The Pursuit of Triviality

   This is the mechanism that I would identify as at the heart of Modernism, and the key to the functioning of the avant-garde. It is the engine driving from behind that provides the motivation and directional energy for the whole panoply of styles and movements that are customarily seen as Modernist. Put like this, it all seems rather simple, even trite. And I would argue that insofar as the complex ways in which quality is derived in pre-modernist visual arts are replaced by a single index of progressiveness we effectively do have a shrivelling of the way we assess value in art. I have a recent news cutting in front of me which states that a jury of 500 experts associated with the British Turner Prize have declared Marcel Duchamp’s celebrated “Fountain” as the most significant art-work of the 20th century. Within the parameters of Modernism this is an excellent choice as Duchamp’s assault on the conventions of art-making was dramatically ahead of its time and far more radical than anyone else’s. He was the quintessential Modernist and it might even be argued that avant-garde art since has not been much more than footnotes to his achievements. But do we really feel happy about putting this work up as the best contribution to civilization that the visual arts of the 20th century can produce? We can admire his astuteness and daring, his brilliant anticipation of where art was going, but is this urinal really in the same league as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling or Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew, capable of taking your breath away after four or five hundred years?

    The contrast between these two conceptions of art provides a useful means of illustrating a point that follows on from the previous discussion. It is the distinction between what might be called intrinsic and extrinsic value. The visual arts as traditionally conceived deal in objects, let’s say paintings and sculptures, that one could say have inherent value. By this I mean that it is the thing itself that is the object of our admiration, whether for its beauty or the superlative skill that went into it, or whatever, and more or less anyone can appreciate it. This is so because the art work contains within itself the information necessary for its appreciation. Obviously it would be easy to find examples of traditional art works in which there is a great deal more going on than meets the eye of the non-specialist viewer, but such extra loading can easily be accommodated into the idea of higher levels which add to our appreciation but are not essential to it. One has no trouble imagining a viewer with little knowledge of the Old Testament still being overwhelmed by the power of Michelangelo’s statue of “Moses”, for example.

© 2020 Neil Moore

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