The origins of “modernism” date from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth. Urbanisation, grueling wars fought with never-before-seen mechanical horrors, medical advancements and new conveniences brought into homes had much to do with the formation of distinct, disillusioned-yet-progressive identities in the West. There were three concepts around which the brave new world tended to revolve — modernisation, modernity, and modernism.
Modernisation refers to a range of technological, economic, and political processes associated with the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath. Modernity reflects the social conditions and modes of experience that are seen as the effects of these processes. Modernism can be classified as the property or quality of being modern or up-to-date. It also tends to imply a type of position or attitude – one characterised by specific forms of response towards both modernisation and modernity.
When the term Modernism is applied to art, there are two problems that must be faced. The first issue is that Modernism is not neatly used to cover all the work produced during the modern period. The second problem at hand is that there are different views on the historical positioning of Modernism. Some arguments are based on attempts to connect the works’ appearances; Modernists broke down illusionistic traditions into the basic shapes, colours, and materials of art making. This launched a fleet of new movements in art like fauvism and cubism and all its vast, always evolving inheritance. Fauvism, favoured by a young Matisse and friends, is known for its wild tendencies towards simplification of form and the loose, expressive exaggeration of hues; while cubism was the lovechild of Picasso and Braque’s collaborations, in which ordinary objects were broken up and coloured similarly, losing all but the vaguest connections with their natural state. Later on, rules and reasons for this dramatic shift in painting would be pushed further and become more structured, with the dawning of abstract expressionism.
To argue that there is logic found in the development of modernist art and, in particular, modernist painting, is to identify the essence of Modernism as “the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself — not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” Critics tells us that modern art “criticises from the inside (rather than from the outside), through the procedures themselves of that which is being criticised.” With flat picture planes, abstractions and unmasked brushstrokes emphasising the two-dimensional nature of mixed pigments, canvases and other supports, modernism turned out paintings meant to be nothing but paintings, unlike centuries’ worth of older works with aimed to capture realistic truths of nature.
Every “formal social activity” requires a rational justification. Without this justification, the discipline in question, such as painting, philosophy, physics, poetry, even mathematics, is discredited and weakened. Many take the view that this is what happened with religion. Post-Enlightenment art, or roughly speaking, art produced after the eighteenth century, was at once in precisely this situation of needing a justification. Thus, it was called upon to establish its own autonomy by means of a “deduction”, an argument for its legitimacy and its capacity to provide us with experience that cannot be obtained through any other art or social practice. The uniqueness of an art form ultimately depends upon the specificity of the medium, the characteristics that it shares with no other form of art. Once this specificity has been discovered, the progressive modernist is called upon to purge all elements not essential and specific to the medium. Nothing borrowed from the medium of another art can be tolerated. Thus, under Modernism, each art searches for “purity” and in that purity, absolute autonomy not only from other advanced art forms, but from mundane everyday life and popular culture as well. Modernism reasserts the two-dimensionality of the picture surface. It forces the viewer to see the painting first as a painted surface and only later as a picture. This, I believe, is the best way to see any kind of picture, as the feat of creation remains central in the face of a finished product.
Then of course, there is the tangled mess of Postmodernism, which is often characterised as a critique of Modernism and the project, even goal, of modernity. It is best understood as part of a cultural shift which has been felt in science, philosophy, and the arts. Deconstructive Postmodernism is a view that challenges the worth of key ideas and values sometimes associated with modernist art, such as equality, personal freedom, unconventional beauty, capitalism and a general bourgeois sensibility. Deconstructive Postmodernists argue that such values are baseless because they rest on certain confident assumptions about the way the world is, whereas in fact nothing in the world is knowable or understandable. Consequently, many have argued that Deconstructive Postmodernism is nihilistic in nature.
Constructive Postmodernism is thought of as a more proactive theoretical approach that does not reject modernism but rather seeks to revise its ideas and values. It is in many respects a call to return to pre-modern values according to which matters of aesthetics, spirituality, science and ethics were understood to be united, so that, for example, artists did not consciously differentiate between what was aesthetically pleasing and spiritually profound. Constructive Postmodernist criticism is deliberately vague due to its fundamental suspicion of modernism’s fondness for categorisation and classification.
This sort of art and the muddy arguments exchanged in reaction to it aren’t for everybody. But modern art, which might lack some of the precision and polish of earlier traditions, will remain a popular favourite in blue chip galleries, on the auction block and amongst massive amateur audiences. There’s something naturally alluring about bold bursts of colour and seemingly nonsensical compositions, and knowing a bit more about how the art historical period is understood today can help inform feelings about modern art— although whether its appealing or off-putting qualities lie in its honest disregard for discernible silhouettes, or the intellectual goldmine it keeps buried below its surfaces is for every viewer to decide.
Sources: Greenberg, Clement. Modernist Painting. 1960. In Harrison & Wood (eds) Art in theory 1900-1990 (Oxford and Cambridge, 1993)
Harrison, Charles, Modernism. London: Tate, 2003.
Heartney, Eleanor, Postmodernism, London: Tate, 2004