2013/07/22

The great modernist bungle

The modernist avant-garde, at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, was very clear about its mission. That mission can be summarized as follows:
1.  rejection of all past ways. In visual arts that meant first and foremost the rejection of the "3 imposed subjects"(1) that had been imposed as replacement of religious representations during "Early-Modernity".
2.  depiction of reality at a deeper level than what was perceived as the sheer shallowness observed in the "3 imposed subjects".

The rejection of the Early-Modern ways in art and what those ways represented as a societal attitude was the easy part of the modernist mission. Discovering reality's deeper levels of operation was another affair altogether.

One can understand, a posteriori, how the avant-garde came to define its mission. We often forget, indeed, that the 19th century had been witnessing world-altering changes:
- speeding up of the rhythm of transportation from the slow pace of 5-10 km an hour (3-6 miles) that had been the norm since times immemorial to train speed records of nearly 150 km an hour (100 miles). Speed was inevitably going to change how one saw his environment. At 5-10 km an hour the environment is fixed and its picture in the eyes is absolutely clear. At 150 km an hour the environment seems to escape one's attention, it becomes blurry, and one is left merely with an impression of what is there in front of the eyes.
- expanding distances of communications.
- replacement of human labor by steam energy powered by coal.
- all these changes had been made possible more generally by knowledge that was delving deeper and deeper into abstraction. This was, at least for non-scientists, how science was perceived and artists were among those attracted by the promises of such scientific abstractions as a means to compensate their shattered certainties.

When one's certainties about "what reality is all about" are shattered one questions his past certainties and eventually rejects them. But this rejection does not, as per miracle, bring a better explanation. A better explanation has to be earned through hard research or be transmitted by men of knowledge who accomplished such research. The avant-garde's certainties had been shattered and as a consequence they rejected all past certainties and ways of doing. They avowedly wanted to depict reality at deeper levels than "what the eyes give to see" but their knowledge was failing them and scientists, while delving in deeper and in more abstract ranges than what the eyes give to see, were not the kind of men of knowledge who could lay-out in big picture fashion "what reality is all about". Scientists were and remain researchers who are stuck in the narrow field of their specialized studies and as such they don't propose "big picture" visions that are accessible to non-scientists. In sum, past certainties gone, artists were sucked in a deep fog from where the best they could try to do was to depict "their noses trying to smell the truth". This gave, at best, some lines of thought and schools following those lines but none of those lines were grounded in firm knowledge. So those lines and the schools following them would necessarily fizzle away after everybody got tired of the total absence of any link to reality in their works. Surrealism got a better shot at acceptability. But the efforts of the initiators, who found substance in research by Freud and Jung, were soon annihilated by what Masson rightly called the drive of meaning towards the absurd by those, like Dali and others, who usurped the denomination to make a fast buck in the market.

The market is what kept some lines of the avant-garde's visual investigation in the public eye. Before the 2nd World War the market, at best, was a parochial affair where educated and rich local citizens purchased works as like out of a tradition of patronage of the local art scene. Things changed drastically after the 2nd World War when, out of geo-strategic considerations, US public institutions brought the members of the New-York school of painters to the front of an international audience (2). Capital was secretly made available by the CIA and the State Department to merchants in order for them to organize international exhibitions of their works. Magazines and Journals were subsidized to carry the good word about those painters to a Western European audience and more generally about American "exceptionalism" in terms of freedom and creativity, democracy and market economy. The strategic aim of that enterprise was primarily to impose on the world the idea of the superiority of the American model of society, versus the communist model, and as such it was a propaganda stunt. Secondarily the US wanted to dislodge Paris as the cultural center of the world and impose New-York as the world capital of the arts. Both primarily and secondarily targets were met with success and New-York gained the status of world capital of the arts. Capital flew in "en masse". A new industry was born.

The union in a common enterprise of state institutions of propaganda and capital unleashed the first phase of globalization; its cultural phase that later would be emulated and expanded to the whole economy.

The absence of ideation content, or the limitation of the works' field of vision to the expression of individual feelings as Pollock liked to describe it, made the productions of the New-York school an ideal match for such a propaganda endeavor as it was indeed maximizing the number of potential buyers. On one side the absence of ideation cut short any trial at debating the content of the works and thus left the field wide open to projecting, what at the times was largely perceived as, a "shocking form" as the ultimate proof of US' tolerance versus what was presented as the intolerance of the Eastern bloc. On the other side the absence of ideation in the products avoided a hurt to buyers' ideological sensitivities and thus maximized their potential numbers. This combination of the infusion of capital by public institutions and the absence of ideological content in the products would prove to be a solid combination indeed that would jump start the New-York art market and explode its impact to the whole world. The conditions had been put in place for a financial take-over and artworks thus transformed into objects of speculation among the wealth elite. Art institutions followed suit and the financialization of the art world boomed like a snowball rolling down a slope.

The encounter of an avant-garde that had stumbled in deep confusion, since the start of the century, at the loss of a given subject to illustrate and the New-York "propaganda-market" venture is definitively one of the most prominent moments in the art history of modernity and perhaps even in the whole history of art.

For one it celebrates the market recognition of works without any societal meaning, works that fall in the realm of interior decoration. While art since its inception has been a societal affair of visual signs about "what reality is all about" to share among citizens in order to strengthen societal cohesion it was now been degraded to an interior decoration product without any societal function left. This moment should be celebrated as the moment when art died; when societies forgot about the necessity to build and strengthen societal cohesion.
Furthermore that historical encounter of a confused avant-garde with the "propaganda-market" threw to the wind any intellectual coherence left in the discourse about art and about societies. The only remaining discourse left is about "market rationality" and the concurrent functioning of public art institutions at the service of the market. The meaning of art and its societal function have vanished from the public discourse. All the talk now is about galleries and sales. It is in this particular environment that some art critics coined the idea that "art is dead". Soon thereafter followed the emergence of scientific visualizations as I explained in my last 2 posts.

As a thinking artist I deeply feel that this moment is when Western societies took a one way street to their demise.

We are now over half a century later and the demise of Western societies is daily fodder in the media. But ironically nobody makes the link between this Western demise and that critical encounter of a confused avant-garde with the New York financialized "propaganda-market"!

The demise of Western societies that is talked about today is framed inside the contours of a worldwide redistribution of the economic cards within the game of the economy-world. But, while this is certainly true, this worldwide redistribution also happens simultaneously with the eruption in our faces of the real impact of the side-effects of modernity.

All signs now point to the collapse of modernity and the passage from modernity to "what comes after modernity" (whatever that may be) or the third turning of humanity's worldview (animism to religions, religions to modernity and now modernity to "what comes after modernity"). "After-Modernity" will emerge as a process of consolidation of the multiple and disparate trials and error attempts to organize life and societies differently and art will be put to the task of hastening that consolidation. In other words, in "After-Modernity" art becomes societally indispensable anew. This will be the subject of my next posting.


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1. The 3 obliged subjects were the exclusive content matters to illustrate by those who accepted to leave painting for the church for large fees paid by the new rich long distance merchants; a trend that started, in Early-Modernity" around the end of the 15th century. Those 3 content matters included the landscapes around the mansions of those new-rich merchants, the portraits of those living in the mansion and the dressing of the tables in the mansion.

2. The US institutional investment in the New York school of modern art was a secret endeavour that came to light only recently.




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