The Third Of May (1808), Francisco Goya
The Third Of May (1808), Francisco Goya

Artists are naturally drawn to uncertainty, even chaos, within which they find underlying patterns or a glimpse into primal realities that are otherwise inaccessible through the precise methodology of science or verbal logic. The turning points in the history of art have always come at times of great turmoil or axial shifts.

The first major turning point was the European Renaissance, when scientific and philosophical enquiry of the Arab world was transferred to medieval Europe and challenged religious control of knowledge. Artists investigated anatomy, perspective and the nature of light and scientific achievements. The artist was no longer an artisan working for profit but a respected personality with knowledge of cultural theory. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo epitomised this role. Art academies were formed; professorships and curricula were also established at that time.

Romanticism emerged from disenchantment with the Industrial Revolution and was inspired by an age of political revolutions. Academies were rejected for destroying the creative spirit. Art must reflect and serve society, not only church and state it was argued. Art was seen as action, subjective, spiritual and political, and the artist was regarded as a heroic personality. This developed into the idea of art as Avant Garde, with the prophetic ability to look into the future. As the poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote, “Poetry will not lend its rhythm to action: it will precede it.”

World War I disrupted faith in the cornerstone political and moral values of society, and the artists responded with Dada Art and Cubism — the first one nihilistic and the second one urging the viewer to see the world in new ways.

Art in a post-industrial world saw the emergence of the art professional, who is part of a capitalist economy with institutional endorsement and star value, although with a smaller audience.

Today, the world is once again in a state of flux — without global leadership, with governments turning inwards, multiple wars, displacement of huge numbers of affectees, an urgency to address climate change, 42 percent of the world population under the age of 25 with a majority in poor countries or conflict zones and the next level in digital technology upon us.

Digital technology and climate change have become the new subjects and technologies for producing art. Digital technology — notwithstanding its implications for loss of privacy and replacement of human production with robotics and artificial intelligence — has allowed the cultural outsider to have a voice. As Mario Perniola explains in his paper “Cultural Turning Points in Art: Art between Parasitism and Admiration”, the strategy of innovation, rupture and transgression, aligned with the possibilities offered by new media, has replaced tradition, the canon and the institution.

Francisco Goya’s ‘The Third Of May’ (1808) painting of the execution of Spanish rebels by French troops, considered a new departure in art, paved the way for politically-engaged art, continuing into our times with Banksy and Ai Wei Wei.

The artist has stepped out of the gallery and has become part of society in all its political, economic and social arenas. While the art economy continues to be dependent on the sale of paintings in galleries or auction houses, the reach of the public to art-viewing and art-making has expanded.

The Slow Media Manifesto established in Munich states, “Everything is in flux — constants in a liquid society.” The second stage of digital media is not about fast consumption, but mindful and considered choices. It brings back ancient oral traditions with the dissemination of material, repetition, participation, enrichment, adapted by anyone, setting culture in motion.

It does not mean the end of art as we knew it, but as Heraclitus said in 5BC, “It must be precisely because the waters are always changing that there are rivers at all, rather than lakes or ponds.”

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 24th, 2019