PRINT January 1981



MODERNISM—WHICH I TAKE to be that point of view which sees art as the mastery of purity—involves not so much a loss of tradition as a willing suspension of tradition. It is not so much that tradition is impossible from the perspective of the present. as that the very meaning of historicity—its implications of smooth continuity, of the easy inevitability that seems to make events flow into one another—has been bankrupted by a new sense of what it means to be in the present. To be modern, as Jung says, means to be “fully conscious of the present,” and that full consciousness is not possible from the point of view of traditionalism, which sees all presents as petites perceptions of an infinite continuum of events, an uninterrupted flow of history, with no particular telos, but then also with no particular dead ends. There is simply the passage of events into one another, in an all-embracing temporality. To be modern is to discover raw possibility. giving the present an enormous presence, making it seem the totality of being, the very essence of being. As Jung says, man “is completely modern only when he has come to the very edge of the world, leaving behind him all that has been discarded and outgrown, and acknowledging that he stands before a void out of which all things may grow.”1 I take it that modernism in art is a way of commanding the presence which the present has when viewed from the perspective of modernity—a way of being responsible for the enormous charge of possibility that is concentrated in the pure present, for the sense of complete openness that gives the present its purity. Modernism in art intends to give us the pure present as a complete openness to being, an openness out of which new worlds are likely to emerge. Yet this openness remains bound by presentness, and so—remains an abstract charge making the concrete presence of the artwork more “pregnant,” to use Clement Greenberg’s word, than it would ordinarily be. And in that tension between abstract charge and concrete presence we catch our first glimpse of the unhappy consciousness of modernism, or presentism, as it should properly be called. For the relationship between the abstract charge of possibility, or the aura of openness, and the actuality of material presence—the “closed” factuality of what is given to us in the present—is unresolved, and remains unresolved so long as the art is understood to be purely immediate, i.e., completely taken up by its presentness. Presentness is self-defeating, for by consuming all openness—by allowing openness to exist only as a utopian aura to material presence—it depreciates, and with that material presence itself must be depreciated. The aura of openness degenerates into a felt void, and material presence fades into matter-of-fact givenness. The work of art becomes an “interesting fact,” the dull shadow of a once-substantial present, and an echo of its own dream. Modernism collapses: full consciousness of the “basic” present becomes consciousness of the banally given. Any return to traditionism is precluded by the recognition that no amount of historical consciousness can restore the dream that was lost, can compensate for the abandonment of the sense of an infinite creative potential. which proved to be the mask of nihilism. The modernist work of art shrinks to an unresonant finitude.

BUT THERE IS A MORE immediate formulation that helps us understand the unhappy predicament that modernism embodies. It has to do with the modernist sense of what is proper to art. Modernism understands the immanence of art in terms which deny it self-transcendence, or rather, which subsume its self-transcendence in its immanence. The givenness of a work should be its only effect: this is what it means to speak of the work as pure. Thus, when Greenberg acknowledges that the “unconscious or preconscious effect” of the modernist work of art is as constitutive of its quality as its “literal order of effects,” yet never demonstrates how this is so, he implicitly assumes that such an unconscious or preconscious effect is sufficiently unspecifiable as to seem illusory. or else is too negligible in its influence on quality to take serious account of. Paying attention to the modernist work of art’s unconscious or preconscious effect distracts from the “proper experience” of the modernist work, the experience “which has to do with the making of art itself.” It is that experience which is responsible for the “increasingly literal order of effects” in the modernist work. The modernist outlook views art entirely in terms of its making and the literal results of that making. In fact, the modernist outlook carries the Aristotelian sense of art-as-making to an extreme. Modernism represents the absurd argument for an exclusively materialist conception of art, which not only sees the work literally but reduces its “effectiveness” to its literalness, so that all it “communicates” is its own givenness. In Greenberg’s thought, there is a quasi-Marxist aspect to this reduction, with unconscious or preconscious effect seen as a dispensable superstructure or ideological superimposition on the materially literal work of art. Such literalness is indisputable, and becomes the basis for “common sense” agreement about the nature of the work of art, the referent for unequivocal communication about it.

BUT COMMUNICATION EXISTS IN name only, for the materially abstracted work is addressed to no one in particular, and those who find themselves addressed by it are neither transformed by nor have any transformative effect on it. Their consciousness of it does not help constitute it, nor does their consciousness of the modernist (“presentist”) work significantly constitute them. Communication, then, is not assumed by the manifestness or literalness of the modernist work, which requires only that its addressee—who is never more than arbitrarily conceived. and is certainly not to be socially rooted, apart from having the leisure to contemplate art—conform to its visible character, acknowledge its givenness. Clearly this is a reversal of the Copernican Revolution that Kant effected. in which the object had to conform to the subject rather than vice versa. It is an unacknowledged if sophisticated return to a traditional conception of perception. The sophistication comes in with the concept of literalness. and above all with its effect on the subject, who is forced back on his own literalness, subtly cut off from his own history, the fluidity of his own experience. Pure or modernist art thus seems to succeed. where even religion never completely did, in liberating us from the limits of our own experience—by limiting us to our literalness.

THE QUESTION, OF COURSE, is what it means for both the work and its serious contemplator to seem unencumbered by any other meaning than that of their own being—which hardly seems a meaning at all, since it is not a horizon by which either is framed. Self-framing. without context, both the modernist work and the modernist contemplator appear absolute by virtue of their literalness. But is not such absolute literalness an illusion—as much of an illusion from the point of view of unconscious or preconscious effect. as they are from its point of view? Is not the impulse to purity. however cultivated and elevated. the sign of a general attitude. and as such fraught with social meaning? The reduction to the literal implies a search for the unchangeable in a field of rapidly changing historical experience, for the secular equivalent of the sacred in an unredeemably profane field of experience. The literal is seen as the holy grail, the unequivocally and divinely “communicable,” in a world of highly equivocal, changeable communication—a world full of misunderstandings, in which the ground of communication seems like quicksand, and even seems to call itself into question. From another closely related point of view. giving allegiance to literalness, limiting art to literalness, is a way—like that of the ostrich who buries his head in the sand—of precluding, or at least seeming to escape. the expanded consciousness of reality in the modern world. The rhetoric of literalness that modernism asserts—fanatically advocates—not only seems a kind of know-nothingness in the face of an expanded knowledge of reality, but the articulation of an unselfcontradictory knowledge in a situation in which knowledge inevitably becomes self-contradictory. in an expanded, one might say Faustian, field of experience which seems to demand self-contradiction if it is even minimally to be mastered.

IN ANALYZING THE CONCEPT of modernism, we begin to realize that purity is defined as much by what it negates as by what it affirms, and that its self-certainty or affirmative character rests on a foundation of uncertainty, a shaky negation. The concretely felt is always haunted by the vaguely known; the explicit experience of art is always hemmed in by the implicit experience of the historical world; our sense of the literalness of art must always struggle against our sense of its metaphoric relation with life. Our sense of the effectiveness of art must always struggle with our sense of our effect on it, with what we read into it to make it effective in our lives. Oscar Wilde summarizes the situation brilliantly in his account of “the highest kind of criticism,” the criticism which “treats the work of art simply as a starting point for a new creation” and “does not confine itself . . . to discovering the real intention of the artist and accepting that as final.” As Wilde says:

the meaning of any beautiful created thing is, at least, as much in the soul of him who looks at it, as it was in his soul who wrought it. Nay, it is rather the beholder who lends to the beautiful thing its myriad meanings, and makes it marvelous for us, and sets it in some new relation to the age, so that it becomes a vital portion of our lives, and a symbol of what we pray for, or perhaps of what, having prayed for, we fear that we may receive.2

Clearly, the modernist does not want the kind of imaginative intimacy with the work of art which would give it an identity beyond itself, an existence beyond its pure or literal presence, and which would make it seem, as a whole, communicative of anything beyond the sum of its material parts. And yet modernism is unhappy with being merely literal, and is haunted by the desire to communicate beyond itself, to have effect that is more than itself. It knows, though, it can never communicate an effective whole of meaning, for it is too self-conscious of the conditions of communication. This self-consciousness is forced upon it by the state of communication today. For to be modern or fully conscious of the present, to take the present as the only perspective, means to acknowledge the bankruptcy not only of historicity, but of communicativeness. The easy inevitability of neither can be assumed today, and the dissection of the language of art which modernism implies—and which goes hand in hand with the rejection of historicity—carries with it an implicit acknowledgment of the difficulty of communication. This difficulty is ironically confirmed by our impatient expectation of achieving full communication—of the great possibilities of communication which an understanding of the mechanisms of communication seems to offer, but only in a utopian way, as an unrealized creative potential. Wilde is again a help to our understanding of modernist unhappy consciousness, the consciousness that is divided between a sense of the language of art and an awareness of its uselessness for communication. Speaking of the Mona Lisa, Wilde writes:

Do you ask me what Leonardo would have said had anyone told him of this picture that “all the thoughts and experience of the world had etched and moulded therein that which they had of power to refine and make expressive the outward form,the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the Middle Age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias?” He would probably have answered that he had contemplated none of these things, but had concerned himself simply with certain arrangements of lines and masses, and with new and curious colour-harmonies of blue and green.

Modernism is caught between these two points of view. And even though modernism means to take the artist’s side in the dichotomy, and has only a shrunken sense of the meaning that a work of art might have in even the most active imagination, it is driven to do so not only by its own desire for purity but also in part by its effort to escape the situation of meaning that art, and all finds itself in by being modern.

THE MODERNIST PREDICAMENT IS epitomized, although without awareness that it is a predicament, in Greenberg’s assertion that:

Only by reducing themselves to the means by which they attain virtuality as art, to the literal essence of their medium, and only by avoiding as much as possible explicit reference to any form of experience not given immediately through their mediums, can the arts communicate that sense of concretely felt, irreducible experience in which our sensibility finds its fundamental certainty.3

Greenberg puts this even more strongly and particularly:

It follows that a modernist work of art must try, in principle, to avoid communication with any order of experience not inherent in the most literally and essentially construed nature of its medium. Among other things, this means renouncing illusion and explicit subject matter. The arts are to achieve concreteness, “purity” by dealing solely with their respective selves—that is, by becoming “abstract” or nonfigurative. Of course, “purity” is an unattainable ideal. Outside music, no attempt at a “pure” work of art has ever succeeded in being more than an approximation and compromise (least of all in literature). But this does not diminish the crucial importance of “purity” or concrete “abstractness” as an orientation and aim.4

The allusion to music brings to mind, not inappropriately, Valéry’s sense of music “appreciation,” which in fact Greenberg quotes with approval: “I conclude that the real connoisseur in this art is necessarily he to whom it suggests nothing.”5 Greenberg generalizes from this point of view: art as such suggests nothing, but rather presents itself. There are no hidden connotations within its denotation of its own making. In Kantian language, there is no synthesis of the work of art beyond the unity of its own making, the suggestive aura around it being nothing but the illusion—we would say projection—of our own needs. The position that the making of the work of art might have something to do with the satisfaction of our needs is of course not considered by the modernist, who rejects the notion, as Greenberg says, that there is any higher purpose to art, any “spiritual” point to its production. That there might be a lower purpose—and that even the spiritual might have something to do with this lower purpose—escapes him, despite his obsessive, if inconclusive, interest in the emotional density of the modernist work of art. In all of this there is a refusal to consider the work of art as anything more than the material and work that went into it, with little interest in why the effect should be made, and in fact with a strong interest in beating back any such interest, as detrimental to an understanding of the immediate presence of the work.

FROM THE MODERNIST POINT of view, the aura of allusion that surrounds the work can never synthesize into a coherent consciousness of the work. It remains unavoidably incoherent and stammering, because the work speaks clearly only when it speaks literally, i.e., as a particular presence that can never be generalized by any emotional or spiritual use to which we might put it. Its stubborn particularity resists appropriation even by the aura of meaning it seems to adduce, for that aura finally seems to be no more than a sign of our own insecurity with meaning in general—with what anything might finally mean, might finally communicate, beyond its own being. Indeed, modernism seems to tell us that acceptance of the work of art as indifferent to and so in a sense beyond questions of meaning and the communication of meaning is a way of securing oneself against the general chanciness of communication and uncertainty of meaning that become apparent the moment one begins to question the conventions of both. Part of what modernism tells us is that one inevitably does begin to question those conventions, in even the most ordinary circumstances, because, from the perspective of the pre- sent, conventions always seem to be arbitrary and to interfere with creative potential, the expanded sense of possibility that comes with trying to be totally present. The presentness of the modernist work of art is one important—presumably unique—way of being secure in the present. And yet taking the point of view of the present exclusively was what made one insecure in the first place. The pure presence of the work of art seems to be an antidote to the poison that pure existential presentness let loose; yet it seems also to be another, more insidious, version of that poison.

THERE IS, THEN, IN the Greenberg quotations, the pseudo-dialectical structure typical of the unhappy consciousness. The structure is “pseudo” in part because it is unconscious of itself, unaware that the positive artistic presence it pro- poses is premised on a negative sense of artistic presence as failed communication. The structure is also “pseudo” because recognizing that an unwillingness, almost an inability, to communicate is the hidden condition of art’s purity, and implies a division within the very structure of art that cannot be reconciled. For modernism, the reconciliation of art with itself—the happiness of art—can be imagined only in terms which put all the weight of reconciliation on the one changeless—pure—term in art, i.e., only in terms of a false consciousness of art. Thus there is pure or literally given art, whose integrity—the easy integrity that literalness gives—is conceived as entirely independent of its communicative potential. Such “renunciation” of communication is, implicitly,the first line of defense against the flux of historical experience and the relativity of meaning and communication that comes with that flux. Giving attention to literalness seems to stop the flux of relativity, or at least functions like a kind of breakwater that keeps it under control. Yet the weight of literalness as such is important in the pseudo-dialectical structure that means to reconcile art to itself, for any use to which literalness can be put implies the divided, “communicative” nature of art, and as such shows its unhappiness. However, Greenberg himself implies that modernism, with its emphasis on literalness for the sake of literalness, cannot help but reveal an unhappy consciousness when, in his notion of “art-adoration,” he suggests that the pursuit of purity implies a pathological sense of experience. Attention to literalness for its own sake can indicate “moral or intellectual failing” in the face of experience, even an incapacity for experience, which implies a disorder of the will, a collapse or degeneration of being.

YET WHAT GREENBERG CALLS “aesthetic transposition”—the starting point for the pursuit of purity—is an inextricable part of historical experience. Whatever the esthetic might seem to be in itself, it is a transposition of experience, i.e., it seems to offer a perspective on experience. The problem with the esthetic perspective on experience is that it remains bound to the most immanent, untransposable aspect of experience—sense experience—which seems almost impossible to get a perspective on. Esthetic transposition fearlessly presents what is perhaps the central epistemological paradox. Modernism, without realizing it, falls into the trap of this paradox, this double bind, and suffers the unhappy consciousness that is implied by the paradox. The need to have a perspective on experience, to transpose it into the control of some form of clarity, implies the canceling of the impact of its presentness or literalness. But it seems that the need can only be satisfied, perspective can only be gained, after plunging the depths of presentness. Indeed, gaining a perspective on experience as a whole sometimes seems to be the direct consequence of immersion in presentness, complete abandonment to sensory literalness. The esthetic perspective, esthetic clarity about experience, seems inseparable from perpetual bondage to the most intimate and uncontrollable experience, the sense-certainty of presentness. Indeed, the esthetic perspective may be a way of loosening the bonds of involuntary submission to sensory literalness, of making the sense-certainty of presentness more devious, without denying it. The paradox of the esthetic is that it seems to carry us deep into one kind of experience while promising to deliver us from all experience. The esthetic, in fact, seems the most difficult perspective to sustain, if the easiest to come by. Deeply dependent on the presentness of experience—it implies that experience will always be “modern”—the esthetic becomes the most tentative transposition of experience, the weakest demonstration of the inevitable generation of a perspective on experience, from experience. “High art”—esthetically pure art—offers a perspective on experience that refuses to function as one. Instead, in the act of monumentalizing presentness, it monumentalizes itself, thereby in effect self-destructing, and showing its uselessness as a perspective on experience. High art epitomizes the paradox of the esthetic, which implies the inadequacy of the esthetic to the experience. In modernist high art we see this inadequacy at its most acute. We see how the search for the unchangeable, which Hegel notes is characteristic of the unhappy consciousness, leads to the dead end of presentness. This is accompanied by a dead end conception of present experience as excruciatingly literal. This is also typical of the unhappy consciousness, which, according to Hegel, finds the unchangeable in the literally particular, so that the unchangeable has no general credibility, and the search for it reveals itself to be a regressive form of understanding.

COMMUNICATION DEMANDS AND IMPOSES perspective, but to offer presentness as the ground of certainty of communication—as the ultimate perspective—is to play a bad joke on communicative potential. Presentness is so narrow a ground of experience as such that when it is conceived as the ground of communication it becomes absurd beyond the usual reduction to absurdity. And the communication about presentness inherent in the esthetic, particularly in the modernist esthetic, adds to the absurdity. Presentness is so insecure a footing that it begins to seem a delusion. The “esthetic” narrowing of experience that presentness and communication about presentness imply does not so much intensify experience as cancel it into a fictional finality. The hypostatized present or pure presence is the most null concept of experience imaginable. And while superficially it is the most communicable experience, it stands outside communication, which means that it stands outside experience, as a myth of what experience ought to be. But then we must ask, why should experience become esthetically present, why might it be expected to be pure?


WE CAN BEGIN TO ANSWER this question by examining modernism’s obsession with the ineffability of art, which is an acknowledgment that art stands outside communication. We immediately find that such an examination immerses us in the larger cultural issues at stake in modernism, particularly the struggle between conformity and nonconformity. These are the terms in which the unhappy consciousness of modern society works, the terms in which, in Hegel’s words, the modern “Alienated Soul” reveals its “divided nature,” its “doubled and merely contradictory being.” The myth of pure presence, of an absolute experience of presentness, originates in an effort to impose unity on this contradictory being, or rather, to present the higher unity of pure presence as the secret goal of alienation. It is presumably the goal in the name of which inner nature divides itself and suffers self-division, advocates and patiently endures a form of self-loss. The Soul is to reconstitute itself in the light of pure presence—to achieve and become such presence. But its doubleness is more evident,even seems primordial.This is nowhere more evident than in art, and in just that art which means to be pure, to be sublimely modern.

VALÉRY AND BARTHES GIVE us clues as to how this is so, how the doubleness works, why it should be so necessary as to seem primordial, the very essence of inner nature, the irreducible and ineradicable core of selfhood. Valéry remarks:

Just as the thinker tries to defend himself from the platitudes and set phrases which protect the mind from surprise at everything, and make practical living possible, so the painter can try, by studying formlessness, or rather singularity of form, to rediscover his own singularity, and with it the original and primitive state of coordination between hand and eye, subject and will.6

There is a conformist language, largely practical in import—a useful language, which unites people in their enterprise—and then the singular language of the wondering thinker, the language of wonder and surprise at being, a language able to recover the freshness of being and so itself be fresh. There is the artist who puts himself outside the form of vision to which all other eyes conform, and not so much creates his own form of vision as re-creates vision from the start, restores it to a kind of elemental state, in which it is full of surprises—in which anything seen is an elemental surprise. The thinker makes a fresh start, the artist makes a fresh start. Both are visionaries in the pursuit of the fresh start. But the pursuit of the mythical fresh start, with its sense of surprising being—the surprise of being which the idea of pure presence embodies—generates a contradiction, even originates in a contradiction. For the fresh start implies the abandonment of the old history, which is far from mythical, and more certain than the surprise of being. Platitudes and set phrases—familiar form in general—is a more definite location in being, than the formlessness that seems to recover its originality, the singularity of form that seems to encode, in a strong echo, the surprise of being. Sedimented being seems to be more substantial than surprising being. Clearly, the shift from familiar platitude to singular form, from a historical and conforming to an ahistorical and nonconforming language of vision—in effect, from an overly collective to a highly individual apprehension of being—implies the alienation of art from itself. The escape from what Valéry calls “the Nondescript” to surprise clearly implies the divided nature of experience itself, the shifting ground of response to being, which now seems stale, now fresh. Whether fresh language can induce fresh experience of being, or fresh experience of being generate fresh language, is beside the point. What is crucial is the inherent doubleness of experience, which makes language difficult, insecure, so ultimately uncertain as to demand platitudes and set phrases, as if to ballast experience—indeed, being itself. The nondescript is necessary to make surprise possible, and while the surprise, as Valéry writes, is not that of “shock which breaks with convention or habit,” but rather a renewal of the “fresh look,”7 it nonetheless presupposes convention or habit as the ground of the nondescript, the inert ground of history which paradoxically, is the catalyst of surprise. It seems that one does not need to break with convention or habit to generate the surprise of the fresh look, but, on the contrary, must embed oneself all the more deeply in convention and habit for the surprise of the fresh look to spring forth spontaneously. The more inert convention and habit are, then, the more inevitable and spontaneous the fresh look is, the more singular are the final results of understanding experience, the more intuitive is the relationship one has to being. By deliberately planting roots deep in convention and habit, by conforming willingly to tradition, the artist almost guarantees himself a fresh look, or guarantees that the forms he offers will look singular to the viewer who has lost the sense of the singularity of experience and comes to art to restore it, and finally to restore the sense of the uniqueness of being as such.

NOW THIS KIND OF surprise, the surprise of the fresh look, the surprise of the unconventional and nonhabitual, the surprise of singular form, is ineffable, however much its point of departure is an all-too-obvious, all-too-historical and used. language. As Valéry writes, “We must not forget that a thing of great beauty leaves us mute with admiration.” The thing of great beauty—the singular form—is mute because it is in no danger of becoming a platitude or set phrase, of being taken up by the collective historical language. That is why we are mute before it. We cannot use it, either for our practice of history or theory of being:our muteness before it is an implicit rejection of its usefulness, an explicit affirmation of its nonconformity. We admire, we pay homage to, its singularity, but we want and can have nothing to do with it, until that singularity is assimilated into a set phrase, becomes familiar and even overfamiliar. Then it acquires collective historical value, and then—and this is perhaps the truly crucial point—it might catalyze a surprise, seem to encode a fresh look at experience, generate an intuitive grasp of being. As long as its singularity seems absolute, the artistic fresh look is beyond language, beyond communication, and seems to be surrounded by an “impenetrable neutral zone,” to use the phrase by which Valéry characterized Mallarmé’s “immensely refined politeness.” This politeness was a sanctuary, within which Mallarmé retained the sanctity of his “notion of an absolute work of imagination,” a work which at every turn was full of the kind of “indefinable yet powerful” surprises Valéry sought.8 This “immensely refined politeness,” this “impenetrable neutral zone,” which initially terrorized Valéry, as he notes—until he learned it—is the aura of the ineffable around the singular. It is the inarticulate existence of radically individual form, the languagelessness of absolutely literal, unique language, the artlessness of the all-too-artful. It is the zone of speechlessness that surrounds highly individual speech, the sublime speechlessness that accompanies sublimely singular speech. Mallarmé’s “immensely refined politeness” is the ornamental form of this speechlessness, an attempt to socialize the ineffable. It is a kind of midway zone between absolute speechlessness and practical language, the unhappy meeting ground of the ineffable and the useful, the ultimately artistic and the ultimately inartistic. Ornamental, polite speech, while it is a matter of set phrases, is also, when refined or elaborated, unsettling, for then the way it verges on speechlessness becomes evident. Mallarmé’s “immensely refined politeness” transformed the nondescript language of conformist sociality into singular form, making it ineffable, or at least an avoidance of practical communication. Mallarmé, in other words, made polite speech into a tentative art form so as to keep intact his dream of an absolute art form, one whose singularity was conceived from the start, i.e., one whose ahistorical nonconformity does not spring from historical. conformist language.

A RETORT TO SUCH singularity—to speechless singularity of form in general. whether such pure form be, as in Mallarmé’s dream, parthenogenetically, or, as is more common, pure by reason of nonconformity to some conformist mode of speech and being—comes to mind from Barthes, who remarks the “opiate-like philosophies” by means of “which one gets rid of intellectuals by telling them to run along and get on with the emotions and the ineffable.” This attitude implies, as Barthes says, a “reservation about culture,” and thus “means a terrorist position.”9 Modernism. with its insistence on purity, and the ineffability of purity, and the correlation of this ineffability with what Gauguin called “transcendental emotivity,” is a species of terrorism, and an opiate of the intellectuals. The proper experience of art, or the experience proper to art, as Greenberg calls its, is the means by which intellectuals distract themselves from the improper experiences the world inflicts on them, and on everyone, and the gross impropriety that depth analysis of the world and experience unavoidably becomes. The refinement of purity, the release from speech into ineffability, and the great relief this affords. is intended to be an antidote to. and a reprieve from, the crudeness of experience, and the indecency forced upon us by our analysis of experience. Instead, pure form functions as an opiate dulling any sense of the extent and intensity of experience, interfering with even the most nominal analysis of experience, and pointedly giving us a new sense of the pristine decorousness and disinterestedness of art. Even more crucially, pure form precludes the clear emergence of any horizon of meaning, the frame of reference which alone makes the analysis of experience possible. Pure form makes all horizons of meaning seem negligible, collapses every perspective by which one might achieve an overview of the world of experience. All meaning and perspective are absorbed in the literalness of pure form. Every meaningful perspective is reduced to an evasive nuance of such form, or rather, dissipated by its pursuit. Meaningful perspective seems at once a possibility offered by pure form and an actuality dismissed by it. This self-contradictoriness is another expression of the paradox of the esthetic.

IN ANY CASE, THE critic of modernism must assume that pure form implies a world of experience, though it does so in the most inchoate way possible. He must try to reinstate the world of experience that pure form implies, taking pure form as a clue to a buried consciousness of experience, a lost horizon of meaning. From what Robert Pincus-Witten calls “signature material” the singularity of the world of experience—of which the singularity of the artist is only an instance—must be recovered. It is as though the pure presence of signature material were the dust of a world—the very fact that pure form can be regarded as signature material tells us that it must be—and, like a visionary, the critic of modernism, to complete his criticism, must gain a perspective on the world of experience from its dust, from pure art. The criticism of modernism must in fact offer a vision of the world that can have a vision of purity.

THE CRITICISM OF MODERNISM completes itself, restores the implicit vision of the modern world that underlies the concept of modernist art, when it recognizes the dialectic of conformity and nonconformity that underlies that concept. Such a recognition restores an important sense of what it means to say the world is modern. but it does not give us any stable perspective on that modern World, for it cannot itself transcend the dialectic of conformity and nonconformity. But a fuller exploration of this dialectic, as it appears in art, gives us a kind of perverse perspective on modernity, on presentness itself. permitting us to transcend it without forfeiting it—to effect a standoff with it. Barthes offers us this avenue of exploration. The value of modernist works, he writes, is in “their duplicity,” which means “that they always have two edges.” They have an “obedient, conformist, plagiarizing edge”—Valéry’s platitudes and set phrases—and a “subversive edge,” “the place where the death of language is glimpsed.”10 This is the place of what Valéry calls formlessness, and the death of language is the source of what he calls surprise. In fact, the death of language is a positive resource—perhaps the only resource—for the sense of freshness of being and experience. The death of language is the source of singularity of form, and singularity of form generates the transcendent illusion of freshness of being, and the real feeling of freshness of experience—that restoration of subjectivity, that momentary sense of having an undivided nature, which is reflected in the sense of freshness of experience.

MODERNISM ASSUMES THAT LANGUAGE must necessarily die, that it can no longer be the ground of unity between speakers, but only, through its death, the ground for a possible unity of self, for a radical or singular sense of self. The singularity of form achieved through the subversion and death of language is emblematic of a radically individualized self. It is the form of the nonconformist self, the self that finds its unity in the dividedness of language, and that, in a sense, recovers its unity from the false, collective unity implied by historical, conformist language. In another sense, it recovers its authenticity from inauthentic language, using language against itself to break its hold on consciousness, and finally on being. Modernism not only comes to assume that language has died, that singularity of form is inevitable, that there is no need for plagiarizing conformity, that pure presence does not have to be achieved by the subversion of practical existence, but that it arises spontaneously from the very being of things, is innate to historical experience. Hence Duchamp’s Readymades and Pincus-Witten’s conception of signature material, and the credo of honesty to material that has dominated the production of much of modern art, and continues to be the ideology behind a good deal of contemporary abstract art. Carl Andre is perhaps the clearest representative of this ideology. (One might note that the reverse approach, which might be described as the romanticism—dandyism—of today, assumes that language, and by implication social “practice,” can never die, or even appear to die, but has and will always exist in banal, nondescript, platitudinous form, which can be manipulated to bring certain obscured horizons of meaning to life. Robert Morris perhaps best exemplifies this attitude.)

REACHING THIS POSITION, EMPHASIZING pure presence as an absolute, modernism becomes unexpectedly paradoxical, in a self-destructive way. It contradicts itself, it becomes exactly the opposite of what it intends. It endures what Barthes calls the “novelistic instant”—in the case of modernism, the novelistic instant of communication. Despite all appearances to the contrary, despite the aura of ineffability that surrounds pure presence, it conveys the sense of inner communication with its viewer, who as it were hears what it has to say through an inner communion with it. It becomes like the demonic voice Socrates heard, compelling him to an unexpected sense of existence—a kind of sibylline voice speaking an unknown tongue and, just for that reason, a voice that is presumed to be saying something profound. Its message must be interpreted, its very sound has hieroglyphic connotations, i.e., the purity of its presence has meaning, however indeterminate. Felt meaning here is not simply the sign of a compulsive relationship to the pure work of art, but indicative of a belief that pure presence is divinely communicative, and communicates, like all divine beings, in a perverse way—that is, by using our own being as its medium. Pure presence induces in us a sense of exalted communication—communication at once elevated and subliminal; out of reach, yet felt, and so, effective. Such exalted communication becomes evident through the sense of self-communication and self-possession that pure presence induces, catalyzes. This sense is reflected in Greenberg’s notion of the “‘sensation’ of exalted cognitiveness—exalted because it transcends cognition as such,” that taste affords. It is “as though,” writes Greenberg, “for the instant, [one] were in command, by dint of transcendent knowing, of everything that could possibly affect [one’s] consciousness, or even [one’s] existence.” In this “state of consciousness, not of a gain to consciousness . . . consciousness revels in the sense of itself (as God revels in the sense of himself, according to some theologians).”11 The “instant” described seems, on reflection, the “purely novelistic instant so relished by Sade’s libertine when he manages to be hanged and then to cut the rope at the very moment of his orgasm, his bliss,” in Barthes’ words.12 This moment is “the cut, the deflation, the dissolve which seizes the subject in the midst of bliss.” In the midst of the bliss of pure presence, reaching that orgasm that only pure presence can give, one is deflated by a kind of coming to one’s senses, a refusal of self-loss in pure presence, of the death that pure presence implies. This refusal takes the form of communication about oneself which seems to come from pure presence, and seems to enhance the bliss that one has in the presence of the pure work of art. But what is really discovered here is pure presence, for its silence is broken, its ineffability mocked, by attributing to it a communication of the fundamental nature of one’s own existence. What is deflated in the novelistic instant that pure presence is unavoidably subjected to by consciousness is the ineffability, the quality of being beyond communication, of pure work of art. Pure presence is dissolved in the communication of consciousness with itself, which is the most primordial communication. While it looks as though pure presence triggered this communication, in fact this communication came to the fore of consciousness, became a powerful presence, because of the absence of communicative potential in the pure work of art. Consciousness came to itself to fill the void of literalness, to give it some magic, to make it meaningful, to get a perspective on it. The appeal to self-reference made by consciousness when it is faced with the pure work of art—the implicit appeal of consciousness to the higher self that its own self-awareness seems to generate—is a last-ditch attempt to fill a void, to end the emptiness of pure presence by giving it the seemingly global, though subliminal, fullness of self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is an underworld projected onto pure presence to give it a significance it does not otherwise have—to make it signify, with however limited a semaphore. The pure work of art is encoded in such a way that it becomes narcissistic, which is still to socialize it beyond all expectations. The sense of narcissistic communication that pure presence supposedly affords makes it collectively accessible, for it seems to echo the self-consciousness that is at the root of every consciousness. Each of us can know pure presence from within, where it seems to speak of that unity of being, that self-recognition, which otherwise evades us, in our usual state of self-contradiction.

OF COURSE, THE BLISS of self-communion that is supposedly what pure presence communicates is another symptom of self-contradiction, is a transcendental illusion that seems to heal the relationship one has with oneself (which is unavoidably dialectical), and to put one in a “natural” relationship with others, i.e., demonstrate one’s inclusion in a collectivity. But in fact this bliss of self-communion, this “communication” carried out by pure presence, confirms the Babel-like collapse of the conformist, collective language into singular forms that are mutually incomprehensible. It confirms, in other words, the death of language and effective society. The monad-like character of singular form reflects the atomization of society into a realm of hyperindividuals, answerable ultimately only to themselves. But the monadic hyperindividual, because his sense of self is premised on nonconformity, can hardly begin to know what it means to be fully answerable to himself, i.e., to have a self to conform to. The hyperindividual’s purity of self is premised on the conformity of other selves and his own nonconformity, just as the pure presence of the modernist work of art is premised on the assumption of conformist communication within the world and its own nonconformist “communication.” The nonconformist’s only sense of responsibility is to his own nonconformity, to his own singularity of form. To sustain this singularity and remain nonconformist, he finally must become arbitrarily self-contradictory, i.e., root out any suspicion of self-conformity. Indeed, gratuitous nonconformity, a restless shifting of grounds of selfhood—becoming what Robert Jay Lifton calls the protean self—has become a fetish in our hyperindividualist society.

THE PRODUCTION OF MODERN art seems to de- pend on institutionalized nonconformity, a deliberate process of contradiction of or alienation from a collective style, regarded by Nicolas Calas as generating the tradition of the new. This institutionalized nonconformity is also the end-result, for selfhood, of the secularization of reality as pure fact. Modernism represents that secularization for art, i.e., the sense of the entirely matter-of-fact presence of the work of art, as being nothing but a material making. This seemingly demystifying emphasis on fact bogs down when it comes to dealing with individuality, and what finally emerges is a sense of the radical uniqueness of each individual fact. To sustain this idea of uniqueness, any one fact must be shown to be radically different from every other fact, to carry its own logic within itself, as it were—thus making it a monad. The literal becomes the individual—becomes, in the last analysis, a logic in itself. And thus we arrive, in Greenberg’s words, at the literal order of effects as the only significant order of effects, meaning the only order that will communicate the radical individuality of facts. But if literalness communicates singularity, and singularity becomes, in a completely secular world, the only substance of individuality and communication, then we are in a position that can only be described as narcissistic nonconformity. This is narcissism with a difference, the neo-narcissism prevalent in our world of exaggerated individuality. Modernism represents the narcissistic nonconformity in art, for it claims that the work of art’s pure manner of presence, its self-possession, is a matter of its accepted nonconformity, a high tolerance for the individuality it achieves by abandoning any commitment to communication. It is quite possible that modernist art is admired just because it is able to mute itself in a world in which nothing is mute. It has out-individualized all the individuals who achieve their individuality by communication, for out of the opposite it has created a new way of being individual, of nonconforming. This, too, is proving to be a collective nonconformity.

Donald B. Kuspit writes on art and philosophy and is the editor of Art Criticism.

The display initials are in the typeface Neuland, which was designed by Rudolf Kochs in 1923 for Gebr. Klingspor in Offenbach, Germany. Kochs worked directly in steel, following his own drawn letters as guides for the cuts. His goal was das Wesentlich (the Essential) An internationally known calligrapher, he had his own workshop and taught at the art school in Offenbach.



1. C.G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (New York, 1933), p. 197.

2. Oscar Wilde, “The Critic As Artist, Part I,” Intentions (New York, 1905), pp. 142–143.

3. Clement Greenberg, “The New Sculpture,” Partisan Review, June 1949, p. 637.

4. Clement Greenberg. “Sculpture in Our Time,” Arts Magazine, June 1958, p. 22.

5. Clement Greenberg, “Irrelevance versus Irresponsibility,” Partisan Review, May 1948, p. 574.

6. Paul Valéry, “Degas. Dance. Drawing,” Degas Manet Morisot (New York, 1960), p. 45.

7. Valéry, p. 87.

8. Valéry, pp. 28–29.

9. Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York, 1975), p. 35.

10. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text (New York, 1975), pp. 6–7.

11. Clement Greenberg, “Seminar One,” Arts Magazine (November, 1973), p. 45.

12. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, p. 7.