Janos Sugar

The notion of art is a historical, social and political construct, that is, it hasn't always existed. Its existence can be attributed to the increasingly complex organization of society, which has combated and compensated for its fragmentation with denomination, so that an object which we now consider and name as art, using today's meaning of the word, had not necessarily been considered so when it was made.

Due to the further elaboration of social-political forces, the concept of contemporary art was formed. This phenomenon gave legitimacy to art pieces whose reception wasn't clearly proscribed in their time and which required a contextualizing infrastructure of intermediators and interpreters, independent from the piece itself, interested in expanding the definition of art beyond traditional categories and beyond traditional expectations such as beauty and harmony. Entering the stage of public life, the elite functioned to undermine expectations. A continuous re-definition of art caused public taste to be radically altered.

With its consequent secularization, Modernity implied that the unification of society and holistic conscience would no longer be a common concern and responsibility, but belong to a specialized professional circle, i.e. politicians, charged through a representational system with tasks such as the organization of social cohesion. After the Enlightenment and the breakdown of society into specialized fields of activity, the number of decision-making situations vastly increased. As a consequence, there followed a corresponding increase in the number of bad decisions. As it was no longer necessary to have a philosophical or religious world concept or ethos with which to reflect on one question, decision-makers of any description didn't necessarily have to have a 'global' perspective or broad intellectual foundation at their disposal. It was no accident then that by the end of the nineteenth century the notion that society functions like a machine became widely accepted. According to this way of thinking, society's participants functioned like cogs in a machine, each only possessing competency and responsibility in their own separate professional disciplines, so that if everyone did their job correctly, the whole of society would run smoothly. As we can see from the history of the last century, this theory wasn't borne out.

The champions of secularized specialization--early manufacturing industry--treated every possible entity, i.e. workers, slaves or nature, in an indirect utilitarian manner. The value of solidarity subsequently dissipated and was replaced either by charitable foundations or a representational welfare system, which in turn directly led to the technological progress of the new technocratic, mass-media influenced, political representational system. Consequently, campaigning, convincing and persuading became part of everyday life from politics to publicity. /Due to the division of labor, different activities could become independent and each begin its own appropriate, self-reflexive development. This process became characteristic of art too, and generally effected the emergence of a duality between high and pop culture, whereby the references of pop culture were widely recognizable and the references of high culture hermetic.

Art became free from restrictive expectations to faithfully reproduce reality after technological advances allowed for an objective means of representation that wasn't filtered through the subjectivity of the artist. This kind of representation was specialized, and enjoying the prosperity of its new freedom, started an independent progress. In the same way that scientific discoveries revolutionized everyday experience, radical changes in artistic perspective and attitude became apparent. Impressionism, Cubism, Abstraction, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism and Suprematism represented profoundly different ways of seeing. The avant-garde's individualism was too radical for a totalitarian mentality based on mass-manipulation and so between 1925 and 1940, the Communists and Nazis outlawed avant-garde progress and introduced a state art with restrictions on freedom: Social Realism and Nazi Realism.

During the bloodshed of the World Wars, the logic of industrialization dictated that war itself was mechanized before beginning the mass production of death. The wars were immediately followed by a bloodless propaganda or media war which focused national economies on weapon production, innovation and commerce. Politics was reduced to negotiation (so that game theory became one of the most important sciences of the cold war), and culture to propaganda.

The division of the eastern part of western culture against itself resulted in an intolerably naive and rigid state ideology, which controlled the concept of art to the extent that it was eventually abandoned. The western part of western culture accordingly opposed the eastern concept and exhibited demonstrative support for a total freedom of expression. Despite the unfortunate fact that this tactic was also the result of a curious, historical nonsense, it brought an immense prosperity to the evolution of art. Questioning the function and definition of art became the principal basis of art activity. Due to generous state support (or at least to a lack of censorship), artists succeeded in sustaining the expansion of the boundaries of art that began at the start of the twentieth century. During the cold war period an infrastructure of reception and interpretation of contemporary art was established which was able to justify the social utility of subversion.

The emergence of the notion of contemporary art was essentially a consequence of the increased attention given to art's continuous inner terminological redefinition. Galleries appeared as alternatives to museums and popular culture and advertising began to adopt innovative art's efficiency in grabbing attention. In an environment over-saturated with an indigestible quantity of information, influences and experiences, anything which can attract enough attention to itself (even if only for 15 minutes), has an incredible importance.

The oppressive states, which had discovered the manipulative possibilities of mass communication and abused the safeguards of the democratic system, gave propaganda a central role, which was maintained during the fight against it. Originally conceived as following mass production and mass media's appetite for news, propaganda easily found its role in the politics of both the representational democracies and the totalitarian, oppressive systems. Naturally, we cannot hide the part played by the innovative, free, experimental and penetrating spirit of contemporary culture in supporting utopias and in sustaining blocked and exhausted intellectual paradigms. But we also cannot forget that in its radical nature, contemporary culture has always sought to critically examine and reveal manipulations. In so doing, a kind of race has been instituted in which contemporary culture attempts, in an increasingly effective and provocative manner, to engender an immunity to malicious manipulations, by revealing the techniques of social manipulation that function on the horizon of social consciousness.

Since the start of the twentieth century, new communication media have been constantly updated by new innovations and appliances have become more affordable and available to individuals. The consequent consumer behavior, conditioned by this perpetual change, was first represented in the attitudes of avant-garde artists: through subversive interpretation, that is, the radical testing of the bounds of art's genres and techniques. Since even in one lifetime there are too many new techniques and tools to become familiar with and be able to use, the requirements of radically researching possibilities, breaking down conventions, and transforming old ways of thinking placed avant-garde instruction at the forefront of consumer culture. A large part of the methods of radical avant-garde practice became widespread in most spheres of commerce (which consequently had fewer preconceptions) because of the need to use the most effective means of capturing consumer attention.

At the end of cold war it became evident that state suppression of contemporary art had been a political decision and not a consequence of the knowledge that within secularized relations only culture is able to re-build the connections lost through fragmentation. It is significant that scientific research since the middle of the twentieth century realized the importance of an interdisciplinary approach. No matter how much of a neat conclusion it might have been, the cold war's ending with the apparent hegemony of the complacent and comfort-loving Western states didn't imply the end of history, but rather the predictable collapse of a paradigm of duality.

The elaboration of western and eastern contexts didn't begin within a new and already re-unified western culture. The previous, politically motivated, curious interest turned into a reluctant provincialism. On the one hand censorial tendencies appeared in those places where freedom of expression had been promoted, on the other, art's infrastructure became rigid and limited because of the financial profits made during the market interest in contemporary art. This process has been assisted by a widespread acceptance of the ideological promotion of technology, in which the avant-garde artist's competency in using so called 'new technologies' isn't based on the concept of a free and expressive use of any medium. Rather, it represents an unreflective response to the fast pace of change, which ultimately serves the needs of new innovations with a promotional testing. Since the cold war there has been a general return to the commercial; consequently, pop culture today is conservative.

Globalization implies the continuous clash of contexts. Complexity obliges everyone to suffer unresolvable contradictions. The philosophical category of supersession becomes an everyday practice when isolated identities have to appear simultaneously in more than one context and in more than one form. Individual, social and national identities not only acquire new and incredibly efficacious media attributes, but also become multiple and simultaneously operate on a variety of levels. Multicultural homogenization can generate surprising and accidental contexts whose reception confounds well-established mechanisms of social self-definition. Contexts are chained to space and time, and in this sense are similar to living in society.

Modern artists were only able to depart from the isolation of the studio after the realization of a small technical innovation: the tube of paint. At this point, Modern art could branch off from the teleological holistic concept, perceive nature in an individual way and arrive at society, a second nature, transformed by living together. Social-political art is that which demonstratively faces the consequences of being connected to a concrete context, to which the artistic gesture can be interpreted as a direct response. Interpretation of the work against a background of concrete and real social references makes the artistic gesture immediately understandable. At the same time it is necessary to accept that concrete contexts are ephemeral, so that the most important characteristic of art works will be the contextual vacuum created after the actuality has passed. The realization of this contextual vacuum is the most important task for each artist. The differences are in the way that they achieve this goal: randomly, through private mythologies or through the use of ephemeral and perishable social conflicts. Both strategies are authentic, indeed, avant-garde artists' famous capacity for adaptability, also called total competency, demands the adoption of both. It is also demanded by the distracted condition of the fragmented, globalized information societies, which can bypass phenomenon and various forms of human suffering with a self-assured indifference.

The fundamental component of art is attention. We already know what kind of utopian attention can be generated through prohibition. What will be the future of this attention in the era of social reorganization? First of all, the artists of our time have to be artists of solidarity, they have to have compassion with humiliated thoughts, with forgotten technologies, with the incomprehensible, with the unreceptible and with everything which is beyond the culture of show-business and beyond the intellectual level of television game-shows. In a word, with all fellow individuals who can only be managed from a distance by a society admiring its own efficiency.

Budapest, 2000

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