Context is everything. It is context that provides meaning to anything that we do and can in an instant radically change our perception of a person or a thing. A person shouting that the end of the world is coming is probably crazy. A person shouting that the end of the world is coming as a meteorite the size of the Moon is heading towards Earth probably has a point. That’s pretty obvious, right?
Art requires context. Modern-ish art even more so. When Manet painted ‘Olympia’ it caused outrage from other artists that understood the context, the symbols that hid in plain sight. The gaze, the orchid, the shawl, the name implied that she was a prostitute. The pose and setting alluded to the ‘Venus of Urbino’. Venus being the goddess of love and everything (definitely not a prostitute) you can see how that might cause an outrage. The painting style was different as well, as Manet decided to use outlines. Without all the little details it’s just a beautiful painting of a woman, barely confrontational. Context is everything.
Art, most of the time, probably, was about getting close and personal with life. Representing it in as faithful manner as possible. Realism was key, alright, but the celebration of a human form can only be taken so far without it becoming a boring endless loop of drawing people of all shapes and sizes on a blank background. Technique on its own quickly becomes pointless. Symbolism is important, it provides a narrative, it makes a painting less about the technique and more about the message. So far so good.
What becomes the point of painted art, then, as soon as we discover a way to faithfully represent real life with much less effort? I am, of course, talking about photography (the first photo was taken in mid 1820s, if you’re curious). Stick a bunch of symbolic stuff in the frame, pose the people, take a picture - done. So, perhaps, at this point technique does become more important, because it can represent real life in ways that a photo will never be able to. Van Gogh’s works up close don’t faithfully represent the objective reality, and yet we recognize rooms, fields, cities and sunflowers in them. Calling them simplistic is missing the point and ignoring the narrative.
Dada is an easy prey as well. Without the knowledge of the time period (1916), without understanding the artists’ disappointment in the times, politics, art, people - it’s easy to dismiss it as nonsensical fluff made by unimaginative artists. The context gives us a clue, provides a means of understanding the reasoning, the state of mind, the disappointment, the wish to deconstruct art. In 1994 The KLF burnt a million pounds. Trying to analyze the situation without any sort of context inevitably splits people into two or three categories: ones who think that The KLF are assholes; ones who think that The KLF can do whatever they want with their money; ones who don’t care. But context provides a narrative that is far more fascinating than that single point in time when the event took place. And that is why J.M.R. Higgs’ ‘The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds’ is amazing.