The Pursuit of Triviality

   What then to make of all this? In my view we’re long overdue for a general critique of Modernism. I doubt that we’re ever going to get a revolution here but a bit of subversion within the institution to challenge the prevailing structures of power would not go amiss. For reasons I alluded to previously, a collapse of the Soviet Union option is most unlikely. Modernism – and I would like to stress here that whatever names are given to recent phenomena in the art world, the key attitudes of Modernism are as entrenched now as they ever have been –  is well adapted to current economic realities and change will not come from outside. Much more likely is a Chinese style evolution which saves face and keeps the Mausoleums well looked after, but sanctions a de facto return to a pre-Modernist situation, and there are some signs that this might already be happening. So what are the key lines of criticism?

   The case against the Modernist ideology has to start with that shrivelling or impoverishment of the way we evaluate art works to which I referred earlier. Pre-Modernist art is deeply anchored into the society from which it emerges and there are numerous angles from which we can approach the question of whether we are in the presence of something special, starting with a very high level of mastery over the medium which serves to gain our complicity in the coming aesthetic experience. Modernism selected novelty from amongst these angles and established it as the only thing that really mattered. However great, or beautiful or moving an art work was, if it didn’t represent a step forward on the Modernist battlefield, it didn’t register. And in extreme cases we are asked to adulate work that has no value except for its position in this advance of the avant-garde, works like the white-on-white paintings of Malevich and the Found Objects of Duchamp, amongst others. That this is an impoverishment of the idea of quality is difficult to deny. But in my view its most pernicious influence is the blindness it has induced to all those kinds of art produced in the last century and a half that have been off the Modernist register, out of its line of vision. In its obsessive commitment to a highly selective avant-garde there has been a wealth of work done in that time which has simply not been seen and this is an immense loss. In addition Modernism has sanctioned a kind of hyper-internationalism, its relentlessly narrow focus quite uninterested in work from outside the centres of economic power to which it has been irresistibly attracted. It clearly operates as a powerful force in withering the localisms, the interesting regional variations, for whom there is no place in the Modernist academy.  

   Another angle on the same issue becomes apparent when we examine the high degree of self-referentiality of Modernist art. By establishing the value of an art work principally by the degree to which it “pushes the envelope”, we tend to undermine its connection to things apart from other works of art, and art practice is thus increasingly reduced to being a commentary on itself. This not only has the effect of cutting art loose from the society that generates it, but also means that the art produced in this way is opaque to those who have not immersed themselves in the ideology that alone explains it. This is all very well for the initiated, and there are many in the art world who relish belonging to a sect, but is unsatisfactory for those who feel that quality art should speak to more than the insiders. In this way the visual arts are consigned to the elitist ghetto where they’ve been for a very long time.

   This exclusive concentration on novelty not only provides us with blinkers in assessing what has already been done, but is a powerful factor selecting for the kind of art that artists themselves decide to do. It’s not as if the artists of the world carry on patiently producing according to the dictates of their muses, unaffected by whether their work will be critically acclaimed or not. Modernism has dried up the wells anywhere outside its selective focus and for every artist who has continued to produce unrewarded by the Modernist academy, there must be many more who have been repulsed by the institutionalised superficiality that an exclusive attention to being up to the minute entails and abandoned the enterprise altogether. Certainly the history of Modernism has its mavericks, artists like Francis Bacon or more recently Lucien Freud whose talents are acknowledged even though they are not easily fitted into the Modernist story. But they, and even more influential figures like Salvador Dali and Picasso himself, can be seen as great artists in spite of their participation in the Modernist canon, whom one can equally imagine flourishing in contexts where art was less about itself. The same cannot be said for a great many of the others who populate the art textbooks and prestigious museum displays whose principle talent has been to interpret an essentially trivial game of break the rules, protracted over more than a century.     

© 2020 Neil Moore