“Modernism refers to the typical forms of a hegemonic
—Harrison & Wood, Art in Theory, 1900-1990
“I define post-modernism as incredulity towards
meta-narratives. […] The narrative function is
losing its functors, its great hero […] its great
goal. […] It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative
—Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition:
A Report on Knowledge
Brentwood, California is a leafy suburb of gritty Los
Angeles. Situated west of the 405, it is the balmy,
palm-tree dotted home to movie stars, politicos, and
what passes for Old Money in forward-living California.
It is also home to several well-established and successful
old guard art galleries.
I was interviewing for a job at one of these galleries
last week, and had the pleasure of digressing into conversation
with Lee, gallerist, art-lover extraordinaire, and my
interviewer. He was facing me across a cluttered desk,
sitting directly in front of a wall-full of books, an
astounding library whose titles jumped out at me in
my jittery state: Mondrian! Pollock! Klee! I knew where
I was, and where I was wasn’t too keen on my sort
Regardless, over the course of a lively discussion
which took the better part of the job interview, Lee
expounded upon his views of contemporary art, which
he compared unfavourably with the Modernists of yore.
As far as I could tell, through my haze of nicotine
withdrawal, his main point was that the contemporary
artistic dialogue in America began in the fifties, with
post-modernism and Warhol. This happened at the same
time as a growing political and social uncertainty.
He saw a correlation: it is always during times of unrest,
Lee said, that the artists of a given culture recede
into their own shells, as it were. Whereas Pollock had
embraced the work of the great Mexican muralists, Warhol
was embracing nothing more than Americana. In short,
the seeds of contemporary art were based in cultural
I began to realize what I think is symptomatic of the
new rift in the art world. There are Contemporaries,
and there are Modernists. While living and dealing within
the same parameters (we are all artists, after all),
these two factions have little to do with one another.
Furthermore, the Modernist/Contemporary rift is not
as limited to temporal devices and generational gaps
as it might at first appear. Modernist mindset is still
at work in contemporary times. Most importantly, it
is still being created in young artists in the various
schools across the U.S. and abroad. These are the true
painters and drawers and printmakers of today; the people
you see in their shadowy studios, re-working and re-drawing,
and pushing their craft to its best possible conclusion.
Far from agreeing with Greenberg that Pollock basically
painted us all into a corner, they see further artistic
dialogues in their tenacious and relentless brush strokes.
And this, in my view, is the crux of the rift between
Modernists and Contemporaries.
Rewind to an imposing grey neo-classicist building
along the banks of the Thames in London, two years ago.
The Turner Prize announcements have just been made,
and Martin Creed is the big winner of this prestigious
award. His victorious piece consists of stripping one
of the big gallery spaces at the Tate Britain of its
art. The pristine white walls are instead decorated
by a play with light, alternatively being lit by the
gallery’s impressive lighting system or plunged
into shadow, according to a temporal pattern that Creed
had impressed upon his electricians to rig to the light
Martin Creed, the incredibly hip British artist du
jour (if you can define sudden success a few years ago
as still being du jour) makes work that is almost entirely
devoid of physical output. I can see the Modernists
screaming now, as I could then when reading the front
page of The Sun, The Daily Mail, and other English tabloids:
“But where is the ART in all this???”
Here is my answer: To understand contemporary art,
art theory has to be seen as a valid form of artistic
_expression. It is art reduced to its purest elements.
It is art in idea. Martin Creed has continued the patterns
set by the Minimalists in the seventies, abandoned the
traditional methods of artistic _expression, and made
a head-long plunge into the deepest issues at the heart
of visual thinking, finding along the way that the fussing
and worrying over abstract vs. figurative painting,
pointillism vs. symbolicism, or any other of those little
arguments, is truly besides the point.
After all, what is art except for an attempt to illustrate
an idea in a visual manner? And what better way to illustrate
that idea than by abandoning the traditional visual
methods almost altogether, and by pseudo-Platonically
attempting to express the idea in its most pure and
unadulterated state in whatever manner you see fit?
If the purpose of art is to affect the viewer in some
way, and to effectively illustrate the artist’s
idea, then these much-reviled conceptual multi-disciplinarian
contemporary artists have got it right. By giving themselves
the freedom to abandon the symbolic paintbrush and canvas,
they have a better answer for that life-long question
“Are you a painter, a printmaker or a sculptor?”
“None of the above,” they can say “I
am an artist.”
They are then able, if they choose, to pick the traditional
Modernist mediums up again and attempt what no Modernist
could ever have done through simple painting, abstract
or otherwise: express a complex philosophical and theoretical
issue. They can be a multi-disciplinarian meta-artist
and a theorist all rolled into one!
Make sense now?
Help us help you. Take this
three-minute survey to help us get better ads.