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Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism

Twentieth-century art history is a field conspicuously lacking in general surveys: attempts to construct any kind of overview soon break up into episodes that tell the rise and fall of individual movements, Post-Impressionism giving way to Fauvism and so forth. Although each of these appears vivid and distinct, the prevailing narrative logic has been that of the fragment, leaving interrelations between movements and their embeddedness in underlying historical processes obscure. The goal of Art since 1900 is to counter fragmentation, though not by reducing everything to a totalizing account. It mobilizes no fewer than four art-historical approaches, each with the potential to bind the fragments in its own domain: Formalism, with its attentiveness to the specific organization of the work of art; the social history of art, with its capacity for aligning aesthetic and social experience; psychoanalysis, in its sensitivity to the links between the psychic and the social; and Post-Structuralism, in its inquiry into the place of the human subject within signifying systems.
Entries committed to the Formalist framework are by Yve-Alain Bois, whose Formalism should not be confused with that of Clement Greenberg, for whom Modernism advanced through the purification of its aesthetic means. Bois’ Formalism is closer to that of his teacher Roland Barthes, whose seminar Bois joined when Barthes was turning from the high Structuralism of Critique et Vérité and Sur Racine to the Post-Structuralism of S/Z and Sade, Fourier, Loyola (both from 1971). Although Barthes’ attention to the structural principles organizing the text remained the core of his method, his focus shifted to the place of the human subject in relation to textual systems. Two ideas were essential: that no text was the original emanation of an author/god controlling its meanings from on high; and that the reader should not be defined as a sovereign subject, since readers were only the sum of the various discourses they brought to the text.
Bois’ debt to Barthes is clear in his brilliant entries on Matisse, which seek to understand the artist’s radical commitment to the logic of the ‘all-over’: a pictorial field no longer split between figure and ground, a surface whose every square centimetre was as taut as the skin of a drum. Viewing is an aesthetic experience of visual jouissance or ‘blinding’, intense sensations that cannot be fully apprehended or taken in, and which remain radically dispersed and decentralized.
What is at stake in both Barthes and Bois is the overturning of the classical subject of representation as masterful and controlling. Here Bois’ thinking goes back beyond Barthes to the Modernist avant-garde, whose project was the dismantling of bourgeois conceptions of subjectivity. A construction differed from a composition in that its organization derived from the nature and dimensions of the materials used, not from decisions taken independently. Yet alongside the Bois of Formalism there is an alter ego, equally fascinated by the informe, the ruination of form. And at first it seems hard to understand why a critic drawn to such obviously ‘Structuralist’ art should also be a devotee of Georges Bataille.
Again, there may be a debt to Barthes, whose interest in jouissance led from Jean Racine and Honoré de Balzac to the linguistic madness of Sade, Fourier and Loyola. But Bois’ focus on the informe may stem from his understanding of Modernism as overturning the illusions holding together the bourgeois citizen–ego. Access to the experience of pure, aesthetic form had been a traditional component of bourgeois identity, but to suspicious Modernists form was perhaps the ultimate bourgeois delusion. Bois devotes a span of essays to art that undermined and degraded received ideas of formal coherence: Alberto Giacometti’s Surrealist sculpture, Lucio Fontana’s unashamed delvings into kitsch and glitz, Piero Manzoni’s culture of junk and merda, and Gutai, the Japanese response to Pollock that radicalized the ‘action’ in ‘action painting’. Bois identifies the informe as one of the major tropes of Modernism, alongside the all-over, the grid, the monochrome, the ready-made. He might have extended its scope to include artists such as Cindy Sherman, Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley. Disappointingly, Bois’ last entry is for 1967. I would give a lot to know his view of art over the past four decades.
Benjamin Buchloh’s entries develop the framework of the social history of art, where the central problem of Modernism lies in the tense relation of the avant-garde to the emergent forms of mass culture after World War I. This emphasis might recall the work of Peter Bürger; but where Bürger argued that the avant-gardist goal was to release art from the aesthetic domain and to make art and life ‘merge’, Buchloh sees a quite different process: for him the old, individualistic bourgeoisie which had continuously supported advanced art was now losing ground to forces based on collective or mass organization on political and cultural levels. It was the attitude of each avant-garde movement to the mass cultural sphere that would define its course and ultimately seal its fate.
It is probably true even today that the conventional view of art after 1945 is that it marks a new beginning, signalled by the cultural shift from Europe to the United States, a liberal democracy at the height of its powers equipped to defend the project of Modernism against its totalitarian enemies. For Greenberg and Alfred Barr, New York simply continued the upbeat story of Modernist progress, from Manet to Picasso to Pollock, without a significant break. But Buchloh’s entries on postwar art concentrate on Europe, where the main fact of life was the opposite condition: not the advance of Modernism but its liquidation, not the continuity of history but its violent interruption. Buchloh sees the culture of Austria and Germany as haunted by historical trauma and the return of the repressed, and his brilliant essay on the Viennese Actionists argues that the violence that Otto Muhl, Hermann Nitsch and Günter Brus inflicted on the body can only be explained in terms of a ‘post-fascist’ condition. The re-enactment of brutally extreme forms of human defilement became a necessary move for at least two reasons: first, because official culture repressed historical memory, something the Actionists combated by making trauma the centre of their activity; second, because any artistic move that did not measure itself against the devastation would fall into denial and aesthetic consolation. In West Germany there was no way of resuming the Modernist project without investigating its fate. Lifting the ‘memory ban’ became central to Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, though in each case the move was fraught with difficulty, since attempts to forge continuity between the present and the past, however critical, could be read as rehabilitating the mythologies of the nation state.
Buchloh’s entries on postwar Europe are surprising in that, given the scale of the destruction of cultural institutions, there are so many instances where art managed to reassert the avant-garde project of emancipation. For Buchloh the most impressive development was Fluxus, with its potent combination of participation, chance and the everyday. Similarly the pauperist aesthetic of arte povera avoided the all-out surrender to technological processes that seemed, on the other side of the Atlantic, to engulf Pop and Minimalism. Buchloh’s assessment of European Conceptual art is that it too found means to combat the forces of commodification and the society of the spectacle by withdrawing the object from the domain of art (though by staging this withdrawal as art and spectacle, it conceded almost as much as it gained). The concurrent rise of institutional critique succeeded in problematizing the aesthetic domain, proposing that art’s problem was that it always obscured the real powers operating behind the scenes of art. On the other hand, the aesthetic domain might still be worth defending (Marcel Broodthaers wanted to parody the museum, not to destroy it), as one of the last remnants of the bourgeois public sphere.
The potential of psychoanalysis as a framework for understanding Modernism is developed by Hal Foster, who carefully avoids the traps that psychoanalytic method sets for the unwary: in particular, the reduction of the work of art to psychobiography (Freud on Leonardo) or the illustration of psychoanalytic ideas (Lacan on Holbein’s Ambassadors). Instead, Foster treats psychoanalysis with a certain relativity and scepticism: the concept of the unconscious becomes a factor for the art historian, not because it is true but because at certain junctures belief in something like the unconscious becomes widespread. Psychoanalysis’ closest affinity is with the art produced in its own milieu, high bourgeois central European culture of the declining years of the Empire. With the structures of public life no longer secure, bourgeois culture turns inward while maximizing the dramas of psychic life, and discovering in sexuality the secret core of the subject’s identity. There is no need to search, then, for moments of contact between Freud and, say, Egon Schiele, who reworked self-portraiture through double structures of voyeurism and exhibitionism, and a wish to mutilate and be mutilated – the world of conflicted subjectivity onto which Freud’s case studies open. Later, as Freud’s ideas became disseminated among the Surrealists, the pursuit of irrationality through the lapsus, the rebus and the dream, through a syntax of condensation and displacement, adapted bourgeois culture to its changed circumstances.
It is remarkable that psychoanalysis maintained its status as resistant counter-culture for so long, yet that is exactly what emerges in Foster’s essays concerning art from the 1970s to the 1990s. When feminist cultural theory first appeared in the writings of Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Laura Mulvey, and in the work of artists such as Mary Kelly, Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman, psychoanalysis re-emerged as a useful discipline that allowed the social and the psychic to be considered at the same time. The orientation differed from that of Surrealism: the interest of the unconscious was less its capacity to elude the forces of normalization than its ability to explain it, and to account for the sheer tenacity of oppressive social structures (patriarchy, racism, homophobia). Foster’s entries on Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama, and the feminist inflections of Minimalism found in Eva Hesse, Mona Hatoum and Rachel Whiteread, indicate ways in which the category of subjectivity becomes crucial to artistic intervention. This is especially the case for those whose subjectivity has been erased or posited as less than full: Foster’s account of the 1990s includes Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker, Isaac Julien and ACT UP.
The last framework in Art since 1900 is Post-Structuralism, whose resources are explored by Rosalind Krauss, the galvanizer of the authorial team and its primus inter pares. The concepts she takes on board – the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign in Saussure, the problematic of authorship in Barthes, Walter Benjamin’s discussion of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, the structure of the visual field in Lacan – are the shared intellectual currency of her generation. But her real engagement is with the figures who interpreted Modernism for the American public: Alfred Barr and Clement Greenberg. At times Krauss’ enterprise seems a struggle with these founding fathers, a project of refutation and correction of their gross misrepresentation of modern art.
Barr brought a de-fanged Modernism to New York, a schematic simplification with two principal lines: a ‘geometric’ abstraction shorn of references to industrialization and an ‘organic’ line that, though biomorphic, was severed from the carnality of the living body. Meanwhile Greenberg, creating a lineage running from Manet to Pollock, managed to exclude from the narrative any reference to Dada or Surrealism: an avant-garde without the avant-garde, a Modernism without historical memory. Krauss’ exasperation with this travesty of Modernism is, in a sense, what Art since 1900 is all about, and her contributions focus on correcting key distortions and impoverishments in Barr’s and Greenberg’s packaging of Modernism for domestic consumption.
One step was to restore Surrealism to its rightful place, an endeavour for Krauss that has included the collaboration with Jane Livingstone on the exhibition of Surrealist photography ‘L’amour fou’ and with Bois on the informe. But the strategy of the exhibition is insufficient in itself, since Surrealism’s understanding of the visual field as shot through with the energy of the drives cannot be fully accommodated within the museum’s disinterested visual regime. Hence the importance of Lacan’s account of perspective as radically decentred by the drives. Krauss concentrates on three works that disrupt the rationality of the viewing subject: the Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), where the violence and heightened sexuality of the figures overwhelm any claim on the part of the viewer to visual detachment or control; Marcel Duchamp’s Étant données (c.1946–66), where the spectator is turned into a voyeur; and Pollock’s drip paintings, works Greenberg could claim as ‘optical’ only by denying their rhythmic bodily production.
In Barr and Greenberg’s consensus Modernism was celebrated as an allegory of the values of liberal democracy. The bêtise was the suppressed fact that so much of the Modernist enterprise problematized the status of art as the product of individual creativity. Barthes’ discussion of the death of the author reopened the question, making it possible to grasp the extent to which the avant-garde had renounced precisely the kind of ‘originality’ it was now supposed to represent. Krauss concentrates first on Duchamp’s strategies: the ready-made, the index, chance operations and the play between the original and the copy. All of these challenged the author/god, which is why Duchamp had to be excluded from the postwar pantheon. In discussing Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler and Sherman, Krauss shows Duchamp’s strategies as continuing, in different configurations, into the present. What brought the index, the ready-made and mechanical reproduction into new alignment was photography’s transformation of visual culture at the level of theory (Benjamin), artistic practice (appropriation) and art history (the shift from the original to the reproduction). But this history conveys too narrowly the scale of Modernism’s assault on art as the expression of a full, creative subject, and one begins to realize why Art since 1900 had to be teamwork.
Barr and Greenberg’s denial of the extent to which the avant-garde was defeated by the rise of mass society is presumably Buchloh territory. But Krauss makes her own contribution, in her account of the absorption of the museum into the society of spectacle: the blockbuster shows of the 1970s, the advent of installation art and the museum’s Disneyfication as a branch of the leisure industry. It is as though Krauss’ attack on New York’s MoMA was overtaken by the rising tide of spectacle and desublimation; her tone here is complex and elegiac, concluding with a contemporary defence of medium-specificity that sounds like Greenberg come again, in an internalization of the founding father she had helped to polish off.
Art since 1900 combines the best writing and the best arguments of the October circle; however much one may disagree with their point of view, the level of discussion is simply far more interesting than in any other guide to 20th-century art. Still, the volume has its limits, not least in what it leaves out: plenty of Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros but no Frida Kahlo, Man Ray but not Claude Cahun, and so forth. Exclusions are unavoidable, but some are more like occlusions: why, for example, is everything centred on the West, as though there were only one modernity? In the 20th-century Asia modernized too. Japan developed wholly original forms of the avant-garde, not only Gutai (though it’s good that Bois included it) but the earlier MAVO movement, Butoh and the neo-avant-garde critique in Morimura and Dumb Type. Attending to the various modernities would help to relativize the picture offered here and counter the tendency to inflate the local fortunes of one avant-garde – New York – into an epic of world proportions. This is encouraged by the group’s fondness for thinking in terms of the grandest of grand narratives. Freud, Lacan, Theodor Adorno, Guy Debord, Fredric Jameson: what they share is the sense of grasping the total social or psychic process, and this feeds a susceptibility to thinking in teleologies, with art either advancing or retreating in relation to a goal known in advance.
At one point the team states its modest hope that Art since 1900 offers ‘a much more complex tableau than the one served up to us when we were students’. It certainly does – but its success could also be its problem. We have already seen how quickly a fascinating analysis (T.J. Clark on Manet’s Olympia) can harden under university pedagogy into a formula, a doxa. Precisely because Art since 1900 is so well conceived, even user-friendly – with information boxes, timelines and useful cross-references – it is likely to produce a strong doxological effect. Will the next generation react as strongly as this one has to its own precursors?

Norman Bryson is Professor of Art History at the University of California, San Diego, and Advisory Researcher at the Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht, the Netherlands.

Issue 92

First published in Issue 92

Jun - Aug 2005
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