We are at a point in time, culturally and socially, arguably similar to that of the late nineteenth century. New communication technologies open the world to us in a manner similar to the way industrialisation of the late 1800’s brought aspects of world culture to its then new audience. The modern ‘surfer’ can aimlessly travel the world via the internet taking in the new modernity as easily as could the ‘flaneur’ of Baudelaire’s day – the ‘passionate spectator’ of Haussmann’s Paris. Artistically too we are at a point of change. Since its common coinage as a descriptor of Art that followed high Modernism attempts have been made to adequately sum up the identity of the Post-Modern in relation to the visual arts. In the critical environment of post-modernism even the work of the Modern has been redefined and consequently the theorising behind it too – Jean-Francois Lyotard destroys the clear cut definitions of modern and post-modern by demonstrating that by their precipitation of each other, they actually become each other. Similarly he showed, through a raft of definitions of post-modernity, that you cannot define a thing if you have not experienced it in its totality. Will the post-modern end on its own? If it is left to follow its logical path it can only end with the end of Art – as the only obvious target would seem to be the quest for incessant originality; an originality that only actually exists in the critical assessment of work rather than its creation.
There is no original work. What is actually being addressed are works that fall within the tenets of what is considered classically acceptable as a ‘modern’, and it is this notion of classicism that should be addressed; not the false notion of post-modernism. Classicism is not an aesthetic judgement – it is a political judgement of the artistic vanguard and establishment who work together to maintain it, and through it their own validation. Modernism in the visual arts is useful only as a definition, not a creed as Clement Greenberg saw it. What this man did for the arts was useful in that it gave us a critical reference for Western work that stood outside of, what were then, traditional Western terms of interpretation. His approach and methodologies, though biased and extremely selective, have widened the approach to art production and criticism since. In fact it could be argued that the extreme selectiveness he employed were instrumental in opening up the art historical debates from other perspectives. Already it is obvious that we are in need of a new modernism, a return to an aesthetic sensibility. Though work that is being produced now has moved on from the idea of the democratic ‘anyone calling themselves an artist is an artist’ argument, the criticism has not. The artist now is not satisfied with the work standing as a statement of almost nihilistic ‘anti-art’ sentiment. This argument has been taken to absolute extremes and can no longer be validated as original. Instead we are seeing a return to arguments of content and quality. It still isn’t fashionable, hence the general difficulty in obtaining a fixed definition of a work’s meaning from the artist. Those creating now are still living in the shadow of post-structuralist philosophy and many still look on it as some great shibboleth – never to be challenged. In the quest for originality the artists, guided by the critics and philosophers, turned their eye inwards onto the subject of art itself as subject. In essence, it was the only choice that could follow on from the mutated Modernism that followed what was undoubtedly the United States’ greatest contribution to western art. Work that was produced in direct opposition to Greenberg’s vague notions of ‘quality’ had to be pulled into the pantheon somehow and in the early sixties that still involved rigidly structuralist, Modernist criticism. In reality one intellectual elite had only been replaced by another that was then spuriously claiming a democratisation of art was on its way. What replaced the aesthetic value imbued by any artist was the exhibitive value assigned by the art establishment to the point where culture is now not viewed as an abstract concept validated retrospectively by society but as a badge of intellectual merit planned in advance by committees of state.
It is possible to work with an underlying eclectic approach to both subject matter and methodologies without having to resort to hackneyed arguments about the post-modern. Many artists whose work would seem to follow on from Dadaist ant-art sympathies see their work as having personal and social significance beyond these arguments; they do not see their work as a vehicle for a message alone – in fact I would argue that many of the new British artists, whose work in particular seems to be described in this fashion, would consider the aestheticism of their work is far more important.
The Post-modern is useful only in terms of further defining Modernism from its origins and is essentially only a continuity of modernism – sometimes termed hyper-modernism. These are all useful, to a greater or lesser degree, in terms of avoiding the ideas of the ‘end of (Art) history’ but with regards to the actual creation of artworks they are invalid. People do not set out to create a work of ‘Post-modern Art’. If we must have a new label, let it be a New Modernism – a return to the critical aesthetic giving the artist the opportunity to create work that has some relevance to the new modern audience – an audience already familiar with ‘modern art’, where validation of quality is not founded on post-modern hyper-obsession with language and semiology and the artist is not ground into politically correct subservience. I do not see this as a retrograde step – it can be the only way forward – to let the artist communicate without the bonds of corporate and state art politics.
To those claims of ‘Art is Dead – long live Art’ – Post-modernism is dead – long live Neo-modernism.
Street art – art that engages with the public.