“Flowerets at my garden, please I beg your pardon” is a lyric line from a popular Russian song. We chose it for a reason and found it rather allegorical: while contemporary Russian audience is fond of romantic realism on the verge of kitsch, it has zero tolerance for cutting-edge art and the latest trends of visual culture. The art historian and artist Darya Voronina reviews why it is so and if there are ways to change the situation.
Russian society these days doesn’t understand and doesn’t accept contemporary art. How is it possible that in a country with a strong avant-garde background the artists have lost contact with their viewers? We can search for the answers in our recent Soviet past: general party line for art, struggling nonconformist artists, Bulldozer Exhibition, dissenting counterculture. However, it is just the tip of an iceberg, and true reasons are rooted far deeper in the lack of taste, education, habit, and “trained eye”, as well as in the complete apathy and intellectual inertia of the crowd.
Nowadays artists are overwhelmed by criticism: why can’t they paint like old masters? What is depicted here? What did the artist mean? And traditional: “I can do that too.” These questions and statements cover the violent ignorance of the modern-day viewers. This claim sounds harsh but is unfortunately supported by numerous facts.
Let’s have a look at the situation form different perspectives.
At first, let’s define the role of art and its value for the society. Art has always been, still is and will be elitist. (We are talking about arts, not skills. To evaluate an item in terms of quality of performance and technicality is a merely technological approach). From the early civilizations to the present day, art has been serving the elites: ruling circles, church, aristocracy, bourgeoisie. “Common people” have never been among art consumers. Meanwhile, Soviet Russian public remains enchained by a well-known concept: “Art belongs to the people.” Of course, it is the same populist slogan as “Factories to the workers!” and “Land to the peasants!”. As a matter of fact, art has never belonged to the people; the mass culture is a completely different story.
Modern communications make the world a more open-minded place, where art is not an exception. Though being finally more available didn’t make it more accessible.
Multiple narratives and ambiguous interpretation are often used as an argument against contemporary art. Falling into a psychological trap of visual perception the viewer finds familiar things comprehensible. The paintings of the past were never simple. Although, knowing the subject makes the viewer seem to understand the painting.
We are born and live in a specific cultural environment, forming our mindset and defining our taste, including the perception of visual art. Often the viewers only think they understand the painting. In fact, they just recognize familiar images, like a child recognizes a horse or a man, or a tree in the picture. People tend to assume if they see familiar objects, they understand the meaning of the composition. It is a delusion. Ask yourself, do you really perceive the meaning of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”? Most likely you just see a naked woman. There are many more examples, take Bosch, Velázquez, Goya, and others.
AESTHETICS AND ANTI-AESTHETICS
Another cornerstone of contemporary art is that being beyond mainstream and mass culture, it is rejected by the society. Contemporary art doesn’t sit well with a standard.
But that is only natural. Art should be one step ahead of the society. The scenario hasn’t changed much over the centuries: new style or movement experience rejection, recognition (often through scandal), and acceptance, turning into the classic after all. The new generation doesn’t remember the deluge of criticism brought against the Klimt’s paintings, nor Manet pictures poked with umbrellas by the exhibition visitors, nor Modigliani struggling to sell his nudes, nor Rembrandt going broke through the lack of commissions. Hals and Vermeer died in poverty and Gaugin – in obscurity.
Art must bear innovation, or it is not contemporary enough. It is a matter of perception and our willingness to accept the new. Things heavily criticized today will be classic in 50 years.
The environment is essential for every artist, from sociopolitical situation in the country to the global politics. It’s not about irony. Just like any other citizen and resident of the world an artist is concerned of the same problems. Artists are just more sensitive.
How to do pretty and decorate a house is all about hobby and design. Art is a mindset multiplied by a talent and exceptional artistic expression. Every sane and sensible person living in the modern world is integrated and engaged with it. An artist is no exception. Those who make their art archaic on purpose, just copy the past.
So, contemporary art can’t be separated from the progress. But how the viewer can understand the intricacies and evaluate the quality of an artwork? The same way it is done with the classic art – ask experts.
We unknowingly rely on someone’s opinion by getting instructions at school, at home, from friends, family, and mass media. But when it comes to contemporary art, we have a hostile attitude towards the expert opinion. The public doesn’t trust the experts and fear to be tricked and betrayed. The dependence on public opinion and fear to sound ridiculous seem too heavy.
Modern Russian audience grew up reading classic Russian literature illustrated by the Russian realist painters of the late 19th century. Everything else is terra incognita, the shaky ground they are afraid and unwilling to step onto. The key to understanding is information. To get contemporary art, you need to have a “trained eye,” to absorb and feel new things and leave your visual comfort zone.
As children we were taken to the concerts of classical music, sometimes forced to perceive the complicated art. No one would love Bach or Joyce with no preparation. The ability to see is not a gift, it is work. And the task of every educated person is to teach themselves to see contemporary art.