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A Crisis in Contemporary Art?

Hervé Fischer

Co-recipient of the 1998 Makepeace Tsao Leonardo Award
Cité des Arts et des Nouvelles Technologies de Montréél, 85, rue St-Paul ouest (angle St-Sulpice), Vieux-Montréal, Canada. E-mail: fischh@ietc.ca. Website: http://interresa.ca/act/cda/.

Never has any cultural movement been as swift, as brutal, as universal and yet simultaneously as easy as that of the digital revolution. Its faster-than-thought speed lies in sharp contrast to the progress of art today; indeed, modern art's apparent lethargy and confusion routinely inspire debate in vague commentaries. The end of the avant-garde era, the errors of post-modernism and, above all, the crisis of the art market have effectively resulted in a general view of contemporary art as mediocre.

The Venice Biennale, the Kassal Documenta and the Foire de Bâle have all re-ignited the debate over the state of the arts today. Some critics denounce the current epoch as the continuation of the artistic traditions and schools of the past, which they deem "decadent." Others claim the market itself is at fault, along with artistic institutions, while still others lament the grandeur of the traditional fine arts, which inspired the building of great museums. However, I have yet to discover a serious analysis of the new sociological and technological developments that have found expression in contemporary art.

It seems that art, whether digital or traditional, has again become a craft, as it was in the past. Fortunately, much art is still being created, and it is occasionally of great interest. The crisis of avant-garde ideology, which began in the late 1970s, marked an end to the grand era in which all artists---regardless of whether or not they were well known---believed themselves to be signing a new page in a great, heroic "history of art" [1]. Yet today, at best, contemporary works reveal only the story of the individual artist or craftsperson. In this environment, the electronic arts---which have created a totally new conception of art, through their aesthetics, their stature and their diverse forms---have caused us to re-discover the way of exacting craftsmanship, even though we are unable to conserve these new works as one would conserve more traditional art.

Contemporary art objects created in traditional media eventually become objects of archaic charm, rare and exceptional "curiosities" worthy of being conserved by collectors. Significant forms created prior to the 1980s merit much of our attention, for they are unique in demonstrating an extreme in contemporary art and they testify to the end of a grand era. These works should be diligently conserved by museums for, in our changing world, memory is becoming increasingly precious and often more difficult to preserve.

Since the 1980s, artists have returned to the Beaux Arts traditions, rediscovering the charms of craftsmanship. Art no longer looks to "novelty" as an essential proof of legitimacy---now originality counts much more. The ideological drift of an art claiming to identify with a Promethean "History of Humanity," of an "avant-garde" art, held our intellectual interest for but a brief span---perhaps a century and a half, no more. Today we could argue that this movement was somewhat of an historical accident. It was limited to Western civilization, and, following in the footsteps of Michelet and Saint-Simon, to the ideals of "History" and "Progress." But the illusion of History and the myth of Progress, personified in avant-garde art, knew but a brief career in the field of art, lasting only until the tragic paroxysm of avant-gardism, which ended with post-modernism in the 1980s. We have since returned to a more modest chronology of art and human adventure. Yet, we must not forget that avant-garde art was our single greatest influence. The excitement over avant-garde art has since disappeared---disenchantment has set in and the notion of a "crisis" of art is prevalent.

Contemporary artistic production lives and dies with the rhythm of the present day. As the millennium draws to a close, time seems to be ephemeral, rapidly consumed, leaving little lasting trace. Chronos devours himself incessantly. Time cannibalizes all.

In the field of the electronic arts, changing technologies and multimedia elude conservation and have resulted in an aesthetic shaped by time and events, in contrast to our hope that technology will result in the permanent preservation of art in space.

The accelerated time engendered by the digital revolution (itself sparked by the creation of the first computer nearly 50 years ago), may have destroyed the value of memory and erased "history," but it has also soothed the anxiety with which many of us regard the future. Our conception of time is altered by tools such as television and computer screens; it is erased by our VCR rewind buttons. The rapid escalation of time fascinates, excites and ignites fear all at once. It inspires not only violent and dramatic works of art but also nostalgic works---art sympathetic to nature, to serenity, to voluptuousness and to repose.

Everything has changed with the digital revolution, including art. History has become evanescent, fading from sight. We cultivate histories and memories in order to reassure ourselves; we compile information in order to put our new technological powers into perspective. But we must also acknowledge the anxiety and excitement that come with this digital adventure, with our exploration of the new world we aspire to control. As artists, we face the possibility of mastering new aesthetics involving interactive technology and newly developing forms of multimedia.

The advent of digital and technological craftsmanship signals an effective reconciliation of art and society---reconciliation with the middle class, with the mass media and with multi-sensory social rituals. In brief, it renews the so-called "primitive" art of ancient times. Cathodic imagery on our screens might evoke African masks---this is an interactive art that downplays the stature of the actual modern work of art. It needs no more collecting, no more unique signatures, no more markets or museums, no more eternity and no more memory. In the world of technology, each piece is eventually erased; it succeeds and is then obliterated. Art will no longer be critiqued as "inevitable"; this art eludes a system of fixed concepts and rules.

After having battled against avant-garde elitist art in the 1970s and having worked in "sociological art" to refute the accepted distancing of art and society, I personally chose to cease all traditional artistic practice in 1983. Digital art became my challenge, my focus from that time on. Denounced and even despised at first by traditional art critics, digital art quickly dominated the art scene, throwing into question the ideological foundations and systems of classical and modern art. Through the act of naming itself, interactive digital art established its place in human history.

Have I become enslaved to a passion for digital art? The answer for the last 15 years is absolutely! During that period, I founded and developed, with Ginette Major, La Cité des Arts et des Nouveaux Technologies de Montréal. Together we organized annual international expositions of technological art entitled "Images du Futur." Through the years I have given my body and soul to digital and electronic arts.

Much to my amazement, our struggle was increasingly triumphant every year. The art was installed, viewed and appreciated by increasingly great numbers of the public who ventured to Montréal to explore our new digital civilization. Then and now, this technological art is playing a significant role---it is restoring "primitive" art to society. It will merge with society, bringing about a change in the very concept of "art." Ancient Asiatic and African societies had no "art," no artists, no museums, no markets and no collectors. There were, however, excellent artisans and craftsmen working on social command, and this is what the future seems to hold again---or so I believe. My comments do not originate from a personal preference for technological contemporary art; I am simply making a prediction. I do not believe in progress per se in art. I only believe that the social nature of art will be renewed by this "primitive" function.

I find I am less fascinated by this technological art as it becomes the norm. But what never fails to fill me with passion, a subject to which, over the years, we devoted increasingly more space in the "Image du Futur" exhibitions, is science. For it was the scientific works that demonstrated the most imaginative, audacious and promising creativity.

Today it is essential that we recognize the importance of science and technology in our culture. Science is without a doubt at the heart of our culture, and the distinction between art and science is diminishing rapidly. Science and technology interpret the world, interrogate it and inspire changes in it---just like literature and art. Those demand almost as much, but where, for example, an exploration of the universe through astrophysics makes apparent new frontiers, artistic fads seem all the more banal. Science and technology contribute profoundly to the forging of our new social awareness, to the creation of a new image of the world, to increasing our collective imagination and our sensibilities.

Following this line of thought, I would go so far as to say that science and technology's overwhelming audacity, its unedited vision, is mirrored in many pieces of contemporary art. Science and technology are nourished---and haunted---by the same myths and demons as art. They have made the twentieth century a century of terrifying horror, and have created the industrial wars so often described in literature and art. However, science and technology can also express the very best ideals, if we can learn to understand and master them. At their best, science and technology are two of the most powerful resources of human creation, imagination and adventure.

The first manipulation and culturing of human cells (before they have separated to form the various organs of the human fetus), the theories on the origin of the moon, as well as the Big Bang theory regarding the origin of the universe, are surely as ingenious, as imaginative and as creative as the inventions of impressionism and abstract art. Science imagines what art reflects. Science is what forges our consciousness and art is what follows.

It demanded a great deal of optimism to be able to face this century in 1941, the year I was born in Paris. But, despite this burden, I have been also able to witness my civilization's evolution---although my feet will forever be grounded with Gütenberg in paper and ink, my head is in the digital clouds suffering from scientific vertigo.

Like Ulysses, we must not forget where we have come from. We must never forget that progress does not exist. Still, if it seems to exist, here or there, at one time or another, one would be foolish not to attempt to believe in it.

Translated by Courtney Delano Williams with Barbara Lee Williams.

1. Hervé Fischer, "Theorie de l'art sociologique," L'Histoire de l'art terminée (Paris: Casterman, 1976; Ballard, 1981).

First posted 1999
Updated 31 October 2007

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