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The Reluctant Death of Modernism
© 2000 by Michael Pearce

Moving from the anti-art attitudes of the 20th century towards figurative paintings with a firm grounding in technical ability

Since world war one artists have been preoccupied with the horrific, with destruction and deconstruction as the keys to their work. The relevance of Modernist art as a reaction to two horrific world wars is slipping away into history with the replacement of the generations who have participated in the artistic world of the modern period with that of our current disenfranchised, dissatisfied generation and the historic punctuation of the turn of the century.

Tristan Tsara, Marcel Duchamp and others who began in the DADA movement of the 1914 - 18 war were reacting to a world in which the old ways of established society had led their countries to a war in which millions died. Their reaction to the art of the establishment responsible was one of dismay and disgust. With the war to end wars massacring their friends and brothers, how could these artists regard the galleries of the salon with anything BUT contempt.

Current art - of which Hirst's pickled and dissected animals are as good an example as any - is rooted in the tradition of ANTI - ART, begun by the dadaists and continuing to this day, pervasive and insidious. We can see the destruction and de-construction of painting throughout the progression of movements that we have endured over the past eighty years. There has been an erosion of all aspects of figurative painting; first, the breakdown of form, with Braque and Picasso's work leading the way, then the denial of subject with Pollock and the abstract expressionists, later the demolition of the brushstroke and texture by the flatness-obsessed Pop art movement, and finally the almost complete annihilation of any painting technique at all with minimalism. Thus we have reached the end of the modernist journey in painting - there is nowhere for modernists to go. Post-modernism seems lost in concept; self-absorbed and determined to shock, with no painting involved.

In 1999 the Turner Prize show featured no painters at all; in the previous year the only painter was Ofilli, who set adolescent standards indeed with his Madonna with elephant poop and porno collage. We are told that concept is everything, that one cannot look at a work of art without an understanding of the conceit of the creator of that piece - this means that we can look at a pile of fat piled on a chair (an intrinsically ugly object) and find that the conceptual process is actually more important than the finished object itself. It has become unacceptable to create a beautiful image for the sake of creating a beautiful image! This is nonsense! Roger Kimball has expressed this well:

"This much, I think, is clear: without an allegiance to beauty, art degenerates into a caricature of itself; it is beauty that animates aesthetic experience, making it so seductive; but aesthetic experience itself degenerates into a kind of fetish or idol if it is held up as an end in itself, untested by the rest of life." Roger Kimball, The Trivialisation of Outrage, 1999

Ironically the anti-art aesthetic has become that which the dadaists sought to destroy. Modern and Post-modern art is now the art of the wealthy establishment, appreciated by the elite group of critics and collectors who maintain the intellectual facade that hides the truth that this world of art is a joke perpetrated and maintained to destroy a culture that has gone. How relevant is modern art to a culture that rests eighty years after the wars that inspired it? The term "modern" itself is sounding dated, having been introduced in the twenties to add spin to the new art and architecture that was rising up and rebuilding a brave new world after the great war; it now sounds tired and somewhat comical.

Nick Serota is the Director of the Tate Modern, who recently had this to say about art:

"Much modern art is, at first sight, unnerving. Personally, I rather welcome that. In the contemporary world, we have come to expect instant response and immediate understanding. Damien Hirst's Mother and Child Divided (1993) is a work that can, at first glance, be read as nothing more than two brutally severed carcasses. 'A freak show', was how an art critic responded to its presentation in the Turner Prize in 1995. For me, the undoubted shock, even disgust, provoked by the work is part of its appeal. Art should be transgressive. Life is not all sweet." Nicholas Serota, The Richard Dimbleby Lecture, BBC TV, 23rd November 2000.

Art should be transgressive! This absurd comment is from the mouthpiece of the establishment! Serota is the Director of the leading government funded Art museum in England! If the established form of art is said to be transgressive, yet has become universal, what is it transgressing against? Culture? It can only transgress against itself; Morality? Then the art is depraved; God? Then the contest can only prove uneven, God is infinite while fashions in art are strictly temporary.

It is absurd that "shock" should be unshocking, but that is becoming the reality of the museum visiting experience. The shock has become boring. I recently was at a taxidermist¹s workshop, which reminded me of Damien Hirst, and made me wonder where his work should be displayed. Perhaps a museum of Natural History would be more appropriate? I do find it interesting to examine the biology of dissected animals, yet I wonder if this is a "rubber-neck" reaction akin to drivers passing a freeway wreck.

I met modernist David Hockney in his studio recently. He convincingly demonstrated to me (with the help of his assistant, several hundred colour copies of paintings, a camera lucida and a camera obscura) that lenses were in use by painters as tools to make their works since about 1450. Interestingly that is about when the early work with perspective was being done by Masacchio, Uccello, Da Vinci and other renaissance artists. As a modernist target in the de-construction of painting, perspective was disposed of long ago when the cubists began their experiments. In perspective drawing the illusion of depth depends upon the use of infinite vanishing points to lead the viewer¹s eye; removing the vanishing point removes the infinite from the image, thus losing that illusion of depth. Towards the end of our discussion Hockney declared that "the use of lens technology has been a complete disaster." (Interesting then that Hockney's recent work has been based on the use of camera lucida and that his most famous past works have been photographic collages like Pear Blossom Highway at the Getty Museum.)

The humanist modernist century has removed the infinite from painting and God from its credo. In perspective theory the infinite vanishing point is the focus of the painting's construction; similar rules apply to the use of lenses in camera obscura: the effect is the same in both cases, i.e. that the relationship of the viewer to the painting is one of a visual journey to the infinite; if we remove that focal point the only single point in the experience is the viewer. A perfect symbol of the century; the viewer is more significant in the relationship than the painting. Is it surprising then that the art that has come from the modernists has been so ugly? The infinite isn't in it.

With the turn of the millennium, the entire twentieth century began to sound old-fashioned, and in the future all the art that is currently enveloped in smug post-modern intellectual wrapping paper is going to be revealed in its naked vulnerability as part of the ugliest period of art that the human race has seen. Where do we look for relief?

The extraordinary Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum has recently published an exceptional article entitled "Kitsch" (to be found at http://www.nerdrum.com/kitsch/), in which he describes how he has realized that he is not an artist! This is an amazing statement coming from a man whose mastery of painting is so clearly apparent in his work, but when we read what he says, he is right, and telling the truth. He believes, and with good reason, that what he does is not art within the current understanding of the word; that in disregarding concept and concentrating on technique and beauty he fails to walk in stride with modern artists; he is in fact a kitsch painter:

"Today, at the end of the century, we see a paradoxical result. Modernism has become a tradition that has conquered the western world. Institutions, critics, artists and the educated public are obligated to be 'open for the new'. But what is important in this context is not modernism's all including legitimizing of the already existing. What I am concerned about is what modernism extracted as it's second. The same way Christianity demonised its competitors, modernism did with its competition. The ruler of modernism's hell got the name kitsch. Kitsch became the name of art's antithesis." Odd Nerdrum, Kitsch - The Difficult Choice, Dagbladet, 1998.

It is easy to be contemptuous of the concept of kitsch; we have grown up with the idea that kitsch is the painting of the tearful clown, or the moose by the lake; these images have their problems, to be sure, but what Nerdrum is describing is a far wider field which includes the old masters, religious art, classical music and so on:

"Kitsch is the expression of passion at all levels, and not the servant of truth. It keeps relative to religion and truth... Truth, kitsch leaves for (modern) art. In kitsch skill is the important criteria.... Kitsch serves life and seeks the individual." Odd Nerdrum, Kitsch - The Difficult Choice, Dagbladet, 1998.

Modernists have been so concerned with irony and distance that they have regarded Kitsch with contempt - the problem for them was that kitsch is concerned with pathos - about what we like to call 'the human'. "Kitsch serves life and seeks the individual". Modern Art seeks to destroy a long gone establishment and reach the mass to communicate rebellion. Post Modernists are like Cuban revolutionaries who, aging and outdated, cling to their decrepit system.

More and more frequently I meet young people who are searching for beauty, tired of seeing objects in galleries that are expressions of an idea that has no relevance to them. They admire technique in the creation of beauty on canvas and value it; they are hungry for something that will satisfy them; mystery, the Infinite.

I was impressed recently by an observation made by Doctor John T. Spike:

"For the past ten centuries at least, every dismal fin de siecle has been succeeded by an outburst of creative energy that has flown in the face of critical platitudes and has set the tone for the ensuing century." Dr. John T. Spike, Nelson Shanks PAFA Catalogue, 1996.

What will follow our own "dismal fin de siecle"? Already we are seeing a slow but certain move towards figurative paintings with a firm grounding in technical ability; a move towards the kitsch antithesis of modern art. Odd Nerdrum and other figurative painters who have seized the techniques of master painters and defiantly made them their own are leading the way by working with mystery and the search for the infinite. Perhaps we will fill the need of those restless people who search the galleries for the outburst of creative energy that must surely follow the death of modernism.

Last updated: 12 April 2006
Updated by: Matt Bynum