Modernism never went away. I’ll rephrase that. The Modernism of Fry, Bell, Greenberg et al may certainly have fluctuated in its importance as a canonical term in recent art theory, but the notions of modernism or modernity have not. The view of high Modernism as a stripping away of the ‘non-art’ aspects of artistic practice, ‘the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself.’ From the late 1960s the representation of ‘other’ or excluded art histories became prevalent and Modernism, despite protestations from its opponents, subsumed movements with a less overtly political element (Pop, Minimalism). Because of the nature of these movements (defined more as intellectual than political) and the current movements in criticism outside of Art, Modernism almost morphed into Post-modernism.
As before in art history, the avant-garde slip into the comfort of becoming the vanguard and the new avant-garde can only define itself in oppositional terms to the established hegemony. With Marxist and Feminist art practice coming to the fore during the 1960s and the Modernist ‘top league’ being almost exclusively white, male and American this critically driven art movement led to its own, self-predicted end.
Greenberg understood that the seeds of Modernist criticism and practice’s downfall would have been sown by Modernist criticism itself. ‘I identify Modernism with the intensification, almost the exacerbation, of this self-critical tendency that began with the philosopher Kant. Because he was the first to criticize the means itself of criticism.’
Since the very finely tuned definitions of what actually constituted Modernist practice were contemporary with the paintings of the Abstract Expressionists (and they both fed off each other) the two terms have become almost synonymous. Defenders and critical supporters of Pop, Feminist, Marxist and Minimalist work frequently defined themselves oppositionally to Modernism, primarily because its chief promoter and protagonist, Greenberg, allied it to the Abstract Expressionists.
Modernism is not an artistic doctrine as such; though the following was written in 1972 and could be considered revisionist I feel it is an honest account and defence of Modernism – then and now. Rosalind Krauss wrote ‘…it was precisely its methodology that was important to a lot of us who began to write about art in the early 1960s. That method demanded lucidity. It demanded that one not talk about anything in a work of art that one could not point to.’
The attacks levelled at Modernism should really have been directed at Greenberg and his very narrow perception of how Modernism should be applied if used as a prescription for art production. I think most would agree that didactic work produced in this manner does not stand the test of time, and it applies to even supposed Modernist work, especially that not produced in its own, relevant, time. That’s probably a very long winded way of defining ‘old hat’.
You cannot stop progress in Art – even if the progression seems initially retrograde. The most astounding work is always the reactionary. You might not like it – but that is not why it has been done. The best new work is done because it hasn’t been done before. It’s the journey of a succession of artists trying their hand at a brand of shamanism. The popular tabloid interpretation of this places the artist somewhere between being ‘difficult’ and ‘downright mad’. This consideration, of the artist as ‘madman’ is also played up to by practitioners and supporters of the arts. Some of the more esoteric art movements: minimalism, conceptualism, arte povera etc through the actions of both supporters and opponents (not to mention egotistical creators) have made the artist/mad association easy to support – but look at this from another angle. Admittedly this requires a definition of Art that is not particularly popular, critically, at the moment – art as the search for spiritual significance.
I do not define this spirituality in any formal religious sense, rather as a base spirituality of humanity. The same base that leads various individuals to form religious sects for others to follow. Personally I would define myself as an ‘unholier than thou atheist’ and in its own way this humanism is my spiritual faith. It’s a little like understanding an Anarchist society as having more organisation than any supposed ‘beneficent’ government system. I look on artists as being those who, on behalf of society, attempt to manufacture objects of totemic significance, with no function beyond that significance. The theorising of Modernism came very close to establishing this but realised that definitions of aesthetic ‘quality’ were essentially impossible to quantify. The attempt to deconstruct the eternally un-deconstructable was at an end – and criticism turned in on itself as if to establish whether the questions were being asked correctly. I think we can be pretty sure that if artists are still able to outrage and offend (even if it is sometimes obvious and formulaic) that perhaps the theorist’s game is up!
There is a critical assumption that art cannot exist without corporate or public support; even more specifically without critical reference. On looking at certain African Art, curator Jan Hoet stated in 1992 ‘I did not find any houses of the well-to-do containing contemporary art. Nor any press providing artistic and cultural information… And in spite of everything there is art.” Art has always existed outside of the critical idiom – particularly in the last 200 years where its very nature, in being progressive, was to be transgressive. This idea of critical reinforcement of any art production was brought about by the methodologies of Modernist criticism and widely available, but prescriptive art education. Perhaps being given the benefit of the doubt by a fellow art historian, Edward Lucie-Smith describes Hoet’s words as ‘slightly naïve’. I would describe it, being a painter, as strikingly arrogant. It is Greenberg’s notion of the relevance of Kant taken to the extreme, abetted by, certainly in this country, the idea of the curator/critic knowing more about art than the artist.
We have arrived at a point where public art funding is determined increasingly by ideals of ‘social inclusivity’. This agenda driven exhibition programme, that controls the majority of good public exhibition space, in its obsessive zeal to promote political correctness still alienates certain artistic agendas. Admittedly this is only based on personal and anecdotal experience, but most of the curators, gallery managers and directors that I have dealt with have been white, middle class and degree educated. The degree education being, for most, their only experience of adulthood outside of the rarefied atmosphere of professional arts administration. They have followed and swallowed the party line and can spit out the political correctness handbook verbatim – but sadly they have little real idea of both its increasing relevance and occasional irrelevance. Many are from the odious school of ‘…some of my best friends are … black/ gay/ disabled’
Because of the insular nature of their upbringing, education and work life they look on pc as a convenient label system and ideological blame generator. Anything that they cannot fit rigidly into this liberal censorship system will not be accommodated, because in their ‘finding it difficult to read’ they assume the rules must be being broken. A male artist painting the female nude is assumed heterosexual therefore the work must be exploitative and consequently not ‘good art’. The gay artist painting the male nude is often side-lined as producing ‘homoerotic wall decoration’ (initial presentations of the work of Caillebotte for example). The female artist dealing with the male nude is either producing pornography or wall decoration – in either case she is undermining the Feminist Struggle. This situation has continued for too long. Since when did administrative officials decide, to any great critical acclaim, what should or shouldn’t be the subject matters of artist’s working practice.
With the increase in widely available art and art history education came an increased number of potential critics, historians and curators. Now we find that formal study in curating is almost essential to secure a post in this field. Though the increased general knowledge that this has permitted in the public perception of the arts is to be lauded, the control and restrictions that the establishment put on artists is not. Since the early 1980s the general perception of many Fine Art students is that they are being forced to work within a critical frame set by knowledgeable but tunnel-visioned tutors, who seem more obsessed with being ‘there’ at the start of some ground breaking new art movement. Tutor as guru, and students as acolytes of the latest critical sensibility. Those students that refuse to comply will be side-lined and regardless of commitment or quality of work find their grades suffering at the end of this three year farce. Those that don’t fight, and who can blame then when they’re essentially funding their own grades, and submit (essentially opposing all progressive art movements in history) will arrive from their ‘educations’ with the grades that will be recognised by their tutor’s contemporaries in the art world outside of education.
This glut of intellectualism in art criticism began to feed directly into art production, partly with minimalism, but most surely with conceptualism. Summed up beautifully by Alison Green ‘The canonisation of Conceptual Art hinged on essentialising arguments about its difference from the expressionism and/or phenomenology of the art that preceded it.’ In other words Conceptual Art is the idea of the creator and the intellectual response of the consumer – the replacement of the perceived art object by ideas and thought. The concept of Conceptual Art verges on the sublime. If it could work as cleanly as its proponents hoped, it would assign to Art the kind of power that exists in music. The disembodied aesthetic. Unfortunately by its own definitions Conceptual Art is tied to language; signifier and signified. Any associations made cannot be controlled in the manner that some conceptual artists claimed, and how could the consumer of the idea disassociate themselves from the media, process and environment of delivery. Not only will the ‘uninformed’ art public make these qualitative judgements but the critics and historians do, and have done.
Because of our common held assumptions of what Art ‘is’ (despite its difficulty to define) I don’t feel conceptualism is the end point that so many others feel it is. That is a positive step – if we ever establish what Art is in a quantitative measure we will no longer have what it really is in its deeper sense.
Art criticism is useful, but it is neither science nor art. Art criticism, history and theory are only selective opinionation – hopefully considered, informed and respectful of differing opinions. Modernism gives us a way to interpret certain aspects of certain sorts of art. As does Feminism, Marxism, Queer theory etc. If you want to know why artists do what they do then listen to what they’ve been saying.
‘…the modern artist tends to become the last active spiritual being in the great world.’ Robert Motherwell, 1944.
‘Pictures must be miraculous: the instant one is completed, the intimacy between the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider. The picture must be for him, as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need.’ Mark Rothko, 1947.
‘Indefinite stirrings of the urge to create.’ Wassily Kandinsky, 1914.
‘Art may possibly be one endeavour that fulfils what another age might have called “man’s spiritual needs”. Or, another way of putting it might be that art, deals analogously with the state of things ‘beyond physics’ where philosophy had to make assertions.’ Joseph Kosuth, 1969.
Obviously these are selective quotes to support my suggestion – but I strongly identify with the sentiment. I paint because I have to. From my earliest memories it has been a fundamental need – and my pursuit of it has been singular and selfish. If I am honest I must say that it is the most important thing in my life and will always come first. If this sounds extreme it is only because too few artists are willing to admit it. Their friends and families do not like what it implies. Those that can give it up? Make your own mind up regarding that.
All artists view themselves as producing work in and for a modern world with all its imperfections, injustices and inequities. Whether they have worked in a Marxist, Queer, Feminist or Modernist critical sensibility all artists are trying to achieve similar ends. To raise awareness of the fact that we are not at the end of the human journey, we are only on the road and perhaps the journey can be made a little more palatable through understanding it. When bison were painted on cave walls they were painted in modern times. When Paolo Uccello struggled with perspective in ‘The Battle of San Romano’ he was painting in modern times. When Chris Ofili painted with elephant dung he was painting in modern times.
I cannot speak for sculptors or conceptual artists because what they do does not move me as painting does, but I am sure that regardless of message or feeling they wish to get across to their audiences their reasons for doing it are similar if not identical. A fundamental drive to form significance from the insignificant. It is the prime totem of the human struggle, the cultural ordering of natural disorder – the celebration of our difference – our Culture. If we understand what Art is to a point where it could be produced by recipe and be of equal significance across cultures we will have arrived – there will be no ‘modern’, there will be no ‘future’. Only now, and before now.
I am pretty sure that we will never arrive. Humanity’s cultural production and achievement is an affront to nature. By cultural achievement I refer to everything ‘not natural’. Me, writing this. You, reading it. The earliest searching out of shelter; the journey from Earth to Moon. Language is culture, building is culture, cars, money, chopsticks, fence-posts. Alexander Blok wrote in 1908 ‘Every promoter of culture is a demon, cursing the earth and devising wings in order to fly away from it.’
For me the visual arts are the most significant of these ‘devised wings’ – always being re-configured to fly higher and further as the notions of modernity bring the other ‘wings’ of science, technology etc. nearer. Science chases art in the escape from nature – that is why all good art is modern art. The mind must guide the hand. That is the value of conceptualism in Art.
So the artist working ‘now’ is essentially doing the same as the artist working ‘then’, whenever. Modernism is a manner of identifying certain aspects of this. Modernity is always with us, always changing as science moves into the void left by the arts as they move on.
Paraphrasing a current jazz musician – ‘Modernism doesn’t go away. It just waits for a gap in the traffic.’
“Feel the smack” 2008