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Tag Archives: modernism

The End of Modernism

The death of Tom Wolfe reminded me that amongst his many publication Wolfe wrote a short book about modern art, The Painted Word. The blurb on the book’s cover sums it up. “Another blast at the phonies! – The author of the The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test exposes the myths and men of modern art.” In the end Wolfe’s predictions about the future of art were wrong; modernism did not have a hard landing and the art critics are not more famous than the artists.

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Modernism was over by the time that The Painted Word was published in 1975. Modernism was not a fad, it was not a fantasy that was sold to the world by con artists or imposed on it by dictators. Rather it was a reasoned, articulated theory supported by empirical evidence. This doesn’t mean that it was right only that the conservatives own position of royalism, nationalism and tradition was less reasoned, articulated and supported by evidence.

Wolfe’s, and other conservatives, aversion to the ‘theoretical’, the “word” in his “painted word” is a conservative reaction to any explanation other than his own (and I use the masculine pronoun here deliberately). They assume, that ideas and words spring straight from the world into their mind and concocted ‘theories’ are corrupting influences on this allegedly natural state. In this way the ‘theoretical’ could spoil your enjoyment of art or life as if theories are like a vampiric thoughts sucking the joy out of living through understanding.

Ironically (and irony is his middle name) the great debunking of modern art had already been done by Marcel Duchamp. However, the vitriol that the conservatives have for Duchamp blinds them to this and, because Duchamp’s attacks were a kind-of pre-post-modern deconstruction of modern art, rather than by defending traditional values. It was Duchamp’s critique, rather than the conservatives, that laid the grounds for the end of modernism.

However, instead of a total collapse of modernism, as the idealism drained from the market modernism had a soft landing. This was facilitated by changes in the technology that allowed greater growth in popular culture: television, portable music technology, internet, etc. Music on demand used to be the high point of culture available only to the very rich; now everyone has the ability to listen to music or watch videos any time and anywhere and private tastes can be developed without the approval of friends or family multiplying the market for the arts.

This meant that the domination of the state art institutions and funding by ideological forces during the later part of the Cold War was rapidly and successfully short circuited by artists who reached a mass audience through popular media. The popular arts provided an economic way to bypass the moribund system of academic/institutional arts grants until the academic/institutions adapted to the post-modern world.

The idea of an ideological domination of post-modern thinking is an absurd misunderstanding of a decentralised non-hierarchical system. Few of the leading contemporary artists paint and most of them use aerosol paint cans. Tom Wolfe is dead but his attitude that modern art is a con is still an article of faith amongst many conservatives.

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Henry Moore & Australian Sculpture

Australian interwar sculptors mark the transition from traditional to modernist. Interwar modernism in Australia was not building on any modernist foundations, it was the start, and it started in England with Henry Moore.

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Henry Moore was the acceptable face of modernism in England. He was English and his easy version of biomorphic surrealism was friendly. Although it was modern sculpture, all smooth with holes in it, everyone could engage with because everyone has a mother.

It was a particularly British sense of modern and Moore did things including making his sculpture from local stone, to maintain the idea that the sculptures were British. The British liked to distance themselves from the mainland of the continent hoping to avoid the French revolution and the other revolutions, like modernism, that might arise after it.

Assisting Henry Moore was almost a rite of passage for Australian sculptors. George Allen, Lenton Parr, Ron Robertson-Swann, and Ola Cohn all worked with Henry Moore at one time. Art in Australia was still part of Britain even if it was on the other side of the earth. Australia was too close to Britain to look to at European art and consequently early modern sculpture in Australia was in part a response to Henry Moore.

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Ola Cohn sculpture at Melbourne City Library

In Ola Cohn’s autobiography, A Way With The Fairies – The Lost Story of Sculptor Ola Cohn edited by Barbara Lemon (R. W. Stugnell, 2014, Melbourne) there are no insights provided about the transition to modernism in Australia. Cohn doesn’t seem like a typical modern artist as she doesn’t express any desire for change, she just goes along with the changes. The lack of insight that Ola Cohn exhibits in her autobiography means that her rambling account of her life has many details with little meaning.

However, there is one insight that is quoted in Cohn’s autobiography. Blamire Young in “Art – Past and Future: Streeton and Ola Cohn” (The Herald 1931 p.86) writes: “Our approach to modern art is surrounded with difficulties, and its effect on Australian students who visit Europe is interesting to watch. They return to Australia with an amazing understanding of its outward and most recognisable  characteristics, but it is seldom they make us feel that they have been through the spiritual suffering that its originators had to undergo.”

For Cohn and many other Australian sculptors modern art meant simply smoothing out the figure into a streamlined form and nothing else. There was no deeper meaning to early Australian modernists as there was no modern revolution or revolt in Australia. Early Australian modernism was simply a copy of British modernism, more a shift in style rather than a revolutionary attitude.

In the progression of modernism another one of Henry Moore’s assistants, Anthony Caro would continue to be a major influence on Australian sculptors, particularly in the work of his students Ron Robertson-Swann and Fiona Foley. The history of Australian sculpture continues to be entwined with British sculpture and the legacy of Moore’s influence in Australian sculpture continues to this day.


Anti-Modern

Street art is anti-modernist – consider it from this angle.

I & the Other(s), paper cut, Flinders Lane, 2012

Street art is a significant post-modern art movement. It rejects the art gallery defined art object, exemplified by Duchamp’s readymades, for art that is identifiable amongst the bins in a back alley. It is site-specific. It is follows other post-modern, contemporary art trends but often take this further than the gallery art.

Modernism rejected humanizing decorative elements in architecture and street art decorates those bare concrete walls. In architectural terms (not that street art should be reduced to an architectural art form regardless of the number of walls involved) street art cannot be reduced to eclecticism, kitsch or “featurism”. These terms are meaningless outside of a modernist context, where theoretically a style can be debased. There was no kitsch in the Renaissance and, likewise, the term “kitsch” is meaningless in street art. Tattoo style and comic book art are part of the street art mix not in appropriation or when converted to art but as an equal part. Other contemporary post-modern artist have also rejected the modernist high culture and popular art distinctions and tried to create synthesis.

Melina M., Hosier Lane, 2012

Street art rejects the modernist (fascist) hierarchy of styles; the hierarchy is based on the same faulty reasoning that lead to the fascist hierarchy of races. There is no pure art, no more than racial purity. For street art is practiced without economic or political stimulus that places the patrons at the top of any hierarchy; it is often practiced in defiance of the plutocrats.

In rejecting the traditional system of patronage, street art subverted the modernist aesthetically sterile gallery and the creation high-end commodity art objects in favour of free art often in multiple editions. Instant fame on the street subverted the traditional media filters.

Street art rejects the modern art education system, many street artists are self-taught coming from various backgrounds. If they do have an arts eduction a street artist is more likely to have studied design rather than fine art. On the street artists have created a master and apprentice system and crews operate a quasi-guild system.

Detail of Napier Faces, various artists, 2009

Many street artists collaborate on large projects and this is a change to the modern artist’s identity as a unique creative genius. Collaborative work has a significant presence in post-modern art with artists like Gilbert and George, Brown and Green, Warhol and Basquiat. Collaborative art uses the merging of ideas and identity rather the modernist unique creator, the heroic artist. Street art has a different kind of hero artist, the trickster and prankster, who defies the authorities with a spray of his can.

Street art is a rebellion and not another modern revolution. Rebels seek to alter something in the present; a revolution wants to change everything in the future.

Unknown paste-up, Geelong, 2012


European Masters @ NGV

European Masters 19th to 20th Century from the collection of Städel Museum at the National Gallery of Victoria on St. Kilda Road presents a history of modern art. All the familiar modern art movements are represented from Classicalism and Romanticism to Cubism, along with a few less well-known styles and groups of artists. There is art by 70 German, French, Dutch, Belgian and Swiss artists. And although the exhibition is mostly paintings there are a few sculptures by Rodin, Degas and Renior, There is plenty of variety to see in this exhibition – this variety of styles, trends and tastes is a reflection of the modern predicament.

It was not the introduction of photography that motivated modernism – it was the end of the accepted subjects for art, history or classical and Biblical themes. The great artists of the 19th and early 20th century could have painted anything, so why did they choose to paint these images? What is the subject for art when your world has changed – transformed by revolutions, industry and urbanisation; and expanded by exploration and tourism? One of the first paintings in the exhibition depicts the German writer, Goethe in the Roman Campagna by Johann H.W. Tischbein. What to paint when traditions and values are under question? For Tischbein the answer was simply a return to classicalism.

The problem of what to paint was a problem for artists at end of the 19th century and early 20th century. It is interesting to see what solutions these European artists proposed for these problems because we can learn about how we can approach similar contemporary problems. The Symbolists have similar quest for spiritual values to our New Agers. The Orientalists, like Eugène Delacoix painting Arabs, have their contemporary analogues in the world travellers photographing the 1001 places you must visit before you die. The Nazarene artists are comparable to contemporary religious fanatics or, given the Nazarenes long hair, 60s Jesus freaks.

And if religion and exotic travel doesn’t interest you what else is of any value? There are Romantics, like Caspar David Friedrich contemplating the environment. Rural landscapes – urban dwellers still dream of a simpler country life in a cottage painted by Van Gogh early in his career. Or, you could have a simple breakfast with the Monet family, which for me was, one of the highlights of the exhibition.

Why be so serious? Why not just paint amusing genre scene with a psychological comic insights? Why not go and join the circus? Or, dance the night away at Café d’Harcoart in Paris with the one of the stars of the exhibition, Henri Evenepoel’s lady in red?

Everyone will have heard of some of the famous artists who have work included in this exhibition. Seeing the exhibition is a way for you to judge for yourself if the European art history books have been praising good artists or emphasising the most important trends in modernism. Perhaps it is time to revise your opinions of artists that you have only read about and seen a few illustrations. Even if you know next to nothing about art history this is a good place to see it for yourself.

There is a small focus in the exhibition on the art of Max Beckman with several of his paintings hung in a gallery painted dark grey. The dark grey emphasises their dark lines dividing the bright areas in his paintings.

Thanks to Alison and the NGV for the free tickets to the exhibition.


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