The Unmaking of Modernism

Art for art's sake is over. Make way for the new activist aesthetic.

| November/December 1999

Growing up in post-war New York City during the salad days of modernism, art was my religion. I belonged to a community of believers. At 18, I was a devotee of John Cage concerts and the Living Theater; at a time when other girls' minds were filled with boys, proms, and football games, my closest friends were Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. I was, in those days, a sophisticated innocent, part of a New York art world that defined my ambitions, my relationships, my pleasures, and my pains.

Occasionally now, I amuse myself with this thought: It was not my fate to be like Josef Albers, who woke every morning with the implacable knowledge that he was going to paint squares. Life has not been that way for me. When I was young I thought I knew what I believed, but I have had to question, and even to forsake things I was well-versed in--like modernism. And it happened, I see now, from a fluke phone call that arrived seemingly out of nowhere, bearing my future aloft on an unwinding strand of events that changed my cultural grounding wire and set me on a new path.

The call was from the American Embassy and the voice at the other end of the line belonged to someone I didn't know: a program director for the USIS (at that time known as the United States Information Services) who was proposing to send me to Hungary to lecture about contemporary American art. At that point I hadn't done much public lecturing, but the prospect of visiting Budapest, where my father had been born, seemed provocative, so I agreed to go. As things turned out, it was a pivotal decision.

The trip to Hungary precipitated similar journeys to more exotic places, such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey. I was invited, in my emissary role, to explain the mystique of modern art and bridge the gap in understanding that exists between people outside the professional art world and those within it. At first I was daunted, perhaps even embarrassed, by the prospect of trying to describe, to avid crowds of mostly indigenous Third World artists, the aggressively absurd forms of art that dominated the 1970s in America: Vito Acconci putting a match to his breast and burning the hair off his chest; Chris Burden crawling half-naked across broken glass, or having himself shot in the arm by a friend with a .22-caliber rifle just so he would know what it was like; rows of firebricks meticulously laid out in a line across the floor; monochrome canvases. It was hard not to be overwhelmed by the bizarreness of the situation, but I threw myself wholeheartedly into the task—which brought me in contact with many extraordinary people.

I did find it disconcerting that, in cultures whose features were radically dissimilar to my own, artists were often willing to destroy their own cultural past in order to become galley slaves to a Western tradition of modernism not intrinsic to their experience. There was something grotesque about artists undermining their own authority and uniqueness, and becoming derivatives of Western modernism by 'faking' it. How can this be understood, I wondered, and in this unexpected blunt encounter with the 'colonial' experience, I found myself beginning to question the very assumptions I had set out to explain.

My gallivanting Third World odyssey ended as abruptly as it began. The American government instituted a policy change regarding speakers, and my good friend at the embassy in London, who had organized all my trips, was reposted to a different city. But by that time, after nearly two years of traveling, the damage had been done. Once I had experienced my own culture from outside, as it were, I had to confront a simple truth: Modernism, which had such good beginnings, was losing its bite. Overturning conventions had become routine. The avant-garde, reduced to dulled values and the stereotyped effects of bygone adventures, had been co-opted by corporate managers and professional marketers of art. In the problematic cultural ambiance in which I was living, modernism suffered a certain moral lapse. Its spiritual authority and its social purpose had been lost to the tyranny of economic self-seeking.

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