My final criticism is less to do with the failings of Modernism in the past than with its appropriateness to the future. I’ve made it clear that in my view the attitudes that currently dominate the art world are still those of Modernism, whatever new names might be given them. The perception that art is produced by an avant-garde restlessly driven to be always at the cutting edge in discovering the new remains as strong as it ever was. The difference is that whereas in the period from the 1860’s to the 1970’s this ideology, by systematically deconstructing the idea of an object of fine art actually did consistently take art into new territory, in the time since then has simply presided over an increasingly vacuous pursuit of the superficially new. Through its reification of constant change Modernism has always been accompanied by a pathological trendiness, but in the period since Post-Object art it would be very difficult to make any valid distinction between the operation of the world of art and that of high fashion. No longer able to break new ground, the de-facto academy of the visual arts has for the last 25 years or so presided over something much closer to mere change than any kind of progress, but has continued to derive its legitimacy and status from an ideology that makes major claims to perform at the highest levels of our civilization.
The case for some serious reform is compelling, not least because if my analysis is correct and the systematic deconstruction of the art object has led to a substantially complete mapping out of the territory available to the visual arts, then there really is no alternative to some kind of return to the past. But a revisitation of areas already “discovered” needs to be done with a completely different set of values, no longer the parasitic and superficial expropriation that Post-Modernism has made fashionable. We should ditch our obsession with the new, the cutting edge, the experimental. Modernism has covered a lot of ground, but it has been done so at the expense of pausing for breath, it’s obsessive concern for going one step further difficult to reconcile with a concept of art concerned with depth rather than extension. There are many great artists within the Modernist canon, but they are great in spite of the Modernist ideology of perpetual renewal, and in many cases have been clearly torn between the desire to keep up with the avant-garde wave as it left them behind and the more natural inclination to investigate where they have arrived in a more profound way. We need to take off our Modernist blinkers and look more seriously at all the things that we have been taught not to see, in places we have not thought to look. And we need to require of our art that it can stand on its own feet, unsupported by extensive scaffoldings of theory and explanation.
As a student I remember well the excitement of discovering the Modernist story, with its wonderful mix of romanticism, heroism and revolution. In particular I was impressed by Marcel Duchamp who was not only capable of painting with the best of them, but then went on to levels of radicalism which made the efforts of his fellow Modernists look timid. It was 1968 and the winds that then blew were particularly favourable, but the canonical account of the history of Modernist art and the gallery displays that are its expression can’t help but continue to construct in coming generations this idea of how art should be, regardless of the new names that might be given to it. I continue to admire Marcel Duchamp but no longer consider him to be a great artist. He is simply Modernism’s most authentic exponent. Unfortunately, we will never get back to having art that takes the breath away after centuries until the Modernist account of art history has undergone a major revision and the ideology that he so successfully interpreted no longer clouds our minds.
Neil Moore (2005)
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