I was originally going to write about the humanist tradition in art. You know. Giotto, Brueghel, the Social Realists of the Thirties, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks. But then, after perusing recent art magazines and going into a bunch of New York art galleries, I don’t know that there’s much humanism around. There’s a lot of minimalist, abstract painting: big, decorative canvasses that look good in loft apartments, as well as some large-scale public environmental art plus a good deal of Pop-ish, cartoon-derived stuff. There’s also a slew of larger-than-life, digitally modified photographs and paintings that look like photographs. Not much that could be defined as humanist but then, why should there be? To parody the old theater cliche: Humanism (especially in the form of social satire,) is what closes on Sunday. There’s no market for it.
When the rare occasions when figurative art does appear and images of people are used, the work is either incredibly angry and distorted or so sentimental and cliché that I cringe – end up wishing the artist had stuck to colored squares. So, where have all the humanists gone, the ones who genuinely care about people? The same place as everywhere else in our society, replaced by cheap thrills and computer-driven technical tricks. To explain what’s going on, you have to look at the “art market” (and it is nothing more than a market.) Who buys art anyhow? . The “Common Man” spends his hard-earned dollars on 60” flat screen TVs. He doesn’t need ‘pitchas’ on the wall? And, if he does feel a desire for some real art, he can always pick up a giclee print for a coupla bucks at WalMart. Looks just like a genuine Van Gogh, down to the 3D brushstrokes.
Through most of the history of art, work was produced for the aristocracy and the church. They were sophisticated buyers, quite knowledgeable (and self promoting). Except for brief periods in the Netherlands during the 16th and 17th centuries, the activities and feelings of ordinary people were rarely depicted until the mid-1800s, when they appeared as part of broader, socialist- based movements that extolled the Working Class and their everyday life. Humanism showed up in German Expressionism after World War I and during the Great Depression in the thirties. Remnants survived into the 1950s but got knocked out for good during the McCarthy political era where any art that sympathetically depicted “real” people was suspected of ties to radicalism.
There’s no trace of humanism in the art world today, except for isolated throwbacks with leftover ideals and an out of date interest in the real (not electronic) world. Conspicuous consumption and meaningless art is expressive of the time we live in and is the order of the day. Even a die-hard humanist (like your blogger) finds herself moving away from reality and into the safety of dreams.