In our twenty-first Century materialistic world, the detritus of consumption has become the chosen medium for many visual artists. Employing grand schemes of repetition, with Philip Glass earnestness, "art" is made of plastic bags, styrofoam containers, bottle caps, plastic holders for beer cans, beer can tabs, old c d's, worn clothing, tires, cars, grocery carts, concrete-rebar rubble...the list goes on. Consult your weekly garbage can for possible motifs. This all began in the late 1950's and early 1960's with Pop Art and the elevation of commercial art techniques to fine art media. The added schema of endless repetition was developed in the 1970's with Minimalism.
The societal despair represented in what I call "consumption media" runs counter to the traditional definition and impulse of art: to create. Creation is a positive act. Garbage "art" is a dead end.
To enter a gallery exhibit which features garbage objects strewn about the floor and walls produces a profound depression: a sense that the End of Art, or maybe, the End of the World is at hand.
Fortunately, there are all kinds of artists who still paint, draw, cast, carve, print, photograph. There are as many possibilities for art as there are artists who create with a hopeful spirit.
This does not mean that art must be limited to "feel-good" images. Really great art is provocative. It challenges us to rethink our relation to society, to our fellow man, to the Earth.
The "obviousness" of garbage "art" is condescending to the viewer by contrast: it assumes that we don't have enough sense to have noticed the abuses of the environment and to our very souls by excessive consumption of Earth's resources. The provocateur is merely a show-off.
Classical Greek drama produced catharsis, which caused the audience to leave the theatre with a lighter heart. Even the gravest tragedy produced an opposite reaction in a member of the audience as he returned to his routine life. Great art educes a meditative process in the viewer. From this, positive action can come from the experience; thus, the transformative power of art.
Garbage "art" does not provoke transformation in the viewer, who is either turned off or depressed to the point of helplessness. Hence, when, for instance, I take my walk at the beautiful park designed by the Olmsted Bros. (who designed the New York City Central Park) and I am confronted by phony "provocative" garbage "art" in the form of plywood boxes, poorly crafted, covered with black plastic bags, or a pink yarn tutu on the Adrian Pillars sculpture of "Winged Youth rising from the chaos of war" on top of the World War I Memorial alongside the St. Johns River, I am at a loss to understand how this kind of Art Terrorism is useful as an art experience.
A librarian-composer friend of mine who, by virtue of his occupation is a genuine liberal, thinks such displays are alright for a short time as an exercise of free expression. Perhaps. But, if the action involves the desecration of a war memorial or the work of another artist, the definition of the action changes from free expression to hostile vandalism. And vandalism disturbs private and public peace. If, for instance, I should stand and shout while my friend's composition was being performed, that would be my free expression, but I would be booted out of the auditorium!
Interestingly, the first collectors who drove the art scene in New York in the 1950's and 60's were people such as a taxi-cab magnate, who gained the fame and social recognition he craved by buying out an entire exhibit of one then-unknown artist's work. This made news in the art world. This set a fashion for chasing, prematurely, young artists' works based on little or no knowledge of the tradition of art: the death of the connoisseur.
Monetary values rose: art values plunged. (And the artist who was made famous by the taxi-cab magnate's purchase? He ruefully observed that the gentleman sold the work at auction for 100 times more than he originally paid him for it. The fallacious idea that art is an investment took off with the help of auction houses. The "crash" of 1987 showed what a flawed idea that was when the art market tanked along with everything else. Artists, as well as collectors, suffered.)
Fashion has a lot to do with the prevalence of such stuff in the contemporary art scene. Fashion is driven by people with too much money to spend, too much free time coupled with too little respect for art in general. Everything moves too fast: the process of testing the endurance of artists is cast aside in favor of "the latest thing." The whole process of assigning value, other than monetary, to art breaks down. Society, in general, is the poorer for it, for the moral dilemmas of our time are not being confronted. Contemplation has been replaced with more consumption. And, more garbage.