The Future of Art

Where All Ladders Start

(Originally published in a special issue of The Radcliffe Quarterly, “The Future of Art,” March, 1991.)

When I was growing up my father worked in the space program at NASA, and I always used to think that the future would take place on Venus or on Mars. I believed that, in the future, life would be more streamlined and less cluttered, more rational and less confusing, and I was sure that, in the future, ordinary human experiences and emotions would feel much less important than they felt to a scared and lonely girl who entered Radcliffe as a freshman in 1967.

Trends in art seemed to confirm my predictions. It was the era of Op and Pop. At the Fogg Art Museum, I learned that geometry and abstraction would be the art language of the future, and that formalist analysis and historical context were the true subjects of art, not the ordinary stuff of human life.

Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun

But it was the ordinary stuff of human life that fascinated me, as I found it in the classrooms and cafes, in dining halls and demonstrations, and in endless late-night conversations. And as I found it in museums. Looking at pictures at the Fogg, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, I saw my own feelings reflected in the faces of men and women who lived long ago and far away.

I recognized the thrill of anticipation in Rembrandt’s youthful self-portrait; the boredom and dull despair of Jean-Francois Millet’s spinning girl; the terror of Titian’s “Europa”; the cool self possession of Francois Boucher’s “Madame de Pompadour”; the romantic affinity with nature of Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun’s portrait of a girl with windblown hair; the unexpressed emotion in Mary Cassatt’s ladies drinking tea; the seductive gaze of a voluptuous Ingres odalisque; the physical energy of Jackson Pollock; the spiritual anguish of Van Gogh.

Those pictures were my best companions, my best teachers. They were “mon semblable, mon frère” (and often, ma soeur). I learned from them that art is not mysterious and distant, but very real, and very much about those ordinary human experiences and emotions that I thought we wouldn’t care about, in the future, when we all would live on Venus or on Mars.

Looking at pictures eventually led to writing about art. I have written stories about everything from Chinese bonzes to Cindy Sherman, Persian miniatures to site-specific installations, Monet to Mapplethorpe. Preparing for each story, I read and ask questions, talk to artists, curators, and art historians, and learn as much as I can in the time allowed. But most of all, I really look. Armed with knowledge, like Athena with her shield, I open my eyes and my heart to the work of art. I listen to what it has to say. I feel what it makes me feel.

The story that emerges is part historical context and part formalist analysis, but mostly my own subjective response: my emotional, intuitive, sensual response to the work of art. Great art is called immortal because it continues to live in the present experience of generation after generation. Hundreds of years later, thousands of years later, it still speaks to us. It still thrills us. It still makes us cry.

In the past, people’s lives were very different from ours, and what they believed was different, but their hearts were very much the same. That’s why great art can move us, across vast differences of culture and vast differences of time and space. And that’s why, in the future, people will make images, tell stories, sing songs, about their feelings and their lives.

Art always has and always will express the mysteries of the human heart: our dreams, our desires, our yearning and sorrow, grief and joy, our thoughts too deep for tears. Whatever form it takes, art endures because it makes a deep connection to those ordinary human emotions and experiences that I once thought wouldn’t matter, in the future, on Venus or on Mars. Life, real life, is the stuff that dreams are made on. The art that will matter in the future is the art that matters now.

Three artists who have been very important to me in life and in art are Flora Natapoff BI ’71-’72, Rosamond Wolff Purcell BI ’87-’88, and Jesseca Ferguson ’71. Each artist’s work looks different from the others, but it shares certain qualities that I believe will be present in the art of the future.

It is art that acknowledges the struggle of its own making, and conveys a sense of life as composed of fragments, where not everything is legible, and some things are irrevocably ruined or lost. Beauty and terror, thinking and feeling, flashes of light and passages of utter darkness, the ordinary stuff of ordinary life, and the most sublime and terrible imaginings all coexist on the same picture plane. The past haunts and enriches the present. Memory and imagination are intertwined. It is a mirror of the soul.

In the last year I’ve been writing stories based on Greek myths: Medea, Phaedra, Ariadne, Eurydice, Circe. I’ve read many books and looked at classical art, but I know that the deeper source of all the stories I am writing now, and all the stories I will write in the future, is my own life, all those ordinary human emotions and experiences that I used to think we wouldn’t feel so much, on Venus or on Mars.

The future lives in the imagination of the present. We are the future. It’s happening now, close to home, close to the bone. As William Butler Yeats‘ wrote,

“where all ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”

I can’t predict how the art of the future will look, but I do know that whatever shape it takes, the art of the future, like the art of the past, will be about all those thrilling, tragic, terrifying, heartbreaking; breathtaking; devastating; illuminating, life-transforming human experiences and emotions that men and women live and feel, every day, right here on planet Earth.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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