Friday, February 8, 2013

The Anti-Culture of Modernism

In my previous few posts last year, I wrote about the relationship of folk art and classical high art to culture.  I wrote that folk art, as an expression of culture, aims towards a particular expression of a particular culture's self awareness, or "what it means to be" such and such a culture.   High art, or academic art or classical art, is an attempt not to express "what it means to be" English or Italian or American, but what it means to be human as a universal idea.  This classical high art is concerned with the most fundamental principles: order, reason, and beauty.  This spectrum then, between the particular of folk art, and the universal of high art served to describe well what art was for nearly all of human history.

The potpourri of ornament and styles in Victorian architecture
riled the modernists for the excesses of "useless" ornament.
Now this all changed, as I related before, with the rise of "kitsch".   The rise of industry, advertising and mass marketing of art which arose in the 19th and 20th Centuries created a new category of art, the mass marketed art of kitsch.  Kitsch is characterized by the divorce of art from any of its cultural roots, meaning that no painting, no building or no song which is produced by kitsch has a real relation to culture, but only a "simulacrum" of culture to appeal to its market. 

This is the state of art that the artists of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries found themselves.  They saw that the rise of industrialism and the market was making kitsch the dominant form of art, which was threatening to kill culture and art.  So to rescue art,  a new art was needed; and this new art would be the avante-garde of modernism.  Modernism would be the true art which could express man's deep longing to know "what it means to be."   So with one swift stroke, Modernism, would both simultaneously sweep away all the meaningless detritus of kitsch as well as create a new meaningful, authentic and universal art.

Piet Mondriaan's "Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow"
To the modernists, all culture had been irredeemably lost with the rising tide of kitsch.   Folk art was lost to the masses and had been entirely replaced by mass-marketed art of every form.  Think how true this is today, as most people know not a single folk tune passed down from their ancestors, while the infectious insipid "Call me maybe" is ever-present.  Not only has folk culture been replaced, but the academic high art as well, having all been run over by a kitsch of Beaux-arts historicism.  So then, if culture and its art has been entirely lost, then a new art which embraced traditions and traditional forms would make no sense at all.

Entirely new forms of art would then be found in the avante-garde, the new forms of art in abstraction and cubism, which, stripped of their cultural cancer, would allow for only the raw expression of those fundamental truths themselves.  Instead of using color and line and form, art became color and line and form.   From Mondriaan's blocks of color to Picasso's human forms transformed into cubes, the art would not express old dead notions of particular cultures, but one new universal idea of art.

Walter Gropius' Bauhaus school in Dessau Germany.
In architecture, the accretions which the Beaux-arts academics and their peers had cobbled onto architectural form were stripped free in the architecture of the Bauhaus.   This new architecture, the "International Style," is probably the most succinct expression of this new idea of the universal art.   Since all culture is swept aside, a pure clean architecture, which expressed the barest idea of architecture itself, was to be created.   Not mired in cultural flotsam, the International Style would be at home in any place, whether in Berlin or Los Angeles or Brazil.  Since culture had already been destroyed, it was only logical to create art that would be pure expressions of art.

Modernism became then, at least in its earliest expressions, fundamentally and essentially anti-cultural.  Artists working in this milieu didn't see themselves as destroyers of art and culture, but rather as saviors of art.  Certainly this was Clement Greenberg's idea, that the art of the avante-garde, in casting off as already dead the cancer of kitsch, would revive art and make it whole again, and modern man, so longing for this purity and wholeness, would respond and find it wonderful.

Jeff Koons' "Balloon Dog" exemplifies a later modern
fascination in the art world with kitsch.
At least that was the idea, but the reality was that Modernism created a world that mankind did not respond to, that left a cold and empty world devoid of any meaning.  In the next few posts, I'd like to look at a few responses that art has made to the "failure of modernism."   In no particular order, I'll be looking at the embrace of kitsch in art, the criticism that "anti-art" made, and the rise and fall of Post Modernism, and where that leaves us today.