A personal story of art and the 'altered moods' | STEPHEN COPLAND



“How do we interpret the changes in contemporary visual thought? One of the greatest difficulties rests in the fact that tendencies do not develop from one paradigm to the next.  We are not displacing ourselves from one type of rationality and visuality to another as in the Renaissance or in the transition from classicism to romanticism, nor as in the substitution that happened amongst the avant-gardes throughout the twentieth century. A real reorganisation has emerged from the intersection of multiple, simultaneous processes. Rather than changing, art appears to be vacillating “ (Canclini.1999: 180)

Tracing our times through the visual arts is not as tidy as art history texts tend to indicate. Art historian Ernst Grombrich’s prefers to refer to the “altered moods” (2001. 491) that reflect our society and its cultural shifts.

Writer James Elkins' takes this idea further in his book Stories of Art. Elkins' argues that cultures have their own stories or multifaceted narratives, individual artists have a private art history made up of fragments of seen and felt influences. (Elkins. 2002) An example of this is sculptor Albert Giacometti who had deep conversations with philosopher Merleau-Ponty about the phenomenology of perception and how philosophers can learn from artists such as Cezanne, Balzac or Proust. The discovery of heritage objects in 1990 changed my thinking about the role of art as well as audiences and spaces for artwork. To provide a background to this shift, I will outline my “private art history” that influenced an “altered mood” behind my art practice to investigations of the social role of art and interpretations of migration from the personal to the universal (forced and voluntary) using interdisciplinary methods and references.

Terry Smith’s book Contemporary Art: World Currents (2011) argues that in the twenty first century three new approaches are occurring simultaneously, firstly a revisiting of modernism, secondly post-colonial artists seek methods to speak of identity and heritage in a globalised world, and thirdly, a young generation of artists wanting a deeper connectivity of creating art that involved ethics, time and place (Smith. 2011).  Smith suggests that we are: “perhaps for the first time in history—truly an art of the world. It comes from the whole world, and frequently tries to imagine the world as a differentiated yet inevitably connected whole.” (Smith. 2011) Smith argues that the shift or unsettling of dialogue between modern and contemporary was witnessed by late modern artists during the 1950’s and took shape around the 1980’s when an essay by Arthur C. Danto appeared. Art critic Arthur C Danto’s famous essay, The End of Art written in 1984 created a contemporary remake of Philosopher G.W.F.Hegel (1770-1831) “End of art’ thesis Lectures on Aesthetics, in Berlin (1828) where Hegel maintained that:

"Art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place." (Hegel, 1828)

Hegel was not suggesting that art would end, only that the need for it (spiritually, truth and socially) had disappeared. Danto by repositioning Hegel’s essay in a contemporary context was also not inferring art was dead. Similar to Hegel he was proposing our relationship to art had changed by indicating that the historic narrative of art had ended. “ They (artists) were no longer constrained by an imperative to carry the narrative forward. Nothing in art could any longer be invalidated by the criticism that it was historically incorrect. Anything and everything was available to artists.” (Danto, 1984: 3)

As an art critic Danto was reacting to the premise that if “nothing was ruled out as art, I could rule out nothing as art” as a critic.  Danto wondered what Hegel would have made of future if reveled to him. From Goya, Ingres, Manet, Courbet, the Impressionists down to art at present, This sweep which Danto sees as positioning Hegel as not making predictions of artistic production but “our relationship to art, whatever its actual future” (Danto, 1984: 4)) Whereas Hegel’s view is primarily spiritual Danto’s end of art is an historical viewpoint and when art became liberated from history and thus anything goes, nothing was good or bad, criticism was not needed unless the critic shifted his or her own view of art. When everything could be art the term became indefinable. Unlike terms such as architecture, chair, engine, literature, science etc, etc. that give a value to the word.  Any student studying art in the sixties or seventies saw the relegation of painting and drawing in the senior years to represent old forms of art activity. Light bulbs reflecting onto a piece of glass on the floor and a pile of logs stacked in any fashion took the look of advanced and contemporary.

By relegating painting to a secondary position in contemporary art those artists who believed in painting and “could face the heat of radical critique” (Danto, 2005 17) had seductive encouragement such as the art market that has boomed despite global financial crisis. Danto believes “ Hegel’s philosophy of art is once again at the center of aesthetic discussion.” (Danto, 1984)  asked the question that as a critic he sees essential to construct a future discourse after the end of art. Hegel called for a relational role between the artist, the viewer and the object.

“What is now aroused in us by works of art is not just immediate enjoyment but our judgment also, since we subject our immediate consideration (i) the content of art, and (ii) the work of art’s means of presentation, and the appropriateness of both to one another.” (Danto: 2005:4)

Twenty-one years later Danto revisited his famous essay in his book Unnatural Wonders-Essays from the Gap between Art and Life (2005) and sees the discourse on art to be changed beyond recognition. Globalization has witnessed a re-organisation of how artists and their visual thoughts operate in the world. Danto acknowledges that his essay gave him fame but was rarely read and barely influential. Danto believed that what he had done was what Hegel had said philosophers do:

                         “grasp their times as thought “ (Danto. 2005:17)

Danto saw the shift where art now had become not only for connoisseurs or collectors but the globalization of the art world meant that art addresses us in our humanity, as men and women who seek in art for meanings that neither of art’s peers-philosophy and religion-in what Hegel spoke of as the realm of Absolute Spirit, are able to provide" (Danto 2005 xvi).  Danto suggests that art now looks inward and outward to as Smith calls an art of the world. It comes from the whole world and the recognition that “the neat social categories that helped divide the arts from the rest of social life have collapsed” (Duncum, 2001: 15).

Soon after Danto’s essay articles and texts appeared that expressed disenchantment with the separation of art and society and the need for a new narrative. I have begun with Danto’s essay as a starting point for a personal overview of the “altered moods” that traced the shift in my art practice to an art seeking a social voice. What has been my private art history? What texts and artists influenced the thinking and development of Migration as Art? I will begin with an overview of artists and texts that trace the development of my thinking and role as an artist. 

Writer Carol Becker argues the role of the visual artist needs to interpreted as “social agents”, integral to social and political life (Gablic.1995:32). American artist Robert Rauschenberg speaking at the United Nations (1984) announced a self-funding project called Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) with the aim to use collaborative art projects as a promotion of world peace through cultural exchange. The Rauschenberg project visited 22 countries including Mexico, Japan, Tibet, Venezuela, Germany and Malaysia defying the Regan administration’s Cold war policies by taking the project to the Soviet Union, Cuba, and China. In the same year German artist Joseph Beuys said, “Art is a genuinely human medium for revolutionary change in the sense of completing the transformation from a sick world to a healthy one." (Beuys. 1984: 106)  Beuys in one sense is arguing for a “role” for art; a value, and calls for the creativity to be linked to society that seemed to reflect Rauchenberg’s international political art collaboration’s. In the same year Suzi Gablik’s response to Danto’s end of art is a question with the publication Has Modernism Failed (Gablic.1984). Gablic argues that modernism had lost its vitality and social conscience. In a recent revised edition including a chapter on globalisation she looks at how artists and curators are reflecting social concerns in their art despite cultural homogenization.

Australian Curator Charles Merewether in his exhibition in 1984 Art and Social Commitment and an end to the City of Dreams asks why this unique moment in Australian art history seemed buried for forty years with no scholarship of this social moment, no retrospective survey of this work. The raw and uncompromising commitment by the artists to an art that would, speak as a voice of the people, seeking to restore an identity, a place in which a community might be found appeared too close for comfort. (Merewether, 1984: 48)

Edward Said in his influential essay Reflections on Exile attempts to abolish the romantic idea around exile and replace this thinking with notions of loss. Loss comes with exile, voluntary migration becomes loss-gain a double experience much like mixed heritage and the feelings of place, the here and there duality which makes a human worldly. Said describes this as an “inner exile” and discusses where contemporary art has to work with this double view or emotion rather than making art little more than an “exotic object hood”. Said is determined to cast away the stereotypes of migration and the “self serving “deconstructionist” theories of the postmodern age’ arguing that this becomes nothing more than a “promotional manuoevre”, a cliche which enters the art market depriving art of it power to move, educate and inspire.

Australian writer Pamela Bell laments the art industry in the late 1980’s with its influx of newcomers in lush times with a naïve art buying population, “unculled by natural laws”. Bell argues that new money in a burgeoning art market looking for young artists ignorant of the “deeper moralities and significance of art.” (Bell.182: 1988). Writing in the magazine Contemporary Visual arts Critic Sue Hubbard asked similar questions, whether the late twentieth century culture is ending in crisis as the commodification of all types of art it would become:

“doomed to become just another token of economic exchange, or whether it can find a new way to attempt to be autonomous, questioning and subversive-to examine, to use Keats phrase, “the deep hearts core”. (Hubbard.1988)

Hubbard links “post-war” artists such as Kiefer, Boltanski, Kounellis and Beuys as examples of artists who resisted the “one line, one idea art” to seek a deeper social connection with human consciousness. The political and the narrative in the hands of artists such as South African artist William Kentridge developing Beuy’s and Keifer’s theme’s in raw and uncompromising ways asks questions and demands that the “personal is the political”. (Hubbard. 1988) No cynicism or conservatism but a total reconnection with the world and mirror to our times.

In 1993 the Whitney Museum of American Art showed the first multicultural and political Biennial demonstrated a challenging of cultural concepts of the aesthetic. (Gablic 1996) This major event indicated a movement away from art for art sake or self-expression of the modernist experiment. Julia Kristeva suggested in 1998 that contemporary art was in a state of crisis by its lack of the visual, she suggested:  “the remedy is not necessarily a return to classical form, for in fact the “post modern” was the first movement to quote classical motifs. I see through the reconnection of the visible with the invisible, the reinscription of the full dimension of vision, but also, a possible site for the work of theory. In many ways, theory is pursued because something is hidden behind the visible. But we need the visible side of the equation first. Thus let us all begin to draw again!” (Kristeva.1998: 21) Kristeva’s rejection of structuralism was its not taking into account creative subjectivity, it bypassed historical context in which the work is produced.

Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto argued that art had lost its social role and needed to reintegrate with all aspects of the social fabric. Pistoletto created Progrettoo Arte Manifesto Cittadellarte-Fondazione in 1998 with the aim to create a laboratory of creative activity connecting all areas from Architecture, ecology, art, spirituality, education and politics. A non-profit organization of social utility housed in a nineteenth century former wool mill in Piedmont, Italy, the foundation of contemporary art for a social voice.

“…art is the most sensitive and complete expression of human thought, and that the time has come for artists to take on the responsibility of establishing ties among all other human activities, from economics to politics, science to religion, education to behavior – in a word, among the threads that make up the fabric of society.” (Pistoletto. 1994)

A type of reorganization of contemporary visual thought seemed to be occurring with a variety of multiple and at times linked thoughts and moods. Art appeared to be vacillating rather than changing. (Cancilini, 1999: 180) The most recent example of the altered mood and vacillation is French art critic Nicholas Bourriaud’s book Relational Aesthetics (2002) where he uses the term Relational Art to describe "a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space." Recent contemporary thinking suggests that the art object is less important than the links that object have with its context. This contemporary thought places the emphasis on process rather than meaning: in Deleuze’s words, art is defined not by what it means but by what it does. Bourriaud proposes that the art object is no longer materially or conceptually defined, but relationally.  Social empathy has emerged as a critical term for visual art and the role it has in the contemporary imagination.

This brief timeline of a personal art history of the texts and events, the ebbs and flows make for fertile ground for a reconnection with art and society that is reflected the direction of my art practice on the subject of migration.

Migration as Art Museum



Bell, Pamela. 1988 Art and Australia magazine Edition 3

Beuys quoted in Quartetto, exhibition catalog, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1984, Milano.

Garcia Canclini, Nestor 1999. Remaking Passports pp 189 cited in Mirzoeff, N. The Visual Culture Reader Second Edition Routledge.

Danto, Arthur. C 2005, Unnatural Wonders. Essays from the Gap between Art and Life Columbia University Press.

Danto. Arthur C 1993 The End of Art Essay History and Theory, Vol.37 No 4

Duncum. Paul, Bracey. Ted (ed) 2001, On Knowing: Art and Culture Canterbury University Press.

Elkins, James 2003, Visual studies: A sceptical Introduction. London: Routledge.

Elkins, James 2002, Stories of Art. Routledge.

Grombrich, Ernst, Story of Art, Phaidon Press.

Gablik, Suzi 1995, Conversations Before The End of Time Thames and Hudson.

Gablic, Susan 1995 Has Modernism Failed? thames and Hudson

Hegel, G.W.F. 1828 Lectures on Aesthetics, in Berlin

Kristeva, Julia 1991, Strangers to Ourselves. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

Merewether, Charles 1984 Art and Social Commitment and an end to the City of Dreams

Smith, Terry 2011, Contemporary Art: World Currents (London: Laurence King and Thames & Hudson; Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.