Why contemporary art has become a cultural leader Essay by Florian Illies
Rebecca Raue, Echolot
People who monitor the art world all day long sometimes can´t see the wood for the trees, and it was best to remain sceptical in the light of what seemed to be ubiquitous contemporary art: in the flats of friends, in advertising campaigns by banks and producers of colour photocopiers, in Vogue magazine or news shows. But it seems to be more that just a short-lived trend. Young art of today has developed magnetism and dynamics exploited by fashion labels as well as business consulting companies, with cities such as Berlin, Leipzig and Basle deeply hoping to benefit from it. Anyone wishing to survive party small talk in 2005 can give up and go if he or she doesn't have anything to say about Jonathan Meese's weird installations, Santiago Serra's mud orgies or the latest painters art dealer Judy Lybke has taken under his wing.
But that still only indicates a change "of feeling". What is interesting is that it can be backed up by figures. An unprecedented number of people visited an arts exhibition in German-speaking countries in 2004, never before has so much money been paid across the board for the works of young painters at art auctions. In an analysis in May the New York Times pointed to young, modern art as the fastest-growing segment in the arts trade. As the trade magazine "Art + Auction" put it: "it's like the 80s hype, with 10 times more collectors and prices 5 to 10 times as high".
And of course it's not just the prices (which can, and will, fall again) that heightens the impression that it's all about a long-term phenomenon. It's a fact that fascination for early 21st century contemporary art is felt by a far greater number of people than ever before. One could maintain that for the first time ever today's art defines the intellectual mainstream and not art of the past.
Of course that has a lot to do with the generation that sets the tone: as artists but also as collectors and gallery owners. Tobias Meyer of Sotheby's traces this contemporary art boom to the 35- to 45-year-olds deciding worldwide to become art collectors. It also seems that one need not fear for the young people of today: the so-called "youth cultural barometer" survey for 2004 came up with the surprising (or perhaps not surprising) result that young people were much more interested in arts exhibitions and design than their counterparts back in 1973 and 1983: 52 percent of 2625 young people between 14 and 25 surveyed nationwide in Germany said they had visited an arts exhibition several times last year. Music, the theatre and literature fell way behind.
One could also explain this with the help of new insight into the physiology of the brain. New research findings say that over the past fifty years there has been an enormous increase in brain space reserved for the storage of visual data and information. Over the past decades our whole culture has become more visually orientated. One reason being that visual globalisation is far more advanced than the global spread of words, which still need to be translated. A new generation believes that contemporary art has the best means of keeping its finger on the pulse, and that young art is second to none when it comes to describing the present.
Author Florian Illies, publisher of the magazine Monopol