Essay: Art History of the 21st Century

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Art History & the 21st Century

French writer Charles Peguy commented in 1913 that, "the world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last thirty years"

.This was the beginning of modernism, a time of significant change in the world that was illustrated at the World's Fairs, "those festivals of high machine-age capitalism in which nation after nation showed off its industrial strength and the breadth of its colonial resources"

In 1889, the Eiffel Tower was the magnificent construction of the World's Fair in Paris -- designed by an engineer rather than an architect, a decision that was frowned upon by the Beaux-Arts architects; but engineer Gustave Eiffel, created an iconic piece of functional art inspired by the human body

. These major strides in technology influenced the relationship between man and machinery, which in turn, had a significant impact on the art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Eiffel Tower's significance is that its construction would mark the beginning of a new age -- as the tower itself offered a new bird's eye perspective on life. The tower literally put people on top of the world. Hughes illustrates the different ways in which people of the late 19th century perceived the great machine. The machine had limitless amounts of possibility and potential. By the time the Eiffel Tower was erected, the machine was not new, but rather, the machine was heralded as "unqualifiedly good, strong, stupid, and obedient"

. The ability to ascend the tower and see all of Paris was "one of the pivots in human consciousness"

, but culture was changing so quickly with the emergence of automobiles, aluminum, aviation and electricity

-- among many, many other progressions that, Hughes posits, all areas of human discourse was changing too -- including art

From now on the rules would quaver, the fixed canons of knowledge fail, under the pressure of new experience and the demand for new forms to contain it. Without this heroic sense of cultural possibility, Arthur Rimbaud's injunction to be absolument moderne would have made no sense. With it, however, one could feel present at the end of one kind of history and the start of another, whose emblem was the Machine, many-armed and infinitely various, dancing like Shiva the creator in the midst of the longest continuous peace that European civilization would ever know

In 1927, German expressionist filmmaker Fritz Lang made the legendary film Metropolis. This film depicts a higher class of people living in buildings that seem to touch the sky while the working class people slave below to keep the city's machines running, which without, the city would end. Jon Fredersen is the ruler of this magnificent city who could not care less that the workers are deprived; the only necessity is that the workers keep the machines running so that the city can persist. It is interesting to note that like the people who would ascend the Eiffel Tower, Lang's Metropolis also depicts a world where going where only machines can take one is preferred. However, unlike Gustave Eiffel, Fritz Lang was creating very profound ways in which to think about the age of machines. The religious motifs in Metropolis are numerous, but the most obvious and poignant are probably the parallel between Freder and Maria and Adam and Eve, Maria's sharing of her knowledge of the slaving workers with Freder, and his subsequent fall. Maria is the soul of the movie as she constantly says, "There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as a mediator"

The film spurred many questions as to its message: was the film saying something about industrialization and social unrest? Or was it simply annoying the class struggle? or, would modern technology be a source of enslavement for mankind? Or would it bring progress to all mankind?

Through Metropolis, we are able to see that there were certainly differing views concerning industrialization. Overall, Lang created a film that was quite dystopian in tone. Some reviews at the time marveled at its silliness and engineers were incenses: why would workers have to exert such physical energy to man a machine?

This dystopian view showed machines as exploiting people, oppressing workers and inciting class struggles. The way in which people dealt with the changing world was to explore where they fit in it, which proved to be a difficult ambition. Artists likewise were trying to figure out how to express not only the change in landscape because of bigger buildings and industry, but also the shifts in consciousness that the technology was implying. "How could you produce a parallel dynamism to the machine age without falling into the elementary trap of just becoming a machine illustrator"

. It was the cubists who came up with an answer to this dilemma.

The early part of the 20th century was rife with artists who were against the establishment and therefore works of art by these artists were considered a threat to society. Some perceived Picasso's works or primitivism as alien and savage while other works by Surrealists were made to inspire a revolution.

The early 20th century saw a change in the aesthetic and cultural associations of art works that were designated 'modern'

. There were many artists that were opposed to the advances of urban Western culture, which forced out the 19th century ideas of modernity that were concerned with the aesthetic potential of urban themes. This took form in the creation of more 'primitive' subjects and techniques

. This return to the 'primitive' flew in the face of the era, which was strongly influenced by the machine and other technology. Picasso's 1906 work Demoiselles d'Avignon has long been viewed as a "canonical work of modernist primitivism" and it is also the work that propelled Cubism into a 20th century art form.

Demoiselles d'Avignon and its violently distorted forms can be interpreted as a rejection of all bourgeois art, indicating an overall attitude of radicalism. "The gaze of the women is interrogatory, or indifferent, or as remote as stone…Nothing about their expressions could be construed as welcoming, let alone coquettish. They are more like judges than houris"

. The piece is explicitly sexual and a savageness exists in it as well, which could come from the fact that Picasso was interested in African and Oceanic art at the time.

This piece of art may no longer be shocking, but at the time of its creation, the work appeared to be vulgar and offensive to many who viewed it. Some critics have interpreted the painting as illustrating Picasso's fear of contracting a sexual disease -- such as syphilis.

Salvador Dali's work "The Persistence of Memory" reveals a what appears to be Dalis' own head in profile lying upon a shore. There are four melting watches, one of which lies on the artist's melted head, one hanging limply from a branch, one dripping off a table and another covered in ants. Dali stated that the purpose of his painting was to "systematize confusion and thus to help discredit completely the world of reality"

Dali was provocative if he was anything -- even today. "As Picasso used his erotic rage as a subject throughout his life, Dali deployed imagery of impotence and guilt. He liked anything that was not erect…"

. The flaccid watches, dripping from branches and slipping off tables might not be overtly sexual as was so obviously portrayed in many of Picasso's works, but his work was confident and sexual in the way that he seemed to be implying some sort of impotence. His work, again, while not overtly sexual in depiction, feels somewhat pornographic in its boldness and its dream-like quality -- a fact that wasn't lost on the people of the early 20th century.

It is interesting to note in the painting "The Persistence of Memory" that the artist's own head is washed upon a shore that could be his own homeland -- Barcelona, Spain, which might lead one to think that this limp, nearly pornographic image of himself is a representation of some kind of guilt he may feel that stems from the very staunch Catholic views of the Spanish people.

Like Dali, Rene Magritte used dream-like images to explore subjects, but while other artists were maybe trying very hard to be scandalous or were just scandalous inherently, Magritte was rather unconcerned with being flashy or controversial. His work is definitely more of what one would consider "modern" in appearance.

Rene Magritte's painting "The Treason of Images" was controversial during the early part of the 20th century because it raised questions about decision and indecision. The painting depicts a pipe and underneath the words "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," which translates into "This is not a pipe." Magritte stated that "everything tends to make us think that there is very little connection between an object and what represents it" and that "an object never fulfills the same… [END OF PREVIEW]

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