Thursday, May 5, 2011

Art Then Technology (Part 8): Modernism Is Not Modernity

Fat Bastard: end of sixth day of installation (2010). 
(Return to Part 7.5)
In his book, What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly explains that a very common error made with almost all new technologies is "to imagine the new thing doing an old job better." The old, premodern, job of art, as an expression of top down authority, was misattributed to modernity by the Modernists.

From my perch on the northwest edge of the lower 48 I followed contemporary art of the early 1990s through the pin hole perspective of art magazines. I was living without running water and apprenticing to learn to cast bronze using lost wax plaster investment, a method of metal fabrication that was pretty well perfected before the Renaissance began. Through that experience I had become intimately acquainted with what it meant to make premodern art. But while I had chose to study a premodern technology, I was raised in a Modernist household, in a Modernist city, and I was interested in contemporary art. I remember arguing over an Artforum story on Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy with a friend at the foundry. My friend and I were in an unheated plywood shack, as far from the white box galleries of Artforum as any place on the planet at the time. Kelley and McCarthy were shown in a mock up of a plywood shack mashing catsup and chocolate sauce into their underpants while wearing cheap rubber masks. I remember thinking that if they could do that, then I could do anything I wanted.
Constantin Brâncuşi, Bird In Space (1923); Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, Secessions (1998)

When I arrived in New York in 1995 I an informal relationship to both premodernist and Modernist art, but had not yet been introduced to Postmodern critiques. That was towards the end of the backlash against the Postmodern backlash. The cold stillness and silence of Modernism had been answered with rushes of words and clusters of images; Modernist authoritative declarations countered by willful misinterpretation. Robert Smithson's crystalline ultramoderne and Rem Koolhaas' delirious Manhattanism offered me a vision into what could have been. Denise Scott-Brown's and Robert Venturi's Learning from Las Vagas ripped apart and exposed the false utilitarianism of Modernist architecture. Max Kozloff and others wrote about the ways Modernist art was used by American Cold Warriors as propaganda. 

The backlash against Postmodernism softened those critiques however; made them something that could be enjoyed with out an insistent necessity to adopt them whole. I could reject the snide reactionary ideas of Charles Jencks and love Gordon Matta Clark simultaneously without raising an eyebrow from those around me. I could admire Action Painting and Paul McCathy in a single breath and no one saw a contradiction. Modernism was left standing like a ruin, as something that was no longer threatening,  or a folly, something that could be explored and that had parts that could be valued.
Pruitt-Igoe 1974; Gordon Matta Clark, Conical Intersect (1975)

But even growing up, I was already aware that beauty, grandeur and logic I admired in Modernist art and architecture were stained with the paranoia, violence and racism of Rollback, Containment and Détente. I understood that the clusterfuck aesthetics of Kelley and McCarthy were somehow a reaction to all that and more. That 4 or 5 page magazine spread on Kelley and McCarthy was probably the single greatest influence on my decision to abandon figurative bronze and move to New York. I saw something I wanted for myself, something as different from a king on a horse as my life is different from a king on a horse. But I was also aware that Modernism was not just as disastrously wrong as anything that had gone before it, but anything since. Coming to New York, more than any other place I might have gone, I was forced to grapple with that. I was done with premodernism and wanted to be apart of something childish, playful and vulgar; modern, but not Modernist.

It was in New York during the Cold War that the childish anything goes madness of modern avant-gardes was systematically jettisoned in favor of an adult pragmatism of Black Box formalism. From Psychology to Information Theory, Cold War thinkers preferred to cordon off the subjective inner world, and deal only with seemingly objective observations. Game Theory reduced empathy to a false prisoner's dilemma. The founder of Information Theory, the mathematician Claude Shannon, declared that "Meaning is irrelevant"; the Radical Behaviorist, B. F. Skinner, asked, "Why explain the explanation?"
Oak Ridge K 25 plant (1950); Richard Serra, Prisoner's Dilemma (1974)

In the wake of American triumphalism, it's easy to forget that between 1921 and 1970 the USSR commanded one of the fastest growing economies in the world. So there was also an understandable intellectual admiration for command economies. In the West managers like the Manhattan Project's Lt Gen Leslie Groves, NASA's Wernher Von Braun and New York's urban planner Robert Moses commanded massive top down hierarchies with total assurance and unquestioned competence.

Western cultural theorist emulated the cool resolve of their intellectual peers. The Modernists partitioned the humanities into top down cantons. Before the war aesthetics had become became a discipline detached from art. Now art was a discipline detached from life, and each individual art was further segregated from every other art. Clement Greenberg, one of most influential art critics in New York art world during the coldest years of the Cold War, valorized the "enclosing shape" and "flatness" of painting and argued for, “the reduction of experience to expression for the sake of expression, the expression mattering more than what is being expressed.” Frank Stella quipped, "What you see is what you see." In art, those denials of relation were not neutral, they were artificial and controlling.
American ICBM, Jackson Pollock (195?)

For Shannon, vacating meaning was part of a successful scheme (his ideas are still taken seriously) to understand all media in an age of mechanical reproduction. The Modernist scheme of treating painting as discrete and wholly separate discipline has not aged well (taken seriously by almost no one). The Modernist insistance on the importance of  separating mediums  served at least one function. It took the deeper questions of authority off the table. Like Art, authority is a technology and like all other technologies authority has a history of innovation, and devises that drive and change it. The modern notion of Art is a machine, one that is wholly different from its premodern predecessors. Modern Art is a devise that has been constructed, and steadily altered and improved since the Renaissance. Abstract art was the first technology produced by, and native to, that machine. And, like all art across time, it is (at least in part) an expression of authority - but not all authority is the same, modern forms of authority are radically different from the forms that proceeded them. Modernism was an expression of fear.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' observed that "A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly on in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used." Modern architecture and art are the skin of living thought. The Modernists imagined themselves as the only adults in the room, a natural aristocracy of Father Knows Best. The question of medium papered over  the finest aspect of modernity: a childish authority that was inherent in Modernist works.
Oliver Wendell Holmes; Robert Smithson

Alexis de Tocqueville, was, from his perspective as an actual aristocrat, able to see the modern world as clearly as anyone who has ever tried. In some ways he may have seen it more clearly that the Cold War Modernists. He was raised in the elitist traditions of premodern authority. He believed that a progressive social flattening was inevitable. As a frenchmen born just after the turn of the 19th century he believed that that was not necessarily a good thing. He knew that the fervor for social progress could easily turn into a Terror. He spent his adult life working to undertand the changes he saw taking place and working to make sure that the progress towards liberté and égalité favored fraternité, that he believed was inevitable, was a measured and well considered progress. But no mater how committed to the republican (small r) cause he remained convinced that only an aristocracy could produce true greatness. 
Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratification and to watch over their fate. The power is absolute, minute, regular, prudent, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood; it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. 
Théodore Chassériau, Alexis de Tocqueville (1850); Damien Hirst, For Heaven's Sake, (2008)

That anxiety, that the great mass of us are children in need of benevolent overlords who know what is good for us, hardened into a dogma that disfigured Modernism. In the minds of Cold War thinkers modernity was mapped out as a pilgrims progress - a joyless penitent climb to the  shining city on the hill. In a recent review of a biography of Leo Castelli, the former art critic, Michael Kimmelman, writes:
Like so many students of art during the postwar years, Castelli had already found at Alfred Barr’s Moma a home and a new religion, with its own liturgy. Barr’s gospel, casting Modernism as a logical sequence of movements, from Post-Impressionism and Pointillism through Fauvism and Cubism to Surrealism and so on, made tendentious sense out of what had seemed, no doubt especially to émigrés more unfortunate than Castelli, an era of heartbreaking and inconsolable chaos. Moma’s story led art as if inexorably from Europe to America, from Paris to New York, the path that Castelli, like those others, traveled.
My route was less dramatic - the threat of a nuclear holocaust is small potatoes next to fleeing an actual Holocaust. Dealing with the sometimes fascist authorities of America, is nothing compared to the threat of actual Fascism. And while I am very familiar the awful shared anxiety of living in a racist society, no one every screamed racial epitaphs at my mother and ordered her to the back of a bus. I was born into American Modernism - an  identity freighted with equal parts pride and shame. I have certain amount of compassion for the compromises the Modernists artists and architects (and even gallerists) made - the deals with the devils it took to thread the needle of the Twentieth Century. They were Jedi. I am less forgiving to critics and theorist who imagined themselves as fatherly arbiters of taste and morality. They were Sith.
Leo Castelli (1960); Obi Wan Kenobi (1977)

The old job modern art and architecture was unnaturally wed to by the Modernists was the project of creating an authorial regime of the last word, where meaning ran in one direction (down) and judgement was final. Above the faceless masses they imagined themselves a natural elite of the New World. In his review, Kimmelman goes on to explain:
Modernism, with its implied critique of society, depends both philosophically and financially on sustaining the notion of an inside and an outside. Art simultaneously must provoke the confusion or disapproval of outsiders while flattering insiders who (at least claim to) “get” it. An insider thereby finds fellowship in a theoretically innumerable self-selected community of like-minded cognoscenti, which in principle can include anyone. Insiders become custodians for posterity, owning, caring for, appreciating art that others reject but will eventually admire. This is not like traditional Old World society, open only to those already born into it; nor could it maintain itself, fiscally or otherwise, by admitting solely the rich. It must, or at least must appear to, be fluid, embracing different classes and backgrounds, while ultimately requiring a certain aesthetic and behavioral conformity. And it must have layers...
The problem was that the layers that the Modernists constructed were as arbitrary and hypocritical as that era's Redlining and wage gaps. The meriticracy as imagined by the modernists was an aristocratic order based on the exact same basic assumption that supported the pharaohs, emperors, and kings of premodernity: that someone responsible needs to be in charge, because the great masses of us can't take care of ourselves.
JFK signing the Equal Pay Act (1963), A redlining map of Philadelphia (1936)

It's cruel to add the Modernists to a historical list of violent kleptocrats. The Modernists were after all the first to try and succeed in making abstract art relevant (if not popular) to a broad audience; an achievement that I find amazing no matter how often I look back on it. But while their 'natural aristocracy' was supposedly based on merit, in practice it was more paternalistic then democratic. Patronizing, suspicious of popularity and dismissive and even hostile towards mass culture. They imagined themselves as an aesthetic and moral arbiters, protecting the rest of us from our own bad taste and self-destructive impulses. Like most early-adopters, the Modernists used the new technology to achieve an old goal - to project an authority that had no place in the New World.

I can still remember bristling when I was assigned José Ortega y Gasset's 1925 essay The Dehumanization of Art. Ortega believed that the unpopularity of new art "divides the public into two groups: one very small, formed by those who are favorably inclined towards it; another very large - the hostile majority." Separating these two groups was, he believed, "an organ of comprehension denied to the other - that they are two different human species." Ortega saw the new challenging art of his time as a devise that "helps the elite to recognize themselves and one another in the drab mass of society and learn their mission which consists in being few and holding their own against the many." Unlike the Fascist war mongering of the Italian futurists, Ortega was a republican (again small "r"), but he was writing at a time when democracy was in doubt, and mass culture had become threatening to intellectuals of all stripes:
A time has come in which society, from politics to art, reorganize itself into two orders or ranks: the illustrious and the vulgar. That chaotic, shapeless, an undifferentiated state without discipline and social structure in which Europe has lived these hundred and fifty years cannot go on. 
José Ortega y Gasset (193?), Sith (199?)

In 1939 Clement Greenberg, wrote his first defense of modern art, his essay Avant Garde and Kitch. Like Ortega it betrays a lack all faith in modern vulgarity, a resentment of the mass culture, and a reliance on the structure of an older order:
Unfortunately, until the machine age, culture was the exclusive prerogative of a society that lived by the labor of serfs or slaves. They were the real symbols of culture. For one man to spend time and energy creating or listening to poetry meant that another man had to produce enough to keep himself alive and the former in comfort. In Africa today we find that the culture of slave-owning tribes is generally much superior to that of the tribes that possess no slaves.
Unfinished Obelisk; Barnett Newman, Broken Obelisk (1963)

Ortega and Greenberg imagined themselves as bulwarks against a rising tide of capitalism's cornball culture, but also against the torchlight rallies and book burning of the Fascists. The shared however, the same exact same desire for a pre-industrial elitism. Their anxiety is still discernible at the end of the twentieth century; a moment when mass politics were far less threatening. In her 1990 essay, The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum, Rosalind Krauss concluded:
And it also does not stretch the imagination that this industrialized museum will have more in common with other industrialized areas of leisure - Disneyland say - than it will with older, preindustrial museum. Thus it will be dealing with mass markets, rather than art markets, and with simulacral experience rather than aesthetic immediacy.
Like Ortega's false choice between the "illustrious and the vulgar", and Greenberg's failure to recognize what is modern and what is a relic of premodern inheritance. Krauss seems unable to imagine the power of childish leisure. They failed to see that the leisure of modern society is remarkable because for the first time in history it was produced without slavery and serfdom, and its products. Lynn White, who Kevin Kelly describes as a "historian of technology," writes that "The chief glory of the later Middle Ages... was the building for the first time in history of a complex civilization which rested not on the backs of sweating slaves or coolies but primarily on non-human power." That is a profound shift.
Albert Einstein (1933), Pieter Bruegal the Elder, Peasant Dance (1568)

Modern art and science don't just reflect that difference, they were innovations that were only possible because of that difference. Krauss clearly understands that there is a difference of some sort. In her 1979 essay, Sculpture in the Expanded Field, she described sculpture as a "historically bounded category and not a universal one." She uses the example of  bronze statuary:
The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius is such a monument, set in the center of the Campidoglio to represent by its symbolical presence the relationship between ancient, Imperial Rome and the seat of government of modern, Renaissance Rome... a marker at a particular place for a specific meaning/event. Because they thus function in relation to the logic of representation and marking, sculptures are normally figurative and vertical, their pedestals an important part of the structure since they mediate between actual site and representational sign.
Krauss concludes that "There is nothing very mysterious about this logic; understood and inhabited, it was the source of a tremendous production of sculpture during centuries of Western art... But the convention is not immutable and there came a time when the logic began to fail. Late in the nineteenth century we witnessed the fading of the logic of the monument." I disagree, there is something mysterious about that logic, because we use the exact same word for the vertical authority of premodern statuary and the very horizontal authority of Dan Flavin's "apple green light." These are differences of kind. As different as the authority of a Cesar over his subjects from the authority of a President over his fellow citizens. Even if they had ruled for ten thousand more years, the Roman demigods could not have produced a single Darwin, much less a Flavin (or even a Paul McCathy).
Marcus Aurelius (180), Dan Flavin (1973)

The subject of Adam Gopnik's book, Angels and Ages, is Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, but the book is actually about a cultural shift away from "what could be called a 'vertical' organization of life, one in which we imagine a hierarchy of species organized on earth, descending from man on down towards animals, and a judge appraising us from heaven." Gopnik writes that that "fixed" world of static biological and social hierarchies was very much intact at the beginning of the 19th century, but in the wake of Evolution and Emancipation its large scale replacement had begun:
Fixity was not a reality. life changed, and ways of living changed, too. Life was increasingly lived on what we can think of as a horizontal, with man looking behind only to see what had happened before, and forward to see what he could make next. On that horizontal plane, we are invested in our future as much as in our afterlife, and in our children more than in our ancestors. these beliefs, which we hold still, are part of what we call the modern condition... Darwin and Lincoln didn't make the modern world. But they helped to make our moral modernity.
Abraham Lincoln (1865), Charles Darwin (1874)

For Kelly morals are technologies. The moral technology of slavery was at one time ubiquitous, and like knapping stone arrow heads it is no doubt kept alive today by small groups of dedicated amateurs, but Lincoln's great achievement is to have made it a relic more with far less currency than flint knapping. The moral technologies developed by children are qualitatively different from those that are inherited from ancestors.

When I gave up on bronze statuary in favor of playing with blocks I was abandoning an old cultural technology for a new one. I did so because the old technology was to unable to engage the moral universe I saw myself within. Ancestral technologies are refined, puristic and absolute. Honor killings are a grim ancestral technology, figurative bronze is a more benign one, but a technology still heavily freighted with the past. For thousands of years we cast warriors, kings and Gods in bronze. What Krauss blandly calls the vertical function of sculpture, are the conventions of ancestral power. The technologies of childhood are raw, loose and playful. Punk rock is a technology of childhood; so is abstract art.
François Girardon, fragment of Equestrian Statue of Louis XIV (1694); Paul McCarthy, Train, Mechanical (2010)

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