The Modernist arc

6 February, 2009

[From a post about the problem of modern (visual) art]

I think it’s a fallacy to blame modern art on the invention of photography. After all, there are no analogical innovations to explain similar developments in music or architecture.

The roots of Modernist progressivism stretch back to the Enlightenment of the 18th century, when our modern scientific understanding of the world began, and when political revolution (in America and France) seemed a real and imminent possibility. From the scientific revolution we gained the idea of the world as mechanistic, that is, changing via observable material causes rather than by divine fiat. This concept led to things like science fiction and the big public health movements of the 19th century, but also shaped that period’s revolutionary mindset, which led to Marx’s notion that society was like a boat in the sea of history, that’s course could be altered at will, even (or especially) if the crew mutinied. This idea in turn fed back into the arts, leading to what we can call the Bolshevik art movements of the 20th century, which deliberately sought to insult their patrons, assault their audiences, and claim a privileged understanding of historical “necessity” (“anyone who has not understood the necessity of the dodecaphonic system is useless!”).

The revolutionary pose of Modern artists was always a pose, of course. Artists did their best to get comfortably settled into the art (anti)establishment, usually with support from the public purse, and aspired to bourgois comfort even if they proclaimed themselves to be Leninists. Architect Mies van der Rohe insisted his clients live in stark, undecorated boxes, but his own homes were always furnished in a most comfortable and old-fashioned style.

After their peak of public interest in the mid-20th century, the vapidity of “revolutionary art” gradually came to be understood, but still few artists and critics are prepared to expose themselves to ridicule by suggesting that art should sincerely attempt to be understandable and beautiful, without the pretense of attacking or sneering at its audience. Nor has the idea that artistic traditions are to be nurtured, rather than annihilated, gained much currency.

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