The Pursuit of Triviality

   One of the most clearly apparent qualities of traditional art is the very high degree of skill that goes into the making of it, and a derisive (and later uncomprehending) attitude to this has remained one of Modernism’s most enduring legacies and chief defects. The first generation or so of Modernist artists were by and large skilled artisans who had trained in environments in which great technical ability was assumed as a starting point, and their work shows it. Degas and Monet, for example, are as skilled as any academician, and others were realistically exercising an option not to paint or sculpt in ways familiar to the current academy. But such was the antagonism that Modernism felt to this quality that in a sense epitomized the opposition that it wasn’t long before the studio traditions that were important in maintaining it died out and subsequent generations of artists appeared for whom the option was no longer realistic. Great art always involves great skill, though it is not always skill of an obvious kind. Mastery, in fact, is perhaps a better word in this context. The later work of Titian or Rembrandt, for example, might seem to a superficial observer to be less skilful than their earlier efforts, but is certainly no less masterful. The extraordinarily high degrees of expertise such artists have at their command gives them the freedom to play with skill, or its more apparent forms, but they never relinquish control. This is a level of the game that must be earned, however, and cannot be faked  The problem is that the hostility of Modernism to the more obvious forms of skill established a general perception that art could be easy, and this opened the floodgates to the self-indulgent incompetence that characterises so much Modernist art. It also creates a situation whereby students who do show signs of being interested in developing real skills which might highlight the by now institutionalized lack of skill of their teachers are actively suppressed.

   For whom does this system work? It could be argued that there is a certain psychology that is uniquely adapted to Modernism, or even that the ideology itself has a kind of psychological profile. Its essential quality would be rebelliousness, the rigid traditions of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts being the parental authority which it threw off with appropriate juvenile enthusiasm, but to which it is still tied by a relationship of hostile dependency, the existence of the old being continually necessary to establish its radical credentials. The self–referentiality of Modernism in particular is well adapted to those who do not have a stake in society and are derisive of its values, who enjoy the rituals of a clique. It is no surprise that structuralism and post-structuralism found fertile ground in the academic world of the visual arts, as the ideology behind Theory – the claims sometimes heard from this source of the total relativity of all value judgements should not be taken too seriously – has many similarities with the ideology of Modernism, and appeals to a similar kind of mentality. Their shared hostility to what is perceived as authority is in many ways a classically student attitude, not yet constrained by the realities of participation in society at large. Whether this psychological analysis amounts to any kind of criticism I’m not sure, but it certainly is a part of the explanation for why Modernism has been so successful in perpetuating itself in an art world built far more than in previous periods on mass art education and the consequent support of students. In the visual arts this has a certain irony in that the revolutionaries have been in charge of the institution for a very long time, and the canon which is so vigorously opposed in the academic world of literature, for example, is here the chief factor that legitimizes the controlling elites. The result is an institutionalization of subversion, which is both immature and superficial. Is it too much to ask for Modern Art to move beyond this stage in its personal development?