When Art Became Cheap ‘N’ Easy

How does an art movement go from confounding and avant garde to inspiring lifestyle choices and philosophy?

If you’ve been following my blogs about art, how technology has outpaced it, and the modern emphasis on expression and controversy, you might be wondering exactly how and when everything really got out of hand. I think it started, in earnest, with minimalism:

The Oppressive Gospel of ‘Minimalism’

How does an art movement go from confounding and avant garde to inspiring lifestyle choices and philosophy? If you were to ask a professional art snob, he would probably say something edgy but completely vapid like,

“Minimalism in the 1960s was very much along the lines of taking LSD,” says Miguel de Baca, an associate professor of art history at Lake Forest College.

The reality is much less provocative and a little more historical. From the 1700’s to the early 20th century, the industrial revolution drastically reshaped every aspect of human society from fashion to war. Newly mechanized agriculture required fewer farmhands and urban factories needed more laborers to increase their output. The result was the birth of the middle class and modern cities, and with that, modern popular culture and entertainment. This explosion of productivity and technology would spawn cross-continental railroads, massive foundries burning plentiful coal rather than wood, and the magic of electricity. With everybody from the richest entrepreneur to the poorest worker sharing in this massive upheaval, what did the artist have to offer with their landscapes and cherubs?

It is because of this age, and as a result of the wonders of that technology, artists felt it necessary to separate their work from reality. With abstract art, there were no constraints like perspective or anatomical proportion. The artist was now free to create something that could not be found anywhere else in the world, no matter how far you travel in a locomotive or a hot air balloon. This process of evolution would continue in the 20th century. Further development of technology would up the ante and compete with art directly. With the invention of film, television and radio, entertainment could be pumped directly into the home. The mid 1960’s would see the color television and color films, and photography was beginning to be accepted as a medium for art. Facing the possibility of becoming irrelevant and niche, the standards for what would qualify and be labeled as art were lowered. Films and television shows were created with capital from investors, teams of professionals and large studios in a way that no single artist could match. Rather than trying to top the spectacle of entertainment, minimalism reset what was to be expected from artists. By going to the opposite end of the spectrum from sensationalism and grandeur to obscurity and subtlety, the disparity between art and entertainment could be bypassed completely. By standing in opposition to entertainment, art had a new reason to exist. This is why modern art isn’t explained, people are just told they don’t “get it.”

When minimalism lowered the bar, it made sure that art could continue to exist alongside entertainment and technology. Minimalism was also a fresh alternative to the over stimulation of entertainment, and to consumerism in general. Requiring so little, minimalism allowed the inclusion of the lazy and those who lack artistic talent. Businesses could quickly and cheaply create a stylish but no-frills product without ever having to mention the words “budget” or “economy model.” Following the dynamics of capitalist competition, more and more would adopt this business-friendly exploitation of culture. Without Donald Judd’s basic shapes and unfinished pine, Ikea could never exist. It allowed the inclusion of the poor as minimalism began to be associated with frugality and asceticism, two virtues of American counterculture. Now that art was cheap ‘n’ easy, spread throughout culture and ingrained in philosophy, it would change society in ways it never had before, and it would continue to be relevant.

Today, art follows what I call the Kanye West Template. This involves creating as much false or real controversy as possible to gain exposure and maintain relevance. This is how pop culture is hacked and gamed. Rather than providing some kind of thought or creation that generates widespread interest and attains popular acceptance (hence, “pop”), a divisive and provocative viewpoint is presented to stir emotions and illicit a response. Other purveyors of the template include Donald Trump, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Charlie Sheen, among a bevy of artists like Justin Bieber and Marilyn Manson. But, can minimalism produce something beautiful? Although there is no virtue or value in schlock and laziness, the style can still be stirring. A prime example was constructed thousands of years ago in Giza by laborers paid in alcohol. The pyramids of Egypt are simple, they are giant stones arranged in fancy piles, yet they have inspired more awe, mystery, and debate throughout their existence than any piece of modern art.

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