PRINT May 1983


THERE IS MORE OF TRADITIONAL beauty in Modernist art than we care to admit. We have a heavy stake in the belief that a new medium, a new surface, a new style, changes the premises of vision; further, that an innovative eye can manipulate coming events, line them up in accordance with Modernist programs. In fact, stylistic change often conceals the persistence of ways of seeing. Enchanted by a new look for art, we lose sight of our reliance on old habits. Caught up in promises about the future that free up obligations to the present, we ignore our need for the perspective offered by the past—the calming effect of “still life,” for instance, that the Precisionist painter Elsie Driggs found in the new landscape of steel mills and blast furnaces.

Recently Driggs spoke of what she had felt, over half a century ago, about the industrial landscape of Pittsburgh.1 “I was moved,” she said. “I was taken over by this great powerful still life of masses, tubular shapes and cones related so perfectly in volume and proportion there was little I would wish changed.” I want to suggest how completely such vision belongs to a moment that has passed. The Precisionists made esthetic sense for their own time’s image of the future, not common sense about the future of American industry, which is in a shambles not one of them had the foresight—or even the shallow skepticism—to predict.

When Driggs looked at Pittsburgh in the late 1920s, her eye cleaned up and regularized what it saw. She justified this departure from obvious truth in the name of a forward-looking American spirit. The idea was to put Europe’s innovative pictorial devices to work in the service of America’s practical, down-to-earth go-getterism. Not long after came the Great Depression, followed by World War II, the Cold War, the ’60s and Vietnam, and then that sprawling, straggling period of time we call the present. From our vantage point, the failure of Precisionist prophesy is simple to understand. The style got the future wrong because its practitioners had no interest in getting the matter right. Like her colleagues, Elsie Driggs made art by projecting a long-established estheticism on the world in which she found herself. By focusing on the recently built and the recently invented, the Precisionists distracted themselves from the conservatism of their imagery. They didn’t set themselves up as prophets. Still, the smooth, nicely ordered forms of their paintings and photographs implied that life would be even smoother, even more nicely arranged in the world that was coming, thanks to the progress of technology. To borrow one of Roy Lichtenstein’s ironic titles, there would be “Peace Through Chemistry,” plus prosperity through physics. It was a matter of science applied, of expertise buckling down to work, and the Precisionists felt they had a place in this effort. Their skills were esthetic. As Charles Sheeler said in a catalogue published in 1954, his art was a “response to the intrinsic realities of forms and environments.” The Precisionists were formalists first of all, which means they wanted to live in the nontime of a world regulated by their own tasteful vision. The past, so far as they could see, was over and done with. As for the future, tomorrow, it was just around the corner. Their art, they thought, would turn out to have anticipated the clean, industrial look of it. Precisionism is a genteel advertisement for industrial progress. Forty years later the prophets of Experiments in Art and Technology yearned for the earlier moment when the image of the human machine had !rest intellectual glamour, an idea that goes back to Descartes. Hence the nostalgia and the old-fashioned estheticism, concealed by the whimsical romance of technological ruins in the works of an artist like Nam June Paik. Perhaps only Jean Tinguely saw these matters clearly enough to offer his mechanics in a comic mode.

In the years before the outbreak of World War I the Italian Futurists had been much more raucous. Booting good taste out of their line of march, they swung onto the high road that led, in their minds, to tomorrow. Their purpose was prophesy; they were in love with their task. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Valentine de Saint-Point—all of them felt inhibited by a cultural landscape where monuments stood apart from one another and far above each member of the meek and respectful audience. They wanted the viewer to feel energy ebbing back, gathering into a lust for experience. The monuments of culture would have to give up their privileged isolation. The Futurists insisted that all the seemingly discrete entities of their world unite; hence Boccioni’s notions, cribbed from Henri Bergson, about objects that “can never be finite, but intersect each other through an infinite combination of powers which attract and repel.” If the great artworks of the past resisted, they would have to be bombed, reduced to smithereens, and so join with other resisters as a coat of fine powder. Attraction is as violent as repulsion to the Futurist eye, but creative. Boccioni and the others believed that creative forces would win out, once a vast cataclysm had cleared away the old world of separate entities and given birth to a new one characterized, as the sculptor puts it in The Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture (1912) by “the ABSOLUTE AND COMPLETE ABOLITION OF FINITE LINES . . . LETS SPLIT OPEN OUR FIGURES AND PLACE THE ENVIRONMENT INSIDE THEM.” The more brutally they imagined the future, the deeper their passion. “ART AND WAR ARE THE GREAT MANIFESTATIONS OF SENSUALITY,” said de Saint-Point in 1913 in the Futurist Manifesto of Lust. The self-enclosed work of art would be outmoded and so would the entity for which it stands—the individual self.

Boccioni wanted to place his sculpture at the link-up point between an “EXTERNAL PLASTIC INFINITY” and an “INTERNAL PLASTIC INFINITY.” His desire was to feel the singular embrace generality, and vice versa, to form an on-going drive toward the unity of all things. Bergsonian ideas about continuity have long been out of circulation. In Boccioni’s bombastic version they seem quaint and dangerous, like women’s fashions on the eve of World War I.

The present, as most of us experience it, still features numerous discrete objects. The separate self emblemized by singular artworks is still with us. This may be sad from a Futurist point of view, yet that point of view is impossible now. Futurism is a room in the Modern wing of a well-stocked museum, and it’s evident these days that the Futurists didn’t care about the future. They were in love with it. Their image of inner and outer united is nostalgic, a veiled memory of those moments in early childhood when self and world seem identical. It’s a veiled memory and a false one, because so thoroughly idealized. For the Futurists, the future was entirely imaginary, a make-believe time in which memory could be cultivated in secret and, behind the screen of secrecy, perfected. Futurism was about the past. The new Futurist human was a hero from regions of lost time, an infant of cosmic stature.

Current polemics create similar heroes, apocalyptic images of selves somehow beyond selfhood—individuals plugged into the “1984” of 1949. It’s an image of human energies spliced onto—and, in worst-case scenarios, dominated by—forces that these visions of the apocalypse want us to accept as bigger than any one of us or all of us together.

The same is true of de Stijl’s new model of humanity, for that movement’s polemics also point toward images of the inner and the outer made one. According to Piet Mondrian’s “Neoplasticism in Painting” (1918), the very nature of reality ensures that “there had to emerge an exact plastic expression of the universal. In order to recognize this plastic as style, it is necessary to perceive that style in art is aesthetic plastic interiorization, whereas style in nature manifests itself as plastic outwardness.” Images hidden away in subjectivity were to mirror those in the objective world. “By reducing the natural to the abstract in the plastic, modern man expresses the natural in all its fullness: for thus both inward and outward find plastic expression.” An artwork done in a properly universal style—de Stijl—was to unite the mirror images of self and other. As that unity progresses, the individual “shows himself to be truly modern man, who sees the outward as inward and penetrates the inward through the outward.” From the center of this oneness the future would sail. “The new culture will be that of the mature individual; once matured, the individual will be open to the universal and will tend more and more to unite with it.”

But Mondrian’s future is not populated by mature selves—regressive ones, yet again, yearning to escape selfhood by dissolving back into a womblike world. “Already a new Europe has begun in us,” said Hans Richter in his “Manifesto III,” published in de Stijl magazine in 1921. It’s more accurate to say that an old Europe, or perhaps a realm of experience prior to culture, stirs in all Utopian thinking. The Utopias of Modernism belong to the past of archaic emotion, a sign of early separation and discord unresolved. They are images of mother and infant, world and self, perfectly joined and then projected onto the future in the form of a radiant city. Futurism fizzled out in the horrors of the Great War. Insofar as its energies, its lusts, survived, they veered toward fascism. The Europe—indeed, the world—that appeared in the wake of de Stijl’s prophesying is an exaggeration of the movement’s geometric spiritualism, beginning in the layouts of zappy new magazines and ending up as a corporate style on the boulevards of the megalopolis. Much the same sort of thing can be said about the prophesies of Constructivism, Suprematism, the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier, and so on, all of which promised a future of oneness and harmony.

The trouble with turning to the future when troubled by the past is that both regions of time go ignored. False images of the future obscure the true horrors of an earlier period; perhaps, after all, that obscurity is the Utopian’s desire. With future and past so bewilderingly intermixed, the present, too, slips by unnoticed. This is the worst effect of Utopian thinking.

In “What Abstract Painting Means to Me,” a talk delivered in 1951, Willem de Kooning gets around to visionary modernists from Boccioni to Tatlin, Naum Gabo to Mondrian. “The point they all had in common was to be inside and outside at the same time. A new kind of likeness! The likeness of the group instinct. All that it has produced is more glass and an hysteria for new materials which you can look through.” In an interview with David Sylvester for the BBC, de Kooning returned to the theme nine years later. “Mondrian,” de Kooning said, “was a fantastic artist. But when we read his ideas and his idea of Neo-Plasticism—pure plasticity—it’s kind of silly. Not for him, butt think one could spend one’s life having this desire to be in and outside at the same time”—i.e., yearning for the moment the universal embraces the individual without reservation. It’s the moment of Utopian dawn, when all the darkness, the perplexity of selfhood lades into radiance. According to de Kooning, Mondrian “could see a future life and a future city—not like me, who am absolutely not interested in seeing the future city. I’m perfectly happy to be alive now.”

De Kooning inhabits the present, a feat to which the art world often responds along these lines: if an artist is in any measure content with the here and now, he or she must promote the status quo—is conservative, perhaps a rabid right-winger. Much of Modernism turns out to be a species of moralism; those who do not routinely pledge allegiance to some image of a better tomorrow usually end up on one blacklist or another. In 1953, Clement Greenberg wrote that “de Kooning’s ambition is perhaps the largest, or at least the most profoundly sophisticated, ever to be seen in a painter domiciled in this country.” Then Greenberg felt the allure of progress, and he adjusted his vision to the limits of a formalist Utopia. Paintings began to count for him insofar as they pointed toward a time of esthetic perfection, when artist, artwork, and audience would be united in a blazing glow of art-historical necessity. Tripping up such headlong hopes, de Kooning sends us stumbling into a face-off with the present moment and its particularities, its texture, confounding principles with a skill so disturbing to the new Greenberg that, as Thomas B. Hess pointed out, the critic began to call the artist a painterly Lucifer. For a Utopian, whether a formalist like Greenberg or a social visionary like Mondrian, only a kind of black magic spirits us away to the present, which “progressives” see as the tense of bad faith and fallen, unregenerate souls.

Most of Modernism promotes the doctrine that the present damns us, the future will wash us clean—the shining obviousness of whose source is the only possible explanation for its invisibility to nearly all of us. The art world’s infatuation with the future isn’t just an exercise; it is religious. Now, I would never presume to lake a stand against authentic religious feeling. However, Modernist religiosity puts images of future salvation to work in support of regressive desires, the need to lose oneself, to dissolve the very notion of selfhood. The Modernist yen for “progress” is infantile, as Salvador Dali understood too well. The delight he took in insisting that he could remember his life as an embryo was deliberately contrary, as were each of his delights, his pleasure in making a flamboyant spectacle of all that Modernism tries so hard to hide. Dali flaunted his regressiveness; most Modernists embroider theirs. Only a very few insist on living in the present.

My list of de Kooning’s colleagues in this struggle is short, provisional, and of course prejudiced. I make no claim for its fairness. Jean Dubuffet and Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Alberto Giacometti before his repetitions became merely repetitive, Cézanne and Manet—who else do I really want to include, unless I decide to admit writers: Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, early T.S. Eliot, smatterings of the later James Joyce and all of Marcel Proust (especially Proust, who worked from the simple truth that memory languishes and dies beyond the boundaries of the present moment). Modernist commentary has for decades nibbled away at the ground beneath these presences. Pollock and de Kooning are chided for letting figures drift into their abstractions—an inevitable tactic of “progressive” criticism, for those figures are emblems of the self whose banishment brings Modernism closer to its nostalgic heaven. The allover field can emblemize selfhood, too, but this is easily overlooked by eyes focused on formal-historical imperatives.

Those same eyes rake again and again through the details of Picasso’s time in Nazi-occupied Paris. Was he a collaborator, if only a passive one? Is his postwar commitment to the left sufficient to table the discussion? These are important questions, yet too often the very fact that they can be raised is made to serve as evidence in support of an unfavorable verdict. Most of the artists and writers on my list have been accused of leaning to the right. At the very least, critics charge them with apolitical foppery or High-Church heel-dragging. Sometimes the charge is fascist sympathy, but their real offense has been to insist on the primacy and fullness of occupying the present instead of time zones of the imaginary.

Admittedly, during certain presents art’s relationship to the changing world may be feeble. The strongest artists of the Modern era have faced up to this weakness of art. Utopians flee from the knowledge, plunging into a past disguised as a future, thereby ensuring that the difficulties of the here and now will never be acknowledged, much less dealt with. Devotees of art’s imaginary future project all virtue into that fictive tense. To ignore the present is to collaborate with its oppressions.

What is the point of harping on Mondrian’s naive and unconscious sympathy with all that is dehumanizing about the modern city? Why point a finger at Clement Greenberg, whose formalist Utopia provides endless alibis for political indifference? Like Milton’s Lucifer, Modernists of this ilk carry their inferno with them, the baggage of hopeless desires they lug, year in and year out, toward the false, ever-receding dawn of their polemics. Why moralize about Utopia when the hippest among us have seen that Modernism has no future? It surprised me to discover Gabo’s skepticism about past and future. And his enthusiasm for the present. His art is reductive, and reductivism is usually an attempt to evade the complexity of the present, which is to say: to evade responsibility to the fullness of one’s immersion in a particular moment. In the vicinity of his machine-age forms, Gabo’s talk about “kineticism” always made me think of a jittery searchlight, a robot eye scanning the horizon of some imaginary future, some hidden past. I had always thought of Gabo as a hopeless Utopian, yet he said in 1920 in The Realistic Manifesto that “the shouts about the future are for us the same as tears about the past: a renovated daydream of the romantics.” As for the here and now: “He who is busy today with the morrow is busy doing nothing . . . Today is the deed.” In this moment, the most burdensome of all, I admit that my own crush on the future may not be a thing of the past. I may be a secret Utopian, too. If I am, I would of course be the last to know.

At long last, we’ve become “post-Moderns”––the latest Modernist twist, an attempt to keep the Utopian party going with a batch of freshly glamorous, newly prophetic images. In place of rhetoric about the unity of inner and outer, self and other, there is routine obeisance to those analytic methods thought to have displaced the self from the center of discourse—Marxism, Freudianism, Saussurian linguistics, and structuralism. Hence the “writing” of a bleaker tomorrow, a more “mature” Utopia, one where individuality does not return to primordial origins but simply erases itself. As secret “progressives” on the old, Modernist plan, post-Moderns keep the polemics moving forward fast enough to hide the nostalgia motivating their dependence on the intellectual authority of mentors from an earlier time (a dependence, in other words, on an image of the wise father).

All that is really distinctive about post-Modernism is the way it pushes criticism to the fore, not a startling development in the light of Duchamp’s career or André Breton’s or Mondrian’s, for that matter. Ironically or earnestly, Modernist artists have long made their analytics crucial to their images. The critics and artist-critics of post-Modernism do the same, only more so. This is a shift Mode in style, nothing more—an attempt, remarkably successful, to supply Modernism’s imaginary future with a hot new burst of, yes, intellectual glamour. We all love glamour, especially the allure of a progressive—even a harsh, “post-individualist” tomorrow, the electronic jungle of an apocalypsed self. What, in a make-believe mode, could be more exciting? But who, if we stop to think about it, would be left to feel the excitement of this new void? Post-Modernism has no power to look beyond its critiques of selfhood because no self can have an authentic vision of its own absence. In the “post-structuralist” future, we will watch traditional individuality come to terms with its own, illusory nature, and wither away in the light of that knowledge. Big Brother will be “the discourse,” his agents the structures of language, society, culture. “The discourse” will set the terms of our existence, as it does now, only we’ll have the advantage of understanding how the arrangement works.

We expect prophets to tell us the shape of things to come. At a time when the self, Western-style, is under extraordinary pressure, art-world polemics smother it in convoluted nostalgia for the Utopian machine but also for its pilot. Our current predictions of individuality’s demise are decidedly old-fashioned now, so the job of bringing them up to date is difficult—so much so that critics tend to give the tactics of prophesy all their attention. They never have time to come to terms with their underlying horror at the possibility that they may be right. Electronics, pharmaceutics, bio-engineering—these are a few of the forces at work on selfhood. Others, less newsworthy, may well be more powerful. Who knows what’s coming? Not a single one of us, by the nature of the case. In anticipation of the future, the best we can do is to enter fully into the present, for the future will become the present and it will be good to have the experience of living in that tense.

There’s a lot of talk about Baudelaire’s interest in masks and artificial identity. Yet artifice, for him, is not a means of evading selfhood but of achieving it. He advances his most acute artificialities, those of his poems, in lines that have an utterly identifiable shape. (He is one of the few poets in any language, so far as I know, who gives a line of poetry an aural outline so clear it deserves the word “architectural.” Formal contour in Baudelaire’s verse is more distinct than in most buildings of our time, never mind most paintings. With such distinctness comes a clear identity-) Baudelaire asserts himself by questioning himself with a sophistication to which very few others ascend. In the course of his formal interrogations, Baudelaire creates himself, then settles this new being on the only foundation able to support such a monumental weight—the foundation of doubt, and that is to be expected, for doubt is the sole object in which an artist of Baudelaire’s courage can place any faith. The present is the tense of authentic doubt. Certainty—and its falseness—belong to images of the future.

Carter Ratcliff is a poet and writer who lives in New York City.



1. Elsie Griggs, from a letter quoted in Karen Tsujimoto, Images of America: Precisionist Painting and Modern Photography, Seattle and London: University of Washington Press for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1982. (The Charles Sheeler picture accompanying this article was included in the 1982 exhibition for which this book is the catalogue.)