The Pursuit of Triviality

   That Modernism and Communism have certain aspects in common is certainly intriguing, but I don’t want to make too much of an issue out of the similarity, more or less close as it may be. Rather, the revelation for me was that Modernism could be seen as an ideology at all, and that once looked at in this way, a number of interesting consequences emerge. In studying art the conventional view is that one more or less studies what artists do, and that accounts of what art is (often, it is true, sliding into what it ought to be) are by and large secondary to what the artists themselves present to us. What I began now to see in Modernism was the reverse of this, a situation in which the art was a product of the story about it rather than the story a product of the art. Or to put it another way, that there seemed to be a set of preconceptions that were operating powerfully and continuously to condition the nature of avant-garde art on a deep level and which in a sense the various manifestations of Modernism can be seen as illustrating . This emerged from my studies of Post-Object Art where I had noticed that the ground seemed to be prepared for it by a series of developmental patterns discernable throughout the course of avant-garde art from its beginnings. The key to the whole system was a kind of thrust from behind, an initial big bang. By this I mean that what gave – and continues to give – Modernism its essential unity is what it can be seen as moving away from, its antagonistic attitude to an old order, rather than anything it might be conceived as moving towards. This had its beginnings as a rebellion against the rigidities of the Beaux-Arts conception of art in France in the mid 19th century but over time became more generalised  and when we get to the nineteen sixties and seventies it is the base notion of an art object that provides the reference point from which modernist art practice is departing. I will be returning later on to this idea, but for now I want to stress that the important thing for Modernism is that it had to be seen, to see itself, as rule-breaking, transgressive; that its essential nature is the pursuit of radical innovation. What is actually produced, the specific forms that artistic expression take, is in a sense incidental to this more compelling frame of reference, or at least subsumed within it. I do not mean to suggest here that Modernism is based on a sufficiently detailed set of preconditions that one could somehow have predicted the course that avant-garde art has historically taken, or that it’s necessarily operating uniquely on conscious levels. Rather, what I have in mind is something that is intuited rather than clearly spelt out and that works by establishing a frame of reference for assessing how innovative, how “cutting edge”, a new piece of art might be at any given time.

   The curious thing is that you’re most unlikely to come across any account of Modernism that treats it in this way as a complete ideological system. There has, of course, been much discussion of the connections of modernist art to ideologies, about the various ideologies within it, and the theory laden nature of all art history and criticism, but this is invariably pitched at the more specific level of artist, critic or movement. That Modernism in its entirety has a kind of unity is established by our use of the word, but critics and historians are content to leave it as the general framework within which the drama of the development of Modern Art is played out and thus treat it as essentially neutral, a given which inevitably accompanies our understanding of art since the Impressionists. This is no doubt also helped by the fact that no competing system ever appeared to challenge its pre-eminence as the replacement for the old order. Whatever the case, the most significant consequence of understanding Modernism in the visual arts as an ideological system is that it leads directly to the thought that there might exist alternatives to it, at least in theory. So long as one considers Modernist Art as simply all that the major artists have done over the last century or so it’s hard not to see it as part of the natural scenery as our civilization motors forward. If, on the other hand, we see it as being the product of a particular ideology which has established control over centres of power in the art world, the possibility arises that another ideology, or less ideology, might produce/have produced a different kind of art. Not only that, but the value system that we use to rank works of art and which is intimately connected to the core values of the system that expresses it could also change, and this creates the possibility of a substantial reappraisal in our understanding of what’s worthwhile and what’s not in the history of recent art.

© 2020 Neil Moore