Art in the Modern World: From Caves to the Internet

Zike Studios

Last Updated: December 31, 2015

Art is one of the oldest sets of artifacts left by humans, after basic stone tools and trash heaps. The walls and ceilings of caves, like those in Lascaux, France, served as the first canvases, and art galleries. And what a challenging medium and venue it must have been, with irregular curved walls vaulting the spaces. The earliest artists showed a great deal of skill, being able to create images that appear appropriately proportioned when viewed from the ground despite being painted on uneven surfaces. Some depictions show even greater complexity than tricks of perspective, like The Upside-Down Horse which wraps around a bend so that there is no way to view the entire horse. If we could take it off the wall, and flatten it out, the horse would be the right dimensions, consistent with the other horses in the cave. Stop for a moment and consider how crazy skilled the painter must have been, especially given that this was completed some 13,000 years before Geometry would be invented as a field of study. Seriously, if you've never done so, go take this virtual tour of the caves, and see for yourself. We'll wait, I swear.

The Upside-down Horse, Lascaux, France. Photograph by Sara Howson.

Those cave paintings never cease to amaze me, when I consider the conditions those prehistoric artist must have been under. Crawling into pitch-black caves, either painting in complete darkness or by some kind of crude torchlight, carrying with them only the most rudimentary pigments and tools—nothing like modern bushes, or pallet knives. And how did they reach so high onto the walls of the cave, some kind of scaffolding, perhaps? I personally have no idea, but considering these aspects and difficulties they must have faced helps me contextualize the paintings themselves. Huge amounts of effort, and risk, went into painting things like bulls, horses, stags, and people. These symbols must have been hugely important to the early artists, for hunter-gatherers, who by their lifestyles alone had very limited resources, to risk so much and spend the effort, those images were likely the most important things to the artists, considered sacred even. The interpretation of the caves as the womb of the Earth is apt. The art prehistory humans painted was the “seed” of culture mixed with immense ingenuity, insight, and indomitability that has marked all of humanity's History. The importance of that art is this: civilization was born out from those cave paintings.

There are a few points in History where those traits (ingenuity, insight, and indomitability) fundamentally changed our way of life. The Agricultural Revolution gave humanity enough surplus to further develop culture through new technologies, techniques, philosophies and art. The capacities of artists were still limited but expanding rapidly. Supplies were expensive and pioneering new techniques difficult enough in primitive conditions that art was a luxury from the moment it was created, but one that inspired. For example, a statue of Alexander the Great inspired Julius Caesar to push himself to greater ambition (Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, 7). For better or worse, the art historical push Caesar received was enough for him to change the course of Western Civilization.

Millennia later, as the material sciences caught up with human imagination, the Industrial Revolution thrust us into a new era of steam and iron. It was met with fanfare as mass-produced items were believed to be the savior of the poor. Mechanization would soon cast off the economic tyranny of limited supplies and open the world up to new levels of conspicuous consumption for all. Even art would be dragged out from the palaces of kings, and be made so quickly, and so abundantly that beggars might be able to live surrounded by beauty. The dream of industrialization flourished, but was never fully realized. The painstaking workmanship that artists pour into items was somehow lost in the factory's mold, and the notion of mass appeal created cheap, kitsch objects.

Amid the next great leap of civilization, the Information Revolution, we now find ourselves constantly surrounded by design (except for the increasingly rare Luddite that refuses to use computers, smartphones or the millions of other devices we wade through each day). The minimalistic splash screen that appears when you start a computer, the layout on a web page, the countless link-baits that tempt us to find out what “will blow your mind” today, the endless electronic tomes of “earthporn” “decayporn” “foodporn”; these all have some elements of beauty and many are art, but art in a post-scarcity market. They hold our attention for as long as is needed to scroll past them. Our consumption of art has arguably never been higher than in this modern age, but our appreciation for it… that is another story.

Post-Scarcity Art

Any person with a computer can now spend days clicking though massive collections of art and artifacts housed in the great museums. There are potentially 55,000 museums in the world, many of which have online collections. The Smithsonian American Art Museum houses over 80 permanent online exhibitions, along with at least 42,000 individual artworks and documents in their online collection. If we spent the average amount of time looking at this collection as people tend to do in art galleries (about 10-30 seconds), then it would take 116-350 hours (or 5 days to 2 weeks) of continuously looking just to see this one collection. And you can do this from the privacy of your own home, or anywhere else you might desire with the convenience of a smartphone—for free. Even easier than navigating to a specific art museum's website, you could always just type “art” into a Google Image search and have a nearly endless stream of artworks found for you (some of it merely on the fringe of qualifying as art). No risk, no effort; all the art.

In a sense, art is freer than it has ever been. You can see all the art your leisure time will allow, and there is basically no opportunity cost associated with pulling out your phone and asking to see something beautiful. Access to art is now post-scarcity.

The Worth of Art

While this might seem wonderful, and it really is in some regards, it causes a problem. Collectively, it seems that we've lost our appreciation for art. We associate value and worth with cost. Anything that is free seems to be valueless, which is why we don't feel bad in the slightest when the most awe-inspiring work lands on our social media feed, and we don't even take 10 seconds to look at it. Art, the art world, and our everyday lives have merged; what was once consider sacred has now become mundane.

The devaluation of art in society seems to have linguistic roots; anything that is not “science” is described as “art”, sometimes in a flattering way, but always in a way that means to say that it is imprecise or otherwise lesser than other fields of study. For example, “the art of” is paired with “manliness,” “title writing,” “innovation,” “charm,” “shaving,” “hosting,” “search engine optimization,” “non-conformity,” “menus,” “eating,” and “doing stuff” just to name a few “arts” that fall on the first page of a Google search. Some of these are clearly meant to show that the thing being discussed requires skill and practice, but others are biological functions. Being able to elevate any given task, like “eating,” to an art form by adding “the art of” in front of it implies that Art has little value that can't be found somewhere else. Do anything with enough skill and someone will call you an artist (even if that person happens to be just you). But this isn't our fault!

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, 1917. Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz

The art world did this to itself by so completely deconstructing the concept of “art” that Marcel Duchamp was able to set a urinal on its side and call it Fountain (1917), composer John Cage could present four minutes and thirty three seconds of complete silence in 4'33” (1952), and Andy Warhol could make Brillo Box (Soap Pads) (1964) nearly indistinguishable from the commercial packaging of the same brand name. But check those dates; these weren't questions for today's art world, but for generations already past. These are, more or less, settled questions. Fountain and Duchamp's ready-mades showed us that we are constantly surrounded by under-appreciated beauty; the art of an object is not solely in either aesthetics, or the artist's relationship to the creation of the object. He created art by calling it art. Cage showed us that there is more to music than the notes a composer writes on the page; the ambient noise of the audience sitting in a concert hall fills our ears in an ever-present, but often ignored orchestra of the listeners. Warhol showed us that the mundane, the ignored, the mass-produced, these items hold beauty and art that we hide away under the sink. So why should we be so surprised when the controversial contemporary artist Richard Prince took screen shots of other people's Instagram selfies, and with a few changes, assembled them into a gallery show and sold them all for $90,000 each? 

Andy Warhol, Brillo Box (Soap Pads), 1964. Photograph by Richard Winchell.

Selfies As Art

A photo posted by Doe Deere (@doedeere) on

Prince walks in the footprints of other artists that came before him. Like Duchamp, he shows us that artists can find art in the world that they did not create. Like Cage, he shows us that the audience is just as important as the composition. Like Warhol, he shows us that we have become really bad at judging the value of the art of the everyday. Social Media selfies are all around us, all the time. They are so pervasive that we, at best, look at them for 10 to 30 seconds before scrolling on, we've come to ignore them, or we relegate them to tiny avatar boxes that we use to keep track of who said what. Prince took our own, self-generated, modern folk art and showed us that any selfie could be worth $90,000. If you had to pay that much to see your friends' selfies, wouldn't you spend a little more time appreciating them? Instead, we give our art away for free, thinking that it has no value or worth. We are upset when someone else figures out how to make a small fortune off our work. I imagine that is how the makers of the urinal or Brillo felt when they saw one of their mass-produced items in an exhibition generations ago.

Like it or not, selfies (via a transformative process) are now accepted as Fine Art. An artist created the objects (not the selfies themselves, but the prints) with the intention that they be art in a way that has the relevant art-historical relationship to other accepted works of art, then presented them to the art world, and they not only judged them to be art, but valuable, expensive art. Setting aside the legal issues, like copyrights and the like, which Prince wades into with much of his work, whatever controversy might exist in contemporary definitions of “art,” the acceptance by the art world, as shown by the willingness to spend large sums of money to acquire them, gives reason to think that selfies are art. But who are these people, the gatekeepers of art, this art world?

What is the art world today? We don't seem to have a clear idea of who is actually part of the art world; we know it exists, there are 55,000 museums and countless private galleries that show and/or sell nothing but art. Do you have to go to galleries and art events to be part of the art world? There are more than 1 million people that attend the top 20 art fairs in the world. But who actually attends them? Do those million people comprise the entire art world, the majority, or a tiny fraction? The recently-concluded Art Basel Miami 2015 art fair saw the sale of many works of art in a wide variety of prices, from under $1,000 up to the $15 million sale of a Francis Bacon painting to Van de Weghe Fine Art. Is the art world just the wealthiest people? Are they professionals? Are they working poor? How did they become part of the art world? To see art today, we don't have to crawl into caves, or climb the sociopolitical ladders necessary to be invited to view the private collections of kings. We have the luxury of just looking. If we admire a photograph online, does that make us part of the art world? Why do people buy art when many pieces can be viewed online for free? Why should people care about art in a post-scarcity world?

Okay, so there are too many questions for a single blog post. I will be writing a series of posts exploring these issues, and more. Subscribe to our email newsletter, our Twitter and Instagram feeds to follow us on our exploration of these topics.

But now it is your turn. What do you think is the “point” of art in modern life? Should our modern folk arts, like selfies, be elevated to “Fine Art”? What role does art play in your life? Would you crawl into a cave to see a painting?

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