by Andrej Tisma

With the visual arts experiencing a period of turbulence in terms of visual and aesthetic categories, ranging from impressionism, through constructivism, all the way to abstract art, there appeared from the very first years of the 20th century a trend in art which transferred the creative act's center of gravity from the aesthetic level to the ethical.  The most striking example of this is to be found in the works of Marcel Duchamp, a Dadaist whose ready-mades permitted the artist to decide, by virtue of his attitude and decisions as the artist, what is and what is not artistic. The artist's attitude became the creative act itself. Thus Duchamp abolished the work of art as an artifact, moving it into the sphere of the personality of the creative artist himself.

After Duchamp art could never again be the same. We see confirmed in the works of such creative artists as John Cage, Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys George Maciunas, and other revolutionaries in the arts of this century, as well as in the activities of the avantgarde movements the New Realism (Nouveau Realism), conceptualism, Fluxus, mail-art and Neosim. The new artists' poetics are no longer sought in relations between colors and composition, nor in a greater or lesser degree of imitation of reality and the inner experience. They lie instead in the possibilities for artists to become active participants in the change of their physical and social environment, their goal being to influence the spirit of their age by their self-awareness, and by their intellectual and ethical attitudes towards the circumstances of reality and towards the practice of art. This act of the artist determines his reality, his own position in it, and by way of the creative act, reveals elements which are deeply ethical.

Thus, if we try to define the common characteristic of the essentially new and progressive art of this century, we can single out the engagement of creative artists in intellectual, social, and ethical activities. From the Renaissance to the avantgardes of the present century - for five whole centuries - the work of art was evaluated on the basis of what it represented. This became obsolete in the early years of the twentieth century. With the birth of the artist's self-awareness, it was replaced by the question why. The new art penetrated the essence of creativity itself, and not infrequently, the artistic creative act itself became the object of analysis and interpretation. The question why is predominantly an ethical one, and so we can regard this question as central to understanding the new phenomena in art.

The artist is not only consciously taking over the role of barometer of the traumas of his time, but also that of an agent initiating the process of recovery. He is now functioning as a modern shaman who can tell good from evil. He is "the consciousness of mankind," a foil to the erosive trends in society. The presence of an ethical dimension in the new art, which constitutes a dominant element of its "products," behavior, and actions, seems to herald a period in which the awareness of a healthy social environment must be built into the core of all things, starting with a question and reaching toward the most complex forms of spirituality.

This makes it clear that in contemporary art the work itself becomes less and less important, while the artist standing behind it becomes more and more so. In other words, "what matters is not to do but to be."

(From: New Life-New Art, Obzor Publishing, Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, 1990)
Translated by Aleksandar Nejgebauer and John Held, Jr.