Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Mythology of Modernism

The brouhaha (and it is laughable) over post-Modernism obscures a more salient condition of our cultural malaise. For most of the twentieth century avant-garde Modernism (if it’s new, it’s got to be good) has eclipsed mature critical discourse. Oddly, the Jesse Helms demagoguery over Robert Mapplethorpe and Andre Serrano has forced the art community to think freshly about the role of art in human communities.

In “Art For Whose Sake?” theatre critic Robert Collins writes: “In 1990, the war over government funding of the arts will be fought in earnest, and the outcome is by no means certain. One thing does seem likely, though. The relationship between public money and art has already changed irrevocably. Artists, art institutions, and funders are asking themselves questions they wouldn’t have dreamed of asking just nine months ago. Suddenly, people have become much more careful about whom they might offend with their art. In this sense, Sen. Helms and his allies have already carried the day.” (Twin Cities Reader, January 3-9, 1990, p. 9.)

What Collins doesn’t make explicit at all is that the crisis only really affects artists who have been following the Modernist ultra-experimentalist line. What we might call for the sake of argument the anti-Modernists (cowboy art, duck stamp art, wildlife art, aeronautical art, indeed all those despised genres which had the temerity to cherish readily recognizable images that a minority of a tax-paying public chose to create in) are not affected at all by this crisis in public funding.

And though these “outsider” artists are a minority of creators (since the M.F.A. establishment went uncritically Modernist shortly after the McCarthy crisis rendered abstraction less contentious than figuration), their putative audiences form an overwhelming majority of the viewers of Art. That is the message behind Richard Serra’s “Tilted Art” having been tilted right off of Foley Plaza to a has-bin in Brooklyn. And it is the same tax-paying majority whose penchant for the recognizable has been mocked by the Modernist establishment which ultimately gives Jesse Helms his clout. He who pays the piper finally calls the tune. No aesthetic taxation without commensurate representation.

And Collins sees this with a clarity rare among Modernists: “To accept funding from a government agency means giving up a portion of your autonomy. To think otherwise is foolishly na├»ve. Artists are always free to do as they choose, but they can’t expect public money to support their every whim. Presumably, the federal government is in the business of funding art because art somehow serves the public good. Government support of education, for example, is based on the same principle.

An educated electorate being necessary to the proper functioning of a democracy, we readily funnel money into our schools.” Ah, there’s a major rub. For money has never been funneled equitably into the lower schools—the better-off suburbs got more and more, the desperate inner cities got less and less, with entirely predictably results, a callous two-tiering of opportunity, esthetic and otherwise. It is these intellectual deficits that antedate (but were immeasurably deepened by) the Reagan Administration that serious people, artists as well as appreciators, must begin to address.

Collins’ citing the analogy of the financing of mass education inadvertently pinpoints the heart of the problem. NEA funding is by and large Bandaids for the failures of art education in our common schools. In Canada and Europe where, paradoxically, education is in fact more egalitarian than in ours, arts, patronage is much more vigorous at both the personal and public funding levels. And here is where we must ruthlessly expose the role of Modernism in exacerbating the arts crisis.

For Modernism, in my judgment, is a cluster of assumption that bitter twentieth century experience has exposed as fallacious: That unceasing experimentation is a good per se (this is actually a false analogy with scientific empiricism where failed experiments are, to use the philosopher’s jargon, publicly verifiable: no art experiment is ever judged a failure, a latitudinarian posture that has given cranks and mountebanks free rein); that the more avant the innovation, the deeper the esthetic experience—a fallacy that has driven each generation of art students to perpetrate shticks that are uniquely marketable to them—so Sherrie Levine manhandles classic photographs, Cindy Sherman trots out yet another context for her narcissism, and Jenny Holzer achieves aphoraphobia (fear of aphorisms) by the increasing vacuity of her L.E.D. one-phrasers.

Realists of the country, unite: you have nothing to lose but the sneers of an exhausted Modernism.

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