The art world has a habit of reinventing itself whenever technology threatens its relevance. It’s no coincidence, for example, that the decline of the traditional portrait and the rise in popularity of abstract movements such as cubism and expressionism about 100 years ago coincided with the spread of photography. The camera made realistic renditions of our world a dime a dozen, so visual art had to change in order to remain unique.
Such changes in art continue today as technology keeps on reconfiguring our culture. The speed at which we take in images on a computer has increased so much in recent years that it is now changing how we interpret creative expression. To show how far we’ve come, father of pop art Andy Warhol famously said in the 1960s that everyone in the future would be famous for fifteen minutes. Sites such as YouTube have ushered in that future, and the reality is closer to about 45 seconds.
Nowadays, much modern art such as pop art, a medium that was once a center of controversy, now occupies a very mainstream place in culture. Artists like Jeff Coons fill galleries all over the world and sell individual works for millions of dollars.
One of Jeff Coons’ famous balloon-animal sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC
Artsy renditions of commercial objects and pop art’s poster children are everywhere. The number of tumblr pages alone that are dedicated to Marilyn Monroe is something of a warholian nightmare. So what fills our contemporary culture gap now that the very modern theme of pop art’s degraded meaning through commercial repetition is very ironically ‘losing its meaning?’
The answer is create a rise in popularity of artists who project their ideas by embracing online culture’s bluntness, cynicism, narcissism, and impatience rather than resisting it. Culture is speeding up, and so too must visual art. It’s an artistic landscape where the repeated circulation of an image isn’t what kills an idea’s meaning, but instead validates it. Clicks, views, likes, and reposts are all cultural votes that to some degree decide what themes (or perhaps memes) are most important in today’s creative conversation. We are only beginning to observe the amount of forms that such an artistic framework may take.
This new attention deficit disorder has done wonders for street art. Once primarily an underground effort taken on by a very small community of individuals, street art has now exploded into most people’s daily consciousness. The movement gained a new life in recent years on the Internet (although predates it by well over a decade). For once temporary works that would normally only last a few days on a building now enjoy a second life online. Points of view that were once reserved for dilapidated urban spaces are now leaping from grimy streets into our pockets and living rooms. Their ironic stenciled social commentaries and recognizable characters make harsh criticism of contemporary politics, economic practices and popular culture, something mirrored in the comments of everyday people when discussing issues from the safety of their computer chairs.
In such an artistic landscape, bluntness is rewarded, particularly when it raises attention to the darker side of society. Examples of this can be seen by possibly the most ubiquitous street artist of all time, Banksy:
Such street images have also given greater publicity to Banksy’s lesser-known studio work, such as this painting of British Parliament:
Street art alone, however, far from dominates 21st century art. Many graphic designers are creating famous images in everything from politics to humorous memes. Whenever a current event in today’s world makes waves in the media, there are graphic designers who are quickly capturing the mood with blunt and opinionated graphics that, although computer made, use the same cultural symbolism as street art to poke fun at the forces that govern our world. They, too, funnel their work online. Their images often go viral, as these ones did after the Obama administration stated that it would be willing to use force against the Syrian government:
These images, while some more crude than others, take the simplified imagery of pop art with its stenciled graphics and commercial references into ironically dark renditions that demonstrate clever disgust with different aspects of today’s world.
Ron English’s rendition of Ronald McDonald
It’s no surprise that many people who make street art also make digital art. But whether its pixels, posters, stickers, memes, stencils, or just a lone can of spray paint, 21st century art reflects the shock value embodied by today’s tech-fueled short attention spans and the deep disenchantment that can hit us when all life’s answers are just a click away.
The future of visual art is going to be an aggressive one. A great deal of resources and creativity will continue to be devoted to the creation and circulation of imagery that violently contrasts with today’s commercial world. It’s a fight to match the insipid hyper-realities of mass media with equally exaggerated messages of cynicism, skepticism and discontent with the forces that govern our world.
When technology changes the nature of how we observe, art is always there to comment on what we are missing from our perspective, both for the sake of creative integrity and out of commercial need. The Internet is no exception to that pattern. Gone are the days when people of the middle class regularly attended four hour plays and operas as they did in the 18th century, or the times of the 1920s, when visual art’s ideas could only move as fast as a gallery could house them.
Today’s artistic landscape with all of its lightning-paced connectivity is one that enables an artistic expression to enter a viewer’s long-term memory through a short-term window. Whether that is good or bad is difficult to say. What is certain, however, is that visual art will continue to contrast with all of society’s little quirks, whatever shape or timeline they choose to take.