The Pursuit of Triviality

   Clearly, there is a certain similarity between this and communism, and in particular the role within it played by the Party, though as Modernism invokes no classless society it is the journey that is the thing, not the destination. It should also be apparent that these ideas operate as much in a metaphorical world as the real one, for what kind of avant garde is it that goes forward but has its enemy behind? Nevertheless, I think the analogy is illuminating, and is further exemplified by the rhetoric both systems used when they came to power. Just as the propaganda of the various Communist regimes is filled with a false and empty egalitarianism in contradiction to the often dismal reality, so Modernism, founded on eternal antagonism towards an old order, has persisted in presenting itself as revolutionary and subversive long after taking control of all the key institutions in the world of the visual arts.

   The historical connections between the two ideologies are in fact extensive and well documented – only Italian Futurism and some aspects of Surrealism stand out for their right wing affiliations in the Modernist canon – and there is a sense in which both systems have derived great power from a perception that they occupy the moral high ground. After all, who would not want to be enrolled on the side of progress, on the side of the young and new as they replace the old and privileged? One of the deepest notions that we have about ourselves is surely that we are progressing, that man is involved in a great adventure that is going somewhere, not just mutating in a kind of circular way on the spot, as it were, a conviction that is powerfully aided by the spectacular advances of science and technology which it takes an especially high degree of obtuseness to deny as progress. So by establishing itself as a science–like phenomenon that is working for the greater good of humanity, involved in the essential work of pushing back the frontiers of knowledge, Modernism armed itself with a very effective set of weapons.

   The analogy does not, however, extend to its viability in a real-world context. Russian Communism collapsed because the communist economy was unable to finance the world-posture that the ideology demanded. In the long run it came up against reality, and the ideology could no longer deliver on its promises. The situation in the visual arts is quite different. Modernism has become a vast and highly successful phenomenon which is perfectly capable of financing itself indefinitely. Through a network of interests and institutions, backed up by nearly a century of mass art education that has overseen the establishment of a canonical view of art history, and with an art market that needs no reference outside the framework established by modernist exegesis, it’s hard to imagine any kind of reality check that would seriously worry the system. The enormous prices paid for major works are sufficient in themselves to establish the credibility of the whole business and keep it happily rolling on, a well integrated part of our capitalist system. The names it gives to itself might change, but there’s no apparent reason why the essential organization might not go on for ever. This I would describe as a de-facto academy which has established exclusive control over what is to be regarded as new and worthy of attention in the visual arts. It derives its authority from its position as heir to the Modernist tradition and sets trends which must themselves be continually superseded in accordance with its self-conception as a force of perpetual revolution.