by Jonathan Goodman

The term artist used to be given to the painters and sculptors and architects responsible for what we historically recognize as art—namely, things made that viewers could take in with their eyes, and, in the case of buildings, their bodies as well. For hundreds of years, figuration was the dominant mode of expression, reaching a high point in the Renaissance and continuing through to the first decade of the twentieth century, when the Cubists demolished perspective and the single point of view. But even after the decisive moment of Picasso’s great painting Les demoiselles d’Avignon in 1908, as well as the advances of the collage, two- and three-dimensional art would not be seriously challenged for another fifty years, when movements such as happenings, performance art, conceptualism, and installational art broadened the audience’s ideas of what art could and should be. Of course, sculpture, painting, and architecture continue today, often referencing the historical achievements of their predecessors; but it is clear that at least some people are confused about work that incorporates social relations—such as the artist making dinner for viewers—and, additionally, high technology—art using computers in unusual ways.

Process art emphasizes experience and prefers a transparent treatment of the process of making something—as opposed to a finished object. This kind of work expands from an object-based toward an experience-based esthetic; people practicing such art are intent on demonstrating to the audience the continuity of an object’s making. Contemporary artists have broadened their activities to the point where, for example, the American Light and Space artist James Turrell is re-constructing an actual extinct volcano, called Roden Crater, which will offer special views of the light and sky during solstices. In general, painters and sculptors will continue to make objects that are considered visually meaningful, although their efforts may seem passé to the younger avant-garde. Unfortunately, the sociology of becoming an artist has become more complicated with its increasing popularity; sometimes it seems as though many younger artists are more interested in the lifestyle rather than the discipline of art. This has taken place in part because the terms and conditions of artists have become evermore abstract, to the point where the structure of the art world—the gallerists, curators, and writers in conjunction with the museums, galleries, and nonprofit spaces—is misunderstood or rejected by the general culture.

The romanticism of the field dies hard, however, and artists still commit themselves to their own versions of visual acuity and truth. The problem is that in the world of contemporary art, artists rely on Pop imagery and kitsch to make their point about the banality of visual culture as it now exists. For many uneducated people, the irony of contemporary art is something disturbing; instead, they prefer the sentimentality of a Thomas Kincaid. Part of the problem has to do with the artists themselves, who mock the ingenuousness of the common culture by investing in its iconography—but with an ironic twist that actually subverts and even destroys its emotional appeal. And with so many artists pursuing alternative art practices, the more traditional genres of painting and sculpture look somewhat isolated within the confines of their tradition. Only time will tell whether the artist will reinstalled into a more central place in society; currently, artists are relegated to the margins, where their practice often thrives by criticizing the mainstream.