sumi-e painting technique as well). The fake bamboo doesn’t “rustle”; it looks instead like a Play-Doh tree drooping with heavy banana bunches in order to suppress the buyer’s taste with a coarse imitation. The imitation replaces the spirit and meaning of true art and culture with a destructive parody, which serves to multiply adherents of such “beauty.”
In contemporary American society, I observe substantial degradation in art—at least in those places where I’ve been. My notion of modern American art is not ideal, naturally. I was born and raised in the Soviet Union where the attitude toward art was entirely different from what I see in the USA today. The depth of “Russian art” is determined by the work of outstanding creators such as Plisetskaya, Ulanova, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, A. Platonov, Shukshin, Sholokhov, Smoktunovsky, Richter, and before them Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva, Anna Pavlova, Shalyapin. Literate people know these names. Likewise do Russian artists—from Repin to Vrubel, Konstantin Vasiliev, Pavel Filonov, and others—constitute the gold fund of people who enriched not only Soviet Russian culture but world culture as well. I have a surprise for you: the painters and performing artists who lived in the Soviet era showed their work in exhibitions, concerts, and shows for free. They collected their monthly salaries and kept working. It is hard to imagine that Ulanova would have danced better, Richter would have played faster and louder, Shostakovich would have added more notes to his compositions if they were paid more. The same applies to all great names, whether contemporaries of the above or not. It is a different matter that by international standards their labors should have been compensated much more substantially. But why involve international standards? These people lived in their country in its historical time that had its own pluses and minuses, its own contemporaries and classics—same as everywhere. I’m saying all this in order to explain that my vision of modern art is built on a culture that has a different meaning. Fortunately, I am not alone in identifying regularities and truth in art.
American culture is very young and simply different. From the moment the United States was formed, its foundation has been capitalist enterprise. The slogan “Everything is for sale!” has always determined and still determines the development of art in the USA. Americans often perceive the depth of Russian art as tearful emotionality and perhaps even as backwardness. They are perfectly indifferent to things that touch Russians, and conversely, the “soulless American” things cause Russians to exclaim, “Aren’t they all dumb?!”
Art in the USA actually took shape as design for the first saloons. The people who arrived in the New World were the ones who used their elbows to clear themselves a place for a wealthier life. It is in Americans’ blood at all times—entrepreneurship in taking over someone else’s “pie.” They cannot understand in principle how an exhibition or a show can be arranged without paying rent for the premises, how it can be done without any agents and curators taking a cut of the action, how it can be done without paying various publishers. Entrepreneurial invention forced the artists, too, to invent objects for sale. To contemporary Americans, Andy Warhol (the one who painted soup cans) is very nearly the most important artist of all times and all nations. They also hold Pollock in the same esteem—the man who spray-painted dots in different directions. The public readily swallows the contemporaries’ “masterpieces” because the appraisers in the world’s richest and most influential country called these artists “great ones” rather than charlatans. There are those in the USA who think differently, of course, but they are very few. The mainstream of modern art is determined by the masses, including all the links in the art business, from the street haberdashers to the dealers of Sotheby’s. I have stopped memorizing contemporary creators’ names; they all look the same to me. I expressed my attitude toward these “faces” in a poem that contains the following lines:
The people there are templates of one face.
Identical. Among them, all maintain
That median is truth. No glory—no disgrace.
When talent is divided—it’s a stain!
But life won’t stand it, and they’ll all be vanquished
No matter for what goals they strive,
The ones who live in darkness will soon vanish—
Their memory won’t bring them back to life.
In the modern epoch, you can find people in the West who are ready to review any fake or counterfeit imitation for money, even Chinese “antiquities.” Their pronouncements will then flow from publishing house to publishing house, creating a background, or PR, to use a more modern-sounding term.
Europe has its own history, its own historical time. Europe already lived in the time of modernism in art when America was still an infant in that respect. In other words, the question “What is modern art?” is a topic for vast research. As for this article, I think I have formulated my position clearly.
Translated into English by Paul Sorokin
© Copyright Valentina Battler. All Rights Reserved
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