PRINT Summer 1986


The Big Fight.

MODERN LIFE HAS TAKEN an odd turn in the last few years. We are Post-Moderns now. That, anyway, is the claim made by some. Among those declaring the end of Modern times are journalists who use “Post-Modern” to signify their professionalism, their command of current trends and buzzwords. Others are theorists who argue that modern life, modernity, and Modernism are all over, that we’ve entered a new cultural period. These thinkers include certain philosophers, critics, artists, and architects, though it is not always clear what “Post-Modern” means to each. So far it is a nebulous, incoherent notion. It is this vagueness that deserves our attention.

The figure; history as ambiguous metaphor instead of clear moral lesson; unresolvable allegory; the ironies of image appropriation; the fragmentation of perspective; the blurring of boundaries between mediums, and between artist and audience—the theorists of Post-Modernism take these motifs and methods in recent art as signs that we’ve entered a new cultural period. There’s a problem: these signs also appear at the outset of the Modernist period, and even before, in Romanticism. Of course Marcel Duchamp’s kind of appropriation is not the same as Sherrie Levine’s, nor are Robert Longo’s allegories the same as Paul Gauguin’s. Modernism dedicates itself to change, so its history displays constant shifts in style and intention. But none have been drastic enough, so far, to bring Modernism to an end.

What has ended? Faith in the reductivist tactics that some equate with Modernism and that distracted far too many members of the New York art world in the ’50s and ’60s. But that equation is too convenient. Even when Clement Greenberg-style formalism and International Style functionalism were popular, much Modernist art and architecture stood opposed, and for good reason. Formalism and functionalism try to establish certainties about quality and meaning in the face of threats to illusions of certainty. By suppressing doubt in favor of an unexamined faith in make-believe essences and absolutes, they render themselves minor—not in impact, but in their value to modern life.

On the one hand, we are free to dismiss Post-Modernism as yet another instance of critics hiding from the difficulties of their topic by revamping their jargon and their power base. On the other, we could note that as some of the theorists of the Post-Modern devise their model of a new culture, they employ an offshoot of the old formalism. Where Greenbergians and International Style architects sought the essence of painting, sculpture, or architectural space, these theorists seek the essences of language, representation, media, and even perception. In a catalogue essay for the recent exhibition of Richard Serra’s sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, Post-Modernist fan Douglas Crimp makes important points about the ways in which our society’s institutions exploit works of art and the image of the solitary, autonomous artist—points with which MoMA must take issue, for it works actively with corporations and other of the bureaucracies that Crimp describes. As William Rubin, MoMA’s director of painting and sculpture, says in his preface to the Serra catalogue, the Museum “disagrees with the rhetorical tone and historical polemic [read ”Marxian analysis“] of much that has been written about [Serra’s] Tilted Arc here as elsewhere” (read “Crimp’s essay really annoys us, but Serra likes it, so here it is”). Neither the arch-Modernist Rubin nor the Post-Modernist Crimp seem to see how deep is their accord on a fundamental issue: the question of what gives a work of art its esthetic value.

For nearly a decade, Crimp—like his Post-Modernist colleagues—has explicitly rejected Rubin’s narrow brand of Modernism, which grants major esthetic worth only to formal absolutes. Yet this is the sort of thing Crimp says near the end of his Serra essay: Tilted Arc “imposes a construction of absolute difference within the conglomerate of civic architecture.” In other words, the sculpture apparently belongs to an order of experience entirely independent from that of ordinary urban space, and, moreover, it has the power to impose its difference on that space. Crimp makes clear what is at stake with the claim that Serra has used Tilted Arc “to insist upon the necessity for art to fulfill its own functions rather than those relegated to it by its governing institutions and discourses.” One can join with Crimp in denying the legitimacy of such institutions without agreeing with him that art is an autonomous enterprise whose highest destiny is to “fulfill its own functions.” Crimp’s faith, remarkably undisguised, is the old-time formalist religion.

The new formalism in much Post-Modernist theory is instructive in ways it does not intend. Think how cruelly difficult modern life must be if theories of Post-Modernism amount to little more than the old ways to evade the doubt into which our contemporary condition throws us. Think how that doubt must have deepened in recent years, for it has inspired many to try to kill off the very idea of modernity, in which we are all, like it or not, still immersed. Theorists turn their violence on themselves first: ambitious definitions of Post-Modernism leave one’s experience of language and one’s sense of self in fragments, shattered by the weight of absolutes that permit only empty generality to survive.

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