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Contemporary art: a cause without rebels

Rock'n'roll art gives way to the mix masters

By Barry Neild for CNN
Artists like Christo made their names by supersizing art.


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LONDON, England (CNN) -- With a fiery, alcohol-fueled temper and a dynamic splatter-gun technique, Jackson Pollock was one of many painters and sculptors who, from the 1950s to the 70s, embodied the classic role of the rebel artist.

Flying in the face of convention and living outside society, these hard-living revolutionaries aimed to shake up the established art world -- and make a name for themselves while they were at it.

But all this seems to have changed. Cutting-edge artists are now more likely to engage society rather than challenge it and, aside from a few controversy-courting show boaters, shy away from the spotlight rather than pursue rock-star status.

So what happened to trigger this identity shift? How did explosive powder kegs of barely contained fury turn into touchy-feely, socially considerate citizens behind much of today's contemporary art?

Among those who aided this transition were the land artists; big-thinking idealists who railed against the art world to the extent they focused on creating works that could not be shown in galleries.

Before his death in a plane crash in 1973, Richard Smithson was the leading proponent of this new wave, reshaping the earth with dramatic effect in works such as "Spiral Jetty," a huge twisting causeway built on the shores of Utah's Great Salt Lake.

"They were very political, springing from the uprisings of 1968 and the hippy movement, with people fighting institutions, governments, and opposing the Vietnam war," said Alistair Hudson, deputy director of Grizedale Artsexternal link, a UK forest-based project which was created out of Britain's land art movement.

"The establishment includes the museums, which were seen as dinosaurs at the center of the big battle of the 20th century: art as a social tool versus art as a luxury good," said Hudson.

These rebels wanted to produce art that had no intrinsic value but would instead deliver ephemeral statements before ultimately vanishing as nature took its course.

Land artists continue to work today -- notably Michael Heizer, who has spent three decades secretively creating a vast collection of truncated pyramids in the Nevada desert, and Charles Ross, who has fashioned a subterranean Stonehenge for the space age in New Mexico.

But, like other large-scale artist Christo, whose trademark of wrapping buildings such as the German Reichstag has now been reduced to more of a gimmick than a statement, their environmentally questionable approach has lost its potency.

Their decline led to a global artistic rethink which, says Hudson, culminated at the Venice Biennial in 2003, with a project -- called "Utopia Station" -- that spawned a new way for artists to view their surroundings.

Utopia Station's message was that since modern art had failed in its quest to create a perfect world, then contemporary artists should look at ways to make the most of what we have.

"They wondered, if you cannot have everybody holding hands in perfect harmony like a 1970s Coca-Cola ad, what can you have? The answer was for artists to work within society to capture moments of creativity, but also moments of social cohesion," says Hudson.

This in turn led to a rebranding of artists -- from romantic geniuses living on the fringes, to fully functioning members of society.

"Artists no longer want to be in this revered situation, they are working as part of collectives, working as part of the general social system with a much more democratic function," adds Hudson.

At Grizedale, in the northeast of England, where original land art by Andy Goldsworthy and others can still be found dotted around forest trails, artist residencies from groups that have included London-born Pablo Bronstein and Zurich's controversial Olaf Breuning create a new brand of land art that draws inspiration from the surroundings, rather than alters it.

Gone are the plans to bulldoze huge piles of earth or nail lumps of metal to trees. In their place are installations that reflect the history of the land and the community that lives there. Ordinary people are often encouraged to help with the work of the artists.

In line with the post-Utopia Station philosophy, these projects tend to be collaborative affairs that merge to tell a single cohesive story, leading to a more hands-on role for exhibition directors.

Perhaps in an indication of the rising status of the curator, a feature about America's groundbreaking Whitney Museum in a recent edition of the New Yorker magazine focused not on the artists or works displayed in the gallery, but on the driving force of its director Adam Weinberg.

Thus, in the same way that old fashioned rock stars have been eclipsed by DJs creating music from mixes and samples, these newly empowered curators have finally helped lay the rebel artist to rest.

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