Technological progress has radically transformed the ways we experience life. Our social and cultural interactions are no longer exclusively limited by our physical proximity to one another but are shared through a global network of diverse interconnected communities. Blurring geographic boundaries that have traditionally defined nations and peoples, the digital revolution has forged a new vision of the “global village” that assumes that all people share a common destiny. This concept challenges us to negotiate our place within this imagined community in consideration of our own personal experiences as members of actual families and neighborhoods, with real ethnic and cultural histories.
These developments have fundamentally altered the ways in which we envision our world, creating new lenses to negotiate our most basic human needs for self-understanding, social participation, companionship, expression, and independence. Creative expression, an enduring marker of the human narrative, persists as a one of our most powerful tools to navigate the imaginary. As an external product of the internal self, art provides us with a language to express our understandings of realities that otherwise may be left unspoken.
The fabric of our social world is constituted by the unseen. The physicality of the material world provides a framework central to the functioning of life, yet the construction of our internal realities and of our external relationships to those around us transcends the observable. This truth is a product of the human condition. At our core, we are internal and reflexive, emotional, conceptual and creative. Our inherent drive for understanding enriches the experience of life and manifests itself within the social sphere, inspiring a forum for exchange and communal organization. The prosperity of a community is dependent on the tools its members utilize to internally negotiate and facilitate this exchange of meaning. Verbal and textual discourse alone fall short of clarifying our deeply abstracted and diverse truths, and it is here that creativity reigns.
Occupying the place between the physical and the imagined, art parallels the condition of our world and provides a language for which to navigate the imperceptible bonds that construct our reality.
The creation of art is a vital part of what makes us human and as a uniquely human product, it is deeply entwined within the primary pillars of society. From the walls of cave dwellings to the facades of antiquity’s great stone monuments, the role of the aesthetic as a conduit for political, social and cultural expression has been an enduring characteristic of art since its inception. Fluid and adaptive, our visual language endlessly evolves as we do, persisting as a poignant commentator; it is an enduring marker of reality and time.
Contemporary art has endured as a salient social critic from Picasso’s Guernica (1937) to Motherwell’s Elegies (1948-1967), and beyond. To explain his symbolism in Guernica, Picasso remarked, “It isn’t up to the painter to define the symbols. Otherwise, it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words! The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them.”1 Herein lies the brilliance of art, as it timelessly persists both as personal and universal, becoming a transmitter of an ever-evolving meaning and a relentless marker of an evolving human consciousness. Within the exchange between the visual and the subliminal, the artist and the viewer, and conscious and the subconscious our worldview is challenged and molded.
Art of the 21st century is marked by an aesthetic shift away from depicting the illusion of a visible reality. Diverging from the formal artistic tradition, contemporary art is defined by its abstract and symbolic representations. As a product of the human experience, we cannot dismiss this shift as an arbitrary trend in creative experimentation but rather as an illumination of the modern condition. As our world becomes increasing complex and symbolic, so too does the art from within it. With the rise of globalization assisted by great innovations in technology, the constellations of the economic, political, cultural and social spheres have become progressively porous. Challenging tradition, these advances create a tension between the past and the present, forcing us to redefine our conceptions of identity and community. The social imaginary describes the invisible, cohesive fibers of the social world in which we collectively envision, understand and legitimize our shared experience. Although these imaginary bonds are a permanent part of our social history, the form in which they take is ever evolving as our collective imagination redefines what these are. As our individual realities become less tangible or immediately perceptible, the social is no longer determined by our proximity to one another, and our identities are no longer predicated by the physical but rather by our individual internal selves. How are we to navigate these multi-leveled realities? Could it be now that art, as a conveyor of meaning and truth and as an impetus for action – is the language most eloquent and best adapted to this abstracted modern condition?
1 “Guernica”, Guernica: Testimony of War. Treasures of the World, PBS Online. (1999), accessed November 8, 2012.