The Pursuit of Triviality

   At this point I want to take up again another of the strands I mentioned in passing at the beginning of this article, the issue of progress in art. I don’t want to be drawn into a discussion of whether “we” are in fact going anywhere as a civilization, though I suspect we might be. The question is rather whether Modernism deserves the privileged relationship it is usually seen to have with regard to the new, because it’s here more than anywhere else that an argument can be built to support it. Throughout this piece I have argued for the view that the real glue holding Modernism together is its antagonistic (but at the same time dependent) attitude to the traditions that it rebelled against. The problem is that a sustained rebelliousness towards an ever diminishing past tradition is simply an insufficient achievement to sustain the extremely high status which has been given to avant-garde art. As a result, a great deal more is often claimed for it, along the lines that it is actually showing us where we are going as a culture, that it points the way for us as a civilization. Sometimes this has been couched in improbable terms like representing the zeitgeist but in other formulations it has a certain plausibility. Modernism has managed to maintain its credibility for so long partly because it has had no serious competitors, but also because as our society changes we feel it reasonable to expect our art to change with it, that it is relevant to new realities, and a pioneering avant-garde might be the best means by which this can be achieved. By the mid 19th century the Beaux-Arts tradition seemed hopelessly fixated on the past, and the early moderns took advantage of a world changing as never before to put their work forward as the interpretation of this new reality. It would be a very limited view indeed that denied Modernism the credit in the century and a half since then for engaging with our society as it has changed and grown. It’s interesting that the second place in the competition judged by 500 Turner Prize experts was given to Picasso’s “Guernica”, a piece of art that could hardly be more different from Duchamp’s urinal. Here we have a painting (no less!) done by an artist who was not only a great Modernist but was also deeply conscious of the traditions that were supposedly being abandoned. It contains a distillation of his best images – the contorted crying woman, the shrieking horse’s head, the naked electric globe of the interrogation room – all reduced to their essentials but powerfully expressive and perfectly suited to the context from which the painting grew. The form these images take is the direct result of Picasso’s Modernist experimentations at the time of Cubism, but in a sense this painting is anti-Modernist, or at least represents those forces within Modernism that have kept it engaged with the world, with its appearance, its politics, our psychology. By the time Picasso painted it the wave of the avant-garde had left him well behind, but so important had been his role in it that he was able to rest on his laurels and continue to explore the world of visual appearances at the distance that was congenial to him. Guernica is a great painting, but it sits uneasily within the avant-garde tradition.     

   Unfortunately, few artists are conceded the luxury Picasso enjoyed of remaining where they are, however congenial it might be. Modernism has created a restless onwardness, a belief that for art to be relevant to society it must never stay still. The problem here is not so much that art changes with the times – it would be hard for it not to – but rather the exclusivist claims made on Modernism’s behalf that avant-garde art is alone in being able to express these changes. It has always seemed to me rather improbable that with regard to a complex society like our own there has at any one time only been one kind of art that “truly” represents it. The single-minded linearity of the Modernist canon is in my view a highly artificial construction promoted by the unlikely claim that what is avant-garde at any given moment is uniquely relevant to some hypothetical spirit of the times. I would argue that it is rather the result of complex factors to do with convenience of understanding and the interpersonal politics of the artists and critics involved, and later increasingly the marketing strategies adopted by the main interest groups within the art world. I don’t want to suggest here that Modernist art has been unlinked to society as it changes – this is obviously not the case. Rather that one can pick and choose among a wide variety of phenomena in our increasingly complex world for what to present as “relevant” to the times, including a whole range of creative reinterpretations of things from the past, and the ideology of Modernism has provided us with a very linear and highly reductive selection for doing this. If we are progressing it is happening in many and complex ways and the canonical account that Modernism presents to us is more a marketing device than the crest of civilization’s wave.

© 2020 Neil Moore