Art In 2018

- Mark Sheeky

The emotions of the world are boiling with clouds of red fire and silicon smoke, a storm formed from stabbed words and the scents of technology. The past decade has seen momentous changes in human society, in connecting the world more closely that ever. Like two coloured liquids that swirl together, the result of any collision is turmoil and instability, and when this is applied to emotions, it feels uncomfortable. The Internet grew as an information resource, but it exploded only when it connected individuals across the world to each other, and to the information, in a direct way.

To comment on the art, the culture of a nation seems redundant in such a storm. The world is worried because people are unsure of their place. Our cultural identity is fragmenting in proportion to our connection with each other. Historically, Britain was often unimportant in visual art terms, never on the forefront of innovation because Britain is an island nation and less able to communicate with the best art and philosophy from the rest of the world. Perhaps, culturally, Britain's greatest achievements in the 20th century were in pop music, as America's were in movies. Now these nation labels are growing less and less significant. The most popular and lucrative form of art today is the blockbuster movie, a single work of art that can be worth $1 billion, yet these are increasingly global productions, as well as global food.

As as result of the social media revolution our cultural identity is insecure, and in times of anxiety people grasp for security. In uncertain circumstances people do not want the wisest leaders, for the wise are always cautious, but the most single-minded. Order, even imperfect order, feels better than insecurity. 2005 marked the dawn of social media, the start of the mix of fluids. Since then, global politics has moved from a philosophy of steady and cautious reason to a mix of ideas forged by single-minded authoritarian leaders with a certain, yet blinkered, view. Xi Jinping, Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin, Nigel Farage; these are united not in world view, but in each having a clearly defined world view.

This secure path has not happened in art, which remains uncertain. Art will always be anxious, because it is creative, and the new demands anxiety, that acid which melts our certain nerves, shattering their rail-tracks to force them towards unexpected destinations.

It is curious that in these tumultuous times, art remains remarkably escapist. The global artistic commentary on Donald Trump, or Brexit in the UK, is little more than insulting satire, like a cartoon straight out of the 18th century. The other major issues of global division: gender assertion, social media addiction, are fringe elements for commentary. Yet, there is more art than ever in history before, a vast amount, and most of it of very poor quality. Computers have made it easy to mass-produce, and we cultural denizens are afloat in a swarming, polluted sea of mediocrity; digital made mediocrity. This is the art, the cultural output, of the masses. The aesthetically uneducated have never had the ability to create before, and now they can do so en-masse. This they do each day, pouring their fluid into the ocean of global culture.

Yet, against automation there is considerable rebellion, and the levels of technical skill among skilled artists are supreme, perhaps better than ever before in history. The emotional reaction to the storms of the world is perhaps like the reaction to the storms of the Napoleonic era. Artists are reacting to political and digital change like 19th century Romantic composers reacted to the proliferation of music education, and to the dawn of the industrial revolution.

We are in a new Golden Age of skill, but the skilled must struggle all the harder to be seen, to be heard, above the noise of the machine-made tempest. In all things today, this noise remains a serious problem for culture. Blogs, newspapers, books, television channels, and YouTube videos; the number of these things are growing exponentially. Good quality art and artists must battle this swarm like tiny ants in a wind-storm, pushing against the flow of the art of the banal and the creations of the rushed. More than ever, now is a time where skill and humanity must be proven to a world filled with the fake, the artificial, the deceptive.

The good art is instantly recognisable, but must fight to be seen above the storm, heard through the scream of the electronic voices. The battles to come will be between the small amount of human art and the vast swarm of the poor, mechanical art. In the past, the best artists remained hidden, now all artists must shout out their wares, like market traders. The creative industries have become subordinate to a small number of huge companies which control the Internet. Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, Twitter: these companies control global culture. In a world like this, the role of the curator is vital, yet these essential duties are increasingly devolved to us, the time-pressed individuals.

Yet, these forces can empower us, too. The Internet marked the start of a new epoch for humanity. What makes people different from animals is that we can learn and teach. Speech was developed, so that stories and knowledge could be passed on, to future generations, and to other tribes. This was the first epoch of intelligent life. Written language was the next great leap, printing led to mass literacy, then electric communication permitted the instant conveyance of the latest ideas. Now the Internet allows instant access to the best knowledge and information in the world.

The Internet epoch will change humanity forever, and it will change art, too. Communication is the goal of all things, and art is the ideal of communication. An artist can change the world more effectively than any politician. Marcus Aurelius, philosopher, Roman Emperor, is the most well known man of the 2nd century, and only because of his famous Meditations. His military victories and political losses are now unimportant. The aristocrats of Ludwig van Beethoven's era are remembered most commonly when their names appear in the titles of that composer's work.

So let fire be released! Let alchemy begin! We stand at the dawn of a new Renaissance, and the new artist must be, and must prove to be, a master of all media. The liquid swirl that began when all peoples were connected is subsiding. That sea remains daunting, and vast, always varied, but never apathetic.

The palette is set, and now it is time to explore it, to use it to lighten up the great darkness that pervades contemporary society. As machines replace each of our functions, to create and to love art will probably be our destiny as a species.

Illustration: Mark Sheeky, The Resurrection of Napoleon Bonaparte, Oil on canvas, 2016.

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