Modern civilization is built on four foundations: Sports, Science, Art, and Philosophy.
Sports deals with the discipline of movement, Science with concepts and terminology specific to science, Art with images, and Philosophy with concepts.
Artistic endeavor has existed in all cultures since the earliest periods in history, but art gained self-consciousness in Ancient Greece. This was no accident because Ancient Greece was also where people gained consciousness of philosophy, or of their own thoughts.
“Art emerges and develops where there is a yearning for the ideal,” says A. Tarkovsky, and adds, “Art is a symbol of this world that is intertwined with the spiritual reality hidden from us by a utilitarian practice.”
Even though the Platonic idea Tarkovsky mentions is highly controversial, the idea in terms of art represents, at its most basic, “unity” and “integrity.” It expresses the “common essence” or “common form” that holds what is different together. The work of art is also one integral whole with its essence; it shines because of that integrity.
Socrates’ maxim “Know thyself” is possible only through philosophy, and art is an aesthetic and original expression of this act of free thought. The argument that knowing oneself is possible only through philosophy is based on the presence of both the subject and object of philosophy dwelling inside one and the same consciousness. The objects of other sciences are recruited from outside.
As Aristotle said, just as we define a “free person” as someone who exists for their own end rather than that of another, we are in search of “the science of philosophy” as the only free science because philosophy exists for its own end.
It is inevitable that art be denied in societies where philosophy does not flourish. In essence, neither the artist nor their artwork serve the purposes or desires of any other person, institution, or organization. This is why an artist is questioning and critical.
As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It is neither easy nor unproblematic to live by this maxim. The urge of art and the artist to be free, to rebel, to recreate, and to criticize the status quo has always bothered holders of political power. This is why fascist, despotic and totalitarian regimes and ideologies have banned artistic activity. Instead, art is replaced by pseudo-artistic propaganda.
Art co-exists with wisdom, or sophia. Sophia turns an ordinary person into an “ethical human being,” while art turns an ordinary person into an “aesthetic human being.”
All work on aesthetics shows us that a civilization becomes stunted when aesthetic sensibilities and artistic creativity are lacking in the development of its individual or in the construction of its societal culture and civilization.
As Kemal Ataturk said, “A society without art means a society severed of a vital vein.”
People turn to objects of desire either to consume or to own them. Artistic interest, on the other hand, liberates the work of art with the wish that it continue its existence on its own behalf.
The uniqueness, irreproducibility, and integrity of a work of art separates it from everything else, and it is this originality that makes a work of art effective and attractive. The luminosity of a work of art comes from its essence, its light does not come from an external source. We do shine light on a work of art as a physical object, but more properly, it is the work of art that illuminates us.
The world is rendered useful by Technology, explained by Philosophy, changed by Ideology, and recreated by the Artist.
In our contemporary world, general and widespread education, together with other factors, made people resemble one another and become ordinary. Modernity reassured individual freedoms, but Modernism as a system homogenized the world, and thus gave rise to a phenomenon contrary to its own principle of freedom. Herd consciousness is feared, and the artist is expected to create a difference.
The individual works of an artist are independent works of art with their own integrity, but the artist cannot be understood merely upon the basis of these works. The artist expresses him or herself in their artwork, but behind it, belongs to a flowing continuum of life. Each work is like a single film frame and cannot represent the entire film.
To use the metaphor of a tree to symbolize a work of art, its roots would be buried in culture, and while feeding on the sap of this culture, its leaves and branches would be wetted by the rains of other cultures, and it would offer its fruit to the extension of universal civilization through its flowers. It now belongs to everyone; it has risen and been sublimated above any one specific culture or locality.
The tree of art cannot flower without roots or pollination; the roots of a tree that does not flower remain a hidden potential, and a flower without roots dries and fails to produce fruit. If pollination were culture and the roots tradition, the resulting flower would be the flower of civilization.
Following the classification proposed by Hegel, the first philosopher of modernity,
1- Symbolic art: Ancient Egyptian architecture
2- Classical art: Ancient Greek sculpture
3- Romantic art: European painting, music, and poetry
4- Modern art: The principle of modern art is constant change.
As Boris Groys observes in his book Art Power, “Modern art is a product of the Atheism and Humanism of the Age of Enlightenment.”
Modern art is pluralist to its roots, so much so that there is no typical example of a work of art that can represent it. In opposition to the supreme reign of the image, all images have been made equal. Every vote counts the same in democracies, but the equality of all apparitions goes beyond pluralist and democratic equality at the level of aesthetic taste.
Duchamp identified artistic creation with artistic choice. This proposition brought the artist and the curator onto the same plane, and everything became part of the installation.
This idea finds its roots in existentialism: J.P. Sartre once said, “When we say people choose themselves to exist, we mean each needs to choose themselves. However, we also mean that a person chooses all of humanity by choosing themselves. This is because, in the final analysis, among all actions that a person can take to create themselves as they want to exist, there is no action that cannot create an image of a person as they should exist. Choosing this or that also means approving the worth of what is chosen.”
Romanticism was the first example of popular style; it was born out of democracy, met with the approval and fed into the common taste of the masses. However, one characteristic of Modern Art, the cause of opposition to and the loss of the image, is that it divides the public into those who understand it and those who do not. This new art implies that those who understand it are very few in number compared to the masses and belong to a different human species.
It is clear that modern art addresses a minority with special talent, unlike romantic art which addressed everyone. This is why it bothers the masses.
Following centuries of sycophancy and flattery, the public, used to being treated as superiors, becomes angry in the face of this new, more elaborate and more distinguished art.
The loss of image is invisible to a person who seeks nothing but impressive stories in works of modern art and has a corresponding imagination.
Jose Ortega Y Gasset says, “Most people are unable to adjust their perceptual equipment to the window and transparency called the work of art. Instead, they look at it directly and linger on the human reality depicted in the work. When asked what they see in the work of art, independent of its content, they say they see no such thing, and they are telling the truth because what is there is artistic transparency and lacks substance.”
According to Gasset, the most characteristic tendency of modern art, in general terms, is “dehumanization.” The round and soft shapes of animate bodies are repulsive to the contemporary artist; instead, the artist prefers to replace them with geometric shapes. This is nothing new. When we look at the evolution of prehistoric art, we see that artistic sensibility started with a search for live forms, then dropped this search and turned instead to abstract indicators, to traces of cosmic or animal forms: The snake becomes stylized as curves, and the sun as a swastika.
Another characteristic of modern art is “secularization.” This is an atheist and humanist character. Iconoclasm represents transience against permanence and innovation against tradition. Modern art is defined, contrary to the icon-loving attitude and heavenly authority of Christianity, by the acceptance that destiny is made up of people’s choices and actions.
Modern art opposes artistic tradition as well. According to modern art, artistic tradition interferes, like an interpreter, with the relationships that the artist has with the world. This is the reason behind the anti-museum attitude that has developed.
Modern art first defied the power of the imagery of the church and ideologies, and gradually defied the power of the image as well.
The iconoclastic attitude of modern art is powered by irony. Modern art has in fact borrowed this irony from the Schlegel brothers, Romantic theorists who considered irony to be a category of aesthetics. Modern inspiration is ironic in all its aspects; this is where its joyous nature leads. A dialogue in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose between a monk, who conducts an investigation in a monastery where a comedy by Aristotle is hidden, and the abbot who puts poison on its pages to prevent anyone from reading it proceeds like this:
– Why would you do that?
– Because people will laugh when they read it.
– People will laugh with or without that book.
– Yes, they will laugh, but they will not be able to find a legitimate source for their laughing.
– Why do you care about that?
– People lose their fear if they laugh, and if they lose their fear, the church loses its authority.
(Remembering that the church declared Aristotle a saint) being an artist according to the principle of irony means not taking serious people seriously.
The following may be asked of modern art regarding this attitude: Doesn’t attacking all traditional art in fact mean attacking art itself? If what was done until now wasn’t art, then what is art?
Who is to decide if something is art or not? Who is to decide if a work of art is good or bad? Is it the artist, the curator, the art critic, or the collector? Is it the system of art as a whole, its market, or the public?
Neither democratizing its audience nor educating the public suffices for art to be appreciated, as art has always developed by breaking the mold.
* Translated by Dr. Emre Eren Korkmaz, and revised by the editorial board.
1- Barthes, R., “Eserden Metne” [“From Work to Text”] 1971, Sanat ve Kuram 1900-2000 Değişen Fikirler Antolojisi [Art and Theory 1900-2000 An Anthology of Changing Ideas], 2011.
2- Satre, J. P., “Varoluşçuluk Bir Hümanizmdir” [“Existentialism is a Humanism”] 1946, Sanat ve Kuram 1900-2000 Değişen Fikirler Antolojisi, 2011 [Art and Theory 1900-2000 An Anthology of Changing Ideas], 2011.
3- Ortega y Gasset, J., “Sanatın İnsansızlaştırılması” [“Dehumanization of Art”] 1925, Sanat ve Kuram 1900-2000 Değişen Fikirler Antolojisi, 2011 [Art and Theory 1900-2000 An Anthology of Changing Ideas], 2011.
4- Groys, B., Sanatın Gücü [Art Power], 2013.