A wall of the Museum of fine Arts, Boston, MA, shouts in blue neon, “All Art Has Been Contemporary”. The artwork, a sculpture by Maurizio Nannucci, is meant to attract attention and promote discussion. If the statement implies that art provides insights into the culture and environment of the times in which it was created, what does today’s artwork say about us and our culture? Throughout time and in changing cultures, art is inspired by the people, their lifestyle, the environment in which they live, and events that impact their lives, whether it be paintings, sculptures, music, drama, literature…
Today we live in a culture that is unique because of the revolutionary technology that dominates our lives and the industrial and urban development that destroys much of our natural environment and social structure. The technology provides continual distraction, which can insulate and isolate us, disrupt our social structure, and allow us to ignore the cost of unconstrained industrialization and urbanization. The results may be what inspire some of the art of recent times, which breaks dramatically from the art of previous eras.
Today we have paintings that splatter various colors across a canvas, with no particular form or character, and paintings that are simply a solid color, much as a wall. In an industrialized and urbanized environment we do not see much of nature; we see primarily the functional structures that support our way of life. We have sculptures in odd shapes that resemble nothing in the natural world, and are constructed of discarded materials, rubbish, the material that is easily produced and readily available. We hear music that is atonal, dissonant, anharmonic, and might simply be considerd noise. It reflects the din of the environment we have created. We have drama and literature that prefer to focus on the crude, crass, violent, most vile human behavior. In a society with few constraints, social behavior succumbs to its lowest impulses. We cannot say that none of this has occurred in the past, but we can ask whether it has ever been as prevalent as it is today.
Industrialization, urbanization, and technology are functional, not inspirational. As industrial and urban development engulf our society, we detach from nature and allow ever more of the natural beauty that once existed to be destroyed. The more we surrender ourselves to technology, the less imaginative and creative we become, and the more we substitute technology for direct contact among people, the more discordant our society becomes. Contemporary art is our mirror.