What is modernism after all?

When placed in a societal perspective (economic, social and cultural history) it seems to me that the seeds of modernism started to sprout with the plunder of Middle-Eastern luxuries during the crusades and the flow of trade that ensued along the following centuries.

By the 15th, 16th centuries, art was transitioning in Europe from being exclusively at the service of religion to becoming the illustrator and propagator of the visual signs of modernity. For over a millennium after Constantine imposed Christianity as the religion of the Roman empire, religious stories were the only accepted subjects to be represented in art.

Jan van Eyck Madonna of Canon van der Paele,1436 oil on panel, Musee Communal at Bruges.

From the 15th to the 16th century art goes from an artistic practice describing religious stories at the attention of the followers of the church to the "sanctification" of the bourgeoisie's new values of individualism and private property. Their purchases of works to be suspended on the walls of their mansions (built with the proceeds of their plunders in far lands) gradually overtook the purchases by the church and thus eclipsed the traditional religious visual signs illustrated in painting and the other visual arts. This period is called the Renaissance for it was kind of a revolution to satisfying the emerging needs of the new rich, the enterprising aristocracy and merchants through the recourse to Greeck pre-christian knowledge that had been lost in Europe during the Middle-ages but had been rediscovered in the rich Muslim university libraries of the Middle-East. The new visual signs in demand were portraits of the new rich and the members of their families, landscapes around their manors and stills. Such subjects will dominate the visual art scene for the next four centuries.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the Hunters in the Snow 1565; 
Oil on panel, 117 x 162 cm; Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna

Only in the second half of the nineteenth century do things start to change.

A technological explosion (trains, long distance communications,...) that goes in parallel with the emergence of philosophical rationalism somehow engender changing perceptions about what reality is all about. Van Gogh, Gauguin, the impressionists, the pointillists, the fauvists, the expressionists and others are challenging the "way to paint" but force is to observe that they continue to represent the first degree images that project on their retinas and what they see are faces and landscapes.

Vincent van Gogh,  Wheatfield with Cypresses
, July 1890 (Auvers-sur-Oise), June 1889 original; Oil on canvas, 51.5 x 65 cm

By the end of the nineteenth, beginning of the twentieth century science is blooming. At the contact of their friends mathematicians Picasso and a few other painters want to change the subject of representation by recoursing to mathematical theory but in the end the only thing they succeed doing is what fast will appear as a trick (triangles and other abstract forms to represent more than one side of a same subject in one painting). They do not succeed to quit representing the same first degree image that projects directly on the retina. The same can be said of the works of Duchamp and the futurists.

Duchamp. Transition of Virgin into a Bride/Le Passage de la Vierge à la Mariée. 1912. 
Canvas 59 x 53.5 cm. The Museum of Modern Arts, New York, NY, USA.

At the contact with Psychoanalysis the early surrealists, at least the thinkers of the movement, (Breton, Masson, Miro, Kandinsky...) experiment with automatism but while they escape the first degree image they fail to theorize a new approach of reality.

The second world war represents a radical turning point.

Coming out of the barbarity that had afflicted all nations of Europe artists and intellectuals proclaim their rejection of societal life as it had always been conceived of. The members of Cobra are the most explicit. Constant speaks about the release of knowledge, as an outcome of the discovery of his desires through experimentation, hoping that this newly released knowledge will generate a radically new societal experience. Art is thus conceived of as the description of a reality in the process of becoming and not any longer as an existing system that would be absolute and unchanging. The artist thus mutates into a modern shaman who brings a vision of the rejected barbarity in the hope of gaining better days for all tomorrow.

Cobra Modification, 1949 
(Constant with Jorn, Appel and Corneille, on original by Richard Mortensen)

Having been spared the trauma of life through barbarity and not being excessively burdened by a past of theories and concepts American painters and artists are focusing on their individual feelings. This is best expressed by Jackson Pollock in "Three statements": "The method of painting is the natural growth out of a need. I want to express my feelings rather then to illustrate them". Pollock and his colleagues limit their action to the satisfaction of their personal ego, the expression of their feelings, and do not show the least interest for the impact of their works on societal functioning.

Pollock. Number 8, 1949 (detail) 1949; 
Oil, enamel, and aluminum paint on canvas; Neuberger Museum, State University of New York.

This radical differentiation in creative attitudes on the two sides of the pond is largely due to daily life exposure or no daily life exposure to war barbarity. But the societal disparities between the two sides appear as radically important on creative attitudes as the exposure or not to daily barbarity. In short the war had considerably enriched the US economically while Europe ended largely indebted towards the US and with an infrastructure in taters. In the post war America ran at full speed into "marketization for consumerism" while Europe had to spend its time reordering its political houses. In short demand for visual signs for wall decoration were fast booming in the US while Europe debated about ideas. This had a radically opposed impact on the intellectual and creative approach towards visual signs in Europe and the US. The American mass market needed politically sterile visual signs in order to reach the largest spread in demand while in Europe visual signs were largely expressing a political answer against war barbarity and the hope of better days to come.

Shed in such a light we understand a lot better the differences between abstract expressionism and Cobra and its followers and we also gain a better understanding as to why abstract expressionism gained wide market recognition while Cobra and other European artists remained in the shadows of the market.

But how will the input of both sides be judged in terms of the "long history" of visual art?

I venture to suggest that from a long haul historical standpoint:

- Cobra and the other European thinking artists will be seen as the true initiators of the unification of Europe as an antidote against barbarity. As such Cobra could well appear as an early gravedigger of modernity opening the way for later first steps into  what comes after modernity.

Constant. Untitled (Copenhagen), 1949. oil on canvas. 55 x 60 cm.

- The market success of abstract expressionism will be seen as the seeding ground of "whatever is art" and the free fall into the visual absurdities characterizing the end of modern art.

Richard Serra. One Ton Prop (House of Cards). 1969 (refabricated 1986). 
Lead, four plates, each 48 x 48 x 1" (122 x 122 x 2.5 cm). Gift of the Grinstein Family. © 2006 Richard Serra / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

To have a feel of how the works of modernity differentiate from what is to come, here are some examples of early After-modernity babble. No doubt this is early post modern learning,for, post modernism will take many decades if not centuries to mature. We have indeed to acknowledge that what comes after modernity can only grow into fertile ground and this ground is represented by the completion of the expansion of modernity to the 4 corners of the world. This will undoubtedly take a long time.

See the contrast of these early works of After-modernity with the sad, mostly negative outlook in Constant's works. The latter is the phase of rejection (late evening) that allows for the dawn to set on the experimentation of better days to come. Those works denote a positiveness suggesting the break-down of many of the present-day existing obstacles to individual fulfillment.

There is also visibly a reference to knowledge that could be available to all. Today the knowledge accumulated along the generations has to be learned and memorized by each individual. There is no reason to believe that the large mass of knowledge accumulated earlier should indefinitely need to be memorized. Extensions of the brain to computers are already in preparation... Shared and directly accessible accumulated knowledge is indeed one of the most striking aspects that I envision for After-Modernity.

Imagine how humanity might then conceive of reality. Here are early visual signs of such possibly better days to come.

Werner Horvath: "Hundertwasser's Dream". Oil on canvas, 50 x 70 cm.

laodan. Transformation. Acrylic 17" x 22".

If you are interested by this approach you could always read my book artsense where I dwell in detail over this subject.

Note dated 2016.

This post was written in May 2007. Nearly a decade later, while still agreeing with what I wrote there, I have to expand on the notion of "better days to come" and "Those works denote a positiveness suggesting the break-down of many of the present-day existing obstacles to individual fulfillment".

My view today is that our societies are on an accelerated path to collapse. This will assuredly not be a picnic. But while collapse evokes hard times ahead it also evokes the liberation from a hated worldview and the chance to recover one's sanity.

Modernity has been overly successful and this is what in the end is killing it. The side-effects of Modernity have no other explanation than the dumbing down of the individuals in an overly wild individualism and consumerism that act like a lobotomization inducing infantilism. In the future historians will indeed be asking why did Moderns lose the usage of their minds. Why did they follow, like sheep, the abstract idea contained in the reason at work within capital? Why did they continue destroying life on earth while collapse was already well advanced?

To future minds our behavior today as a species will indeed appear baffling to say the least.

When you understand where humanity stands today you can only dread what is coming our way but at the same time you also feel a tickling of encouragement because it promises the ending of what can only be called an era of sheer insanity. It is in that sense that the expression "better days to come" has to be understood ...as being the promise that is contained in this tickling of encouragement in our minds.

My work "Transformation" here above reflects such a promise of leaving chaos and entering an emergent new order...


  1. Fantastic. Great job! Congratulations

  2. "You are an intellectual, obviously talented and progressive with valid concerns. For myself this topic of 'modernism' is a major distraction to a most serious priority, and this is development of 'self.' Self expression does define art yet with the majority of artist, or people in general, endeavor without personal meaning. To take the step beyond what can be expressed by common, is to understand one's self to the fullest degree. This understanding is acquired by individual effort, to be alone, in a very remote location for a long time or frequent visits, to become familiar with 'self' and experience this side, in our development. We can then see what is truly important and can perceive ourselves in a very different way. 'Vision Quest' was important and essential in ancient wisdom, that is lost to modernism."

  3. Mammoth

    Thanks for the comment.

    I don't think that my thinking is in contradiction with your writing. Modernism is not that important for me either. But fact is it is now hegemonic the world over.

    As you I believe that development of 'self' is what is central to understanding reality. But development of self starts by making the effort to understand where we come from societally. See my posting "Can anyone actually define what a "True Artist" is?"

    Only when we can go over such questions by understanding them can we free ourself of our societal chains. That's the moment when we are eventually available for "seeing" the global truth that animism, that ancient wisdom you write about, orally transmitted to its men of knowledge...