A whole Great Gatsby affair comes to mind when I think about the ’20s. The glorified notion of the time of prohibition, symbolized by speakeasies and flappers. Or when I think of the ’60s, it’s Woodstock and hippies that come to mind, complete with colorful Volkswagen vans and the Beatles.
It seems like human nature to categorize these time periods. We find specific objects or events to describe an entire era, so that when we look back on a particular decade, a specific image comes to mind. Interestingly enough, I’ve found that art has become a medium that enables this categorization.
My friend once asked me, with genuine interest and not the usual condescending tone I get from non-humanities majors, why I study Art History. I knew my answer: the reason I had been so drawn to the subject from the very beginning was my realization that, although history relays the sequence of events and explains why certain things occur, art history explains how people react. How we, as human beings, respond to what we are dealt. I find it fascinating to trace the similarities of how humans create art throughout history, finding an interconnectedness of humanity that is comforting. Art styles change across cultures and time, but some human emotions remain the same, something that is evident in the way we feel when we view a piece of art.
Art movements emerge when artists have a similar interest in a certain aesthetic or concept while responding to the culture of their time and current events. Pop Art emerged in the 1950s in response to the mass consumerism and increasing consumption in the United States. With the mass images available to the public, artists found a way to use the commonplace images that were dominant in American popular culture (such as Campbell’s soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles) to illustrate this idealization of mass production. Andy Warhol’s screenprinting process created a machine-like look that mimicked the mass-produced items he used in his work. Minimalism, on the other hand, was a movement born as a response to both Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism, reducing art to its base materiality and surface, moving away from a pictorial and illusionistic representation of objects.
Just as there were the Michelangelos of the Italian Renaissance, the Caravaggios and Rembrandts of the Baroque Period and the Monets of Impressionism, I often find myself wondering: who are the artists of our time? What will they name this time period? When people read about the 2010s in textbooks decades later, who will they find on the pages they flip through? Who will be projected onto screens and written about in essays? Whose lives will be investigated so that every little thing they might have said or done is made to look as though it influenced their artwork?
And once those questions arose, whether I was studying art in class, or strolling through the rooms of MoMA or the Met, I couldn’t help but wonder where we stood in history. Life, it seemed, was a linear narrative that flowed continuously forward, with labels placed periodically on the timeline to indicate a significant period had passed. I could look backwards and see Assyrian lamassus, Laocöön’s writhing body and the creation of Adam. I saw Botticelli’s Venus, Seurat’s dots and Warhol’s cans. But I think of now, and all the current artwork I have been exposed to, and I feel disoriented and confused. I can’t seem to find a connection between what I see that creates a distinct label. I wanted to find something — a theme, a style, anything — that tied art together in a way that made sense. I wanted to see the breakdown of a surface and simplification of natural forms and know it was Cubism I was looking at. I wanted to see works that reflected dreams and the power of the imagination, and know I was dealing with Surrealist artists.
And then something changed. It was when I went to the Whitney’s Biennial that I came to realize the importance of appreciating art now, not for what it might do to influence future art movements or how it represents time, but for my personal connection to it. The Biennial showcases living artists’ works, art that reflects the current issues of our time, such as racial inequalities, economic inequity and political tensions. As I walked through the exhibition, the impact of the work I was seeing hit me tremendously. These were artists who were living, whose works resonated with me because they were so real and true. And I understood that there was no point in wondering what we would be seen as in the future; how people would view this time period in relation to the artwork that was created within it. Because I could see the work and feel the power of it firsthand. They weren’t things I studied in textbooks or read scholarly articles about. They reflected current issues that either impacted me directly or indirectly. They made me feel like I was part of the experience, not an outsider who tentatively looked in.
I don’t want to label these moments. Maybe years from now, people will find a name to categorize the artworks made during this time period. Maybe they’ll find a similar style or technique that connects the works. But all I can do at the moment — all I want to do — is appreciate these works of art for how human, present and alive they make me feel.
Gaby Leung is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Serendipitous Musings appears every other Thursday this semester.