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A Useful Guide to Modernism in Art

We have learned to whittle the Eden Tree to the shape of a surplice-peg,
We have learned to bottle our parents twain in the yolk of an addled egg,
We know that the tail must wag the dog, for the horse is drawn by the cart;
But the Devil whoops, as he whooped of old: “It’s clever, but is it Art?”

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Girl Under a Japanese Umbrella, 1906

It goaded the German Expressionist, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, to falsify dates. It caused Andy Warhol to stop the art he was making. It made Damien Hirst so angry he smashed up a kitchen.
The cause was originality, or rather the perceived lack of it by those involved. Kirchner wanted to hide the fact that he had been influenced by Matisse and the Fauves. Warhol abandoned the use of Ben-Day dots when he found out Lichtenstein was already using them. Hirst’s then-friend John LeKay reported that this was Hirst’s reaction on discovering LeKay had been using meat in art for several years before him.
This fetishising of originality is not integral to art by default. Egyptian art and medieval icons had other priorities, as did the four centuries following the High Renaissance, when the Old Masters, particularly Raphael, were seen as models to emulate, rather than precedents to be avoided or restrictions to be overcome.
In fact, originality elevated to this level is unique to Modernism, a twentieth century movement driven by twentieth century values, which are being extensively, even urgently, reappraised in the world at large, but still swing their diminutively-brained dinosaur heads in the world of art. I’ll get to a definition of Modernism in due course.
The twentieth century paradigm – like every other paradigm or ideological system – has a complex of inter-related values which feed off and justify each other. Related unavoidably to the primacy of originality is a chain reaction of other key concepts of uniqueness, newness, exploration, invention, innovation, difference, radicality, the avant-garde, genius, celebrity, privilege, freedom, amorality, self-reference, elitism, status, kudos, exclusiveness, ego, superficiality, fashion, commercialisation, ephemerality, materiality, meaninglessness, nihilism, futility, failure and fear.
The list can continue. Of course, not all these things are exclusive to Modernism, but their particular configuration and emphasis are. We have come a long way from originality but the connections are there impelling art helplessly like a ball bearing in a pinball machine. It is not that originality is bad per se. It is quite obviously often part of great achievement, but here is the key qualifier: “part of”. Like all good values and activities, when pushed to an extreme, there is a change of pole from positive to negative, and what is normally a fruitful quality becomes a damaging one.

Matisse and Picasso via Cruickshank

By definition, to be original, you have to do something that no one else has done before. As time goes on, and more and more people are original or striving to be so, there are less and less things that have not been done before, a corollary of which is that these things are also less and less worth doing – which is good reason why no one has done them before. It is like a pie with smaller and smaller slices being cut to give to more and more people a chance to own some of it.
Those smaller and smaller slices have to pretend to the same significance as the bigger slices, but they do not have it. Accurate perception and honest analysis go by the board and the poverty of achievement is masked by the smokescreen of theoretical verbiage. All of this does not invalidate Modernism, but it does shape a specific evaluation of its use as a reference point.
Modernism can be distinguished most easily by contrast with what it is not, in this case the art of the period which immediately preceded it, the Renaissance. The latter is characterised by a set of visual rules – most obviously in painting – which seek to give the illusion of the “real world”, through linear and atmospheric perspective, rational proportion with foreshortening, and naturalistic colour modified tonally to reproduce the effect of light on the textures of three dimensional surfaces.
Starting to evolve at the end of the thirteenth century from the flat, linear, patterned art of Medievalism, the Renaissance reached its high point around 1500, and maintained its visual constituents for some 400 years, until the art of the Post Impressionists – notably Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, but also Seurat and Toulouse Lautrec – initiated the real departure from it. The Impressionists who provided them with the tools were ironically the culmination of the Renaissance study of observed reality and had the intent to reproduce it more accurately than had ever been done before. The Post Impressionists initiated a trend of drawing and painting which used imagination as much as, and quite soon much more than, observation, or, perhaps more accurately, the focus of observation shifted its centre of gravity towards the psyche.

Dividing the pie

Matisse and the Fauves staked their claim as innovators in non-naturalistic decorative colour, although their drawing was steeped in the discipline of the Renaissance. Picasso was completely upstaged as an innovator – and Picasso did not like being upstaged. He attacked and literally fragmented the laws of drawing with Cubism, although interestingly he avoided the use of colour altogether by the employment of monochrome (mainly in browns). At that stage it would not have been possible for him to have done anything innovatory in hues that the Fauves had not already done.
One might say that now the pie had been halved – colour with Matisse, form with Picasso. However, both these artists and their associates had something strongly in common, despite their differences: they were figurative artists. Kandinsky found a gap in the market by dispensing with such tedious references in favour of a purely non-representational or abstract art. If the pie had been split in two vertically left and right with colour and form, he divided it horizontally top and bottom with abstract and figurative and staked his own claim to fame.
Already the dynamic of Modernism was defined with the need for originality via difference, necessitating innovation and invention, which also meant inevitably narrower focus and increasing specialisation. This tunnel vision typifies the twentieth century paradigm (as opposed to a twenty-first century holistic approach), and can be seen clearly also in other fields (no pun intended), such as farming, where the zoning in on the immediate benefits of pesticides was not weighed in the context of their wider negative repercussions.
Modern Art recurrently has such selective vision. The truth of Kandinsky’s thesis Concerning the Spiritual in Art that abstraction is spiritual is its greatest condemnation. It is a severance of the spiritual from the material, creating an invidious dualism. The spiritual is worse than useless if it cannot be integrated with and benefit our everyday lives.
In 1917, the word “surrealist” was coined by  Guillaume Apollinaire. Surrealism managed to gain its own 50% slice with a diagonal division which gave it the monopoly of the unconscious, the dream and irrational, which by definition was at the expense of excluding the conscious, the waking and the rational. It is only by making use of the former attributes via their examination by the latter that anything can be achieved other than getting completely lost in a fascinating but meaningless maze.

Repetition of Warhol
From photo: Jack Mitchell CC BY-SA 4.0

The counterbalance to this was also manifested in 1917 with the Neo-Plasticism of the De Stijl movement, notably in the work of Mondrian, who reduced the universe to the rigid conscious control of a mathematical equation, namely rectangles and squares in white, red, yellow and blue, divided by horizontal and vertical black lines. This secured him a different halving of the pie (the half left out by Surrealism, one might say) by using the kinds of grids that traditionally underlay figurative painting (such as the golden section and rule of thirds) without bothering with the figuration, and by employing the basic colours which were traditionally squeezed on the palette to mix subtle hues but without putting in the labour of actually mixing them. It is the essence of art, rather like lettuce seeds are the essence of a salad.
The artistic hat trick in 1917 was a debacle over the proposed exhibition of a gents urinal in an exhibition in New York. This brainwave of Marcel Duchamp (or, alternatively, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven) carves out its own 50% slice, namely the conceptual process behind art before the translation of that into the making of the art object, the latter chore being avoided by making use of something which someone else has made.
By now we have probably carved out as many big slices as are possible and start the tendency to smaller slices cut out of the big slices. The spiritual is never far away in Modern Art, in intent and concept, even if not in proper understanding, and it came back in a big way with Abstract Expressionism, literally in a big way, albeit that this very macho movement succeeded in demonstrating very successfully that bigger is not necessarily better.
The end result is not so much the realisation of spiritual essence or emotional depth as the potency of muscularity, particularly in the swinging dripation of Jackson Pollock, whose mindlessly patterned repetitions, I am reliably informed, are a typical manifestation of alcoholic insecurity. Barnet Newman’s massive rectangles of red, yellow and blue make effective garage forecourt design, and Pollock’s layered colours, when reduced to their proper size, make attractive Penguin book covers.
We have already had Abstraction and Expressionism, and also, since Malevich in 1915, paintings where a large proportion of the painting was a single flat colour. Drips came from Surrealism. What the American movement did from the 1940s onwards was to zoom in on these aspects and enlarge them, so that the drips are not part of a painting, but the whole painting, and a few brushmarks which might previously define a tree or the side of someone’s head are pumped up into massive gestures that occupy the whole canvas.
As an aside, we might note that colour is an extremely fine tuned guide to emotion and has its equivalent in music, where different sounds accord with different moods. What is apt for a light hearted advertising jingle would be quite inappropriate for a funeral and vice versa. The colour in Van Gogh has subtle ranges that are evidence of his sensitivity and far-seeing vision. The colour of nearly all Abstract Expressionism in contrast is crude and finally, in Rothko, sombre, sloughing into suicidal depression. (If Van Gogh did indeed commit suicide – rather than being the victim of homicide – it was not because of the colour in his art.)

Humpty Dumpty via John Tenniel

Another small slice was carved out as a rejoinder to the Abstract Expressionists by the eruption of Pop Art, refining and extending the precedent of commercial imagery established by Duchamp’s found objects and Dada collages from around 1915, but now somewhat manically, not to mention mechanically, with repetitive Brillo boxes, repetitive soup cans, repetitive Marilyn Monroes, repetitive car crashes and repetitive electric chairs by repetitive Andy Warhol and his merry repetitive assistants.
This movement – or rather Warhol’s stance within it – revealed a significant difference to previous Modernist movements and marked a termination of some of the most valuable features to date whilst gorging on some of the worst. It inaugurated a phase sufficiently self-contained to merit its own name, Post Modernism, although it is, as the name implies, a continuation of Modernism.
Whatever else one might say about artistic efforts so far, there was an earnest striving in them for enlightenment, a sense of benefit to humanity, and sincere, albeit mistaken, belief in having with each new development at last reached a new enduring canon of art.
The fact that each movement’s beliefs were fairly rapidly outmoded inevitably culminated in disillusionment with idealism and a fear of being deceived by it, the defence against which was cynicism based on irony and safe but vacuous values of celebrity and commercialism. “Making money is art,” said Warhol, putting considerable distance between himself and Van Gogh for whom “there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”
Production substituted for depth, and lucre for integrity. Originality spread like a cancer in the form of novelty and gimmick. This was an inevitable consequence of less and less ground remaining available for exploration, as all the big worthwhile seams had already been explored. Veneration, acclaim, theorising and auction prices increased in inverse proportion to real artistic achievement. Minimalism literally achieved as little as possible and made a virtue out of its sliver of pie. Conceptual Art became the soft porn of the critic and the curator.
More recently artists have had one main recourse to stake their claim as original geniuses, which is to do something not previously classified as art and to call it art in a somewhat desperate and certainly deluded attempt to explore unexplored ground. It is a very peculiar approach to take something and call it something else, rather as if tennis were defined as a new form of cricket. I think by now there are no slices of the pie left. We are just pretending there are.
The generic term for this is “new media”. The name itself is a lie, as the media concerned are not at all new, the only new thing about them being the fact they are called new and it is relatively new to show them in art galleries and call them art, as opposed to whatever they were previously called and which they are still called when they are not in an art gallery.
Photography is part of the new media, which is puzzling as commercial photography was introduced as far back as 1839. Even film began in the 1890s, movie animation in 1899 and synchronised sound in a feature film occurred in 1927. Inexplicably, acrylic paint, which is much newer and was not commercially available until the 1950s, is not termed as new media.
Why do people aspiring to be artists use film and not put it out in the usual arenas such as cinemas, TV or film festivals? And why do directors with great achievements in commercial film not get entered for the Turner Prize? It boils down not to any convincing reasons, but only to the artificial constructs of contemporary art with its solipsistic neophiliac obsessions.
That is not entirely true. There is a difference. Mainstream film has to make sense and entertain an audience. Noted video art pioneer the late David Hall was the head of the Time Based Media Department at Maidstone College of Art when I was a painting student there in the 1970s. He observed that to appreciate video art it was necessary to break through the “boredom barrier”. I once mentioned this to then-Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota whom I bumped into in a Tate Britain room showing Hall’s work. Perhaps this encouraged Serota’s own subsequent statement on the genre: “We are all sick of biennales where it takes 20 minutes to see every work.” So that is the difference between normal films and art films: the boredom factor.
The crusade for new media seemed to have reached an apoplexy of absurdity in 2010 when the Turner Prize was awarded to someone singing songs under a bridge. Perhaps the Mercury Prize for music should be awarded to David Hockney. And they should both be judged by Humpty Dumpty from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
Humpty was certainly in charge in 2015, when the Turner Prize was awarded to an urban regeneration collective, who did not see themselves as artists, nor what they were doing as art.
This might all be passed off as amusing and of little import to the rest of the world, in which case it is worth bearing in mind where such tendencies can lead. In 2002, Damien Hirst commented (for which he very quickly “apologised unreservedly”): “The thing about 9/11 is that it’s kind of like an artwork in its own right … So on one level they kind of need congratulating, which a lot of people shy away from, which is a very dangerous thing.” If there is a very dangerous thing, it is the kind of insular idiocy which could possibly lead someone to come out with such a statement.

Rembrandt, Self Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669

There are fixed points to proceed from. The first is that the art establishment is hopelessly lost, so there is simply no point in trying to make sense of it. The second is that we are in a very advantageous position to address this problem. We have the benefit of a good century’s worth of Modernism’s adventure, innovation and exploration, and are in a sufficiently detached vantage point to make a viable assessment of it. The first stage of Modernism invented languages, but immediately discarded one for the next. A language strengthens and deepens in its potency only when it is developed over time. This is the job of the current phase of Modernism, which we can term Remodernism.
This job cannot be carried out properly until there is an establishment of proper values. There are some obvious ones to aim for. The first function of an artwork is a differentiation from mundane life. It should be apparent that we are engaging with the special space and experience of a created object, not just an accidental item from the supermarket or the back yard. The second function is that that object should have an instant communication on the most superficial level. The artist’s subject should be apparent and make an understandable link with the viewer. If it does not, most people will simply lose interest immediately.
The next attribute is not so easy. The work should have endurance, which comes about through depth. That in turn is a quality of the artist, who has to face the truth of themselves and their life experiences with understanding and perception, which become manifest through the making of the work. It is both philosophical and emotional in force, and is enacted via the particular use of materials. Its test is time, and whether the work sustains its interest through the variety and vicissitudes of the viewer’s life.
When my first marriage was breaking up at the end of the 1970s and I was in a deeply troubled state, Rembrandt’s Self Portrait at the Age of 63 unexpectedly materialised in my inner darkness and evoked a state of resolution, acceptance and understanding. I had previously admired it as an aesthetic self study; I now experienced it on a much more intense and profound level.
As just mentioned, such achievement can only be reached with the use of an appropriate medium along with a skill in the use of that medium, its language and grammar Human minds and emotional responses have a vast range and sensitivity. An equivalent nuance of artistic stimulus is necessary to relate to and express this range. A found object has severe limitations in this respect. There is very little modification that can be achieved to reveal even the variety of inflections which can be detected in such a daily occurrence as saying “good morning” – from the cheerful to the depressed with sarcasm, weariness, wariness, hostility, appreciation, congratulation and a whole range of other gradations to choose from.
A found object can compete with a painting only in the way that a vacuum cleaner can compete with a violin. It is why I finally settled on painting after going through multi-media, performance and installation art, in 1999 terming painting “the most vital artistic means of addressing contemporary issues.”

Matisse and Picasso via Cruickshank

Charles Saatchi paid for Damien Hirst’s shark in a tank in 1991 and sold it for a considerable profit in 2004, the same year his gallery launched The Triumph of Painting show, calling painting “the most relevant and vital way that artists’ choose to communicate”. (He has continued with this theme including the 2016 show, Painters’ Painters.) In 2009, Damien Hirst exhibited his paintings and stated, “I always thought painting was the best thing to do” in contrast to “conceptual art, abstraction, they’re total dead ends”, which prompted Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times to comment, “what now counts as radical is a return to tradition. Hirst has been painting.”
This is a common mistake, and gives the impression that the good old days of Raphael are with us again, when they are patently not. Hirst’s work is Modernism or more specifically Remodernism (but definitely not Post
Modernism), characterised by honesty, expression, communication and “a raggedy edge in these paintings, which is really important because there is a raggedy edge in me”. Or, as Van Gogh put it in 1882, “I want to reach the point where people say of my work, that man feels deeply and that man feels subtly. Despite my so-called coarseness – you understand – perhaps precisely because of it.” Remodernism is here to stay.

(Poem extract at start of article: “The Conundrum of the Workshops,” 1890, Rudyard Kipling)

Charles Thomson

Charles Thomson is an English artist, poet and photographer. In the early 1980s he was a member of The Medway Poets. In 1999 he named and co-founded the Stuckists art movement with Billy Childish (who left in 2001). He has curated Stuckist shows, organised demonstrations against the Turner Prize, run an art gallery, stood for parliament and reported Charles Saatchi to the OFT.

Volume 31 no.6 July / August 2017 pp 19 – 24

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