The 20th century has
focused its artistic attention on progressive modernism, to the extent
that conservative modernism has been neglected and, indeed, derided as
an art form.
The so-called academic painters of the 19th century believed themselves
to be doing their part to improve the world in presenting images that
contain or reflect good conservative moral values, examples of virtuous
behaviour, of inspiring Christian sentiment, and of the sort of righteous
conduct and noble sacrifice that would serve as an appropriate model toward
which we should all aspire to emulate.
The new world order reflected in academic modernism was seen by the progressives
as merely supportive of the status quo and offered a future that was little
more than a perpetuation of the present.
The conservatives wished to maintain existing institutions and preferred
gradual development over radical change. The progressives, on the other
hand, were critical of institutions, both political and religious, as
restrictive of individual liberty. Progressives placed their faith in
the goodness of mankind, a goodness which they believed, starting with
Rousseau in the 18th century, had become corrupted by such things as the
growth of cities.
Others would argue that man had been turned into vicious, competitive
animal by capitalism, the corrosive inhumanity of which was plain to see
in the blighted landscape of the industrial revolution.
Rousseau had glorified Nature, and a number of modernists idealised the
country life. Thomas Jefferson lived in the country close to nature and
desired that the United States be entirely a farming economy; he characterized
cities as "ulcers on the body politic."
In contrast to conservative modernism, which remained fettered to old
ideas and which tended to support the status quo, progressive modernism
adopted an antagonistic position towards society and its established institutions.
In one way or another it challenged all authority in the name of freedom
and, intentionally or not, affronted conservative bourgeois values.
Generally speaking, progressive modernism tended to concern itself with
political and social issues, addressing aspects of contemporary society,
especially in its poorer ranks, that an increasingly complacent middle
class, once they had achieved a satisfactory level of comfort for themselves,
preferred to ignore.
Through their art, in pictures that showed directly or indirectly the
plight of the peasants, the exploitation of the poor, prostitution, and
so on, the progessives repeatedly drew attention to the political and
social ills of contemporary society, conditions they felt needed to be
addressed and corrected.
Fundamentally, the intention was to educate the public, to keep alive
in the face of conservative forces the Enlightenment ideals of freedom
and equality through which the world would be made a better place.
The position taken by progressive modernism came to be referred to as
the avant-garde (a military term meaning "advance-guard"). In contrast
to the conservative modernists who looked to the past and tradition, the
avant-garde artist consciously rejected tradition.
Rather than existing as the most recent manifestation of a tradition stretching
back into the past, the avant-garde artist saw him- or herself as standing
at the head of a new tradition stretching, hopefully, into the future.
The progressive modernist looked to the future while the conservative
modernist looked to the past.
The rejection of the past became imperative for the progressives with
the advent of the First World War which signalled for them the catastrophic
failure of tradition. The senseless, mechanized carnage of the "Great
War" starkly showed that modernism's faith in scientific and technological
progress as the path to a better world was patently wrong. For the Dadaists,
World War One also signalled the failure of all modernist art. It could
be claimed that Dada in fact marks the emergence of a post-modernist cast
Today, we would characterize progressive modernism, the avant-garde, as
left-leaning and liberal in its support of freedom of expression and demands
of equality. Since the 18th century, the modernist belief in the freedom
of expression has manifested itself in art through claims to freedom of
choice in subject matter and to freedom of choice in style (i.e. in the
choice of brushstroke and colour). It was in the exercise of these rights
that the artist constantly drew attention to the goals of progressive
As the 19th century progressed, the exercise of artistic freedom became
fundamental to progressive modernism. Artists began to seek freedom not
just from the rules of academic art, but from the demands of the public.
Soon it was claimed that art should be produced not for the public's sake,
but for art's sake.
Art for Art's Sake is basically a call for release from the tyranny of
meaning and purpose. From a progressive modernist's point of view, it
was a further exercise of freedom. It was also a ploy, another deliberate
affront to bourgeois sensibility which demanded art with meaning or that
had some purpose such as to instruct, or delight, or to moralize, and
generally to reflect in some way their own purposeful and purpose-filled
world. A progressive modernist painter like
James Abbott McNeill Whistler,
for example, blithely stated that his art satisfied none of those things.
In his 1891 essay "The Soul of Man Under Socialism",
Oscar Wilde wrote:
A work of art
is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from
the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the
fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that
an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply
the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing
craftsman, an honest or dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim
to be considered as an artist.
Art for Art's Sake,
however, was a ploy that backfired. The same bourgeois whose tastes and
ideas and prescriptions Whistler was confronting through his art, quickly
turned the call of "Art for Art's Sake" into a tool to further neutralize
the content and noxious effects of progressive modernist art.
In the late 19th century, we find art beginning to be discussed by critics
and art historians largely in formal terms which effectively removed the
question of meaning and purpose from consideration. From now on, art was
to be discussed in terms of style -- colour, line, shape, space, composition
-- conveniently ignoring or playing down whatever social, political, or
progressive statements the artist had hoped to make in his or her work.
This approach became pervasive to the extent that artists, too, certainly
the weaker ones, and even some of the strong ones as they got older or
more comfortable, lost sight of their modernist purpose and became willy-nilly
absorbed into this formalist way of thinking about art.
In defense of this attitude, it was argued that as the function of art
is to preserve and enhance the values and sensibilities of civilized human
beings, it should attempt to remain aloof from the malignant influences
of an increasingly crass and dehumanizing technological culture.
Eventually there emerged the notion that modernist art is practised entirely
within a closed formalist sphere, necessarily separated from, so as not
to be contaminated by, the real world.
The formalist critic Clement Greenberg, in an article first published
in 1965 entitled "Modernist Painting," saw Modernism as having achieved
a self-referential autonomy. The work of art came to be seen as an isolated
phenomenon, floating in some rarefied, ideal "Platonic" zone, governed
not by human impulse so much as by the mysterious internal laws of stylistic
development. Painting and sculpture stood separate from the materialistic
world and the mundane affairs of ordinary people.
The underlying assumptions at work here first of all posit that the visual
artist, by virtue of special gifts, is able to express the finer things
of humanity through a "purely visual" understanding and mode of expression.
This "purely visual" characteristic of art makes it an autonomous sphere
of activity, completely separate from the everyday world of social and
The autonomous nature of visual art means that questions asked of it may
only be properly put, and answered, in its own terms. The history of modernism
is contructed only in reference to itself, it is (or was until recently)
entirely self-referential. According to this approach, the importance
of a painting rests largely on the degree to which (1) it derives from,
or sums up, or challenges, earlier stylistic developments, and (2) the
extent to which it lays the stylistic foundations for the next step, artist,
Impressionism gains much of its art historical significance through its
place within a scheme of stylistic development that has its roots in the
preceding Realism of Courbet and Manet, and by its also providing the
main impetus for the successive styles of Post-Impressionism.
Traditional art historians and critics are fond of extending this sort
of approach beyond the modernist period to other artists and periods to
enhance the illusion of a history of art composed along one great thread
of stylistic interconnection. The system allowed one to connect the preferred
art of the present to an authentic art of the past by means of a retrospectively
perceived logic of development. By this means a supposedly disinterested
judgment could be justified in terms of a supposedly inexorable historical
In the hands of the conservative establishment, formalism became a very
effective instrument of control over unruly and disruptive art. Many of
the art movements spawned in the first half of the 20th century could
be seen as various attempts to break the formalist grip on progressive
The system, though, articulated by the more academic art historians and
critics, operating hand-in-hand with the art market which was only interested
in money and not meaning, effectively absorbed all attempts at subversion
and revolt into a neutral, palatable, only occasionally mildly offensive
history of art of the kind you encounter in art history textbooks.
Unfortunately for the history of art, in the process of neutralizing progressive
modernism, art history also had to neutralize all other art from earlier
periods and from elsewhere in the world. The same reductionist, schematic
approach was employed across the board creating a history of art largely
devoid of any real meaning original to the artwork. It was generally agreed
that aesthetic quality would have priority in deciding the function of
art instead of its social or political relevance. It was also agreed that
painting and sculpture should remain central to the concept of high art
and the "Fine Arts."
Formalism, though, could also be turned to the advantage of the progressives
who were able to use it in defense of modernism, abstraction in particular,
which has been especially open to criticism. Formalism also neatly dovetailed
in the early 20th century with another goal of progressive modernism,
For art to be an effective instrument of social betterment, it needed
to be understood by as many people as possible. But it was not a matter
of simply articulating images, it was the "true" art behind the image
that was deemed important. Art can be many things and one example may
look quite different from the next. But something called "art" is common
to all. Whatever this art thing was, it was universal; like the scientific
"truth" of the Enlightenment. All art obviously possessed it.
Some artists went in search of "art". From an Enlightenment point of view,
this was a search for the "truth" or essence of art, and was carried out
using a sort of pictorial reasoning. The first step was to strip away
distracting elements such as recognizable objects which tended to conceal
or hide the art thing; an example would be Wassily Kandinsky.
Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VIII, 1923
Oil on canvas (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York)
A more radical approach
was then to reduce the non-recognizable to the most basic elements, line
and colour; this was the approach of Piet
Piet Mondrian, Composition A, 1923
Oil on canvas (Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome)
However, it is frequently
overlooked that for the artists who undertook this search, there was more
at stake that the discovery of the "truth" of art.
For some, abstraction was a path to another goal. Both Mondrian and Kandinsky
were keenly interested in the spiritual and believed that art should serve
as a guide to, or an inspiration for, or perhaps help to rekindle in,
the spectator the spiritual dimension which they and others felt was being
lost in the increasingly materialist contemporary world.
Abstraction involved a sort of stripping away of the material world and
had the potential of revealing, or describing, or merely alluding to the
world of the spirit.