The lengthy corridors of art history over the last five hundred years are decorated with numerous bold and monumental works. Just to name a handful of memorable favorites you’ll see a pattern emerge: Guernica (Pablo Picasso), The Persistence of Memory (Salvador Dali), The Dance (Henri Matisse), The Garden of Earthly Delights (Heironymous Bosch). Yes, these works are bold. They’re bold in the sense that they represented a fundamental shift from the artistic sensibilities and ideas of their times. These works stirred the salons and caused commotion among the “cognosenti” and the chattering classes. They implored (or decried) the establishment to take notice of new forms, new messages, new perspectives.
And, now here we are in the 21st century, floating in a bottomless bowl of a bold media soup; 24-hour opinion and hyperbole; oversized interactive billboards, explosive 3D movies, voyeuristic reality TV, garish commercials, sexually charged headlines and suggestive mainstream magazines. The provocative images, the loudness, the vividness, the anger – it’s all bold and it’s vying for your increasingly fragmented and desensitized attention. But, this contemporary boldness seems more aligned with surface brightness and bigness than it is with depth of meaning. The boldness of works by earlier artists such as Picasso, Dali, Bosch came from depth of meaning rather than use of neon paints or other bold visual noise.
So, what of contemporary art over the last couple of decades? Well, a pseudo-scientific tour of half-a-dozen art galleries featuring the in-the-moment works of art may well tell you the same story – it’s mostly bold as well. What’s been selling at the top art auction houses? Bold. What’s been making headlines in the art world? Bold.
The trend is and has been set for a while: it has to be brighter, louder, bigger. Indeed, a recent feature article in the New York Times on the 25th Paris Biennale seems to confirm this trend in Western art. (Background: The Biennale is home to around a hundred of the world’s most exclusive art galleries, those that purport to set the art world’s trends, make or break emerging artists and most importantly (for them) set “market” prices.) The article’s author, Souren Melikian, states:
Perception is changing. Interest in subtle nuances is receding as our attention span shortens. Awareness of this trend probably accounts for the recent art trade emphasis on clarity and monumentality and the striking progression of 20th-century modernity.
Well, I certainly take no issue with the observation that “commercial” art has become much more monumental and less subtle, especially over the last 40 years. By it’s very nature for most art to be successful in today’s market overflowing with noise, distraction and mediocrity it must draw someone’s fragmented and limited attention, and sadly, it does this by being bold, bright or big! However, I strongly disagree that “clarity” is a direct result of this new trend in boldness. I could recite a list as long as my arm of paintings and other art works that show remarkable clarity even though they are merely subtle.
Perhaps paradoxically, brokers and buyers of bold seem exclusively to associate boldness with a statement of modernity, compositional complexity, and layered meaning. The galleries at the Biennale seem to be confusing subtlety with dullness, simplicity and shallowness. Yet, the world is full of an equal number of works that exhibit just as much richness, depth and emotion as their bolder counterparts despite their surface subtlety. There is room for reflection and nuanced mood; there is room for complexity and depth in meaning from simple composition; there is room for pastels in this over-saturated, bold neon world.
The meek, such as 2009 Turner Prize winner Richard Wright (reviewed recently by me here) may yet inherit the earth, but only in a characteristically quiet way. Hirst’s jewel-encrusted skulls will always grab headlines, but Wright’s simpler, pensive work can engage hearts and minds in a more fulfilling way. And why is it important that the right thing happens and the Wrights win out over the Hirsts? Because art remains one of the few havens for thought in our noise- and light-polluted world.
So, I’m encouraged to see that I am not yet a lost and lone voice in this noisy wilderness of bold brashness. Oh, and in case you’re wondering what a meaningfully complex yet subtle painting looks like, gaze at Half Light by Dana Blanchard above.