The Polemics of Imagination  by Peter Abbs

(Skoob 1996, 173pp., pbk £8.95) ISBN 1-871438-31-4

The Four Fallacies of Modernism (1987)

It is not easy to turn critically on Modernism for, in different ways, it has provided for many of us the very conditions of our perception and understanding. In its origins the Modernist movement seemed so liberating, so culturally and imaginatively demanding, that it is still difficult formally to recognize how in its later phases it became so sterile and imprisoning. This because Modernism was never an object of our attention so much as the mode of our own sensibility. We saw through its eyes, spoke through its mouth, conceived through its mind. Just as one of Moliere’s characters suddenly realised that he had been speaking prose all hid life, so now we realise that we were all Modernists, even without knowing it. But the realisation changes the phenomena, for it brings a critical distance and a new perspective. Once - it was only yesterday - it seemed that the artist was inevitably to the vanguard of civilisation, an innovator opening up the progressive forms of the future, an original and iconoclastic energy; once it seemed in the order of things that the arts in schools should deal with the contemporary, work only through ‘process’, remain ‘relevant, be ‘original’ and wholly ‘expressive’.

Today, we are less than sure. We turn on Modernism now and ask of it subversive questions. Why, for example, should the art-maker be conceived as always the vanguard of civilisation? What is so valuable about endless experimentation? Why should innovation be valued almost as if it were a self-justifying aesthetic category? And, in the teaching of the arts, why should work be confined to ‘process’ or restricted to contemporary ‘relevance’? In other words, we iconoclastically turn on the Modernist spirit. We ask subversive questions of the self-consciously subversive. We interrogate the dominant traditions of our century and find ourselves with a painful unease, on the outside, looking for better connections, concepts, possibilities; seeking not revolution but conservation, deep reclamation rather than innovation, continuities rather than disjunctions.

After a mere 80 years during which Art has hurtled through Expressionism, Fauvism, Dadaism, Cubism, Surrealism, Constructivism, Functionalism, Action Painting, Primitivism, Conceptualism, Minimalism, Kinetic Art, Op Art, Pop Art: where is there left to advance to? After the 60s and 70s; after the electrocuting f fish in London galleries, after the covering of cliffs in polythene, after strutting for miles with a plank on your head, after filling the Tate Gallery with twigs and bricks and sand, after hanging up stained nappies and displaying Coca-Cola bottles - what further possible in innovation was left to the aspiring art-maker? Well , there was one gesture left, and there were artists and critics and gallery organizers ready to make and applaud it. Frank Kermode tells us in his essay ‘Modernisms’ that: ‘Peter Selz, the Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art was delighted with the famous Homage, which destroyed itself successfully, though not quite in the manner planned by the artist, before a distinguished audience’. But after that? What then? As the poet Leopardi said, fashion is the mother of death.

I believe Modernism had to end with its own destruction because it was informed by a number of false conceptions which have become more and more clear since its demise. I now want to explore the nature of those errors; I want top delineate what I conceive to be the four fallacies of Modernism.

The first fallacy relates to a concept of time, to a desire to escape the past and be of the moment. It is no accident that the word modernism derives fro modo, meaning ‘just now’. This desire for continuous modishness and ‘advance’ lay at the heart of Modernism and explains its current and inevitable exhaustion. In 1965 the literary critic Leslie Fiedler wrote:

Surely there has never been a moment in which the most naive

as well as the most sophisticated have been so acutely aware of

how the past threatens momentarily to disappear from the

present, which itself seems to be disappearing into the future.

This expresses well the dizzy vortex created by the cumulative movements of Modernism, a sense of pace which dissolved all that lay behind, in which there was no history, no continuity, no identity. The great black and white images of Kinetic Art, where all discrete parts flow into an endless motion now, symbolised perfectly this giddy state of consciousness, of perpetual revolution, with no reference backwards, no cultural allusion, no hint of memory or of any historical past. How appropriate a symbol of Late Modernism the kinetic image is, creating an effect of endless movement based on the scientific principles of optics. Each period, it would seem, invents its own concept of historic time and literalises it, comes to read it in the succession of actual events, to experience it as an inexorable narrative dictating the forms of cultural life. Thus the Renaissance, envisaging itself as the rebirth of the Ancient World, erected the fiction of the ‘Middle Ages’; the Enlightenment, considering itself the most illuminated period that had ever existed, reinvented those ‘Middle Ages’ as ‘the Dark Ages’. Modernism has carried its own phantasy of time, its own story, in which the past is constantly and qualitatively superseded by the present moment. Now, according to this version of time, is always better than then. The ethical and aesthetic consequences of this concept have been, as we have slowly begun to realise, quite disastrous. Ortega y Gasset unwittingly gave expression to this modernist concept of time as early as 1925 when he wrote:

In art, as in morals, what ought to be done does not depend

on our personal judgement; we have to accept the imperative

imposed by the time.

In true modernist fashion Ortega continued:

Obedience to the order of the day is the most hopeful choice

open to the individual. Even so, he may achieve nothing; but

he is more likely to fail if he insists on composing another

Wagnerian opera, another naturalistic novel...In art, repetition

is nothing.

In this configuration of assertions, we discern the heart of Modernist understanding. Fundamentally, it confers on what is conceived as inevitable historic progress the right to determine aesthetic practice and value. Such a view is seriously flawed for it assumes that History has a hidden teleology which can be discerned and which must determine aesthetic and ethical values. In each case we can turn on the interlocked assumptions and ask how History could possibly have such a teleological meaning and how, even if such an unwarranted assumption was held, one could be sure that one had grasped its meaning and finally, even if one granted the position, how it could possibly dictate aesthetic and ethical criteria. One could, for example, paint convincingly against History and ethically act against it - as innumerable Jews must have felt they were doing in the 1930s against Hitler’s version of historic destiny. In brief, History does not aesthetically justify Art.

Modernism was thus guilty of transferring the most dubious historic categories to realms where they did not belong. Its essential fallacy lay in a constant and insidious extrapolation of categories. The modernity of art does not make it either aesthetically good or ethically valuable. The value of art lies elsewhere; in its aesthetic power, in its vitality, in its relationship to the alert senses and the open imagination, deep in its own field of execution and reference. To say that something is contemporary is to tell us nothing of its qualitative value.

Yet such a simple fallacy had, like most fallacies, many destructive consequences. It led inevitably to the cult of constant change. In 1966 Morse Peckham wrote in Mans Rage for Chaos that:

The conviction is almost universal that those who stick to
obsolete beliefs and who refuse to change will go to the
wall...that we must adapt or die.

So the cult of the new, in the post-war second phase of modernism, led to movement after movement, fashion after fashion after fashion. In the 60s the practice of drawing from life, the practice of using paints and canvasses, the practice, even, of any kind of practice (for ‘instant art’ denied the need for any application) all but died. The cult of the contemporary made anything and everything possible.

The consequences of extreme Modernism become transparently clear in, for example, the following commentary by the art critic David Sylvester on the paintings of David Bomberg:

Stylistically, Bomberg’s later work was backward looking, added
little or nothing to the language of art that had not been there 50
years before. If it is, as I believe, the finest English painting of its
time, only its intrinsic qualities make it so: in terms of the history
of art it’s a footnote.

Note how the intrinsic painterly qualities are made unimportant. The history of art, according to this spurious and deadly logic, is that art must serve by constantly and quantitatively adding to its technical repertoire. Here the central confusion of categories - the imposition of the imagined historical on the actual aesthetic realm - is unmistakably clear and its implications disturbingly visible. It is good example of how art can disappear into the historic category and re-emerge as merely a footnote to an imagined social evolution.

Modernism, in brief, was guilty of what Karl Popper named ‘historicism’. It saw itself as the inevitable outcome of the historic moment, the visible meaning of the assumed invisible imperative of history. Thus art has come to be seen and understood through an essentially alien category. It is more than likely when people wander around galleries that they do not actually see the paintings but merely conceive them as ‘contemporary art’, as ‘modern paintings’, as ‘the latest developments’ in ‘the history of art’. So people come to understand art discursively without ever aesthetically responding to it! A curious state of affairs.

Many fallacies followed upon the historicist fallacy. I would like to enumerate three that have had profoundly destructive consequences on our understanding of art and of the teaching of the arts in our educational system. The first can be called scientism. As the Modernist movement developed, denying and destroying its own traditions, it became more and more prone, particularly in the visual arts, to adopt the language and assumptions of Science and Technology. After all, these intellectual disciplines seemed to be the true pace-setters, determining through another kind of relentless innovation, the forms of life to come. In Technology one could certainly talk, without ambiguity, of historical development and a kind of progress. Here the latest could claim, with some justification, to be, in fact, the best. Having denounced its past as obsolescent, many of the arts began to assimilate the language and the understanding of the theoretical and practical Sciences. Here lay a further alienation form the primary aesthetic experience. During the 60s and 70s some of the visual arts longed to join with the dominant technological force of their culture. This, too, must have seemed to many artists to be no more than a matter of historic necessity, of obeying the imperative of the prevailing zeitgeist.

Many of the manifestos of the 60s testify to the slip into the scientific and technological paradigm. Thus Frank Popper declared with philistine zest: ‘Art will become an industrial product... . Art will become pure research like Science’. While the French artist Vasarely claimed: ‘From now on only teams, groups or whole disciplines can create: co-operation between scientists, engineers, technicians, architects and plasticians will be the sine qua non of the work of art.’ It remains symptomatic that in many art colleges and in many school art courses today the work of the artist is labelled ‘a mode of inquiry’, a form of ‘visual research’, ‘an assembling of data’, a method of ‘problem solving’. the language derives not from true art discourse, not from aesthetics, but from the illicit application of the methods and working assumptions of Science and Technology. Such language continues to mediate and perpetuate a form of aesthetic and cultural betrayal.

But scientism was not the only negative and distorting force in the theory of Modernism. There was also a related movement towards a blank literalism. Defending Robert Morris’ Slab in the Tate Gallery, Michael Compton wrote in his introduction to the Arts Council brochure Art as Thought Process:

At a certain level of consideration there is absolutely no
ambiguity about such a sculpture as SLAB by Robert
Morris. No matter how you look at it, it remains clear
that it is just what was intended and at first glance just
what you see.

A slab is a slab is a slab. Here lies the idea for another movement in art: SLABISM. But, of course, it is not necessary to invent. It came into existence under the name of Pop Art. As we know under this fashion, the objects of mass culture were simply reproduced and often endlessly repeated through photographic technique, as in Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe and Coca Cola.

One major tendency in Late Modernism has been to shift the contents of Woolworths or MacDonalds into the Guggenheim or the Tate and wholesale into Annual Exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery. In this ‘tradition’ the object of the art-maker was to reproduce the tradition, without prolonged apprenticeship, without the loving continuation and extension of traditional practices, such a dependence on the immediate commercial environment for symbolic material was, alas, all but inevitable.

The ‘inspiration’ of Pop Art was not exploratory or recreative. It was static and reproductive. The implication was: ‘These things are real for contemporary society, therefore they should be the real objects in art.’ Invariably under such a rubric, art became a blind and bland extension of pop culture. It celebrated the same values: instant success, momentary fun, endless chop and change, brashness, casualness of style. Art became more ephemera, and mere ephemera, which was grotesquely fossilized when it was purchased and hung up in museums and galleries. The rapidity with which Lichtenstein’s ‘blow-ups’ came out of advertising and returned safely to it was amazing. Here was immediate relevance, an instant historic connection, a stunning contemporaneity: GOT CHA! WHAM! WOW! BANG! Modernism, shunned and maligned in its early years, had under the influence of Pop Art become suddenly modish. Yet in Pop Art blankness merely reproduced itself, becoming, at best, social commentary of the most banal kind. The literal reproduction of things entails the imprisonment of the mind in those things and when they are spurious, then the mind is corrupted in the very process of faithfully reproducing them.

Pop Art, it was argued, was a social protest. And in this argument we perceive the third fallacy of late Modernism which is closely related to the historicism fallacy outlined earlier. It concerns the overt and continuous politicization of the arts. If art is secondary and History primary then art is most effectively judged through the historical and ideological dimension. This has happened in our own time on such a scale that we hardly notice its peculiarity. Ideological criticism forms the reigning orthodoxy. In the study of literature at University the dominant practice is to decode ‘a text’ in order to delineate its ideological content. Terry Eagleton would have all art measured against his own notion of ‘real History’, thus erecting a category of socio-political relevance as the final arbiter in literary judgement. John Berger, in a similar manner, brings overt political categories to bear directly on works of art. According to Peter Fuller:

John Berger used to say that in front of pictures he always asked the
question: ‘How do these works help men and women to know, and to
claim their social rights’.
How, one wonders, does such an ideological critic respond to Chagall’s Lovers in Lilac, to Gwen John’s sensitive cat paintings, to Henry Moore’s archetypal King and Queen, to Cecil Collins’s The Sleeping Fool or Keith Grant’s Sun Paintings? What relevance do they have to the political class struggle? And, more fundamentally, why should they possess such political relevance? For art has its own deep transformative powers, its own interior meanings, its own aesthetic challenges.

The elevation of the historical category must lead not only to a radical misconception of the intrinsic purposes of art, but also to the triumph of an ideological criticism which seeks discursively to relate the manifestation of art to what is conceived as its primary historical meaning. Out of the cult of the historical emerges the omniscient critic whose function is to elaborate on what the art is about, relate it to its historical moment and provide its ideological interpretation. Thus, the intellectual eminence now given to the secular theologians of ‘texts’ and ‘art objects’. The elevation of criticism brings about a further distancing form the aesthetic realm, for the question becomes not one of prolonged aesthetic engagement but one of conceptual meaning and the task, not one of creation or performance or appreciation, but simply of ideological judgement.

Underlying these various fallacies one senses the single fallacy of Historicism For it is a belief in the historic ‘now’ which accounts for the shift into the scientific and technological, which explains the attraction of literally reproducing the dominant commercial world around us and which underlies the increasing and mediating power if ideological criticism. Having been so negative about late Modernism it is, perhaps, necessary that I briefly consider a way beyond the present state of exhaustion.

It is not possible to answer, quickly or easily, the question of what follows after Modernism. Perhaps such a question of is in itself undesirably modernist in character. Here I can only hint at my complex feelings, realising that it is wrong-headed to dictate terms in advance of the necessary creative process. And one must realise, too, that art has many functions to serve. But I confess that over the next 50 years I would like to see artists having the audacity to go underground, to dig under the cement and tarmac of our modern cities, to bring up the buried images in order to reveal the deep abiding, contradictory, poetic forms of human life. I would like to see an archetypal art which greatly moved us, which shocked us, consoled us, affirmed us and which remained, at each turn and juxtaposition, faithful to the great tap-root of human existence. It would be strangely urgent and contemporary yet, also, hauntingly archaic. It would be committed to a further differentiation of the great images commensurate with our own desolation. And if the vision was, in part, tragic it would yet confer and put

and put an end to the great lie of the last 300 years, the lie of literal and inevitable progress. And, like all true art, it would take us beyond the unreal twilight of an exhausted materialism with its Scientisms, its Positivisms and its various Functionalisms. What I have in mind has been beautifully embodied in our century by a significant minority of art-makers; for example, in the art of Henry Moore, Cecil Collins (at his best with his Portrait of the Artist and his Wife, 1939) and Frida Kahlo (at her most mythical) and in the musical work of Michael Tippett and John Taverner.

After Modernism there is nowhere to turn, but back and further back into our diverse historic culture and down and further down into the depths of our existence, until the two tracks converge and become one. All this requires much greater elaboration. Here I would like to conclude with a reflection form the poet Oscar Milosz who claimed that few were daring enough ‘to connect the time assigned to one human life with the same of all humanity’, and who wanted symbols ‘to penetrate to the very core of reality’. I would like to see an art grow up that was daring enough and comprehensive enough to create those deeply needed symbols.

c Peter Abbs, 1996.

Peter Abbs was born in Norfolk in 1942, and was brought up and attended school there. He studied English and Philosophy at Bristol University in the early sixties. This was followed by a number of years spent teaching English in Comprehensive Schools in Bristol. A change in direction saw him living as a freelance writer in Wales, with his wife and three children. He has written widely on the arts and education and is the editor of the Falmer Press Library on Aesthetic Education.

He is currently Reader in Education at the University of Sussex, and director of the MA Language, Arts and Education course. His interests include philosophy, religion, aesthetics, literature and autobiography. Part of his projected study of the autobiographical impulse in Western culture has been published in The Pelican Guide to English Literature, Vol. 8.

He lectures widely in Britain, Europe, and America, and gives poetry readings.