After many years of institutionally mandated 'deskilling', demonstrating skill in art has become the surest way of being dismissed as a serious artist. This idea is clearly defined in both the Fluxus and 'Fluxamusement' Manifestos, and has been widely adopted. Drawing classes have been reduced to a minimum in art schools, and the art seen in galleries of contemporary art, for many years now, has bewildered and disillusioned a large proportion of the public. Individuals are often made to feel that they cannot judge for themselves what is good and what is bad..
Spectacle, novelty and amusement, has become the 'lowbrow' art of our times; the new 'democratic' art - shock art, on the other hand, has become the signature of 'high art', a 'sophisticated' elite aesthetic. Turning the art world on its head this may well have been calculated for precisely this reason. If individuals do not feel 'qualified' to judge for themselves, then a system for this purpose appears justifiable. The 2013 book, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, provides a fascinating insight into this idea of the contemporary curator as gatekeeper and the star curator as trendsetter and arbiter of taste; it also addressed this notion of 'deskilling' in art at length, and should be required reading for everyone interested in the world of contemporary art.
In this commentary on the 'culture industry', we get a glimpse of how art shapes our world and our ideas, without our ever realizing it. Theodore Adorno's work, which included 'Culture and Administration' explains much the same thing, but in a darker, less accessible language; nevertheless, this idea, of a culture designed to confuse rather than enlighten, is laid bare. The culture industry – contemporary culture in postmodern era – is, as Adorno put it, 'an anti-enlightenment movement'. Society, therefore, is regressing – culturally, socially, economically and also, many would claim, in terms of our humanity. In every area, that is, but technology; which is pointed to as irrefutable evidence that humanity is progressing
Regionalism, born out of the Romantic era, is a product of the Enlightenment and a criticism of the misguided application of science and technology; which sprang up as a guiding principle, almost a new religion, at this point in time. This movement therefore, is often portrayed as a reaction to the ideas of the Enlightenment; a sentimental, longing for the past. This too, perhaps, is an argument calculated for effect, in the cultural battle for hearts and minds. These artists saw what was happening in the world; they saw the impact that a blinkered adherence to the new faith and a new ideology was having on society, and on the environment. They applied reason, not just pure logic (with the rigid limitations of such inside-the-box thinking), to discern what knowledge, what traditions, and which parts of the accumulated wisdom of our civilization might yet be of value – and which should be reassessed.
In the postmodern era, such values as beauty, nature, truth, skill and meaning have been suppressed – they are now regarded as subjective, matters of opinion – and they have been replaced, as we read above, with spectacle, novelty and the ‘fashion of the day’. If it is 'new', if it has never been done before, by default, it is now worthy of consideration. It should be added, however, that many of the works present as art today, were not done earlier (or at least, were made public) for good reason; just because it can be done, is no reason that it should be done. In this high stakes game, in which the human spirit itself is being manipulated, 'Art' McLuhan tells us, 'is anything you can get away with'.
"I play the stock market of the spirit", the character Ellsworth Toohey explains, in Ayn Rand's, The Fountainhead. The arch-villain who brings about the dissolution of society in this 1937 classic novel is not a mad scientist, evil politician, warlord or a megalomaniac businessman, he is an art critic and curator. Rand, for all the criticism she receives, understood the power of art; the effectiveness, by means of clever deception, of cultural hegemony. Toohey's speech from this work, 'How to Rule Souls', provides a fascinating insight, and is worth looking up.
This brave new world, in which traditional forms are summarily dismissed by a cultural elite, whose motives are not entirely clear, the baby has been thrown out with the proverbial bath water. Our rich and diverse cultural heritage is being replaced by a 'cult of the new'; a ubiquitous, internationalist culture, without any defined values, depth or meaning.
This is a culture which fails to nourish the spirit – if we must speak in spiritual terms – it is ‘junk food’ for the soul, and it leaves the individual empty. The Conspiracy Of Art, to reference a collection of Jean Baudrillard's famous postmodern commentaries, is art's relationship to, and collaboration with, consumer culture; a culture designed to leave us 'undernourished' in this way, and feeling empty inside. This creates a ‘need’ or ‘hunger’ that must be satisfied in other ways. The word ‘contemporary’ itself, bespeaks the nature of the ironic postmodern phenomenon – 'with that which is temporary', of the moment; ephemeral – stripped of any real meaning. The most recognizable postmodern art might more accurately be described as the ‘fashion of the day’. Postmodernism, while 'posing as critical' to quote Lucy Lippard, is in fact an endorsement of contemporary culture; witness Warhol's obsession with consumer products and celebrity. To quote Adorno again, the Culture Industry is, in effect, 'a massive bureau of information', 'normalizing and familiarizing'. A 'critique', veiled in art-speak, is so abstruse that the words will be forgotten; the image, however, will remain, and in this new, 'post-literate' image-based culture, as McLuhan defines our time, the images remain and influences us in subliminal ways.
Pietro Annigoni, a modern-day master who resisted the tide modernism, once stated, 'Art is about saying something new in old language'; and he showed through his work how the traditional values can move the spirit and enrich the soul, as well as provide a real critique of the times. The Regionalists believed that no one but the artist should decide what ideas may be explored, and in what form they should be expressed. Regionalists, therefore, do not necessarily demand adherence to traditional modes of expression (though many do prefer traditional forms); rather, they resist the notion that an official body should mandate such things for the individual artist; free expression, if it really is to be free, demands there be no such limitations.
Regionalists adhere to the notion of skill for another reason entirely, however. Even in performance, installation and conceptual art, there is no reason that these modes of expression need be 'deskilled'; after all, if the execution of the work is done without any demonstration of ability, how can we be sure the concept underlying the work has any merit? Equally, if an abstract painter cannot first demonstrate a command of the medium and the instruments of the 'craft' sufficient to render a convincing representational image – an adequate understanding of perspective, colour and values – how can we be sure that the abstract painting is good or bad? Some maintain that there are, in fact, objective criteria in determining the 'quality' of an abstract painting; this may qualify as one of the great paradoxes of art.
There is evidence now that the mode in which art is created (and appreciated), depends largely on which hemisphere is dominant in the person. It was thought for a very long time that art was product of the right hemisphere, but it turns out that both hemispheres of the brain may create art; the manner in which they do this, though, is quite different. Both sides of the brain undertake all tasks; they simply approach these tasks in very different ways – even math, typically considered a left-brain function, is undertaken by both. The higher level math, in fact, is performed in the right brain (McGilchrist)*. Not surprisingly, the characteristics of each hemisphere become apparent in their approach to given tasks.
The left-brain understands the world by simplifying, deconstructing, abstracting and conceptualizing; correspondingly, the art represented in our cultural institutions today is predominantly, minimalist, reductionist, abstract and conceptual. This is the left-brain's approach to art. When individuals with impaired right-brain function are asked to create a drawing of an object, it is distorted and disjointed – as a child's drawing might appear – because spacial awareness is a right-brain function, as is proportionality and pattern recognition. The right brain perceives the relationship of the parts to the whole – the big picture – and thus, those who are more right-brain dominant (in this area) will create more complex, naturalistic representations, as opposed to more symbolic, stylized representations, such as the left produces. Interesting, we dream with our right-brain; it is not surprising, therefore, that imagination and creativity also stem from this hemisphere. Since administrators, rather than artists, now decide which types of art should be represented our art institutions (indeed, what art should be regarded as ‘art’), what we now see is almost invariably left-brain art. As the art of our times is a reflection of our collective psychology, it also shapes our thinking, by appealing to, and conditioning, certain modes of thinking.
At a 2016 symposium in Ottawa, called 'Unhanded', there was an unsettling revelation that five years ago, there was a shift in the collective unconscious, and all of a sudden the new generation of students moving into art school could no longer draw; and could no longer be trusted to use a craft knife for fear they could cut themselves. A generation that has known little but virtual interaction with the world, a generation who has never been without smart phones or video games, is losing the manual dexterity that has been a defining human characteristic since the beginning of time. What was alarming at this event, however, was that only a few of the audience (mostly curators, museum administrators, and university professors) seemed to find this development worrying. Many appeared to look at this as ‘natural evolution’, and were looked toward yet more technological solution to the problems of our day.
Words overheard that day sum up (in a nut shell) much of the Regionalist arguement. On the subject of 'making' (one of the catchwords of our day), one professor explains to another: "Since I'm not particularly good [even] at the things that I'm good at, I have to frame in this notion of intent vs. skill." This is akin to saying, I know this is poorly done, but I meant to make the amazing sculpture and you must take that into consideration. But really, who would buy this arguement? Shortly thereafter, following a presentation on 3-D printers, a solution is seen – something that could help take the concept to a refined physical reality; even for those who are not very good, by their own admission, at anything: "We need unfettered access to these machines."
In the mindset of the conceptual art world, 'skill' is no longer required (now) because we have machines that will make things for us. This, of course, means that art can no longer be created by independent artists, it requires funding from financial backers. Artists within a system of this kind, dependent on grants and expensive machines, cannot be truly independent; access to their 'means of production', and future funding, depends on not challenging those who provide the funding. Increasingly, the funding is controlled by government agencies, banks and multinational corporations.
Almost no one is entirely right-brain or left-brain dominant (except for those with very specific neurological conditions); nevertheless, people tend to favour certain approaches in certain situations, and may, in these instances, exhibit very different ways of understanding. Each hemisphere perceives the world in a particular way, and this 'world view' is imprinted on our representation of the world. Not only this, but we try to recreate the world to reinforce and support our particular world view. Importantly, it is said that the world we live in today has, over time, become a reflection of the 'architecture' of the left-brain, a representation of the left-brain's world view. The reality of our everyday experience seems to back this up, when we compare the characteristics of the world around us to the characteristics of the left-brain.
These characteristics are delineated by British psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist, and his book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, which provides a fascinating insight into an increasingly unbalanced and dysfunctional society; it is equally a brilliant insight into the nature of art, and the role of art in the shaping of our world. I should not list all of the characteristics here (though this piece may be expanded in time), but we should make one important comparison of the 'personality' of the two hemispheres, as McGilchrist explains it:
The right-brain understands the idea of balance; that there are different ways of interpreting the world and that these different perspectives are important at different times and in different scenarios. The right understands that left and right, together, are a team; that each has an equally valuable role to play, and that only by working in concert can a reliable interpretation of the world be arrived at. However, as McGilchrist puts it, the left-brain feels it can 'go it alone', that it does not need the right-brained perspective.
The left-brain creates systems and processes for understanding the world, it believes it has everything figured out; anything that does not fit the system created is made to conform, or it is dismissed and discounted.
Whereas reason is a characteristic of the right brain, logic is a characteristic of the left; rationalization too – making a piece of information fit the established system – is left-brained.
More disturbing is a tendency of the left-brain to dismiss the right; and a desire for control which leads the left to dominate the relationship. The left is characterized by its lack of empathy, and a tendency to see others as ‘machines’. When schizophrenics (and those with impaired right-brain function) are asked to create drawings of other people, they tend to represent them as robots. So disassociated is the left-hemisphere, that individuals operating predominantly from this side of the brain even represent parts of themselves, their own limbs, as robotic. The left has an aversion to living things, and to nature.
A remoteness from the natural world then, is only accentuated by our increasingly urbanized environment. A disregard for the arts in schools is commonplace; not only because art is seen as impractical, in terms of future employment, but now, perhaps, because the natural objectives of art are dismissed and denigrated. The proliferation of regulations and surveillance in society (expressions of a need for control) are a manifestation of left-brain characteristics, just as the reluctance to deviate from processes, and the inability to see beyond the parameters of a given system (to think outside that metaphorical box the mind has built for itself) are a reflection of a particular mode of thinking. The list goes on (with evidence from clinical studies), but it is clear from this short summary alone, what an impact these traits might (and do) have on the wider world.
The gradual scaling back of art in schools, we would suggest, is not only symptomatic of a societal shift to left-brain thinking, it is also, in part, the cause. The 'deskilling' that occurred in art once had to be imposed; now that traditional skills are being lost, however, 'deskilled' has become the norm. As right-brain thinking is discouraged (or at least, no longer understood) a whole collection of related attributes are lost; and technology, once again, is offered as the solution. So art (right-brain art that is) may well provide a way to reverse this trend and return a measure of balance to our society; but our cultural institutions must first recognize (or be required to recognize) the importance of traditional forms and values in art.