Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What (the hell) is Modernism?

(My friend visiting Out of Line)

There are words that are slewed through art circles without a care in the world. “Conceptual” used to be my pet-peeve. If someone says your piece is conceptual, it usually means they don’t get it. To me “conceptual” means work stemming from the Conceptual Art movement in the 60s. It doesn’t mean any piece that makes you think. Let’s move on.

Distopian and ontological. I’m not that interested in exploring these terms right now.

What I want to look at today is the word “Modernism.” There was a time when “modern art” meant “of our times” (Museum of Modern Art). Now we have the word “contemporary” for that. Today “Modernism” should really mean "of the period around the early twentieth century when breaking new ground away from tradition was a primary interest." I’m pretty sure Matisse, T.S Eliot, and Cubism are considered Modernists.

Then I hear “Modernist architecture.” This seems to be the embrace of “technology” in architecture in the 40s and 50s – is that right? - ,which yielded sleek design (the Seagram Building, for example). From our present-day perspective “Modernist architecture” is really retro architecture.

But then there’s “modernism” meaning "relating to self-consciousness and subjectivity." The Abstract Expressionists are modernists, for example. With the term “post-modernism,” the idea of the self became a thing of the past, because the self was deemed impossible to define narrowly (Hey, some people are black and some people are white). But I don't think "modernist" artists are trying to peg anything, really. The approach or filter is just the individual, as I see it.

Many theory-based artists and writers seem to have disdain for strains of modernism in contemporary art (thick paint, psychological bents, the human touch) because it somehow denies that there are systems in the world. Bah. You can favor the mark of the hand and know FedEx exists.

Readers: do I have most definitions of modernism covered here in the most cursory way?


Sue K. said...

Yeah that pretty much covers it. Thanks for summing it up! Great photo!

Molly Stevens said...

His name is Chip.