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Utopia is at once a “ou-topos”, or a non-place, and a “eu-topos”, or a good place. It is not only an imagined place, but a place upon which human desires are projected. But desire is only another expression for fear, and utopia but another face of “dystopia”, in which that fear is traced. Dystopia thus confirms the impossibility of fully realizing utopia, while utopia is a proposal on how to overcome such dystopia. In this way, the duality of utopia lies in its imaginariness as well as in its connections with the real. Such duality arises out of utopia's capacity to depict the contradictons of the real as they are.
Utopia is a formative element that internalizes an awareness of the real, an awareness which has enabled it to expand beyond the parameters of reality. Visual art in particular has been effective as a visual means through which to convey the idea of utopia. More specifically, abstract art, an invention of modern art, has come to exemplify modern utopianism. Driving modern utopianism is the myth of modernity, which in the dawn of the 20th century has depended upon the discovery of ideals in the new. This phenomenon arose out of the conviction that the utopia so imagined by humankind is one to be found in the present. Having departed the confines of the visible world, the pictorial field of abstract painting caused the mantra “art for art's sake” to denote both an artistic utopia, as well as a new social vision. That mantra, which revealed the pure creativity of the individual artist, was proof positive of a new society, one possessed by the modern subject of what was known as the “individual”. In their own ways, abstract artists proposed new visions for the world. In so doing, the history of abstract art amounted to a history of utopia, comprised of a stratification of significant and complex ideas that responded to, and conflicted with, one another.
The pioneers of abstract painting like Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian imbued their pictures with transcendent visions of utopia. For them, utopia was a natural conclusion to the process of spiritual evolution, and thus a state that belonged to the future. The attitudes of these artists revealed a progressive view of history, one whose development followed the spiritual realization of matter as well as a spirit/matter dichotomy upon which the modern worldview was based. Dystopia, however, is the other side of this utopia known as abstract art. It is composed of all that was excluded in the name of revealing purity of spirit.
In contrast to these artists were those who sought to construct utopia in the present, such as the Russian Constructivists, the De Stijl artists from the Netherlands, and the artists affiliated with the German Bauhaus. According to these artists, the abstract was both a material element and a formal means of constructing a real environment. The geometric forms they used can be traced in the history of the idea of a utopia; as a point of illustration, the repetition of uniform rectilinear forms that make up a grid's structure recalled those used by Sir Thomas More in his design of the fictitious cities in Utopia, as well as those used as the basic structural units for city planning since that time. By dividing society's parts equally, and allocating those parts uniformly, the rectilinear form became a practical symbol of equality. Geometrical environments such as these mediated between external realities and the human mind en route to constructing and developing a humanist outlook. In doing so, they signified a progressive approach to history. Geometry was also a rhetoric of violence that rationalized humankind's conquest of nature. More than just a way of demarcating space, geometry morphed into “geometric thought”, one that became embedded in contemporaneous social systems. It acknowledged both the conception of each individual as a mechanical replication, intended to fulfill an appropriate role in society, as well as the organic formation of these individuals into the driving force that propelled the entire social machine. The extreme perfectionism demanded by geometric thought may also be found in the violence of uniformity wreaked by the elimination of diverse differences. Inherent within the universalism and equality espoused by the grid then, is a potential for totalitarianism.
The obsession with technotopia encouraged by geometric forms in the first half of the 20th century was gradually absorbed into the systems of capitalism that appeared following the Second World War. On the one hand, the duality of geometric forms made yet another appearance. Borne out of the contradictions of the industrial society such as disparities of wealth and threats to the environment, as well as major disasters like World War II, technotopia's other face was that of techno-dystopia. Artworks of the time were but spectacles of capitalism, and operated as forceful indices of the duality intrinsic to geometric forms.
On the surface, anti-geometric tendencies like Informel art and Abstract Expressionism appear to refuse technotopia. As a result, in seeking to positively distinguish themselves from the commodity, or the products of technotopia, anti-geometric tendencies are themselves products of artistic desire. The shift from geometry to irregular forms also indicates an ideological shift that moved away from universalism and egalitarianism to individualism and liberalism. The freedom of bodily action enacted under the rubric of fine art was a “utopian gesture” that attempted to compensate for the very real nightmare of commodification. But this utopian gesture had another side to it, one that functioned as both capitalism's product and motor. Even so-called “artistic quality”, used to separate the artwork from the realm of the commodity, simply denoted another realm of capital, albeit on a higher level. Likewise, the artwork purporting to be a “utopian gesture” was effectively a commodity, but one that happened to be more expensive. Attempts to distinguish itself from the commodity failed to extricate the utopian gesture from the world of commodities; ironically, these attempts only made the utopian gesture that much more complicit with the world from which it tried to escape.
In contrast to Abstract Expressionism, where artworks were commodities masquerading under the guise of the “artistic”, Minimalist works overtly brought forth the guise of the 'commodity' in the 1960s. In the materials used, their facture, and forms, Minimal Art invoked an 'objecthood' which made them no different from industrially-produced objects in terms of external appearance. However, they evoked a sense of “euphoria” brought on by their large scale, diverse treatments of surface, and methods of installation that commandeered the spaces where the works were shown. As an illusion emphasized on a dramatic basis, Minimal art was experienced not as a commodity, but through what was described as “artistic difference”. Consequently this articulated a world in which the commodity entered the realm of art, that is, where capitalist utopia became sublimated. At the same time that it embodied its commercialism, it set forth its difference from such commercialism, in turn becoming an artistic good of higher value than other goods.
The history of abstract art in the second half of the 20th century is, in short, a history of art's incorporation into the world of capitalist spectacle. Both Abstract Expressionism, which labored under the guise of refusing commodification, and Minimal art, which explicitly invoked this commodification, were two sides of the same reality of the capitalist spectacle, which operated via the assessment and exchange of value.
As briefly outlined above, abstract art exactly replicates the dilemma embodied by utopia and its history. Just as the idea of utopia harbors a capacity for violence, so too does abstract art possess a dark side. Similarly, utopian planning, which excludes considerations of reality, is paralleled by abstract art, which negates the images of things. Moreover, just as the narrative of utopia focuses on delineating an ideal society that might last in perpetuity, the rhetoric of abstract art progresses with the goal of “art for art's sake”. However, utopia remains a fantasy; likewise, abstract art is subject to challenge. In spite of this, abstract art still remains a fixture in art history, albeit in different guises, just as the search for utopia continues to this day. One subsequently notes that utopia is fundamentally an abstract image, while abstract art serves as the map according to which utopia is charted.
When utopia is realized, it has already ceased to be utopia at the very moment of its realization. It is because an absolutely perfect utopia has no room for the real people. Consequently, there can be no utopia. But it is because there is no such thing that we continue to dream about utopia. And furthermore, utopia will remain in abstract art.
Ⅰ. 여는 글
Ⅱ. 추상미술의 역사를 통해 본 유토피아의 다양한 얼굴
Ⅲ. 닫는 글
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