Evolution vs. Revolution (2005)
Catalogue essay for exhibition at Buena Vista Building, December 2005.
Visual art arose to provide representation of things. The things represented were chosen, by circumstance, for whatever was in demand. During the Renaissance, for example, much painting depicted religious subjects or aristocratic patrons.
In the 19th Century, concurrent with the industrial revolution, visual art began to move away from straightforward religious subjects and portraiture toward sentimentalized scenes, often exotic or mythological, that appealed to a newly wealthy middle class. This art was usually rendered with great precision and muted colors to accentuate the perceived gravity and seriousness of the subject matter. It was impressive, important-looking art for those striving to be impressive and important.
An alternate strain of art-making evolved simultaneously which stressed simple subject matter. In painting and printmaking some of this "genre" work was homey and sentimental, but some of it, particularly painted landscape, took pleasure in the medium by using juicy paint, bright color, textured surface and a sensuous depiction of light and shade.
In the mid-19th C. some artists, notably Manet, chose to directly oppose the taste of the Salons of the "official" salon art by going back to the richer painting methods of certain earlier painters. Those who followed this trend came to be called "Impressionists," and they introduced the idea that art could and should be good in itself ("art for arts sake") and that the artist must draw from the best in previous art and innovate by reinventing within the medium ("modernism"). Sculpture, in the hands of an artist like Rodin, took a similar course.
The artists that followed the Impressionists - Postimpressionists, Fauves, Cubists, and so on - increasingly relied on these precepts. The reliance on innovation naturally led to many different kinds of art-making and this meant that many different things could be thought of as art. Eventually it came to be seen that anything could be art simply by calling it art; the most prominent early example being Duchamp's "Fountain," 1917, which was a urinal set on its back on a pedestal and signed "R. Mutt."
Realist art took a back seat and abstract art came to the fore at mid-century. In the second half of the century attention has shifted to Postmodernism, which represents a reorganization of values, from the fairly settled and exacting system of Modernism to the easier, Duchampian "anything goes" outlook of Postmodernism. Modernist artists tend to emphasize the purely visual while Postmodernists are more interested in literal meaning and connections to real-life circumstances.
The problem with most Postmodernist art is that because the postmodernist attitude emphasizes meaning and content at the expense of craft and visual esthetics much of it has little if any visual value. To a Modernist, this is politics, journalism, theatre, literature or, sometimes, just plain silliness. It is not visual art.
The instructors in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Miami represent all shades of this continuum. Therefore we have asked them to "take sides" here and allow themselves to be labelled "evolutionist" or "revolutionist." Whatever your viewpoint may be we certainly hope you find the exhibition stimulating and enjoyable.