For thousands of years, art making in a western context was a trade - masters taught apprentices how to make objects. Now it’s a field for academics. Professors teach students how to conduct research. It used to be blue-collar, now it’s mostly white collar.

Sure artists still make stuff, lots and lots of stuff as a matter of fact, and because they do the persistence in making things means that making things matters. But any good idea has its limits, which is how, right about the middle of the 19th century, simple decoration turned into a cartoonish parody of itself.

Think ‘Liberace’ and you will get a general idea of the look. Think of human shit being cleaned out of the hallways of the Palace of Versailles once a week, and you will get an idea of the consequences. And I know, I’m mixing the Second Empire with the Baroque here, but stylistically speaking nothing much had changed for centuries. It all seemed based on the impression that glamour in the face of shit and poverty and death seemed like a legitimate way to escape it. And through the years and decades and centuries, more shit and more poverty and more death just meant that the decorative arts responded with more gold leafed cherubs and more curlicues.

It couldn’t go on like that, and it didn’t. Romanticism and then Realism were really the first shots across the bow, but the whole thing changed forever with Impressionism. That began the cavalcade of ‘isms’ that defined modernism, and modernism is what really changed art from a trade devoted to decoration, into a far more intellectual pursuit, devoted to ideas.

By now, making anything at all is unnecessary, as artists have moved away from being mere decorators, towards something far more intellectual. Now they are considered to be some hybrid form of philosopher, sociologist, anthropologist, psychologist, and critic. Most of them have taken advantage of this new and tremendous opportunity to invest their art with socio/political and psychological layers that wouldn’t have been possible a mere century ago.

There are really two questions that come out of such a seismic shift: How did it happen? And does it even matter? The answer to the first is ‘Humanism, which begat modernism, which lead to the industrial revolution’. And the answer to the second is Yes.

For people who have studied art history, it’s first important to point out that Modernism wasn’t a 19th century invention by artists - it was an enormous cultural shift that began a whole lot earlier, with implications that spread to every aspect of society. The thing that artists and designers now call Modernism came way after Modernism’s actual birth.

And that was in the 15th century by the way. It all began very quietly and unexpectedly, by bunch of ancient-manuscripts-loving monks, who where incredibly inspired by the writings of Greek and Roman writers. A group of them, most famously Poggio Bracciolini, had developed a mania for finding writings by people like Cicero, Virgil, Lucretius, and Plato. This led to a renewed interest in all things pagan, which in turn sparked an interest in the ancient marble sculptures and ruins that were constantly being dug up at building sites, and in farmer’s fields. The mounting evidence made it clear that these ancient civilizations were way more advanced then was previously imagined, and shockingly, way more advanced than 15th century Europe. This challenged the monolithic hegemony of the Catholic Church, and ushered in the era we now call the Renaissance. It also ended what Petrarch famously called ‘The Dark Ages’, and set in motion a tremendous interest in science, history, and the arts. It led to Humanism, and the Scientific Method. And that path led eventually, inexorably, towards the Industrial Revolution.

By the time we made it there, two technological advances in particular ended up having a profound influence on art making. And the first, perhaps ironically, is the idea of ‘de-skilling’. It sounds ironic, because when one thinks of advanced technology, one might think that more skills would be necessary, rather than less. But for the vast majority of workers, the opposite was in fact the case. De-skilling was really the outcome of no longer needing to understand each and every step required to make something from beginning to end. Just knowing a part of the process was enough. As a result, factory work required far less skill then the artisan system it replaced, and this was very much by design - the training required to do the job was shorter, and the resulting product was cheaper.

The second, vastly different advance was photography, a revolutionary technology that profoundly challenged the goal of painterly verisimilitude, which at that point, had been the goal for centuries. With the simple press of a button, total mimetic reality was available quickly and cheaply. This forced painters, and even sculptors, to re-calibrate what it was that they did – their goal of faithfully representing reality had suddenly become profoundly undermined. Reassessing the goals of painting and sculpture became inevitable, and it ushered in an investigation into the nature of art itself.

Both of these advances had a tremendous impact on art making in the 1860’s and 70’s, and both played a role in formulating the modernist era in art. Paul Cezanne was probably the first artist to fully embrace this shift. Others, like Eduard Manet, had understood it, but Cezanne embodied it. His work made use of a very de-skilled approach, to make the point that the idea of pure mimetic representation was no longer necessary. Along the way, the idea of de-skilling came to mean something in an art historical context that diverged from it’s industrial revolution origins; it came to signify art breaking with the past, breaking with a decorative tradition, and claiming autonomy for itself. As the theorist John Roberts has written: “The notion of art as embedded in a prevailing set of technical and social relations – and that art reproduces, subverts or resists – was particularly acute as an issue in the second half of nineteenth century in Europe.” He goes on to add: “This is the moment – as artists begin to define their interests in open opposition to the academy and salon – when a gap opens up between art as a bourgeois profession – like law or medicine – and its nascent, undefined, unofficial social role as a critic of bourgeois culture.”

So that is the third profound change – art as a resistor, and critic. Today we have so fully digested the idea of the artist as critic, that we forget how new an idea that is. Artists now are seen as intellectuals first, and craftsmen second, if at all.

This really describes the basic lay of the land for art and artist in the last 150 years. A lot has certainly changed, but de-skilling, non-mimetic representation, and social critique still define the cornerstones of how artists think and operate today. That means the artistic identity we recognize as our own remains rooted in the 19th century. The question becomes whether or not that basic approach is still applicable in the 21st.

The answer to that would be a resounding yes…if things had stayed the same. But they didn’t. The industrial revolution gave way to the digital revolution, and modernism gave way to post modernism. Art did what it always does, and mirrored those changes in real time. The results are still being felt, and in some cases, still being digested, but the environment that artists operate in today are starkly different than they were for David, or Ingres, to say nothing of Picasso, or Pollock.

The first thing a pre-modernist artist would notice if they stepped in a time machine is the way that art in our current era has shifted away from being mostly public, in the form of commissions from the church, the government, and private patrons to decorate chapels and so on, to mostly private, where galleries sell art to private collectors. That shift turns out to have political implications that would surprise our time traveler: In its blue-collar, decorative incarnation, art was elitist in terms of its price, (Art has always been made mostly for the rich) but not in its conceptual underpinnings. Now, because artists are making art for a specific audience in mind, an audience versed in the academic, white-collar version of art, it’s elitist in both.

Art was a decorative trade remember, which meant that its bread and butter were bible scenes, and portraits, images and narratives that were broadly understood. Art today is really a product of an academic environment, rather than a master/apprentice environment. This has logically created a genre based on things that would mystify a Renaissance painter. Today, an infusion of philosophy, sociology, history and politics, to say nothing of pure self-expression, is just part of the process - not in the background understand, but right up front. Individual styles, and individual voices are no longer idiosyncratic outliers, but very much the norm. Making pretty pictures might sound absurd to us now, but we seem quite content to make things that self-consciously embody what we perceive to be meaning instead.

We should think about that for a minute: artists today set out with the wildly ambitious goal of making things of cultural significance, which is a pretty high bar to clear. But even more incredibly, we seem pretty convinced that we clear that bar all the time. Why else would we hire guards to keep people’s hands off of it in all of our new contemporary art museums? Why else would people pay millions of dollars for it at galleries, and at auctions? Why else would there be a whole army of conservators, tasked with figuring out ways to protect and preserve it? It must really be significant!

But significant for who? The rise of the contemporary art museum coincides with a decline in their attendance, and the decline in Internet searches about them. The art world itself is a shrinking – less sales, less galleries. So it’s reasonable to ask at this point, which of these two systems is preferable: the self-consciously meaningful one, or the self-consciously good-looking one?

Artists are all very familiar with this choice – serious shit vs. artsy-craftsy shit. Modernism itself broke that down even further, into a more nuanced kind of turf war. (Conceptual artists vs. potters vs. glass blowers vs. performance artists vs. painters vs. photographers vs. social practice artists vs. pop surrealists vs. relational aesthetics vs. street artists vs. wood carvers vs. zzzzzzz).

And while artists slugged it out for much of the last century, modernism itself seemed not to notice. Remember that modernism wasn’t an art movement – it was the belief in a progression forward based on the application of reason, and logic, towards a better future. So in the face squabbling artists, it found a solution: it replaced them all.

Well not the artists exactly…there are still a shit ton of them around, on a little island all their own called the Art world. Maybe more accurately, modernism replaced what they did, with a version that was cheaper. So when artists poked their heads up from bashing each other with Cubo-Futurism this, Abstract Expressionism that, they found that one ‘Ism’ had risen up and won the war: Industrialism.

Industrialism figured out that everybody wants a version of art – not just the super rich buying a rarefied version of it from art stars. And that conclusion would seem to support the claim that the stuff we can buy at the store, or the stuff we can see on Netflix truly is the replacement part for any kind of antiquated artisanal approach.

For a century and a half, artists were concerned with what art looked like, while during the same span of time, industrialism was concerned with making an effective product. Need some decorative objects? Factories can make that. Want objects and experiences that contain meaning? Yup, same. We would like to think that our most precious cultural artifacts are in galleries and museums, but actually, they are on T.V., the Internet, the radio, or in products like shoes, cars, and clothes. What this means is that the two roles that art has traditionally defined for itself, that of decorator, and that of meaning codifier, have been subsumed completely, and very efficiently, by de-skilled, industrial means.

Almost completely. Here it is important to understand just how far away from ideal that almost signifies. More stuff and more shared experiences have not in themselves replaced art or artists. There is a gap between what our modern world provides, and what our ancient human selves require, and most of us can sense the space between. What that means for artists today is that adhering to a particular approach, or genre, or media isn’t really that important – providing the missing piece of humanity that industrialism can’t has become key.

Artists today are competing with movies and television and Netflix, and phone apps, and sneaker designs, and Instagram, and a whole lot else that industrialism is throwing at them. Industrialism has proven to be pretty efficient at everything it does. So how can such a marginalized activity compete with that, much less achieve any kind of cultural relevance?

A better question might be with whether or not artists are marginalized enough. That’s because the ability to see what’s missing means standing outside just far enough to have a clear view of the big picture. That’s why culture comes so frequently from outside the center, and spreads inward. Or from the bottom, and ascends to the top. To that end, it’s worth considering the toolbox that our academically trained, white collar artists still rely on today, born out of a response to the Industrial Revolution - de-skilling, non-mimetic representation, and social critique – does all of that still operate as advertised?

De-skilling in particular looks pretty suspect here. That’s because de-skilling, born more than a century ago as a means of pulling the rug out from art being mere decoration for the rich, has itself become decoration for the rich. By now de-skilled art is the expectation, rather than the party crasher. That’s why de-skilled art defines, without question, academic and commercial orthodoxy – take a quick look at the artists at any Documenta say, or Biennial, and it’s soon clear that the de-skilling crowd, using an approach only available to them post 1870, have come to dominate the art world.

But maybe it’s still a relevant approach - after all, first we were ‘De-skilled’ by machines, next we were ‘Disrupted’ by computers, and then ‘Downsized’ by automation – doesn’t all of that point towards de-skilled art as being the most relevant embodiment of our modern world?

It certainly might be the best example of it. But using de-skilling to point out the way things are de-skilled seems a bit like smoking to talk about cancer, or burning coal to talk about global warming, or littering to talk about littering – it represents of the very thing it protests. And what it protests (or should I say, used to protest) is the expectation that art was here to please, rather than to critique. Now of course, artists try to please via critique, and a lot of the time that’s done via de-skilling.

Meanwhile, almost two centuries into the industrial revolution, we have been infantilized by a system that makes us into consumers who buy things, rather than people who know how to do things. Which is great if you’re rich (and can’t be bothered to ponder the consequences) and lousy if you aren’t. Either way, de-skilling as an aesthetic choice is one that can really only be made by the rich – everyone else has to make things actually work. Whether it’s raising food, or making shelter, or making clothes, all of it requires people with skills using their hands to perform the job. In a world where most people are poor, and most lives are therefore dictated by primary skills, making things becomes a political act, one that disrupts the consumer/infantilization model so preferred and perfected in our digital age.

And speaking of digital, that brings us to our next 20th century invention, photography, which is now almost entirely a digital medium. Remember that photography arrived on the scene as a kind of aesthetic truth teller, accurately representing reality, or so it thought. But it didn’t take the digital era long to make that idea a thing of the past. Any attempt at a one-to-one representation of reality is now a quaint artifact from a pre-Photoshop era, which is why one of the common themes of contemporary photography is to question the veracity of the photographic image itself. Everything requires interpretation, and mimetic representation reveals that bald fact as well as anything, because any version of Truth that we can all agree on is impossible to achieve.

That’s why there was a turn towards abstraction. The Abstract Expressionists really thought they were on to something when they decided that their paintings represented nothing but the paint on the canvas. They set out to defeat a mimetic impulse by simply being the thing, rather than representing the thing.  By now though, a 100 years or so into the abstract art experiment, the act of seeing an abstract painting makes us think about other abstract paintings, rather than about interpreting experience. Abstract painting has become less of a short cut to reality, and more about a particular historical reference.

Today, choosing to make imagery that utilizes abstraction, or self-consciously rejects technique, doesn’t make something art as much as it makes it modernist-inspired art, which in turn inspires a specific, historically anchored line of interpretation. Meanwhile, any attempt at mimetic representation just about entirely sidesteps all of the basic tenants of Modernism in one go – which is important if the art that’s being made isn’t modernist.

But what about the social-critique function of art?  That must certainly have value. And it does - literally – it’s collectable! And it’s worth pondering the deep irony of that. It’s safe to say that at this point, we have found that every attempt at aesthetic rule breaking or cultural critique attempted by the modernists, all ended up on collectors walls. It’s turned out that the art world could put a price tag on rebellion itself, and the collectors who bought those things could feel a little bit like rebels themselves. The idea that art was (and is) a purely intellectual investigation existing apart from the apparatus set up to disseminate it, refusing to play the role of the decorative object, just never happened. Like de-skilling, the approach of the intellectual over the decorative transitioned from radical fringe, to comfortable orthodoxy. Now it’s various descendents populate art fairs.

Last is a note on the romantic, which the trade of art, and the discipline of craft have long been describes as being. And they certainly can be. But there is an important distinction to be made here between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ – amateurs are romantics. Professionals, confronted with bills and deadlines, very rarely are. This distinction separates those who actually make their living at something, and those that don’t.  That means that it’s quite possible to be a very romantic contemporary artist, making abstract, or academically inspired art. In fact, it’s more often the case than not, because most of the time, those people aren’t making a living at it. Meanwhile, the sheer pragmatism of having to make a living at something really changes the relationship to the work. It makes it a whole lot less precious, and a whole lot more accommodating to an audience.

Art used to be a trade, and then it became an intellectual pursuit. As each of these two poles reached a kind of purity of purpose and definition, each became a parody of its original intent. It got cartoonishly overwrought in the first case, and melodramatically self-important in the second. Into that breach came an industrial and economic might that made the argument essentially moot, because it provided most of what the artists were trying to do, far more cheaply and efficiently than they could. The result was to alter the internal debate about what constitutes art itself, from decoration, to ideas, to mechanized fulfillment. Artists are left to show us what that debate left out.

As Carlo Scarpa was fond of saying: Verum Ipsum Factum, which can be translated as ‘We only know what we make’, or ‘Truth through making’. As the dust settles on the 20th century, and we struggle to make sense of what comes next, we would do well to start with that.






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