PRINT May 1986


Close encounters with unidentified flying zeitgeists.

FROM OUTPOSTS BEYOND THE borders of the art world, observers often accuse art and artists of being fashionable. The charge is old and the defense familiar: what you call a fashion, we call a trend. Trends aren’t just the latest buzz. They’re significant. Read them right and you discover the true nature of the present. You get a glimpse of the future. Trends are patterns to be analyzed, codes to be broken.

Jean-François Champollion looked like a hero to the Romantics because he deciphered the Rosetta Stone’s Egyptian hieroglyphics. Seeing endless hieroglyphics in the textures of ordinary forms and gestures, Ralph Waldo Emerson tried to be the Champollion of existence itself. “The air is full of sounds,” he said, “the sky, of tokens; the ground is all memoranda and signatures, and every object covered over with hints which speak to the intelligent.” For Hegel, the flow of events could, if sifted properly, reveal the spirit of the times—the zeitgeist.

The avant-garde had its own, more specialized version of the zeitgeist. For instance, even the name of Futurism asserted that the style was a trend with prophetic powers. Intuiting the changes that the automobile would bring, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti said in 1909, “We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. . . . We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit.”

Piet Mondrian and the other artists of de Stijl took guidance from a Dutch Hegelian named M. H. J. Schoenmaekers, author of the 1915 article “Het nieuwe Wereldbeeld,” or “New world picture”—a picture central to the future that de Stijl thought it had glimpsed and could reveal with the help of its art. Surrealism likewise offered itself as a reflection and an embodiment of fresh currents, particularly those stirring in the psyche. In Paris by the mid ’30s the Surrealist forces marshaled by André Breton stood opposed to the geometric abstractionists whose first among equals was Mondrian. You had a choice of trends, a pair of alternative zeitgeists.

Quirky and feverish, Surrealism predicted that revolution would erupt from the individual’s psyche. The party of the geometricians disagreed; sensing a trend toward the shrinkage and eventual disappearance of the bourgeois individual, they coolly insisted that the true future lay somewhere beyond selfhood. Our moment offers a replay of that standoff. Some artists and theorists talk of the “decentered” self, the demise of the “humanist concept of man.” Other artists and their critical backers insist that individuality remains robust and central to Western culture. On both sides of the dispute, trend-spotters find in current events the evidence they need.

But not the answer. A hieroglyph is an especially elusive riddle if it’s put in quotes. Today, when many codes conflict as artists deploy the pictographic vocabularies of their choice, these quote marks are everywhere visible. Retro-Pop, neo-Ex, neo-Op, and myriad others present an overwhelming flurry of enigma. Trying to crack it, we pick and choose among disparate images with built-in and therefore maddeningly unreliable keys to their own decipherment. Finding a key, we assume too quickly that it unlocks the crucial code; we’ve revealed the zeitgeist, we publish. But as zeitgeists proliferate, we see the fallacy in this. A single decoding cannot explicate the multiplicity of our ’80s zeitgeists. We can, however, decode the effort of decoding. Interpreting cultural hieroglyphs is not, and never was, a matter of revealing the present. It’s the process of shaping the moment according to our desires.

Carter Ratcliff writes on the topic of modern life for Artforum.