Contemporary Art: A Special Aesthetic Case of the Left Singularity

In previous instalments, we looked at the journey from Modernism to Postmodernism as, essentially, a process of picking the low-hanging fruit of aesthetic innovation – selecting new forms/styles once they became conceivable within aesthetic-possibility space.

Here we begin to understand the dynamics of deskillification the complex interplay of forces, which has led to the tightening of a concept > skills ratchet, resulting in a contemporary moment in which art looks like things like this, and this, and this. Instead of things like this, and this, and this.

Jim’s concept of the Left Singularity, in particular the role of self-reinforcing positive feedback loops in the formation of an elite consensus, maps quite precisely onto the historical trajectory of 20th century art.

Broadly speaking, this is the journey art has taken from the inception of the Modernist period – commonly, if reductively, cited as 1907 with Picasso’s proto-cubist painting Les Demoiselles D’avignon, although formally prefigured in the late-works of Cezanne – through Postmodernism, to whatever it is that we are in now.

During this period, the idea of inventing within tradition (i.e. aesthetic evolution) was broadly superseded by the avant-garde strategy of rupture with the past (i.e. aesthetic revolution).

Modern art, even more than the art forms and arts ecology which preceded it, was fundamentally elitist in nature. The viewer required a higher degree of specialist, esoteric knowledge in order to access its meaning, in a way that was structurally different to (and a therefore also a departure from) the more direct and symbolic forms of aesthetic representation which had preceded it.

This shift created the space for a new priestly class to emerge, comprised of the artists themselves, but also critics and curators, who served to delineate the meaning of the work, increasingly shifting the location of the ‘art’ from the object itself to the critical discourse which surrounded (and thereby transformed) it.

During the Modernist period, for artists, critics and curators alike, it became increasingly high-status to push the boundaries of what art was or what art could be. Aspects which had previously been considered fundamental were jettisoned, while divisions, such as the dividing line between ‘art and life’, were broken down and synthesized. Over time, it led high-status art to become radically estranged from its historical origins in craft, symbolic representation and mimesis.

Art ‘progresses’ intersubjectively, in much the same way as something ostensibly quite different, like law. Both art and law require a system of pre-established conventions, or schelling points, which are widely understood and respected by the practitioners of their respective disciplines. In order to advance and resolve conflict, artists, like lawyers, establish precedents, using their status within the field and working through institutions to generate exceptions, which overtime, because of their high-status as exceptions, become part of the new aesthetic (or legal) status quo.

This process can be traced back across recent centuries: Velasquez shifted the status of the artist away from that of lowly craftsperson to someone ‘creative’, ushering in a greater appreciation for authorship on the part of the powerful elites who commissioned artworks. William Blake rejected the academic aesthetic ethos of his teacher Joshua Reynolds, in favour of something more subjective, untutored and idiosyncratic. Picasso and Braque’s cubist innovations, which centred on fracturing and fragmenting the picture plane, constituted a fundamental moment of rupture with representational arts origin in mimesis. Each successive innovation created new schelling points, gravitated towards by subsequent generations of artists, which cumulatively served to terraform the aesthetic landscape.

However, the tendency towards the primacy of novelty > convention accelerated exponentially during the Modernist period, ushering in numerous changes which effectively served to reorder the hierarchy of values at the core of Western art.

The most significant of these precedents, or new schelling points, was inarguably Duchamp’s series of ‘readymades’, of which Fountain – an upturned, re-contextualised urinal – constitutes the pre-eminent example. The implications of this iconic gesture, choosing > making (within the wider context of institutional and art historical critique), still reverberate today as contemporary artists continue to struggle to process and reconcile them.

Indeed, most contemporary artists do not sufficiently comprehend that the impact of the work – its ongoing art historical resonance – lies in the creation a powerful new schelling point. This is not something that can be emulated or re-enacted simply by employing a strategy of appropriation in their own work, once such a strategy was in and of itself no longer inherently revolutionary.

However, more significant to the arc of our narrative is the fact that, post-Duchamp, a dichotomy has developed between skill and concept in contemporary art. Structurally, this reflects a dualistic division of body and soul.

Echoing Gnosticism, ‘skill’ can be equated to ‘the body’, while ‘concept’ is analogous to ‘the soul’. An equation can therefore be formulated: soul > body / concept > skill.

The ‘body’ of the artwork – skill – has come to be regarded as tainted or fallen, elitist in an unreconstructed traditional sense. Meanwhile, the ‘soul’ of the artwork – concept – is held up high and exulted. Concept is regarded as non-elitist by progressives because it doesn’t require traditional forms of mastery over time, even though it is paradoxically more elitist because it locks greater numbers of potential viewers out of understanding contemporary art, since they lack the educational-indoctrination to decode it. Once established, this hierarchy is difficult to displace because it uses the status and institutional infrastructure of the arts education system, in parallel with that of the contemporary art market, to replicate itself.

At art school, tutors typically discuss the concepts and contexts of artworks with students. In general, they avoid teaching practical skills and making processes, which they delegate to lower-status technical staff (technicians) when they are still taught at all. On a generational timescale, the privileging of concept > skill has created a ratchet effect, whereby the artworks considered high-status in the contemporary art world are frequently post-skills based. This situation further legitimises downgrading the importance of teaching skills at art school. Repeat the feedback circuit for long enough and it’s not only that tutors don’t want to teach skills at art school – they no longer possess sufficient knowledge to teach them even if they wanted to. 

Inevitably, this leads to a further delegitimization and downgrading of the importance of skills, since acknowledging that things had gone ‘too far’ in the other direction would undermine their authority as tutors. It would put in question their ability to provide what they are ostensibly being paid to deliver – an arts education.

Therefore, we can clearly observe a positive feedback loop, in which power manufactures belief and belief manufactures power. Over time, as the concept > skills ratchet continues to tighten, additional polarization takes place and the situation inexorably degenerates further. Finally, contemporary art comes to represent a special aesthetic case of the Left Singularity.

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