The Pursuit of Triviality

   These are all major issues that require, and deserve, considerable attention. At this point I want to pick up and develop further a number of strands within the previous analysis. The first involves the institution of the avant-garde, and its centrality to the ideology of Modernism. Just how deeply this has entered our perceptions is suggested by the frequency with which we use terms like advanced, progressive, forward-looking, radical, cutting-edge, experimental (this one specifically invoking the science connection) and avant-garde itself to praise; and conventional, conformist, retrograde, reactionary, to condemn. We automatically assume a direction, a movement forward, progress, and we imagine that worthwhile art is somehow tuned into it. Of course there have always been avant-gardes of various kinds in the history art, even if they didn’t go by that name. One of the best examples we have from the history of art of what looks like progress would be the transition from Medieval to Renaissance in European painting. Giorgio Vasari, whose 16th century “Lives of the Artists” is our first major work of art history, makes it clear that he sees each generation of artists in the series that he gives us as outdoing the one which came before, the progression leading eventually to the unsurpassable genius of Michelangelo. Might it not be plausible to see in this the action of an avant-garde ante litteram, pushing back the frontiers in the pursuit of ever greater mastery and understanding of the world?

   To some extent the answer would have to be yes, but there are some crucial differences. The great artists of the Renaissance were certainly trying constantly to “break new ground”, to go beyond their masters and contemporaries, as well as measuring themselves competitively with the art of the ancients which they venerated. But this was always done within the parameters of the traditions they were a part of. The growth of modernism is accompanied by a telling change of terminology from school – which implies master and pupil – to movement, and we have for the first time an avant-garde that completely rejects the validity of preceding tradition, that changes the rules of the game. Note that the relationship is one of hostile dependency, however, the old being essential to establish the identity of the new, albeit negatively. As a result, Modernist art deliberately cut itself off from what came before, and by so doing also from a lot of the complex ways that traditional art was engaged with the world and its audience; from its values. The result was a kind of values-vacuum which quite naturally became increasingly filled with the notion that the really significant thing about a work of art is the extent to which it leaves the old behind, goes one step further. Put another way, progressiveness takes over as the basic measure for assessing the worth of art, with progress itself being wholly identified as movement away from tradition, and the avant-garde being the custodian of it.

© 2020 Neil Moore

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