Friday, June 21, 2013

Speaking of Modernism...

I just ran across a brilliant discussion of the aesthetics of modernism and post-modernism here. Some key quotes:
Postmodernism in the arts repudiated many of the basic teachings of modernism: the myth of individual genius, for example, and the concept of originality. Yet arts institutions continued to operate throughout the postmodern period, and do so right up to the present moment, as though that critique never happened. Museums, foundations, government endowments, and university art departments all effortlessly absorbed a movement which was more or less devoted to destroying their conception of the arts. They treated the postmodernists exactly the way they’d treated the modernists.
Yet remarkably, the entire discourse and institutional context which was developed in relation to Manet, Kandinsky or de Kooning, and explicitly attacked by Warhol and the postmodernists, is simply reproduced by ... virtually all institutions that deal with postmodern art. It’s roughly analogous to scientists trying to account for the latest results in physics using the intellectual equipment of medieval theology.
Why is that? If modernism died in actual art practice, why did the art market and museum system go on as though nothing had ever happened? First of all, modernist ideology is extremely effective commercially. Once you jettison ideas like originality and genius, there is no justification for prices in the millions.
The institutional economics of art — public or private — depends on what the postmodern art theorist Rosalind Krauss called “the originality of the avant-garde and other modernist myths.” It doesn’t matter what you do: if you are an “important artist,” arts institutions will portray you and market you as an original genius and your work as the high-water mark of human transcendence, which not incidentally increases its price. The canvas on which you have someone in Bangladesh stencil “this is not a work of original genius” will be “authenticated” as a work of original genius, and probably turn out to be more valuable than the Bangladeshi economy as a whole.
 My emphases. It would seem that commercial considerations lie, if not behind the original statements of modernism, then certainly behind their dissemination and continuance. The real irony here is that the post-modernists like Warhol and John Cage achieved their fame as original creative geniuses by repudiating the whole idea of original creative geniuses. It is as absurd to attribute artistic genius to some of the "compositions" of John Cage as it is to some of the "artworks" of Andy Warhol. After all, if the notes and rhythms of the composition were chosen by change procedures, coin tosses or the I Ching, then what is the difference between Cage doing the tossing or anyone else?

Here is an excerpt from Music of Changes (1951) by John Cage, composed using chance procedures:

No comments: