Years later, at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union I began to think again about the issues raised in my thesis, and with the world looking on at the spectacular disintegration of what had once seemed a winning ideology, it occurred to me that Modernism in the visual arts could also be seen as a kind of ideology, and moreover that it had quite a lot in common with communism. At this point it’s worth clarifying that I will be referring to Modernism in this article as an entity distinct from Modern Art, the latter being in my view neutrally descriptive of all the art of the period we’re talking about. Modernism for me is more selective and I will use it in relation to the various avant-gardes that provide the dominant element within the history of Modern Art. It exists, moreover, at one remove from the material that it refers to, being the network of ideas from which we derive the canonical version of art history that we all know from the textbooks. Modernism relates to art in a similar way that a system of syntax relates to speech in a language: It is the set of working principles that gives us the means of deciding what is most significant. The fact that there may be no artist or theorist to whom all this can be historically attributed is not in my view a problem. We’re talking about a set of notions that came from many sources, the work of many people which became established in our thinking about art in a capillary, almost organic way. It’s no more necessary to be consciously aware of this to make Modernist art than it is to understand the rules of grammar in order to speak.
Modernism, like Communism, had its origins in a mix of notions which were circulating in the middle decades of the19th century. Following the dramatic changes in society brought on by the industrial revolution and the enormous impact of ideas like Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, science enjoyed unprecedented prestige and we have the beginnings of our current perception of material progress as the engine of human development and technology as an unstoppable tide. These ideas were felt in all walks of life, and a core aspect of the emerging Modernist conception of art was to see it as being like science, involved in a similarly vital process of discovery and exploration. Borrowing from military terminology of the time (but also much influenced by prevailing currents of romanticism which pitted the pioneering few against the convention-bound many) this work of pushing back the frontiers was to be carried out by an avant-garde, an elect whose sacred duty was to move continually forward, constantly engaged in a struggle against the forces of reaction. In the mid 19th century these would have been seen as embodied in the institution of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, at that time at the apex of its power in the European art world, but later extend to much of what could be described as the values of conventional middle class society. We have a situation, then, where constant revolution is being invoked, the shock troops being the avant-garde artists who time and time again shock the bourgeoisie and capture new ground on which they plant the flag of Modernism.