When I go hunting for some contemporary artistic production, I find their modern spaces starting with work in the mid-19th century and seem to be depositories of a forgotten regionalism. Interspersed through the collection will be some international artists, but the work they're calling modern seems to peter out sometime in the seventies.
There seems to be two major influences on an artist's production, though there are probably as many ways to categorize an artist's influences as there are art historians. First there would be the artist's environment, whether or not it's acknowledged. What the maker of the work eats, their economic standing in relation to their peers, the social and political environment, superstitious beliefs, etc., will all play a part in determining the work they produce. The work made in a large European studio in the 21st century will be different than work made in the Great Zimbabwe in the 15th century.
The second influence will be from the art that has already been created, whether it is concurrent or historical. I've heard this called a dialog with art from the past, though it would be an imaginary dialog, as the dead have trouble articulating a response.
Some of this response to other art can be seen like language development, where literal meaning becomes metaphor, and the metaphor's meaning shifts through time. These little bits and pieces--say for example the development of perspective or paint in tubes--becomes the syntax and grammar for work that comes later. These small bits of past art that continue forward are like the cape in escape: part of the entomology, but lost in it's current meaning.
The other kind of response to past art--the big chunks bitten off whole and regurgitated--are the one that I'm confronted by over and over again as I traipse through Rome: here I am, standing in front of a Cy Twombly, and it's Leda and the Swan all over again. Silly me, I thought Modernism was about breaking with the past.
In school we were calling the classic Modernist move a way to "kill your father," overturning the tenants of the current school for something new. But in the classical oedipal sense, despite your best intentions and hard work, you ultimately position yourself to become someone else's nemesis.
Kill the Cannon
Now I'm looking at Medea:
"I cannot look at you.
I am in agony, and lost.
The evil that I do, I understand full well,
But a passion drives me greater than my will."
So all this responding to great works of the past, is it a transparent attempt to gain gravitas by association? I'm living in the Cambodian district in Long Beach, visiting Roman dark rooms, and earning an MFA. What does it mean to set aside how my neighbors, colleagues, and friends eat, fuck, and earn a living and instead commune with the historical?
I'm sitting in the shade in the Roman Forum, across from Cesar's tomb. Next to me is a Japanese tour guide giving a dramatic rendition of historical events, and mixed in the Japanese I hear, "Cesar," as he gestures to the ruins of the grave.
Under his feet are grooves worn into the stone my countless chariots. Because two horses side by side that would wear groves in the road, the axle for the wheels were standardized so the wheels would roll in the same groove. The distance is about 4' 8"--the same distance as the hoofs of two horses walking hip to hip. Similar grooved roads run through Brittan (south of Trajan's wall) and when the first trains were built, parts were taken from horse carriages to make the locomotives.
When these Japanese tourists take the train from the airport in Tokyo to their homes, they will be riding on train tracks 4'8" apart, a connection to the road now below their oblivious feet.