Wandering through the abstract Expressionist show at the AGO recently, I realized with a flash what's wrong with contemporary art.
Without the spunk and sweat of creators in decades past who were willing to gamble everything, art today has taken a sabbatical, a tenured leave of absence. It's lost its way.
In the late 40s and 50s, art was a kind of calling. Most of the abstract expressionists were émigrés, American misfits or the children of immigrants who had escaped European conflicts. After the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, they turned to their art as a respite.
Each new work was a challenge thrown down to fellow artists. And the air of creative exchange was palpable in every gut-drenched canvas. You can trace such influences in the AGO show as they ricochet between paintings, sculptures and photographs, following the movement as its artists inched their way forward.
Their vitality and diversity ran the gamut from Jackson Pollock's astounding leap of faith in action painting, a kind of all-over dance performance on canvas, to the more austere Mark Rothko, whose meditative oranges and reds levitate inside his large fields.
All these artists felt the need to abandon the limitations of figurative or landscape painting. But Ad Reinhardt's so-called black paintings are anything but just black for those who are patient. When such paintings work, they seem to hide mysteries.
By comparison, today's art is dispassionate, easily reproducible post-modernism gone loony. Though it uses every known digital technique, it seems hollow. In our mediated age, the sense of immediacy and intimacy has gone missing. Anyone with an MFA and a digital camera is an artist today.
I'm bored with the countless videos and installations, the king-sized digitized prints of Super 8 films, the inane drawings by people who can't draw but are making a statement about drawing. Today's established artists have had it too easy for too long with their chic cafés, their magazines, their artist-run galleries, their websites and government funding. Art has gotten fat and lazy on stipends.
Photo: Museum of Modern Art
Mark Rothko's No. 5/No. 22 (dated on reverse 1949)
Some of the blame can be laid on the growth in the 70s and 80s of institutional MFA programs that teach art theory that systematically kills off new artists' spontaneity. Instead of art, you get illustrated art critiques with conceptual frameworks from the new academy.
Add to that a driven art market looking for the latest thing before it's even had a chance to bloom, not the expression of personal commitment. The latter has become anathema to a global marketplace that prefers bloated large-scale works that look more like advertising. Clever packaging and impressive presentations do not art make. Instead of originality and daring, we get cunning, marketing savvy and branding.
So what's that say to young artists? Such a betrayal doesn't go unnoticed. They're left to choose between art making that requires diligence and art that teases like publicity, between networking and practice. No surprise, then, that much of contemporary art is banal, made safe for the sake of career and shaped to mimic the latest international art trends.
The digitalization and YouTubing of culture has only added to the malaise with its endless rehash of what's been done before. Once, you could look at a painting and feel the way the artist's brush stroked, the way it moved across the canvas; now we experience art through plastic surfaces of prints or glassed-in LCD screens.
Expectations have changed. When it isn't spectacle, we think of art as entertainment. When events like Nuit Blanche offer gallery crawlers a night's free viewings while enjoying a latte, it isn't the art that matters. We come at it expecting nothing and settle for an outing.
The expressionists took risks without knowing - or caring - what happened next. And many failed. But they were driven to get at the heart of what a painting could be without representation, even if it displeased or disturbed. In the AGO's selected show, a handful of their masterpieces still take your breath away.
Where are the passionate artists today? Have they all gone into video-gaming?
Raphael Bendahan is a writer/visual artist/experimental filmmaker at artreview.com/profile/raphaelbendahan