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The Artist, the Culture and the Contemporary Condition

Many of us have been spectators to hour long colloquiums on the question “What is Art?”, but somehow, if ever reached, the answers provided are usually so abstract that they hardly provide any sort of light to those of us wondering. “An undefined and undefinable concept”, “An end in itself”, “Passion”, “Anything you want” or “Nothing at all” may be phrases familiar to all of us.


After many years of wonder, and however weak a definition, if I had to give one definition for “art”, it would be the following: “Art is the cultural manifestation of members of a society in a specific moment of their history.”


What really lies under this definition is the fact that no work of art can be separated from the context of its creation. It would be absurd to coin a single definition for ritualistic prehistoric objects, for the egyptian pyramids, for the socially engaged art of the political propaganda of one or another side during the Cold War or for the evasive paintings of European Impressionists.


That’s the problem facing contemporary art today in many parts of the world. We expect to understand works we know nothing about and we don’t even try to understand them. We then turn to, say, classical European masters, and we feel like we know about them just because the elements are presented in a more recognisable way. But do we actually understand them?


It is a frequent mistake on our part, as an audience, to state with disgust that "all contemporary art is a scam". I believe that this is a mistake as great as that of those who claim to defend everything, and that they excuse themselves when a work is rejected claiming that "many great masters were not understood in their time." That is, according to this perspective, the greatness of the work is directly proportional to the rejection it generates.


We know that there is good and bad contemporary art, but what is the formula to differentiate it? The most feasible answer so far is that there is no such formula. Not only does it not exist today, but it probably never existed in its totality. We usually value the artists before the second half of the 20th century in Europe, for example, for aspects such as their technique, but remember that the main critics with Renoir argued that this was the only thing their paintings had. Works with an exquisite technique, yet devoid of any deeper meaning.


We are looking for answers in these moments of arduous debates about the validity of contemporary art, to crash with a conclusion as revealing as it is desperate: At the end of the day, a certain artist, a certain piece... either convinces you, or does not.


Let's take a look at the famous piece by Félix González Torres, Untitled (Portrait of Ross)(1991). At first glance, it is only a pile of candy, but let's look at the context of this piece in more detail: The weight of the candy is equivalent to the weight of Ross, the artist's partner, before dying from AIDS. Apart from the easily recognizable metaphor of sweetness through candies, the work goes further, and offers us a door to question the idea of the monument, as we know it: For centuries, the monument was the form used by the man to approach the divine, to become immortal. Throughout the last century we have gradually distanced ourselves from this aspiration to the divine, and in many cases to the idea of God itself. This "monument", while remaining a tribute, recognizes human evanescence. Thus, the idea of Ross was that each visitor had the possibility of taking a candy when leaving the piece, so that in the end the portrait, the monument, like Ross, would eventually disappear.

A man takes a piece of candy from Felix Gonzalez Torres’ installation. Retrieved from: "Untitled" (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres - Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) - Wikipedia


Certainly, it would be difficult to argue that this piece speaks for itself, being necessary to know in advance the context in which it was created in order to understand it. However, once the detail of the explanatory poster has been saved, I consider it, both for the theoretical component that lies behind it and for the means used to materialize it, one of the most affordable and beautiful pieces of our entire era. It is worth pointing it out as an example of the wonders that "anyone could have done."


With works like this, I find it difficult not to see how one of the fiercest criticisms of the general public to contemporary art is really one of its greatest strengths. Today "anyone" can be an artist, how can that be a bad thing? The progressive ruptures with aspects such as technique have opened the door to a good idea not being limited by a clumsy hand or ignorance of the tools to be carried out.


We live in the historical moment in which the average citizen is more likely to approach a way of making art that does not require years of technique if he wants to create it, nor does he need a deep knowledge of history, religion or mythology, if what he seeks is to understand it. People may be surprised to hear it, but one may argue that it is much easier to understand Félix González Torres than Diego Velázquez.


Yet, we must also make sure that the same rupture does not make us fall back into the secrecy of so many other pieces we may find today, not caring to provide facilities to be understood, only to have the artist outraged later if the public does not magically understand the works.


Art is the cultural manifestation of a society in a given moment of its history, yet more questions naturally arise from this observation. Which society? Which time? In the face of a globalizing tendency that homogenizes styles and identities, what does it mean to be an Indian, a Japanese, a German, or a Brazilian artist? Can we really define characteristics based on nationality without blurring the individual parts that give this national identity its meaning in the first place? Can we, on the other hand, speak about a global contemporary condition without blurring even more the specificities that make contemporary art as rich as it is? That’s what Artiste Culture is about: Understanding the potential of the times we live in, the potential of each and every one of us to be an artist. Moved by the need to overcome the barriers that, whether geographical or cultural, are still pretty much present in the artworld, Artiste Culture aims to become an agent in connecting artists, collectors and institutions, offering counseling, representation, educational and curatorial services to our collaborators. We aim to highlight how we have today one of the most powerful tools in our existence to understand ourselves as we are, and to acknowledge how we want to be, what vestige will remain of what we once were, and that once we were here.


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