Friday, August 17, 2012

The Tyranny of Artistic Modernism

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Alleged artists like Damien Hirst and Cindy Sherman still recycle basically the same pranks first played on the public by Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists almost a century ago. Poets like Geoffrey Hill and John Ashberry continue to cultivate the same arcane diction, comprised of disjointed syntax and esoteric reference, which was employed by purported “high modernists” like Pound and Wallace Stevens. In every case, whether they acknowledge it or not — whether they realize it or not — the most notable creators in our times repeatedly display their fidelity to the rules imposed by modernist ideology.

As soon as we inquire into the nature of these rules, we discover that they are opposed in almost every way to the principles of artistic creation prevailing in the world prior to the end of the nineteenth century. Of course, no one would suggest that prior to the era of modernism, artists all adhered to one monolithic tradition, or that there are not important and irreconcilable differences between, say, the tradition of Gothic cathedral architecture and the tradition of Islamic sacred architecture, or between the neo-classicism of a Pope and the Romanticism of a Wordsworth. Nonetheless, one can identify certain very deep underlying similarities among these traditions, which are not common to modernism — which in fact are antithetical to modernism — and thus we may correctly distinguish between pre-modern traditions and the modernist tradition. Whereas earlier traditions of artistic creation embraced symmetry within complexity, modernism has embraced extreme simplicity, dislocation, and imbalance. Whereas earlier traditions sought to bring pleasure to an audience — “to teach and delight,” as Horace’s famous dictum would have it — modern art attempts to “nauseate” or “brutalize” an audience (the terms are from Jacques Barzun’s The Use and Abuse of Art). Whereas pre-modern architecture employed scale and ornament, modern architecture aggressively promotes gigantisms and barrenness. Whereas classical literature was grounded in regular grammar and public imagery, modern literature routinely resorts to distortions of syntax and esotericism [..].

Success in the corporate commercial [art] sector has come to depend upon the ability to find ever more shocking expressions. Contemporary art is no longer about art, and has not been for decades. Instead, we have a vast corporate media machine that produces “objects,” often repulsive ones, as play-pieces in a financial game of manipulative speculation. The commercial value of these objects is artificially inflated via cycles of promotion and sales, and then the end-owner enjoys a tax write off by donating the object to a museum. The paid mercenaries who play this sordid game are then pushed upon the public as great figures, worthy of our admiration and emulation. This is how the farce of modernism ends, with the anti-bourgeois rebel revealed to be a money-grubbing little fraud.