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10-08-2015, 22:40


After World War II, the capital of the Western art world shifted from Paris to New York. Continuing the avantgarde quest to express reality in new ways, a group of New York artists known as Abstract Expressionists began to paint large nonrepresentational canvases in an effort to express a spiritual essence beyond the material world. Among the first was Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), who developed the technique of dripping and flinging paint onto a canvas spread out on the floor. Pollock’s large paintings of swirling colors expressed the energy of primal forces as well as the vast landscapes of his native Wyoming. During the 1960s, many American artists began to reject the emotional style of the previous decade and chose to deal with familiar objects from everyday experience. Some feared that art was being drowned out by popular culture, which bombarded Americans with the images of mass culture in newspapers, in the movies, or on television. In the hope of making art more relevant and accessible to the public, artists sought to pattern their work on aspects of everyday life to reach and manipulate the masses. Works such as those by Andy Warhol (1930 – 1987), which repeated images such as soup cans, dollar bills, and the faces of the Mona Lisa and Marilyn Monroe, often left the viewer with a detached numbness and a sense of being trapped in an impersonal, mechanized world. Repetitious and boring, most such paintings did little to close the gap between popular culture and serious art. Perhaps the most influential American artist of the postwar era was Robert Rauschenberg (b. 1925), whose works broke through the distinctions between painting and other art forms such as sculpture, photography, dance, and theater. In his “collages” or “combines,” he juxtaposed disparate images and everyday objects— photographs, clothing, letters, even dirt and cigarette butts—to reflect the energy and disorder of the world around us. He sought to reproduce the stream of images projected by flicking the channels on a TV set. His works represented an encapsulated documentary of American life in the 1960s, filled with news events, celebrities, war, sports, and advertisements. Following in Duchamp’s footsteps, Rauschenberg helped free future artists to find art in anything under the sun. Beginning in the late 1960s, a new school of conceptual art began to reject the commercial marketability of an art object and seek the meaning of art in ideas. Art as idea could be philosophy, linguistics, mathematics, or social criticism, existing solely in the mind of the artist and the audience. In a related attempt to free art from the shackles of tradition, a school of performance art used the body as a means of living sculpture. Often discomfiting or shocking in its intimate revelations, performance art offended many viewers. Such works expanded the horizons of modern creativity but also widened the gap between modern art and the public, many of whom now considered art as socially dysfunctional and totally lacking in relevance to their daily lives. By the early 1970s, Postmodernism became the new art of revolt. It replaced Modernism, which was no longer considered sufficiently outrageous. Although some artists persevered in the Modernist tradition of formal experimentation, many believed that art should serve society, and therefore their work expressed political concerns, seeking to redress social inequities by addressing issues of gender, race, sexual orientation, ecology, and globalization. This new style was called conceptual art, because it was primarily preoccupied with ideas. Using innovative techniques such as photography, video, and even repre- sentational painting, such artists (many of them women, persons of color, gays, or lesbians) produced shocking works with the intent of motivating the viewer to political action. One powerful example of such Postmodern art is found in the haunting work of the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo (b. 1959). Her art evokes disturbing images of her country’s endless civil war and violent drug trade. Salcedo often presents everyday wooden furniture, over which she has applied a thin layer of cement and fragments of personal mementos from the owner’s past life: a remnant of lace curtain, a lock of hair, or a handkerchief. Frozen in time, these everyday souvenirs evoke the pain of those who were dragged from their homes in the middle of the night and senselessly murdered. Salcedo’s work can be experienced as an impassioned plea to stop the killing of innocent civilians or as the fossilized artifact from some future archaeologist’s dig, showing traces of our brief and absurd sojourn on earth. One of the most popular genres in the 1990s was the installation. The artist “installs” machine- or humanmade objects, sometimes filling a large room, with the aim of transporting the viewer to another environment so as to experience new ideas and self-awareness. A powerful example is found in the untitled installation of 1997 by Robert Gober (b. 1955), in the center of which a stereotypical statue of the Virgin Mary stands over an open drain while a wide steel pipe pierces her body. Such a violent violation of the Madonna can be viewed by Christians as the victory and resilience of faith despite the century’s philosophical discourse denying the existence of God. Musical composers also experimented with radically new concepts. One such innovator was American John Cage (1912–1992), who by the 1950s had developed the extreme procedure of “indeterminacy,” or the use of chance in both musical composition and performance. Since Cage defined music as the “organization of sound,” he included all types of noise in his music. Any unconventional sound was welcomed: electronic buzzers and whines, tape recordings played at altered speeds, or percussion from any household item. In wanting to make music “purposeless,” Cage removed the composer’s control over the sounds. Rather, he sought to let the sounds, unconnected to one another, exist on their own. His most discussed work, called “4 33,” was four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence—the “music” being the sounds the audience heard in the hall during the “performance,” such as coughing, the rustling of programs, the hum of air conditioning, and the shuffling of feet. In the 1960s, minimalism took hold in the United States. Largely influenced by Indian music, minimalist composers such as Philip Glass (b. 1937) focus on the subtle nuances in the continuous repetitions of a melodic or rhythmic pattern. Yet another musical development was microtonality, which expands the traditional twelvetone chromatic scale to include quarter tones and even smaller intervals. Since the 1960s, there has also been much experimental electronic and computer music. However, despite the excitement of such musical exploration, much of it is considered too cerebral and alien, even by the educated public. One of the most accomplished and accessible contemporary American composers, John Adams (b. 1947), has labeled much of twentieth-century experimental composition as the “fussy, difficult music of transition.” His music blends modernist elements with classical traditions using much minimalist repetition interspersed with dynamic rhythms. Critics applaud his opera Nixon in China (1987), as well as his oratorio El Niño (2000), for their dramatic effects and haunting music. Architecture best reflects the extraordinary global economic expansion of the second half of the twentieth century, from the rapid postwar reconstruction of Japan and Europe to the phenomenal prosperity of the West and the newfound affluence of emerging Third World nations. No matter where one travels today, from Kuala Lumpur to Johannesburg, from Buenos Aires to Shanghai, the world’s cities boast the identical monolithic rectangular skyscraper, which is the international symbol of modernization, money, and power. A major failure of Modernist architecture, inspired by the utopian schemes of the 1920s and built in the 1960s, was the creation of a new capital in Brazil. Brasília, a glistening but sterile city of glass and steel erected as a futuristic ideal, totally ignored the human factor and as a consequence has suffered from its impractical limitations. A more realistic example of city planning is to be found in Singapore, which since the 1980s has housed 80 percent of its three million inhabitants in government-built highrise buildings grouped together in independent communities called estates. These estates have been adapted to local conditions on a human scale and include schools, places of worship, stores, a subway system, day care, and entertainment. The arts are affected by the technological discoveries of their age, and today’s marvel is undoubtedly the computer. In recent years, all the arts have been grappling with computerizing their medium. In architecture, for example, the computer is used as an engineering tool to solve construction problems for buildings imagined on the drawing board. What is more, architects today bypass the drawing board completely and let the computer conceive the building all by itself. In the visual arts, many artists compose abstract designs or representational paintings directly on the computer, forsaking canvas and brush entirely. Of all the arts, music has been dealing with electronic devices the longest, so the computer represents just the latest technology in composing mathematically formed atonal works. Computer technology has also invented “hyperinstruments,” which translate colors or movement into sounds. The “electric glove,” for example, reacts to the motion of the fingers, producing changing tones—instant music. Not to be undone, “hypertext” fiction offers a thoroughly postmodern, open-ended text, created by the reader, who must direct the nonlinear chronology of the story on the computer. Actually, such a procedure was first developed during the 1960s by the Argentine author Julio Cortazar (1914 –1984). In his seminal novel Hopscotch (1966), the reader selects the chronology of the story by turning the pages forward or backward. For other trends in contemporary literature, see the box on p. 211.