In this essay I will analyse contemporary art and culture by applying key theoretical concepts and discourses from well known theorists such as Dick Hebdige; Hal Foster, Guy Debord and Dominic Strinati, to relevant critical theories of modernism and Post-modernism. I hope to give a historical insight into the theory of ‘resistance’ and its impact on society, providing analyses of contemporary resistant art and relating it to my own practice. I want to explore the various approaches a resistant movement can have, focusing on graffiti as a contemporary example. Graffiti has various forms (tagging, political, commercial) allowing it to be analysed from many theoretical viewpoints i.e. tagging can be seen as a general youth rebellion, commercialization of graffiti can be seen to dissolve resistant social boundaries (therefore conforming to the capitalist society) and political graffiti,
which wishes to show a critique of the contemporary capitalist society through subversion and appropriation.
I will begin by looking at some of modernisms key resistant movements such as Dadaism, expressionism and surrealism. I hope to show how different historical movements have revolted against their current social and ideological climate; how the emergence of these movements and ideologies has influenced contemporary art and culture. What people’s values and beliefs of culture and society were? What practical techniques did they use to show this?
Modernism was seen as an exploration of knowledge and skills, with interests in different cultural forms and processes. It was described as a number of “avant-garde movements” which understood themselves “as invading unknown territory, exposing itself to the dangers of sudden, shocking encounters, conquering an as yet unoccupied future”; (Hal Foster, 3) therefore resisting traditional forms and status quo in the ever changing social climate. The avant-garde modernists showed commitment to finding new ways to explore how we see the world rather than what we see in it. An example of this appreciation for nature and emotion can be seen within the romanticist movement. It appeared as one of the many resistant art forms of the late 1800’s, it wanted to escape from industrialisation by exploring creativity and mood; Focusing on individual experience, and the supremacy of nature.
The strive for knowledge continued through the 1900’s; Expressionists like Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky focused on the emotional effect of the painting, paying more attention to mood and expression of “being alive” (Victorino Tejera, 85); abstract and cubism art from Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque took a new look at perspective and structure of images; repelling the bourgeoisie state. After the WW1 these beliefs came to define the 1920’s, with the introduction of movements such as, dada and surrealism. Dada was the first resistant movement that sort to reject realism and embraced disruption. It saw art as revolutionary in the portrayal of true reality, as cited in the (online science encyclopaedia, 1), “their aesthetic strategies exploit the calculated misuse of convention; employing the techniques of subversion, distortion, and disruption.” They sought to create ‘antilogical’ (Online encyclopaedia, 1) art as they felt traditional culture had been confined by logic and reason. According to George Grosz (cited in Subculture: Dick Hebdige) “nothing was holy to us. Our movement was neither mystical, communistic nor anarchistic. All of these movements had some sort of programme, but ours was completely nihilistic. We spat on everything, including ourselves. Our symbol was nothingness, a vacuum, a void”. The “new art form” (Walter Benjamin, 239) embraced spontaneity and controversy; However critics like Fredric Jameson disregarded dada quoting ‘the trivial irreverence of dada (F, Jameson, 38)’, Although this just reinforced the confrontational characteristics of the movement, showing that freedom and independence of thought was possible and absolutely essential to an ever changing culture.
Surrealism, which was heavily influenced by dada’s resistant mentality sort to approach the subject in an unique and eccentric manner; They thrived on the potential of imagination, looking into dream analysis and how the unconscious mind effected what they could do. Their deviation in behaviour was seen as nonconformist and strange to traditionalists. However, they rejected madness, embracing the capabilities of the mind and juxtaposition. Juxtaposition as stated by Thomas Pynchon (p.20), “could combine inside the same frame, elements not normally found together to produce illogical and startling effects”. Being an experimental and embracing movement, surrealism took juxtaposition to the extreme, trying to distance realities of objects and meanings. The seemingly random combination of objects showed surrealisms own juxtaposition with social reality, reinforcing their resistant tendencies. These continued throughout surrealism lifetime, showing prominence in riots during 60’s and 70’s and obviously having links to modern day anarchism.
Abstract expressionism originated in the late1920’s, becoming better known and adopted in the 40’s and 50’s, was a critical movement, as described by (Shapiro/David/Cecile, 189, 190), “it has an image of being rebellious, anarchic, highly idiosyncratic and, some feel, nihilistic”. It felt that through its random, subconscious application of paint, it could portray an ardent use of emotion. The process of painting was just as spiritually significant as the final outcome. The movement was enlightening to many, and through revolutionary art by well known artists like Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline; spontaneity, process and creative potential became significantly important and influential.
Abstract expressionism, surrealism and Dada were seen as radical and anarchic. Although Pessimistic critics such as Fredric Jameson dismiss Dadaism, I think they are significant within modernism and Postmodernism theory as they help exemplify a critique of society and traditional forms. They also provide us with historical context in which to relate it to current resistance in contemporary society. In relation to graffiti the movements show similar interests. For example; The spontaneous process of painting employed by the abstract expressionists, lends itself to the graffiti tag, in that the ‘spontaneous’ tag utilises the quick and easy application of the spray can, focusing on the process of spray painting, through various methods of application and technique, improved creative potential can be achieved. The surrealist’s views of ‘social revolution’ through imagination are also evident in graffiti; the social revolution is implied through the illegality of the tag and the appropriation/ Détournement of well known objects/ imagery. As dick Hebdige explains, these objects “can be...’stolen’ by subordinate groups and made to carry a secret meanings which express, in code, a form of resistance to the order which guarantees their continued subordination”( Dick Hebdige 18) Dada also utilises subversion, but importantly disruption. Dada sought disruption of the current bougieuse society as graffiti does to the current capitalist society. By illegally tagging, painting and placing subversive images graffiti artists are attempting to portray the real ‘reality’ which the current capitalist institutions are said to control and manipulate. (This will be discussed later, looking at ‘the spectacle’ and Détournement) Their diverse styles, use of materials, processes and rebellious ideologies show how these subordinated subcultures are strongly bound to social/ cultural change through art. According to Dick Hebdige (18), “Style in subculture is... pregnant with significance. Its transformations go ‘against nature’, interrupting the process of ‘normalization’. As such, they are gestures, movements towards a speech which offends the silent ‘majority’, which challenges the principle of unity and cohesion, which contradicts the myth of consensus.