Saturday 20 February 2016


A polemic on what Modernism was all about, with a title riffing off from Stewart Home's 'The Assault on Culture'. Wherein artists saw in Modernism a get-out, a way of purging their work of the muck of ages until it was immediate and pure. But no get-out was to be got.

Modernism, in its classic era, was not just a break from Classicism but an attempt to take culture out of art. Culture was just a clogging, oppressive thing, a set of spectacles tuned to the wrong colour. It was synonymous with history, the detritus of past generations of prejudice which buried us, a cataract upon our sight to be burnt off. Once liberated from the channels of culture and mediation our eyes would see the world afresh and anew, all men could be brothers and all the rest of it.

This conception is of course naïve, impossible and quite possibly impossibly naïve. But this doesn’t mean that the works along the way were bad. It’s just telling us how they got there.

Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Fauvism were the pioneers who played the concept clean. Culture's opposite was nature. Therefore it could be escaped by a visit to the natural world, or a trip to primitive society. Culture’s deathly grip could be thrown off with just a few unadorned, simply meant brush strokes upon a canvas. Or by taking a boat trip to Tahiti. Or, for the truly committed, both in combination.

Expressionism then upped the ante by throwing personal anguish into the equation. Now culture vied with individualism. Your canvas was no longer an escape hatch, a rectangle of immediacy which held outside of it the evils of culture. Now it was a mental wrestling ring, the arena where you struggled to purge yourself of culture’s tendrils. In other words, a soundtrack to your neurosis. The war was ongoing and you had to scream your way out.

For later tendencies, noting that none of this was actually working, nature no longer seemed enough of a replacement for culture and other ingredients had to be found. Constructivism sought to replace culture with nature's very opposite - science and engineering, a rational world of neat lines and sharp angles clearly at odds to tradition and prejudice.

Whereas for Surrealism culture’s pseudo-rationality was the problem. They tried to replace it with the unconscious, which they fetishised and turned into a thing. They'd dream like prospectors, hopefully panning for gold in the recesses of their own minds. Culture sat upon the unconscious like a neat little boat on a tremulous sea. You just needed to upend the boat to wash us clean. (Freud had already written a set of instructions on how to keep the boat sailing. They hopefully read those upside down as a way to sink it.)

Abstractionists thought the problem was that culture still lay hidden in the figure, smuggled in those folds of skin, so we just needed to eliminate that. When that didn’t work either, conceptual and auto-destructive art saw the problem as culture hiding out in the work of art itself, so we just needed to eliminate that.

Futurism’s probably the exception that proves the rule. In seeking to drive a horseless carriage over the old world with the new, it saw not a single thing from the old world which needed saving - but didn’t seek to expunge the concept of culture itself. This new culture was to be born of steel and science, but steel transformed into human relationships, so still needing artists to give it cultural expression.

Dadaism provided the smartest twist by insisting the artist had to be removed along with his culture. He was no longer the escapee who had slipped out from under culture’s razor wire. He was now the very contaminant, the plague carrier made all the more dangerous by his pretending not to be. Artist! Give it up! You’ve got a problem and the problem is you.

More widely, and perhaps more usefully, it saw the fundamentally negative nature of the whole enterprise and embraced it. Art was no longer about making things or adding them to the world, but about taking things out. And if that’s the case, why stop at some arbitrary point? So everything made by human society is cultural? So get rid of everything! So you’ll have nothing left at the end? All the more reason to get started!

There’s a persistent subcurrent to define culture more precisely as bourgeois culture, and replace it with working class culture. Despite Modernism’s continuing flirtations with anti-capitalism, this rarely became more than a subcurrent, and was normally to do with folk art and fetishised ruralism. But from the Impressionists' fixation with Parisian lowlife to Futurism’s geometric crowds to Constructivism’s love of blue-collar uniforms, it’s normally present to some degree.

It probably reached its pinnacle many years later with the Oi offshoot of punk. If classic Brit-punk was Dadaism, Oi was Constructivism without the City and Guilds. (A development made possible, of course, by working class culture becoming more of a consumer affair in the intervening years.) In Oi, people would parade in some outdated boots’n’braces parody of working class clothing as if that proved some point or other.

For all the ridiculousness of turning workmen’s clothes into fashion brands, this may seem the least absurd offshoot of the whole enterprise. At least it acknowledges art as the product of a class-based society. But actually it’s just as wrongheaded as the rest of them. Culture is still seen in alienated terms, as something to buy into or reject, not as something we as people make between us. They saw working class culture the way the Surrealists saw the subconscious - as a thing, an object outside of themselves to be reached out and grasped for. They failed to grasp class and culture are defined within a set of social relations, and have no inherent meaning outside of those.

Bakunin had already summed it up when he said the urge to destroy was also creative. It’s not just that you have to build something else as well as break down. The breaking down is already part of the building something else, the two come interwoven. This isn’t some high-falutin’ political principle to which we should all aspire, its more just how it is. Only in the rarified, concept-obsessed world of making art objects was this not already obvious.

Modernism, if seen it its own terms, was an unquestioned failure. But then again, so what? Fortunately for us we don’t have to see it in those terms. In fact when I look back at the illos to this piece, chosen chiefly to prove my point, they look to me like exemplary works of art. (Well maybe not the Doc Martins...) Very often good intentions were enough of a path to good art.

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