The Rise and Rise of the Modernist Artist

This article originally appeared on Abstract Critical on April 2, 2014. My thanks to Sam Cornish and Robin Greenwood.

 On September 15, 2008 Damien Hirst held an auction that officially ended the theoretical legacy of the 20th Century. One can honestly say that Damien’s Day was such a pivotal moment in our Post-historical culture that one can actually track “the before” and “the after” from it. Part of the reason for this watershed moment was the stock market crash that happened on the same day, but let’s not quibble. Yes, there’s been some jostling about this event in the press, but for the most part, it seems, that most of us have just folded this information right into our everyday existence and gone on like nothing had happened. What I’m on about is the fact that on that day the criteria for determining what art actually IS irrevocably changed. Art is now produced, manufactured, valued, traded and admired from an entirely different set of criteria. The old fashioned idea that art should be appraised and vetted through its aesthetic influences, theoretical challenges and art historical importance no longer matters one wit. Instead our long held tenets, those valued by the Modern movement, espousing innovation, aesthetic challenge and radical style change have become passé. Contemporary Art has become more like a financial product, and it’s appraised through market values and economic realities in the same way that a commodity or security is valued. In other words the very concept of Art itself has become redundant.
The rank and file shows go on, of course, as do the polemics (like this one), the discussions, the defenses, the debates. Most of us continue to believe that traditional art concerns still exist, still have meaning for the culture. We blithely indulge in the rehearsed historic programs. We continue to believe in the “power” of style or theoretical daring. Yet, real visual difference remains as elusive as Bigfoot. Our art remains structured around the tenets of Modernism. And this is because we have done none of the things that defined Modernism. The last 50 years of recombinant Postmodern pastiches have created a mannered, clever, impersonal Modernism-Lite. We produce handsome and professional work to be sold in the endless seasonal cycles of art commerce. Our works have become so similar, in fact, that we have come to rely on “name recognition” in order to distinguish them. Thus the rise of the brand name artist, the insatiable quest for media coverage, the personal appearances, the cross branding with entertainment/fashion corporations, etc…
For the most part we all perform in the circus and hope to make a living from it. So we play to the audience’s expectations. We make our works bigger, we pump up the mechanics, reorganize the formulae, or if we’re really feeling expressive, we rub a bit of stank onto something that we find a bit outré. We re-mix, we appropriate, we curate our work into existence from a well-mined history of style. All of it ready for purchase, prêt-à-porter. Culture has come to seem so very rehearsed and familiar, so very predictable, and as Derrida wrote; always-already. And it’s the fact that the culture actually is familiar that makes contemporary art so accessible, so approachable, so “classic.” Koons’ balloon dogs, a mixture of Pop insouciance, Modern classicism and Disney World fabrication play to one’s Postmodern entertainment sensibilities. Hirst’s dots are just that, dots, tastefully riffing on the mechanics of a Modern abstract grid painting. Fischer’s squished clay balls art blown up to gargantuan proportions so one can see his giant-sized fingerprints, a clever pun on Rodin’s “Hand of God.” Josh Smith painting at breakneck speeds whips out a cheesy palm tree landscape in lurid drippy colors accessing both “bad” painting and the history of just plain bad painting. All of it is handsome, smart, light, expensive and tastefully accessible to those schooled in the rudiments of 20th Century culture. Nothing we haven’t seen before, experienced before, or confronted before, and all of it presented to us as if the ground has opened beneath our feet. And the best part is that all of this work looks like Art! The product delivery systems of our art market work overtime to apply a sheen of Madison Avenue glamour and class aimed at the collectors and the publicity outlets. In other words the hierarchy of the gallery system elevates the “status” and “prestige” of the work we see, like a Prada showroom designed by Rem Koolhaus or Lady Gaga trained as an acolyte by Marina Abramovic. The brands collide in a perfect consuming spectacle.
This new art economy has been transformative, especially in our studios. The “subject matter” of Art, what the narrative might entail, the engagement and poetry of the work, are all incidental to the market value, the means of production and delivery, and the branded import of the art object itself. Today, the most “innovative art” foregoes the avant-garde debates over style change or aesthetic transformation that once raged at the Deux Magots or the Cedar Bar. Rather, our innovators’ “arguments” revolve mostly around business problems, particularly “fair use” and “copyright infringement.” We have been transfixed by the legalities and finances of business, preferring them to issues of aesthetics. Our culture in other words is being determined by institutions whose only skin in our game tends to revolve around who is allowed to profit and for how much. So the art we see remains static, familiar, all too familiar, in the same way that “New Urbanist” communities, drive-time radio shows, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issues, 70s fashion statements, and slow motion videos projected on gallery walls are familiar. All of this re-purposing of legally sanctioned processes, of “fair use,” has no real influence on the direction of art itself, but it does create and maintain markets and money. It’s in this way that our contemporary recombinant culture, our Retro-Culture, actually upholds and supports the stability and continuity needed for a thriving economic market.
Most of the Moderns would have found this idea of a purely market driven Art, our Neo-Liberal Art World, incomprehensible. Aside from the fact that they were nearly all lefties, and in some cases, Communists, their main focus was to overthrow the societal/cultural powers then in existence. The avant-garde was experimenting with new aesthetic ideas and iconoclastic theoretics, but mostly, the Moderns wanted to assert the power, sovereignty and worth of individuals, every individual, through new modes of expression, through “emotion.” Nearly every manifesto of those early years lays out this very idea. And this focus on emotion, on emotional connection to vision, was the last and only humanist position an artist should take in the face of unrestrained technological advancement. Think of it. In 40 years, from the first air flight at Kitty Hawk to the breaking of the sound barrier in the Mojave Desert, the world experienced two world wars, a devastating plague, a global economic cataclysm and the splitting of the atom. In the face of these unprecedented challenges a small, engaged and aggressive avant-garde desperately focused on what it meant to be human, what it meant to feel. In the end, however, it wasn’t enough. How could it be? Modernism’s human challenge to the uncompromising technological expansion failed as governments, bureaucracies, institutions and corporations re-formed human existence, captured, categorized and contained humanity. Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Holocaust effectively ended the Modern movement, and with it, the Modern avant-garde. The Postmodern age would be different, more “practical.” And so it began with a portrait of a Coca-Cola bottle.
“If art cannot tell us about the world we live in then I don’t believe there’s much point in having it. And that is something that we’re going to have to face more and more as the years go on, that nasty question that never used to be asked, because the assumption was that it was answered long ago. What good is art? What use is art? What does it do? Is what it does actually worth doing? And an art that is completely monetized the way that its getting these days is going to have to answer these questions or it’s going to die.” Robert Hughes, “The Mona Lisa Curse”, 2008.
Damien’s Day finally defined the idea that artists are no longer Modern or Postmodern, but simply put, Modernist. And the distinction to be made is found in the way we use the 20th century legacy to make our work. We have no interest in overcoming the Modern, moving beyond it, challenging its theoretics. We do not ask questions, we do not take the 20th Century legacy to task for its failings, for its obvious capitulations, its formulaic visual engagements. We’re, all of us, true believers. We believe that the Modern was correct, its look correct, that its processes and techniques continue to define our time, that its tenets and aesthetics are sanctified, deserve our continued support and allegiance. We are Modernists in the same way that Capitalists, Socialists, Christianists or Islamists unquestioningly believe in the rightness of their tenets, in their right to power. And like them we use our unquestioning belief in the Modern as a path to power, as a monetary right, as an a priori economic artistic precept. And so we continue to ply its long dead principles in our paintings and sculptures, in our theatre and film, in our writing and poetry, and mostly, in our programs and technologies.
I began the current series of articles on Henri Art Magazine entitled “Untethered” in order to find a different take on the Modern Century. I’m still forming my understanding, still open to ideas, but my discontent with our current Modernist era has hardened as I’ve asked questions of the past. I do not have any illusions about what that means, especially when confronting the massive economic order that determines what art is. And I don’t mean for any of this critique to be taken as a paranoid fantasy or a screed from a reactionary. The new paradigm of a purely economically driven art based on the tropes of the 20th Century is the reality and inevitability of our time. That said, I am more convinced than I ever was that Art, and especially for me, abstract painting, must decisively and firmly untether itself from the 20th Century. I am adamant that we find a new humanism within the program, a new way to assert one’s ideas, to innovate, to express, to feel, to create vision, without the strictures of economics and without the worn out and flaccid Modern legacy. It is the only way we will find something new. And so I leave you with a few questions.
Why must we continue to ply the 20th Century’s outdated principles, its tropes, techniques and factures, its cartographic spaces and flat worldview? Why must we follow the rules of Postmodern Art Commerce? Why must we believe and accept that Modernist art, the art preferred by the corporate plutocracy, should set OUR debate, should set the “standards of excellence” for artists today? Why is there so little art, especially abstraction, that directly engages in what it means to be alive, to be human in this, our time, the way Picasso, Matisse, or for that matter Monet and Manet, did in their time? Why do we not innovate instead of transform? Why can we not discuss the way we SEE the world using new abstract images, different visions, rather than continue to make familiar recombinations of Modern productions? Why do we not really question the legacy we all so blindly follow? And as Robert Hughes so succinctly put it, why have we not asked these questions of our work?

One thought on “The Rise and Rise of the Modernist Artist

  1. Art has a great future, if it goes and embraces more of our life. It is going in that direction. Away from abstract l’art pour l’art towards putting us back in the center.

    Yes, also sloppy and bad paintings carry our signs and witness life, culture, moment and time. Quality is always rare of course, over time the quality will stay expensive and the rest goes into Nirvana.

    A year ago I came into a museum room (in Berlin) and was immediately struck by the paintings of Kerstin Brätsch, I had a moment like Clem Greenberg. I knew it had quality and it oscillated. Today it hangs in Moma.

    We are the ones that can define art as we want it. Just define and be free to make it. WE are in times of transition and we have a full 21 Century ahead, lets do stuff and may future generations decide about the value.

    Yes, and we need more guys like Simchowitz in every country that invest in art, trust in art, support it and some times fail with it. If we in Georgia (Caucasus) could every two month sell a work for 1000 USD that would be heaven…

    Art is work and necessary it should be funded from the educational pots as well. Only art can save our insane world.

    I don’t think that the Modern Art can answer our questions of 2015. These hurting questions can only answer the 21 Century Art.

    I thought about, which art piece moved me most in 2014. It was this video. What piece moved you most ?
    BR Hans and sorry for the bad English ;()

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