Is art dead, or is its definition merely evolving? In Cultural Barbarians, an intriguing episode of the acclaimed VPRO Backlight series, we witness a collective of modern-day artists as they grapple with this question, and search for means of creative expression that transcend paint on a canvas or a carefully crafted phrase in a book.
Art's ability to reflect our world has been challenged in the face of shortened attention spans and the widening divide between the rich and the poor. The top tier works are often viewed as investments, and not profound expressions meant for display. The super wealthy can purchase a Picasso for tens of millions of dollars only to shutter it within secluded steel vaults. Meanwhile, for the general public, the great works of art throughout history seem less relevant to their daily existence than ever before. Citizens of the world aren't often encouraged to interact with these works or given the tools to uncover personal meaning within them. Can art truly sustain itself in a culture that is increasingly drawn to the flash of celebrity, the artificial facade of glamour and the next disposable trend?
In this face of the conundrum, a new generation of artists is trying a different approach. The architectural collective Assemble Is just one such example featured in the film. In 2015, this group of young artists won the prestigious Turner prize for their plans to refurbish living quarters in an underprivileged district of Liverpool. By moving from the sanctified halls of museum galleries to common everyday living spaces, Assemble has successfully challenged the purpose of art in the modern world.
Additional subjects in the film, including author Alessandro Baricco, philosopher Timothy Morton, and several noted visual artists, express a need to embrace the new digital age, more proactively reflect global ills such as climate change, and work to expand art's relevancy through works of social engagement and activism.
Critics and other detractors will continue to debate whether these efforts are truly representative of creative artistic expression. Regardless, Cultural Barbarians makes it clear that art is alive and well, and that it’s still capable of changing the world.