Understanding Modernism - An alter/meta/remodern artist putting his work in context.
MA Art & Design
This essay will discuss the fundamental shift in worldview that is often summed up by modernism. It will discuss in an overview some of the key themes associated with this movement and specifically how it affected and influenced art practice in the west. It will then go on to discuss the importance of modernism in relation to my own work and practice as an artist and photographer. The importance of the reaction to postmodernism cannot be ignored, especially in relation to my own work, this essay will therefore discuss this transition. It will also explain the title by proposing the contemporary context I work in and what the art landscape looks like since the gradual demise of postmodernism.
Modernism as a term can be used to describe a number of different time frames and movements. This can range from anything since the Renaissance 14th -17th Century (which interestingly coincides with the rise of capitalism) or since the mid – 19th century until the mid 20th century or even a specific style of art. For the purpose of this essay we will concentrate on the term as it is usually referred to in terms of art history. Most modernists were utopian idealists, who believed that the new modern way of thinking would bring progress for the future. This was built on scientific process and it reasoned that for something to exist you must be able to prove it. A modernist might reason, I will only believe what I can see and do. “I think therefore I am.”( Descartes, 1985) This famous quote by René Descartes seems to me to sum up a lot of modernist thinking.
In terms of Western art, modernism originally gained pace from around 1850 with a succession of movements from the realism of Gustave Courbet, to its climax in abstract art in the 1960’s. Modernism self-consciously rejected old ways of doing things in exchange for the art of the present. It proposed new methods on the grounds that they were better suited to the present. It was characterised by constant progression, innovation and the notion of pure aesthetic experience. Some modernists argued that the universal meanings and truths in life could be communicated through the formal qualities in a piece of art work. A few other key themes began to characterise it, including concepts of originality, newness, abstraction and of the artist expressing themself. It was counter consumerist and mass culture. The literary critic Paul De Man explains it like this; “Modernity exists in the form of a desire to wipe out whatever came earlier, in the hope of reaching at least a point that could be called a true present, a point of origin that marks a new departure.” (De Man,1969). This lead to the notion of the avant garde or the “forward guard”. It was first developed and embraced by modernist artists as a way to identify the cutting edge of contemporary art, design, writing and philosophy. This promoted the idea that the forefront of art is and should be exclusive. It requires a highly developed sense of taste or aesthetic sensibility to understand it. It becomes elitist.
When looking at the subject of modernism you cannot ignore the seminal work “Modernist Painting” by Clement Greenberg. Greenberg was an important art writer and defender of modernism, he established the notion of a painting being a two dimensional, flat surface with which the creator interacts to make an object in its own right. He argues “The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” Greenberg C. In basic terms a painting being a painting, not what it depicts. “Painting” itself becomes the subject of the work and a synthesis between content and form. The further you push this idea, you ultimately end up with the painting becoming an autonomous object. Although it has a relationship with the real world - what it depicts is essentially a lie.
The momentum for modernism can be seen with artists such as Édouard Manet. His paintings around the mid 19th century started to hint at breaking away from the conventions of the work that had come before him. Although he was clearly influenced by old masters before him, he set to shake up the art world. He suggested that the composition was more important then the realistic depiction of the scene. As an artist he was rejected from the Paris Salon, for his crude and unconventional works. This clear rejection of tradition is a trait that reoccurs across the various modernist movements. Modernism covers a large range of separate movements and styles, these include cubism, pop art, minimalism, neo – dada and abstract expressionism. These important movements and many more went on to define 20th century art and set a context for which all contemporary art benefits from. Even in literature, fiction writers such as James Joyce experimented with traditional forms and became known as one of the foremost modernist writers. A popular modernist view was that in order to do something new, you need to be aware of what came before. This is still widely supported even when many of the other modernist ideas are largely rejected.
In photography masters such as Alfred Stieglitz are closely associated with modernism. Stieglitz’s photograph “The Steerage” is often sited as the first modernist photograph. As a gallery owner and avid photographer, he was a prominent figure in the acceptance of photography as art. In modernism, there are only a select few who are associated with the development of ideas and practices in the medium of photography. The cubist and dadaist inspired photogram experiments of Christian Schad had in turn inspired the American born, Man Ray. Man Ray pushed the creative and technical possibilities of this process which he dubbed “rayographs”. Through his famous photograms, Man Ray became recognised as a major international influence and was associated with artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia. Like László Maholy-Nagy, Man Ray started out using paint and even sculpture instead of the photographic process. However, he soon went onto push the boundaries of light manipulation and is now recognised as one of the great masters of the photographic medium. It is interesting that Maholy-Nagy claimed that he discovered the photogram without knowing the works of either Man Ray or Christian Schad. The modernist idea of what a piece of art depicts becoming essentially a lie, becomes even more interesting when you relate this to photography. This concept interests me as in my own practice, especially in regards to camera/lens based work. My work changes between a documentary approach and a more constructed or manipulated one. The debate around the subject “does the camera lie?” is most eloquently discussed around these modernist ways of thinking and concepts.
In my own practice I have been creating slightly more abstract and directly constructed imagery. My series of work “Light in the Darkness” depict a number of locations and more importantly events where light and dark are captured in tension with each other. The process of painting with light forces me to slow the image creation process down. I used over 10 Min exposures, torches, flashguns, assistants and lots of jumping up and down to create these fictional events. The images are carefully assembled from pre-conceived ideas and compositions. The work is inspired by artists such as Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson, who are not considered modernist, however, the inclusion of the painting with light technique involves a direct light invention as in the photograms of the modernist photographers. The simplistic and almost abstract compositions that are produced could also reference modernist inspirations.
Another style of work that I have been working on is using montage or more specifically photomontage. As a technique it is very similar to David Hockney’s Joiners from the 80’s, although it also has close associations with some modernist movements. Taking from Cubism’s lead a number of other modern art movements starting working with collage and photomontage. Some of the key artists include; Raoul Hausmaan, Hannah Hoch, John Heartfield (Helmut Herzfelde) and the constructionist Alexander Rodechenko. The format was also used by some of the artists in the Pop Art movement, such as Richard Hamilton, who was known for his re-appropriation of images from popular culture. With my series “Lutopia” I stood in a location and extensively photographed a scene with an exact number of images. These images were then cut up and glued to hardboard.
The large scale photo-montages depict views of in and around Luton. The fragmented works envelope the viewer in a distorted panoramic world that seem familiar yet somehow painterly. The collection makes an enquiry into the photographic image as an object, a self-referring form. Photography has lost its association with the notion of truth. The work does not resist this change, it embraces it. There are many imperfections and repetitions in the work. This is intentional, as it again references the passage of time, fragmentation and the cubist inspirations. More importantly, it shows how I have begun to create and subvert the image to reveal my reality of the place (as a painter would). Although the image is no longer a true photographic representation it remains connected to my interpretation of the truth of the scene. The terms montage and collage are often used interchangeably and both are associated with the early stages of modernism.
To understand modernism, it is worth first putting it in the context of the run up to the way of thinking called pre-modernity. Pre-modernity in the widest sense was characterised by a time when there was ultimate truth and this truth exists outside of the individual. There is also authoritative sources of this truth, which were largely religious scriptures and texts. Art mostly responded and commented on these ultimate truths. Pre-modern western art was still predominantly based on religious themes. This was also before a lot of key changes in the west: - it was pre-enlightenment, pre-industrialisation, pre-colonialism and even pre-individualism. All of these large cultural shifts that came dramatically affected the environment in which art was created and viewed. With the shift towards modernism came a far more logical and scientific outlook. What was lost was some of the mysticism and the sense that there is more to existence then just what you could explain or prove. This longing to bring back some of these elements led the way for post-modernism.
As a reaction postmodernism is mostly readily understood by a rejection of modernism. Many critics still recognise that forms of late modernism still remain even now, although the main ideas have been increasingly challenged and rejected. There are many artists associated with postmodernism. Marcel Duchamp is most interesting to me, because he could be considered both a modernist and postmodernist. He was associated with the Dada movement, a prominent postmodern art movement that was really born out of a reaction to the First World War, its art focused on throwing away the established preconceptions. Duchamp’s famous urinal with the pseudo name “R. Mutt” written on it, broke all the modernist rules. In light of this work, there is a sense of what challenge is left in art? “His greatest contribution to the history of art lies in his ability to question, admonish, critique, and playfully ridicule existing norms in order to transcend the status quo—he effectively sanctioned the role of the artist to do just that.” (Rosenthal, 2004). The tension comes in realising that in embracing the modernist view of historical progression and engaging with modern life and its ideas brought Duchamp to the point of rejecting modernism itself.
The seeds for the cultural shift towards postmodernism were sown in the aftermath of the Second World War and accelerated by the war in Vietnam. The artists began to feel that art had to be more than the modernist view, a purely aesthetic, rational or documentary experience, it needed to comment on the world to show people the truth and engage them emotionally. My own art feels most aligned with this stance and most of my own research and practice is fundamentally focused on art as intervention and how creativity can have a positive impact on the world. Postmodernism can also be characterised by its rejection of science and government. This can largely be attributed to the world events such as the world wars, and the spectre of nuclear holocaust. People and artists started asking whether there was more to life than what we can prove. The idea of ownership became less important, the rules and clear definitions in art started to become blurred. It argued that nothing is fixed and this in turn led to declaring there is no such thing as absolute truth. This self defeating statement is one of the main reasons I do not identify with postmodernism.
It is important to realise that although postmodernism is essentially a theory, it has been widely supported. Nowadays postmodernist ideas and themes are being increasingly challenged, but the post-postmodernism debate is still on going. There have been several theories that have been put forward to answer the question “what next?”. Remodernism, a movement founded by artist’s Billy Childish and Charles Thompson, looked to reintroduce aspects of modernism while bringing in a period of new spirituality into art. They suggested that both modernism and post-modernism are “cynical and spiritually bankrupt” (Childish, 2000) and remodernism has been suggested as a renewal of the sense of beauty. Part of the remodernist manifesto states “The making of true art is man's desire to communicate with himself, his fellows and his God. Art that fails to address these issues is not art.” (Childish, 2000). This is an incredible statement and one that I certainly warm to. In rejecting of old forms, such as the religious, modernism and post-modernism failed to engage with a deeper part of man, the soul. Spiritual does not mean religious, which is also stated in the Remodernism manifesto.
Another stance that takes a position between modernism and postmodernism is metamodernism. It was proposed by Robin van den Akker and Timotheus Vermeulen in 2010. They suggest a sensibility that is both looking for universal truths and political relativism. The term meta refers to Plato’s metaxy or ‘middle ground’. What they are pointing to is the fact that there are elements of good and truth in modernism and postmodernism, but both are equally floored, that there may be another way, a third way. One theory that has recently been suggested is Altermodernism. It’s an attempt at contextualising contemporary art made as a reaction against commercialism. The Tate Britain’s fourth Triennial exhibition was titled Altermodernism, which was curated by Nicolas Bourriaud. “[Altermodernism is] a movement connected to the creolisation of cultures and the fight for autonomy, but also the possibility of producing singularities in a more and more standardised world"(Bourriaud, 2005). It is described in terms of the end of postmodernism, the expanding formats of art, cultural hybridisation and travelling as a new way to produce forms. As an artist I can identitfy with travel and cultural exchanges and making it an important part of the art process.
Modernism has forever transformed society, culture and the context within which all contemporary art is made. It was a fundamentally floored but equally neccessary transition to come through. The reaction to postmodernism has opened up the space in which an art can be practiced and freed the artist to question and challenge everything. I am an artist in the tradition of Jeremy Deller. His practice is based around the bringing together of concepts, projects and mediums. He regularly breaks conventions, works cross platform and cross media. My own practice is similarly varied. This breaking down of barriers and moving across mediums is certainly a result and fruit of postmodernism, although I do not support much of its theoretical elements. In searching for context for my own work I find myself identifying with elements of altermodenism, metamodernism and remodernism. Fundamentally I believe that art should interact, comment and even try and change the world, whilst still providing space for enjoying the shear beauty or challenging concept of a piece of art. Art and cultural history will show how we characterise this current phase we are currently in. Some even argue that since postmodernism, that even defining movements has become impossible. Whether that is true or not, I hope that the art made today in this broken world we live in is celebrated for its ability to bring about positive change.
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