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Suzi Gablik: Has Modernism Failed?. (being Chapter 5 of Gablik ’ s book with the same title). Has Modernism Failed?.

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Suzi Gablik: Has Modernism Failed?

(being Chapter 5 of Gablik’s book with the same title)

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Has Modernism Failed?

  • At first blush, it looks that way. Modernism in art has gone from optimism and “a crusading spirit of disobedience” to a mood of “decadence and weary cynicism.” Gilbert and George are a good example of the result.

  • But to really answer the question, we need to ask what modernism was trying to accomplish. What were its values, and has it done what it set out to do?

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The values of modernism

  • Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto: get rid of “the stinking gangrene of professors, archaeologists, touring guides and antiques dealers”, burn museums and libraries. Get rid of tradition, in order to bring on the new forms of speed and technology. (So, almost a worship of technology.)

  • Dada: The corrupt, war-mongering modern world doesn’t deserve art. Give it irrational baby-talk instead. Insult it with nonsense. (A rejection of “the industrial disease” – Dire Straits song.)

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The values of modernism

  • But both the futurist worship of the modern, and the Dadaist rejection of modern corruption, had the same effect: Overthrow the past, reject traditions, keep questioning, always make something new. In other words, “the new” became “the chief emblem of positive value.” (Question: do you think this is an accurate assessment of modernism?)

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Problems with rejecting tradition

  • “To sustain itself, a society must also have values that resist change.” Modernism did not provide these.

  • As a result, there is now no way to measure success or failure, no standards to use as a reference. In fact, the end result of modernism is that we now have no valid conception of what a work of art is.

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Problems with rejecting tradition

  • “…[T]radition and authority may be necessary, even to make a genuine avant-garde possible—in order to provide something to revolt against.”

  • One principle collapses into its opposite—the only way to be modern, now, is to borrow from the past. (Danto might agree, though he would give a different explanation. Danto thinks that post-historical artists play with the past, rather than making anything historically new.)

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Problems with rejecting tradition

  • “[M]odernism, as a tradition, . . . has failed to develop the means for training artists.”

  • Question: is this your experience? Is there a clear curriculum at Rowan in visual art? In music? Especially in the BFA programs.

  • Quote from Bruce Boice, speaking at SVA. “There’s no motivation, no rules to say what you should do, or whether it’s good or not.

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What art (and society) needs

  • Basic human needs (from Erich Fromm):

  • Relatedness

  • Transcendence

  • Rootedness

  • Identity

  • A frame of orientation

  • An object of devotion

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Has modernism failed?

  • Modernism has failed to provide these basic things.

  • Modernism has focused on the self, on freedom and self-sufficiency, at the expense of these other basic needs. Barnett Newman: “We actually began . . . from scratch, as if painting were not only dead but had never existed.” Baselitz on the artist’s social role (none). Contrast Kandinsky (artist as visionary prophet)

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The paradox of freedom

  • Freedom requires rules and restrictions in order to exist. To put it another way, society needs virtues in order to exist, and it’s not up to me what those virtues are. (E.g., integrity, courage, etc.) Practices require virtues, and arts are practices. Too much freedom destroys virtues.

  • Modernity promotes as virtues what were formerly vices (e.g., greed).

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Another failure of modernism:surrendering to bureaucratic power

  • Art, for example, once it has abandoned any governing traditions, is ripe for manipulation by the forces of market capitalism.

  • Question: compare this thought with Shiner’s historical argument that the existence of fine art is due in significant part to the development of an art market among the new middle class in the 18th century.

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Is there any hope for art?(melodramatic music builds in background)

  • (drumroll) Joseph Beuys! Anselm Kiefer!

  • Gablik: these two artists are filled with vision and a sense of transcendence, positively related to society.

  • Think about their work, and that of others you know about. Is there such a thing as post-modern art? Is it a hopeful art? Does it make sense to think of the artist as a shaman?

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How can art go forward?

  • We need traditions, but we can’t just “reimpose traditional forms of authority.”

  • Gablik seems to suggest that we as individuals must find our way forward to new traditions, resisting the pressures to reduce all values to money. Can we do that? And what role may art play in the process?

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So has modernism failed?

  • Gablik does not answer the question. She appears to think that we are not ready to answer it, because at this stage in our history (and partly as a result of modernism) we no longer know what success and failure are.

  • What sort of transformation can we accomplish? Presumably, if we can build something better, and if modernism has prepared the ground, it may after all have succeeded.

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  • Gablik mentions postmodernism, but does not define it. Perhaps it should not be defined. Perhaps it is just a way of saying, “Modernism is over, but we can’t tell yet what is taking its place.”

  • However, J-F. Lyotard (Ross, pp. 561-564) has attempted a definition.

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Lyotard on postmodernism

  • Lyotard defines modernism as the attempt to make visible (or audible) presentations of the unpresentable. This is the category of “the sublime”, that which goes beyond our experience and imagination, yet is conceivable, the transcendent.

  • Thus, Lyotard has more positive things to say than Gablik about modernism. See Kandinsky, and the catalog for The Spiritual in Art.

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Lyotard on postmodernism (cont.)

  • The post-modern is part of the modern. But instead of nostalgia for the simpler past, it declares “war on totality”. I.e., there is not just one way to do things, one way to make art, one truth. So it is even more anti-traditional than straight-ahead modernism. Lyotard thinks it is necessary; nostalgia is dangerous. Totality is dangerous; it brings terror (totalitarianism).

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Further thoughts on the post-modern

  • A plurality of traditions, interests and values is assumed. None is preferred over others nor reduced to others. Dialog and negotiation take the place of integration and assimilation. (Progress, a chief characteristic of modernism, becomes a problematic category within post-modernism.)

  • The past is not rejected, but is mined for what it can offer, often in a spirit of whimsy and humor.

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Further thoughts on the post-modern

  • Our relation to the natural world is re-envisioned. Sustainable life in harmony with nature, rather than conquest of nature, becomes the ideal.

  • In keeping with these trends, the arts are multicultural, often playful, traditionally conscious (but on a pick-and-choose basis), environmentally aware and seeking harmony with nature.

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  • Modernism is over. The idea that there must be one set of values, one way to make art, or one superior culture is rejected.

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  • Four visions of western art history since the Renaissance:

  • Shiner: a great divide between crafts and fine art in the 18th century. Consequence: art divorced from life, crafts minimized, distorted view of arts in other cultures. Maybe a 3rd system of arts is coming.

  • Hegel: art seeks to express the transcendent in the physical, finally comes to an end in favor of philosophy.

  • Danto: art seeks its own essence: art history ends once art puts the proper question to philosophy (i.e., what makes something art if it looks just like a piece of non-art?)

  • Gablik: modernism overthrew tradition, we must recover it if art is to survive.

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Discussion Question

  • Does any of these views seem right to you in any way?

  • Thinking about them, looking at art history and at present art, where are we, and where are we headed?