The Pursuit of Triviality

   At this point I want to go back to my unfinished thesis and look more closely at the conventionally accepted historical sequence of the artists and movements that is the story of Modernism since 1870, but with an eye on the big picture rather than the detail, and with a view to discerning the general tendencies that underlie the art works themselves. My basic idea was that the various ways in which avant-garde art of the late 1960’s and 70’s was abandoning the idea of the art object could be understood as the logical culmination of tendencies operating on a deep level from the beginnings of modernism, and that these tendencies had their origin in a comprehensive rejection of all that was understood as a precious object of fine art at the time of the supremacy of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. The beginnings might seem mild to us now – in 1870 it was enough to refuse to do edifying “History Painting” replete with classical references and instead paint a field of poppies to go beyond the pale –  but as time passed and the mechanism became entrenched the assaults on the paradigm became more and more radical. The image that came to me was of an artichoke which is progressively stripped of its petals, with Post-Object art being the final stage in which the artichoke is dismantled altogether.

   I identified three major groupings in Post-Object art which corresponded to the rejection of each of three characteristics that I saw as defining the notion of an art object. These were, in no particular order, that it was separate or discrete, clearly marked off from its surroundings. That it was physical or material, (as opposed to an art form like literature that is conceptual). And that it was permanent, that it didn’t mutate over time. I saw these characteristics as making up the core of the idea of the art object, the interlocking essential conditions. But when we go back to 1870 and consider the full paradigm of a work of art which provides the starting point for the avant-garde’s historical trajectory, we find that it had become loaded with a whole suite of less essential characteristics of a secondary or even tertiary nature which are the first objects of Modernism’s derision. These would have been things like morally uplifting subject matter, the impression of having improved upon life, allusions to the classical past, an exceedingly high degree of technical skill and finish, an utterly convincing illusion of space (in the case of painting) and great naturalism so long as it didn’t conflict with the other precepts. In addition both sculptures and paintings were conventionally marked off in precise and elaborate ways from the space around them by things like frames, pedestals, the use of special materials, and the gallery context itself, all of which contributed considerably to encouraging an appropriate understanding that the viewer was in the presence of art. Modernism thus began not by a wholesale assault on the fundamentals but incrementally, stripping away the outer petals.

   These first departures from the paradigm can be seen collectively as prefiguring and then settling into a general tendency which comes to dominate the first phase of Modernism, the move towards abstraction. What might have started out as a desire to jettison the excessive referential baggage of 19th century Classicism becomes increasingly a progressive abandonment of all referential material until we come to Malevich’s white-on-white painting of the 1920’s and the rich vein of non-figuration that continues down to the present day. At first glance such a broad drift might seem to be an affirmation of the idea of an art object rather than its negation, as paintings and sculpture become more and more to be simply objects, freed of the conceptual material that representation inevitably implies. But this is only partly true for while the “object” part of the term is indeed being favoured, it is at the expense of the other component, the “art”. As a result the traditional distinction between an art object and ordinary objects becomes blurred, the conceptual baggage of traditional art having been chiefly responsible for maintaining their separation. And the way is incidentally prepared for the kind of Post-Object art that I see as implying a breakdown of the separateness of art from its ordinary physical context, though in the pre-war years only the Dadaists are making the point overtly. The risk here is that by eliminating too effectively the distinction it becomes hard to justify the special status – and prices – of art and it’s to stop this happening that Modernism’s extensive apparatus of theory can be usefully invoked to keep the art work embedded in an art context. Given the great difficulty we have in looking at art and not finding any referential material at all, non-figurative (and later on non-object) art forms can thus be seen as having in various degrees exchanged the representation of the visible world for a more nebulous set of references to the ideology of Modernism and art history in general.

© 2020 Neil Moore