The Pursuit of Triviality

   Having mapped out these three broad categories of Post-Object art it seemed to me back in the early seventies that the long trajectory of Modernism, that satisfying series of “isms” to which we had all become so accustomed might finally be coming to an end. The history of Modernism had been one step after another away from the traditional notion of an art object, and the situation now arose with the demolition of the very idea of an art object that there was no longer any where else to go which could realistically be seen as new, that could satisfy the avant-garde imperative for going one (or more) steps further. I was not then nor am I now suggesting an “end of art history” of course, rather that it would become progressively more difficult if not impossible to outdo in “radicalism” what had already been done, and so the propulsive force of Modernism would be bound to subside. A topological analogy seemed to me a good way of explaining this, with the visual arts considered as an area of territory, a valley ringed by mountains, let’s say, in which traditional art had been happy to build in a central position without much concern for the outlying regions. Modernism inaugurates a season of exploration (one might almost say colonization) and soon there is an exodus from the city which then becomes a rush for the frontiers. Eventually the mountains themselves are crossed but instead of coming down into virgin territory our intrepid explorers discover that the adjoining valleys are already inhabited by other art forms. The conceptualists find that they are descending into areas populated by various forms of literature, performance artists that they are sharing the view with theatre. In addition, technology has created the two entirely new valleys of photography and film which also have borders in common with the visual arts but their own new centres of tradition. There is nothing to prevent our Post-Object artists from continuing to practise, of course, it’s just that the steps forward that the ideology of Modernism requires are no longer easily available and their innovativeness is only apparent from the point of view of the tradition from which they have been escaping, their connection to which is less and less convincingly demonstrable. It is only the kind of art I described as confounding the distinction of art and life that escapes this analogy, and it has its own limiting factor in the complete fusion of the two categories and the abandonment of art activity altogether, a position whose radicalism might all too easily be mistaken for inactivity. I suspect that Marcel Duchamp mulled often over this in the long years of his semi-retirement.

   Back in the seventies when I was elaborating these ideas I was prepared to make a prediction that there would not be any more of those “isms”, that the most likely scenario for the future would be the consolidation of areas already surveyed rather than the discovery of anything new, together with some de-facto forays into other art forms and a lot of creative recycling, and I don’t think I’ve been proved far off the mark. Film (of which Video is a part) is a genuinely new art form which has traditions of its own, and technology is very likely to provide us with other, newer media for self-expression, but the visual arts inhabit a territory that like our globe is now all mapped out if not fully explored. The only contender for the title of a new “ism” in recent times is Post-Modernism which in the visual arts and architecture, despite the protestations of some of its practitioners, can reasonably be called the continuation of Modernism by other means. It has arisen in the void which the exhaustion of the propulsive force of Modernism has created, but rather than being anything really new is rather a concentration of familiar Modernist preoccupations. These have become detached from their original purpose of breaking new ground, however, and in the absence of any really new territory to discover focus in an essentially superficial way on the new, in the sense that fashion is about the new. The term thus creates an illusion that the avant-garde train is still rolling while at the same time using the past as raw material for a creative process of re-packaging and re-interpretation. There is nothing wrong with this of course, the Italian Renaissance being a fine example of a period in art history when the past was plundered with spectacular success. If there is a problem here it’s that we are asked to believe that we have entered new territory when we haven’t.

© 2020 Neil Moore