The Unmaking of Modernism

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.

In one great leap of outspokenness, I began to write Has Modernism Failed?, a book that questioned whether we were leaving behind a period of great success and resonant creativity, or one of impoverishment and decline. I was, myself, living these questions as I wrote them, undergoing my own acute crisis of credibility about the core truths of modernity–secularism, individualism, bureaucracy, and pluralism–by which the numinous, the mythic, and the sacramental have been, in our society, reduced to rags. By the time I had finished writing my book, the modernism that once had seemed so meaningful no longer captivated me, and even seemed a little absurd.

I can still remember my initiation into modern aesthetics, at the time a small but doctrinaire religion, and how much it affected me. It took place in a seminar class taught by the painter Robert Motherwell when I was a student at Hunter College, more than 40 years ago. A lively man with clever, prudent eyes and a sensual mouth, Motherwell would arrive in class every week, and I would shake with excitement. At 18, I was beginning my worldly life in the embrace of modern art, with one of its divine immortals as my spirit guide. I spent a whole semester studying a single essay, The Dehumanization of Art, sinking slowly inside its every syllable. Written by Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset in 1925, this commanding text was read like scripture by the Abstract Expressionists.

From the beginning there was a kind of sublime simplicity to the way Ortega defined art as disinterested play–a sort of prodigious game whose primary purpose was in mastering the game itself. Modern art, he claimed, was “a thing of no consequence,” ill-equipped to take on the salvation of mankind; a present-day artist would be thunderstruck if he were entrusted with so enormous a mission. That is how I (and others of my generation) were trained: to believe in the unimportance, uselessness, and ineffectuality of art. The idea of aesthetic autonomy–art for art’s sake–kept art as a specialized pursuit, devoid of practical or social goals. As a concept, it was not to be tinkered with, like theological law. It created a fantasy of self-sufficiency. Artists cultivated the image of themselves as eccentric loners, held in suspension by art’s protective bubble.

Sudden remnants of this well-honed and heavily sanctioned philosophy can still drop down in front of one like some outlandish pawpaw more than half a century later–testifying to the indelible, enduring strength of tradition. In an exchange with a critic from theNew York Times during his 1995 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, the painter Georg Baselitz was asked what role he thinks art plays in society. As if speaking from a time capsule, Baselitz replied, “The same role as a good shoe, nothing more.”

Remarks like this are lethally radiating in their effect, making any urge to social involvement on the part of artists look artless. It is hard to credit a man of creative enterprise with such a statement, except that it is perfectly expressive of its period. Is it really so surprising that the NEA should have taken its business elsewhere?

Even though I had, in a sense, walked right out of the official culture by saying things that many people did not want to hear, the publication of Has Modernism Failed? in 1984 propelled me into the public realm. It was as if a chute gate had swung open, releasing a flood of invitations to lecture and teach. My own disenchantment with the modernist’s myths of hard-edged individualism and economic self-seeking had struck a resonant chord with artists all over the northern hemisphere, many of whom were suffering from an acute sense of isolation and from the lack of any meaningful context or raison d’etre for their work beyond the seductive lure of the marketplace. At that time, it was very difficult to get one’s bearings. Basically, there were two options: to belong to the silent universe of the unrecognized, to shut up completely in one’s own cocoon, or to scramble up the success ladder in the art world, which Georgia O’Keeffe once described rather crisply and unforgivingly as “the pig pen.”

Since none of these alternatives appealed to me, I was groping for something that might offer more dignity and truth. But to embody a new vision of social integrity would require getting rid of the beliefs that had conditioned and defined the artist’s identity in modern culture. These beliefs, prestigious as they were, had become outmoded, oppressive, and often nullifying in their effects. Art that imagined itself, in Andy Warhol’s words, as ‘making things for people they don’t need,’ had become radically irrelevant to what I was moving toward: a new interpretation of the relationship between artist and society, based on a sense of ethical responsibility toward the social and environmental communities. In the idiomatic world of modernism, it does not seem exaggerated for me to say that I was, after all, a defector. What I discovered was that I was swimming in the same sea with many others, who were also turning their backs on modernity’s disengaged consciousness.

During the 1980s, the structure, values, and behaviors of the art world were under siege. Many of its cherished notions–the vision of brisk sales, well-patronized galleries, good reviews, and a large admiring audience–were breaking down. Tired of isolation and disengagement, many artists wished to cultivate a purposeful relationship with society, and were not so concerned with achieving success in the art world.

What was in the air was a new set of values, concerned with ‘right’ living in an interconnected universe, not differentiated into competing parts, but dependent on cooperative interactions. I sought to create a philosophical framework for artists who are putting this new vision into practice–who see themselves as agents of social change. It is perfectly described in a single comment, prophetically uttered in 1960 by Albert Camus: “I believe that it is better to calmly admit that the period of the revered master, of the artist with a camellia in his buttonhole, of the armchair genius, is over.”

Suzi Gablik, author of Conversations Before the End of Time (Thames and Hudson, 1997), lives in Blacksburg,Virginia. This essay is excerpted from her forthcoming memoir, Living the Magical Life: The Unmaking of an Art Critic and the Making of a Mystic. From Lapis (#8). Subscriptions $15/yr.(3 issues) from New York Open Center, 83 Spring St., New York, NY 10012.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.