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.
Entries in modernism (11)
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.
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.
When looking at the subject of modernism you cannot ignore the seminal work “Modernist Painting” by Clement Greenberg. Throughout my education I have read the essay severl times and have only just started to understand the importance of the work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 modernism, there are only a select few who are associated with the development of ideas and practises in the medium of photography. However, one of these fathers of modern art is Hungarian born, László Moholy-Nagy.
Maholy-Nagy and his wife, Lucia Maholy, continually experimented with the photographic process and they soon developed a way of exposing light sensitive paper with objects overlaid on top of it, called a photogram. I was fortunate to witness first hand a It is one of these photograms that we will now discuss. “Oval study”/Photogram 1926 (above) was created while Maholy-Nagy was still at the Bauhaus in Germany. The technique involves no negative and therefore has no need for a camera. The photographic paper is directly exposed either using the enlarger or a lamp as the light source. This technique puts the emphasis onto the artist and removes the human-machine relationship the photographer usually contends with. This photogram has been created using a number of different objects which have been added and removed at different stages of the exposure. Maholy-Nagy had complete control over the arrangement of objects and the manipulation of light. It is too hard to hazard a guess at the identity of the specific objects. However, there appears to be an egg shaped object, alongside some long thin lines, which almost mimic guitar strings. This photograms heightens our intrigue by posing endless questions behind his intentions, leaving it open for each individual’s own interpretation.
The egg shape appears to be the most striking of the objects, not just because of it’s shape but how Maholy-Nagy leaves it stationary/exposed for the longest amount of time creating a dominant glow. As for the rest of the photo, the overall impression is one of drama, which is heightened by the strong contrast. He purposefully moves each item as he exposes it to the light which in turn creates an eerie feel through the faint shadows/silhouettes it leaves behind. This gives a more three-dimensional feel to the objects, drawing them out of the photogram.
As well as the egg, are eyes are also drawn by his clever mix of hard line formation and soft tones. The lines lead our eyes very naturally from the bottom right to the top left. (Left) I have inverted the tones to put emphasis on the main shapes, forms and compositional elements. The composition does not fit into normal photographic compositional rules, such as the rule of thirds, which Ansel Adams pioneered at a similar time. However, I find the image has a great deal of pictorial rhythm
His careful use and arrangement of the objects please a pure aesthetic desire for both the artist and us the viewer. This photogram is a prime example of modernist ideals in practise. To explain this, there is first a need to explore what modernism is.
In Western art, Modernism self-consciously rejected the past as a model for the art of the present. This is where the route of the name modernist or modern art comes from. Modernism proposes new forms of art on the grounds that these are better suited to the present time. Therefore, it is characterised by constant innovation and progression. Maholy-Nagy was noted for having these characteristics and his teachings strongly backed up these ideas. Modernists believed that one could communicate the universal meanings of life through the formal qualities in a piece of work. Throughout modernism the belief in these formal qualities and the notion of a pure aesthetic experience were major themes. Modernism originally gained pace from about 1850. It usually refers to the succession of art movements that critics and historians have identified from the realism of Gustave Courbet, to its climax in abstract art and its developments up to the 1960’s. By this time Modernism had become a dominant area of art and soon provoked a reaction which was quickly dubbed Postmodernism. Having said this, many critics still recognise that forms of late modernism still remain right into the 21st century, although the main ideas have been increasingly challenged.
As I have previously stated, there are only a few photographers who were associated with the avant guard of modernism. The cubist and dadist 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 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. There are a few other artists/photographers which are worth mentioning, however, Man Ray has interesting similarities in his work, to that of Maholy-Nagy. It is interesting that Maholy-Nagy claimed that he discovered the photogram without knowing the works of either Man Ray or Christian Schad.
As a technique I enjoy the process, as an artist I find him inspiring. However, as an athesetic I find most modernist or specifically mimilaist styled imagery such as this lacking something. I think this is due to a lot of my ideals have been shaped by post-modernism. I do not concider myself or my own work post-modernist, but I do beleive that art needs to engage with the world and its issues.
Either way you cannot reject the importance he has had on the modern history of photography.
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy: The Art of Light by Oliva Maria Rubio, Vicenzo Vitiello, Hattula Moholy-Nagy and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (Sep 30, 2010)
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy: The Photograms by Herbert Molderings, Renate Heyne, Hattula Moholy-Nagy and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (Jan 31, 2010)
http://www.moholy-nagy.com/ Accessed November 2010, used for historical records and biographical information.
When considering art's reaction to events, you cannot avoid movements such as Dadaism. The movement was really born out of a reaction to the First World War, its art focused on throwing away the established preconceptions. Similarly the seeds for the cultural shift towards post-modernism 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 of it being a purely aesthetic, rational or documentary experience, it needed to comment on the world to show people the truth and engage them emotionally.