The End of Art

The visual arts have existed for as long as we have traces of human settlements. After an unbroken history from the artefacts and cave paintings of the earliest cultures, and after an extraordinary series of developments and changes in European art of the 19th and 20th centuries, it appears possible that the development of Art may have ended. Since the 1970s there have been relatively few important artistic developments and none which have matched the originality and importance of the major figures of the late-19th and 20th centuries.

Given the extraordinary and relentless nature of developments since the 1860s, it is possible that important artistic developments are at an end. Art has consistently served as a manifestation of aesthetic, human and spiritual values. Art touches on the universal qualities and sensibilities which define us as human beings – pleasure, understanding, creativity, imagination, the communication of shared perceptions and experiences, beauty and meaning.

Art underwent a profound change at the beginning of the industrial era, as artists increasingly proposed alternatives to the artistic traditions of Fine Art academies. Artists such as Courbet and Delacroix began to explore new ways of painting, seeking to create works which were more expressive both in their choice of subject and in the way they painted. Artists began to realise what was possible in art once freed from 'realistic' depiction in simply reproducing nature.

From Impressionism onwards, art would have two fundamental  concerns - the pictorial structures and techniques used in making a painting or sculpture, such as the developments of Cézanne and Picasso which reconsidered the notion of representation in the picture plane; and the purpose of art, particularly through the development of art as a manifestation of philosophy and spirituality, in the first abstract works of Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich at the beginning of the 20th century. Extraordinarily diverse forms of art continued to change and develop throughout the 20th century.

Surrealism, and the work of other European artists of the 1920s and 1930s had an important influence on the developing art of North America where Abstract Expressionism of the 1940s and 1950s consolidated art's abstract tendencies, and signalled a move away from Europe as the centre of artistic development. By the 1960s and 1970s, more 'conceptual' forms of art began to develop. The term 'conceptual', first coined by Sol LeWitt, was originally meant to imply an idea for an artwork which could then be made according to written or verbal instructions. In recent decades, however, the term has been used by contemporary artists to justify their work as art by the ideas it contains.

Following the primary structures of 'minimalism', ‘installation’ art engaged completely with the structure of the gallery space, becoming, in effect, a part of the gallery, again questioning art's nature, its form and purpose. Art finished by leaving the gallery, and in one of art's only recent important developments, became ‘land art’, resituating itself in nature. A circle had been completed.

Art followed a particular trajectory, constantly evolving tendencies toward freedom of expression and imagination, a projection of humankind’s awareness of itself, and a representation, on a physical and metaphysical level, of humankind's place in the universe and as a part of nature.

It has been suggested on several occasions, firstly by Hegel, that art would come to an end once it had achieved its purpose of revealing the potential of humankind's spiritual development, while the idea of an 'end of art' has recently been revisited by the critics and aesthetic philosophers Arthur C. Danto and Donald Kuspit.

In music, as in the art of the 20th century, an extraordinary number of important developments happened in a short space of time. Jazz transformed itself from popular swing-era big bands of the 1930s to the smaller ensembles of Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and others in the '40s and '50s, to the free jazz of Ornette Coleman at the start of the 1960s.

By the 1960s, music had become the predominant vehicle of society’s expression of itself, a medium more vital and immediate than art which takes longer to create and diffuse. Societal change was accelerating and needed something more direct and spontaneous to articulate its condition. From its roots in the jazz and blues developed by the black communities brought to North America by the 19th century slave trade, popular music hit the mainstream through the rock music of the 1950s, chiming with the sense of liberation after the austerity of World War Two.

From the late 1960s to the early 1970s, musicians such as Bob Dylan, the Beatles,  Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Velvet Underground and the Stooges originated new musical forms and styles which would exert enormous influence through subsequent decades.

In the mid 1970s the American and British punk music scenes overthrew the musical status quo as an authentic expression of industrial society's decline. A bewildering array of musical forms followed during the late 1970s and early '80s, pushing musical boundaries as far as they could go. Electronic dance music gave contemporary youth an outlet for humanity’s need to rediscover the celebration of shared experience, at first in small clubs and later through massive festivals and rave parties. But with its synthetic nature, electronic music seemed to risk removing authenticity from the experience of music, machine-like repetition no longer according with the organic, fundamental nature of sound. Neo-conceptual Art and electronic music seemed to swamp cultural production for decades, as both profited from ease of production and diffusion to suit commercial imperatives.

Culture by the 1980s had begun to be comprehensively commodified. As society moved away from production to services and finance, culture became assimilated into an increasingly virtual economic model and the already established structures seemed unable to reinvent themselves. The arts created languages and forms to deliver content, but at a given moment it becomes difficult to create new structures when bound by the materiality of a given medium.

Since the first human traces, Art has been a constant presence, a visualisation of things we know, feel, experience and aspire to, holding a mirror to the societies we create. Now that so much has been discovered, there is a question of how much new is possible in Art. After a century and a half of extraordinarily radical and creative developments, it appears possible that a cycle has been completed, and that the development of Art is at an end.

More than simply a form of diversion, decoration or pastime, Art embodies a system of values on which humanity should be constructed. What is needed, after more than a century of profound developments, is the absorption of artistic and cultural values into everyday life.