Week 10 in jeopardy idealism, authenticity, universality and the avant-garde


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  • As the title of this lecture would suggest the project of Modernism has perhaps faced a crisis. Its limits have became somewhat clearer with recent re-evaluations that suggests that its main tenets of Idealism, Authenticity, Universality and the Avant-garde are in jeopardy.Greenberg’s ‘Modernist Painting’ is a dominant account of modernism, which builds on the formalist theories of key 19th and 20th century writers, who believed that aesthetic experience was art’s predominant aim and value, and explained the development of modern art as a progression towards an increasingly pure abstraction, characterised by a focus on formArtists were no longer merely skillful delineators of the visible world, they were now the creators of, and guides to, a completely new realm.Modernism was never a style. It was a rejection of style, because style required hard work and talent. It ignored the human craving for ornament and aesthetic reference, instead idolising the machine.
  • Suzi Gablik’s seminal1984 text posits the question: ‘Has modernism failed? But what does she mean? Has modernism ‘failed’ simply in the sense of coming to an end? Or does she mean that modernism failed to accomplish something? Clearly the presupposition of the latter is that modernism had goals, that it failed to achieve. If so, we need to consider what was modernism was trying to accomplish. What were its values, and has it in fact done what it set out to do? Gablik defines modernism as having aimed to: Overthrow the past, reject traditions, to keep questioning, and always make something new.So is the great revolution of the early twentieth century that is designated by this term Modernism—a term that refers not only to a period but to an ethos—is it incomplete and open to the future?Is modernism dead or alive?
  • Well we need to consider the evidence. Modernism was predicated on the underlying notion of progress and continual development. And as we have seen, there was increasing doubt about the continued viability of the notion of progress.We have also see over past weeks that many modernist works tried to uphold the idea that works of art could provide the unity and coherence of meaning that had been lost in most of modern life. Art in other words would aim to do what human institutions had failed to do, it would play God. Now, the term modernity was developed alongside the development of the capitalist state. Modernisation is therefore the accumulation of the socio-economic changes generated by scientific and technological discoveries. Modernity was born of what are called grand narratives in the jargon of the post-modernists. In simple language, Grand Narratives are big ideas which give sense and direction in life. Such ideas are truth, reason, tradition, religion, morality, ideology, etc.And the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1979) is key here.In it he outlines how ‘grand narratives’ had informed Western society since the Enlightenment (in other words since the 18th century, when European philosophers such as Kant and Rousseau had laid the intellectual foundations for modernism),Lyotard goes onto to state that ‘grand narratives’ could no longer sustain credibility. He called into question these abstract systems of thought, by which social institutions validated themselves, and that were infused with ideas of ‘social perfectibility’ or ‘progress’. In terms of modern art Greenberg’s aesthetic Modernism could be considered a ‘grand narrative’ of sorts.In the Postmodern Condition, Lyotard clearly articulatedthat the modern period is bankrupt because the grand narratives of the past assume a progression toward social enlightenment and emancipation. He argued that all worldviews that claim absolute notions of truth — religion, science, Marxism, etc — are artificial constructions that are totalitarian by their very nature. Put simply, when Lyotard described Postmodernism as ‘incredulity towards grand narratives’ he meant that Modernism’s constant quest to find a single, all-encompassing solution to humanity’s problems was naïve and delusional, and that any new Big Ideas were as doomed to fail as all the other 20th century ‘grand narratives’ had.
  • Another critic, Hilton Kramer wrote about another of modernisms tenets, proclaiming the death of the avant-gardes in his text The Age of the Avant-Garde (1973). He situates the avant-garde from the 1850s,beginningwith Realism and Impressionism until the 1950s (abstract expressionism) and defines it as art that meets with resistance from society at large. He traces the rise and fall of the avant-garde as a historical phenomenon that was Modernism.
  • Another death nail was put into the coffin of Modernism by the Architecture theorist Charles Jencks who proclaimed the death of modern architecture:'Modern Architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32pm or thereabouts when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grace by dynamite.’ St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe housing project is arguably the most infamous public housing project ever built in the United States. A product of the postwar federal public-housing program, this mammoth high-rise development was completed in 1956. It was thought to be the epitome of modernist architechture--high-rise, "designed for interaction," and a solution to the problems of urban development and renewal in the middle of the 20th Century.Only a few years later, disrepair, vandalism, and crime plagued Pruitt-Igoe. The project's recreational galleries and skip-stop elevators, once heralded as architectural innovations, had become nuisances and danger zones. Large numbers of vacancies indicated that even poor people preferred to live anywhere but Pruitt-Igoe.
  • Pruitt-Igoe was not primarily a failure of design, but a component if the larger social, political, and cultural crisis of the 1960s and 70s.For Jencks, the social goals of the Modern Movement had been hijacked by commercial interests, that had emptied their forms of their original content. Faced with consumerism in the West and state capitalism in the East, the contemporary architect had no choice, if they wanted to re-establish a certain purpose for their work, but to use a language understood by the local culture. Thus the heroic attempts of the Modernists to establish a universal language expressive of and conducive to greater social goals had, according to Jencks, failed.
  • We might equally well argue that 'modern' died in 1929, whenAlfred Barr and the Rockefellers captured it and put it in a museum, New York's MoMA, thereby turning a huge cultural force into a mere stylistic category. However this argument gets lost it in the midst of definitions that have clouded the understanding of the modern movement from the start. 'Modern' obviously isn't the same as 'modernism'. One can be equated with contemporary, the other has come to mean a very particular creative approach.To be a modernist was to have a point of view about everything from art to psychoanalysis. It was to take a moral stand about the 'honest' use of materials, it was to believe in the artists and designer's duty to create and build a better world.
  • As part of the modernist movement, the arts were required not only to portray modern life in appropriate forms but also to explore the utopian potential of modernity, along with the destructive, regressive facets of revolution and upheaval. Whilst Modernism attempted to represent the experiences and ramifications of modernity through artistic forms, and through design etc. the modernist generation also produced utopian ideologies such as communism, fascism, and futurism.That is to say, the totalitarian theories of form were matched or reflected by totalitarian politics.And now as the early twentieth century recedes in time, it is clearthat Modernist values can’t be understood outside their historical context. The Modernist era was one in which a remarkable Utopian visionculminated in two World Wars and the ideologies of Fascism and Communism. In the course of the upheaval that resulted, the Enlightenment faith in rationality and progress was destroyed. And in the decades since World War II, the common wisdom has been that the Modernism of the early century was tainted by its racism, sexism, and elitism–its retrograde politics, and ‘purist’ aestheticism. As I will go on to show, there are a number of contemporary artists who are dealing with the legacy and the promises of modernity and modernism, and with the failure of the utopian dream.
  • As I said, to be modernist was to believe in the designer's duty to build a better world and here we can see the manifestation of such ideas and the confluence between art and design.Modernist architecture was shaped by developments in painting, such as the geometry of purism - Le Corbusier's architecture was a response to the spatial exploration of cubism - and influenced by cultural innovation in many different fields, from James Joyce's radical experiments in writing to Sigmund Freud's pioneering psychoanalysis. Modernist architecture’s roots were not just in Paris, where Le Corbusier settled, but also in Weimar where Walter Gropius opened the Bauhaus, the art school that established the language of modern design. Although the purism of Bauhaus became too dogmatic for the playful postmodern movement of the 1980s, when architects sought to rebel against a legend that had become larger than life, the modernist legacy is undeniable. To this day, the Bauhaus serves as a kind of benchmark for those who belong to the avant-garde in art, design, architecture and urban planning. The real feat achieved by Gropius and his cohorts was to have recognized and exposed the sociopolitical and moral power of architecture and design. They wanted to exert "effective influence" on "general conditions," fashion a more just world and turn all of this into a "vital concern of the entire people."The notion of architecture as being political -- because it concretely designs living conditions and as such can cause controversy and opposition -- is a notion that goes right back to the Bauhaus.Of course, this desire to make the world a better place is now often considered a flaw.
  • We are still living with the legacy of modernism. The buildings we inhabit, the chairs that we sit on, the graphic design that surrounds us have all been created by the aesthetics and the ideology of modernist design.In fact we live in an era that still identifies itself in terms of modernism, as postmodernist or even post postmodernist. It is important to say that I am not using the term ‘post’ to mean 'after' in a sequential or chronological sense, as though one phase or epoch or set of practices has ended and an absolutely new one has begun.  I use it to refer to the aftermath or the after-flow of a particular configuration. So in that sense the post-modern is part of the modern. But instead of being nostalgic postmodernism has declared “war on totality”. That is to say, there is not just one way to do things, one way to make art, or one truth. So it is even more anti-traditional than modernism.Progress, that was a chief characteristic of modernism, becomes a problematic category within post-modernism. Instead, the past is not rejected, but is mined for what it can offer.
  • Given this, and given our vantage point of the new century, it is clear that the rejection of Modernism itself no longer makes much sense.Furthermore, there would appear to be a persistence of the impulse of modernity itself within post-modernism,an urge on the part of many contemporary artists to revisit the aesthetics and politics of the modern with a view as much to reanimating its radical possibilities as to mourning the dwindling forms, the ruins of what was left behind.
  • A new generation of artists is again increasingly addressing the legacy of modernity and modernism and the failure of the utopia associated with these terms. However this raises a number of pertinent questions…What has prompted contemporary artists to investigate modernity and modernism, its aesthetic manifestation?What are these artists' relationships to the promises and formal languages of modernity? How can this historical era even be critically reflected in and be subjected to a re-evaluation? Modernism was, more often than not politics disguised as art. Its manifestation within Postmodernism is as merely a style and is no longer a threat.Contemporary artists are referencing events and appropriate forms and symbols of modernity. In this sense they assume the role of re-interpreters and translators of the already existing rhetorics of modernity, they re-appropriate the grammar of modernism with new explorative aspects.I want to now look at some recent artists who are researching modernity from their perspective and with their own means.
  • TOBY PATERSON’s subject matter is architecture; but not just any architecture, specifically Modernist architecture inspired by the abstract idealism of artists like Léger, Mondrian and the Russian Constructivists, and by the architecture of le Corbusier and Mies van derRohe. This branch of Modernism was radical and Utopian and with its explicit social agenda, it was in architecture that this Utopianism was most clearly expressed. Paterson looks at the buildings this tradition has left us, and interrogates them to discover the aesthetic that shaped them. He displays an in-depth appreciation of post-war architecture and the references he employs display an interest in lifting complex Modernist motifs out of the lost dream of post-war modernism and translating them into an aesthetic and social enquiry.
  • His investigations into modernist design remove the cool, minimal structures from the sprawl of urban expansion and place them in isolation against a blank background, or as sculptural reliefs. In doing soPaterson reveals the intrinsic failure of modernism: that only when isolated can its products' true beauty be experienced. The result also reminds us of the social beliefs that originally underpinned all those Brutalist housing estates, cement pavilions and dingy underpasses, ideals that had been lost amid the bitter aesthetic controversy.
  • There is also an inherent formal minimalism in the work of Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan, which is a re-connection with Modernism This approach has been applied to a range of artworks over the last decade or so by a number of artists.Artists are connecting Modernism, from the mid nineteenth-century, around the time of the first world fairs…and the onset of Impressionism and Symbolism, to the 1960s, when formalist abstraction in fine art and academic modernism in architecture came under heavy attack. In the work of artists such as Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan and Eva Rothschildthe legacy of Minimalist sculpture is paradoxically infused with explorations of the occult, subculture and secret societies.Rothschild’s work embraces abstract geometrical forms and representational objects, and for both types of sculpture the precedents (antecedents) lie in the art and the culture of the late 1960s: the austerity of Minimalism and the flamboyance and permissiveness of psychedelia and the New Age spirituality.  
  •  Other progenitors of the Modern movement have provided similar inspiration at specific times for example:Daria MartinHer 16mm films are gentle constructions of fantasy. They revisit forgotten moments in art history, notably movements associated with aggressive avant-garde thinking such as Constructivist set design, Futurist fashion and performance art, and revive them from a contemporary perspective. Rather than displaying a nostalgia for this period, her work explores what it might mean to be Modern now, and in the process acknowledges the aspirations and failures of the Modern. Often these dialogues with avant-garde forbearers are filtered through pop cultural tropes…   
  • Lucy McKenzie’s work is hyper-eclectic, but her mind is still very much on the modern era. McKenzie’s exhibitions are inspired by history and influenced by design and Modernism: from Scottish Art Deco to Vorticism, Constructivism and various schools of Realism.
  •  Gordon CheungUnderworld (2004) features Le Corbusier’s post-war housing block Unite d’ Habitation, a vertical garden city containing elements of a small town in one building…in Cheung’s version it is a collapsing utopian vision.For all these artists, the late 19thc and 20thc canon of high art is to be re-scripted and made malleable, they are somewhat Idiosyncratic explorations of the Modernist epoch’s legacyThe artists not only renegotiate the forms, but also the ideologies which underpinned the movements they reference. In particular, the emphasis on architecture, often in fragmentary form, signals a preoccupation with the distance between reality and utopia, desire for the creation of possible worlds away from a dysfunctional society.Evidently some elements of modernist traditions have continued, and some modernist movements – such as Dada and the use of Duchampian or ‘found’/ readymade objects, constructivism and Surrealism (in inspiring the postmodernist’s collage of irrationally related images) seem to have been fairly directly appropriated by contemporary or Postmodern artists.However whilst some of this work displays modernist features and semblances and continuities from one period to another are not really that difficult to find, the divergences into postmodernism from modernism here are a matter of the different values involved. For example Postmodern surrealism doesn’t have the overall theory of Freud to back it up.It is important to note that these artists select these reference points not as naïve appropriation but with awareness of the aspirations and ultimate failures of the movement. Modernism’s claim to universal validity, the unswerving belief in progress and rationality held by many of its dominant movements has long been discredited. At the same time, the attitude of this generation of artists differs from that of the postmodern heyday in the 1980s, which was characterised by amongst other things, through its dismissive attitude towards Modernism’s lofty ideals. Instead, these artists are retrieving certain Modernist tropes and inspecting them under the light of contemporary values to see what use they may be put in very different times.
  • Week 10 in jeopardy idealism, authenticity, universality and the avant-garde

    1. 1. In Jeopardy:Idealism, Authenticity, Universality and the Avant-Garde
    2. 2. The term modernity wasdeveloped alongside thedevelopment of the capitaliststate. Modernisation is a diverseunity of socio-economic changesgenerated by scientific andtechnological discoveries.Modernity was born by what arecalled grand narratives in thejargon of the post-modernists. Insimple language, GrandNarratives are big ideas whichgive sense and direction in life.Such ideas are truth, reason,tradition, religion, morality,ideology, etc.
    3. 3. Conservative American artcritic Hilton Kramer wroteabout the death of the avant-gardes in his The Age of theAvant-Garde (1973).He situates the avant-gardefrom the 1850s (Courbet)until the 1950s (abstractexpressionism) and defines itas art that meets withresistance from society atlarge.
    4. 4. Modern Architecture diedin St Louis, Missouri onJuly 15, 1972 at 3.32pmor thereabouts when theinfamous Pruitt-Igoescheme, or rather severalof its slab blocks, weregiven the final coup degrace by dynamite.’Charles JencksThe Language of PostModern Architecture
    5. 5. For Jencks, the social goals of theModern Movement had beenhijacked by commercial interests,emptying their forms of theiroriginal content. Faced withconsumerism in the West andstate capitalism in the East, thecontemporary architect had nochoice, if he/she wanted to re-establish a certain purpose forhis/her work, but to use alanguage understood by the localculture. The heroic attempts of theModernists to establish a universallanguage expressive of andconducive to greater social goalshad clearly failed.
    6. 6. You might equally well argue thatmodern died on the day, in 1929, thatAlfred Barr and the Rockefellerscaptured it and put it in a museum,New Yorks MoMA, thereby turning ahuge cultural force into a merestylistic category. But to argue that isto risk losing yourself in a quagmire ofdefinitions that has clouded theunderstanding of the modernmovement from the start. Modernisnt the same as modernism. Onecan be equated with contemporary,the other has come to mean a veryparticular creative approach.
    7. 7. Whilst Modernism attemptedto represent the experiencesand ramifications ofmodernity through artisticforms, design etc. themodernist generation alsoproduced utopian ideologiessuch as communism,fascism, and futurism.
    8. 8. Modernist architecture was shaped by developments in painting, such as the geometry of purism - Le Corbusiers architecture was a response to the spatial exploration of cubism - and influenced by cultural innovation in many different fields, from James Joyces radical experiments in writing to Sigmund FreudsCentre Le Corbusier pioneering psychoanalysis.
    9. 9. We live with the legacy of modernism. The buildings we inhabit, the chairs that we sit on, the graphic design that surrounds us have all been created by the aesthetics and the ideology of modernist design. We live in an era that still identifies itself in terms of modernism, asMark Kostabi postmodernist or even postSuicide By Modernism (2005) postmodernist.
    10. 10. There would appear to be an urgeon the part of many contemporaryartists to revisit the aesthetics andpolitics of the modern with a view asmuch to reanimating its radicalpossibilities as to mourning thedwindling forms, the ruins of whatwas left behind.
    11. 11. • A new generation of artists is again increasingly addressingthe legacy of modernity and modernism and the failure of theutopia associated with these terms• What has prompted contemporary artists to investigatemodernity and modernism, its aesthetic manifestation?• What are these artists relationships to the promises andformal languages of modernity?• How can this historical era even be critically reflected in andbe subjected to a re-evaluation?• Artists are researching modernity from their perspective andwith their own means
    12. 12. Toby PatersonConsensus and Collapse (2010)
    13. 13. Toby PatersonConsensus and Collapse (2010)
    14. 14. Joanne Tatham & Tom OSullivan Eva Rothschild
    15. 15. Daria Martin Kazimir Malevich Suprematism (1915)
    16. 16. Lucy McKenzie Giacomo BallaThe Rhythm of the Violinist (detail) (1912)
    17. 17. Cheung’s work features Le Corbusier’s post-war housing block Unite d’ Habitation, a vertical garden city containing elements of a small town in one building…in Cheung’s version it is a collapsing utopian vision.Gordon Cheung
    18. 18. How their influence can still be seen in our world today?
    19. 19. • Lane, Jim. Modern Art: the War(2001)http://www.humanitiesweb.org/human.php?s=g&p=a&a=i&ID=1001• Clark, T.J.B. (1999) Farewell to an Idea. Episodes from a History of Modernism• Hall, Stewart. Museums of Modern Art and the End of History conference at the TateGallery, London, May 1999http://www.iniva.org/library/archive/people/h/hall_stuart/museums_of_modern_art_and_the_end_of_history• Danto, Arthur C. (1996) ‘Introduction: Modern, Postmodern, and Contemporary’,After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History• Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition (1979) publ. ManchesterUniversity Press, 1984. The First 5 Chapters of main body of work are reproducedhere: http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/lyotard.htm• Is modernism dead?http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/artblog/2007/nov/07/ismodernismdead
    20. 20. • Sudjic, Deyan. Modernism: the idea that just won’t go away. The Observer,Sunday 29 January 2006http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2006/jan/29/architecture.modernism• Lewis, Mark. Is Modernity our Antiquity? Afterall Journalhttp://www.afterall.org/journal/issue.14/modernity.our.antiquity