PRINT February 1992


HAS THE IDEA OF “History” really imploded, or has it simply taken new forms, like a natural species mutating for survival? In the art realm this question is currently reflected in matters of style.

The spate of abstract painting seen in New York this fall was largely created by young artists who do not directly remember either the single-minded intensity of Abstract Expressionism or, when it came, the emphatic consensus of agreement that the movement was over. Somehow the style still seems to them a viable option (though only one of many), with or without the heavy baggage of the sublime.1 One wonders, however, if this is not a somewhat unconsidered development. Even today, artists wishing to work in the fashion of one or two generations ago are usually expected to ground their practice in one historical stance or another. An artist still working out of an essentially Modernist approach, for example, might claim to address unfinished formal investigations that had perhaps been prematurely terminated what George Kubler, in The Shape of Time, called open sequences. A post-Modernist, in contrast, might invoke a practice such as “quotation” or “simulation,” in both of which an earlier style becomes a somewhat ironic signifier of a previous period, a locus for reflection rather than for ongoing investigation. But the new abstraction seems to appear without such matrices of defense. One critic has told me he finds this art “irresponsible,” implying that since art is inalienably embedded in history, to abandon historicity is not only a sign of sloppy thinking but a cop-out on the fullness of the art endeavor. Another, however, has celebrated that irresponsibility with the declaration “History is dead and everything is permitted.”2

Probably that author wrote with a certain irony. Still, he does describe the position that many of these young neoabstractionists seem to assume: that they have no sense of history and no responsibility to it; that they are no longer required to set up their work in terms of a clear relationship to what has gone before and what might come after.

This position of free-fall is not, however, what I have been proposing to students lately in various art schools around the country. On the contrary, I have been telling them that now more than ever it is one of the artist’s responsibilities to place his or her work clearly and deliberately in history—to reflect, that is, on what model of history the work presupposes, and on how it relates to that model. For it seems to me that what has happened in the post-Modern change of attitude might better be described not as the end of history and the resulting indefinite multiplication of options in an ahistorical free-for-all, but as the partial or temporary end of one view of history, and the consequent need to replace it with one or another of a variety of revisionist models.

Modernism was an ideological totality. It was an age when a single model of history seemed adequate to our experience—meaning the experience of white Westerners—and this model was basically the linear, progress-driven construct so influentially articulated by Hegel (though it existed long before-him). History, in this view, can be visualized as a single line moving forward across the page of time, with all around it the vast ahistorical blank spaces of nature and the undeveloped world. Recently, as we are all aware, this view has been discredited, in part by the fact that it accompanied and justified colonialism and imperialism. Those vast undeveloped spaces can no longer be relegated to an ahistorical limbo, nor will their inhabitants any longer accept a view of history that they understandably feel has victimized them.

Just as important, the idea that history’s linear path reflects an inner purpose has become untenable. For the flow of events over this century seems to mock the very idea of a positive goal or end by its ever increasing series of disasters. History’s goal has come to seem a negative one; it has seemed to be taking us someplace we do not want to go, and—perhaps in the nick of time, perhaps too late—we have jumped ship.

But no new model of history has definitively established itself yet. We are in a suspended moment, with various possibilities available. That is why, now more than ever, it is essential that an artist, in order for his or her work to be meaningful, should aim it at one or another of these options. Otherwise it occurs in an undefined space in which it might as well be a stick or a stone, needing no historical grounding or context because it makes no pretension to signification.

WHEN THE MODERNIST PERIOD seemed to come to an end, artists of course adopted a variety of adjustments. Some bailed out of Modernism into a kind of pre-Modern revival—“neo-pre-Modernism,” perhaps—reflecting the ideology of the flower-child movement that was part of the social turmoil of the era’s demise. In recent decades we have seen a broad-based desire to restore the spirituality of pre-Modern societies, with renewed emphases on ritual, ecology, and the feminine. In art of the ’60s and after, this impulse can be seen in Ritually based performance work (ranging from that of Hermann Nitsch to that of Donna Henes), Earthworks with references to ancient monuments (such as those of Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer), shamanic rereadings of the role of the artist (as in the examples of Ana Mendieta and Joseph Beuys), and so on.

The models of history invoked, however tacitly, by such works are generally of two types. One is the idea of eternal cyclicity—the view of how events unfold characteristic of many pre-Modern societies. In the cyclic model of history, which involves rather less urgency and anxiety than the linear one, events come around again and again forever, like the rocking of a cosmic cradle. There can be no sense that one has missed the boat and will never have another chance. This cyclic view in turn takes two forms: either events recur in exactly similar cycles, going round and round eternally like a closed circle on the page, or, more commonly, they have some element of linearity or directionality, expanding across the page more like a spiral than a circle. In this case the question arises of the overall shape of the process. If the spiral is imagined to have a linear direction, then elements of Modernism are combined with the pre-Modern cyclicity; if, on the other hand, the spiral is viewed as basically circular, or as part of a vaster spiral, other associations may be invoked, such as the sense of ever-expanding interpenetrating infinities in Avatamsaka Buddhism and elsewhere.

The second model of history invoked by some neo-pre-Modern work (such as some California light-and-space art and Eastern-influenced performance) is the idea of an eternal present, which is harder to visualize as an image on a page but might equate with a single unmoving point, or perhaps with the blank page itself. This model is really ahistorical, and represents a retreat from the idea of history with a shape into the idea of featureless time.

Though the years most characterized by the neo-pre-Modern option were the late ’60s and early ’70s, it is still with us, mostly in outlying areas where artists feel closer to nature than to culture. But other artists have chosen to treat the Modernist karma as still in force, for example the early-’80s neo-Expressionists, or, in his recent work, Brice Marden. These artists still posit their works as proposals for a sequential advancement through history via a continuing process of linked formal problems and solutions. Yet I think that even the most ardent of them lack the clear Modernist faith in the goal of it all; they carry the process forward in an almost self-sacrificial way, to keep open the channel to heaven, as it were, despite troubling disturbances in the messages that flow through it. This residual Modernist model might be visualized as a straight line that continues past the so-called end of Modernism, but fades as it goes, becoming a kind of ghost of itself.

PERHAPS MORE INTERESTING than these approaches is an emerging set of post-Modernist models of history. Some artists, for example, have sought to acknowledge the post-Modern break while still defining a position from which to make abstract art—like Peter Halley, who went on record in the 1980s with the idea that his works were not really abstract paintings but simulations of them. Modernist abstraction in its heyday was carried along by a flooding sense of onrushing inevitability that bestowed upon it a feverish charisma, but Halley’s paintings arose in a less defined situation. Their intentions and meanings may reflect those of Modernist abstraction but do not actually embody them. New meanings rarely intended in the Modernist period—of irony, criticism, humor, and social reference—hover around these works, distancing and diminishing the intensity of the Modernist appeal to “pure” form.

This simulationist idea overlaps somewhat with the wave of quotational work of the 1980s and since, in which artists seemingly arbitrarily recapitulate and scramble sequences already transacted in the past, implying a model of history in which Modernist linearity goes nuts: the line of progress that had previously advanced only forward now curves unpredictably back on itself, repeats certain of its earlier stages both chaotically and obsessively, drifts, skips, jumps, and circles about as if there were no longer a future to advance into. The practitioners of quotational art tend to be acutely aware of the Modernist model of history as something outmoded yet still exerting an archetypal presence. Pat Steir’s The Brueghel Series (A Vanitas of Style), 1982–84, for example, involves a compaction of linear history into a single plane, suggesting both the neo-pre-Modern eternal present and, more strongly, the sense that history is a completed icon. The linear advance has crashed into a wall and flattened out.

Some quotational artists, such as Mike Bidlo, have seemed like worshipers in a ruined church, gathering Modernist memorabilia from the ashes. Others, like Sherrie Levine, have acted as subverters of the faith, wary lest it be merely playing dead, insisting that what is over is over. Yet often in this work the linear view of history still seems powerful. There is a kind of fear of it in the air, of the possibility of its return, and the artists have a purifying goal, as if trying to free us from the threat of its resurgence. At moments it has seemed almost as if the climactic end of lin- ear history could be constituted precisely by this stalling of Modernism’s forward urge into a self-absorbed reflection on itself. Quotational art can even be seen as fulfilling the Hegelian prediction of self-realization as the culmination of history; so this work has something apocalyptic about it, and draws its strength from the old myth even as it dismantles it. The scramblers’ puritanical intensity, too, has something of the Modernist fervor, as if they were carrying out Modernism’s secret intention in the very act of refuting it. In this sense quotationalism is a true successor to Minimalism and Conceptualism, both of which also drew their intensity from the idea that they were taking Modernism to the mat. The scrambled-line model is a kind of period to Modernism, or a burial of it, marking an end, not a beginning.

THE CURRENT PHASE of post-Modern realization, as culture feels its way into the future without the Hegelian map to guide it, is so-called multiculturalism. Here too, however, the Hegelian structure may have been revised but not thoroughly abandoned. Betrayed and excluded peoples, for example. have sometimes tried to turn the tables without changing the game; having been so vulnerable themselves, they want their former masters at their mercy, at least ideologically. The revisionist model of history proposed by Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese writer who died in 1986 and who is currently enormously influential in the African diaspora, is one such manifestation. Essentially, Diop preserves the Hegelian idea of hierarchy and centrality, but reverses the hierarchy’s top and bottom: by the simple argument that ancient Egypt was in fact a black African society (a troubled hypothesis in terms of the evidence), by ignoring the ancient Near Eastern input into the beginning of the complex that we call civilization, and other such tactics, he can assert that to black Africa belong the laurels of creating civilization in all its modes—artistic, scientific, governmental, literary, religious, mathematical, spiritual. It is European scholars, in the inter-est of European cultural hegemony, who have robbed Africa of the credit, falsely attributing it to the ancient Greeks.4 Diop, in other words, is unskeptical of the Hegelian idea of more and less advanced cultures. He merely reverses the hierarchy, preserving the idea of a single world-historical civilization in advance of all others, but revealing that civilization as having been not European but African all along.

The broad availability of this simple strategy is demonstrated by the pan-Indianist position advanced by the Indian author Paramesh Choudhary, who argues, with stunning parallelism to Diop, that in fact ancient Egyptian culture was merely a colony sent out from the Indus Valley, the Bronze Age culture of India.5 The ancient Egyptians, then, were not black, not even African; they were Indian. In fact Choudhary enthusiastically argues, with approaches to evidence that often parallel Diop’s, that all of North Africa as far as Mauritania, along with most of the ancient Near East, showed no trace of civilization until they, too, were colonized from the Indus Valley.

These arguments do not fully qualify, of course, as revisionist models of history, since they leave the structure and dynamics of the Hegelian model in place, only assigning the players new roles. Neither can pan-Africanism or pan-Indianism be regarded as truly multicultural, though they are sometimes presented as such; they are simply inverse forms of Eurocentrism.

Genuinely multicultural proposals attempt to eliminate—or at least diminish—the elements of hierarchy and centrality rather than simply filling in the blanks with new names. Perhaps inevitably, however—revolutions can never begin with a clean slate, but are always born from the past—even this project contains residual elements of Hegelianism. Hegel had thought the next age would see the world Prussianized, and that this would constitute the end of history. Nowadays we see the next age not as a Prussian ordering or homogenization of worldwide culture but as a pluralistic globalization of it. Supposedly, cultures will reach some stable interaction that will balance and respect their differences. But behind the very idea of achieving a stable stage of time lies the unspoken suggestion that this leveled or nonhierarchical, multicultural global civilization will in fact constitute the famous end of history—the millennium predicted by Hegel. Merely by saying, as we look back over the last decade, that progress has been made in the transition from quotationalism to multiculturalism, we show that the idea of linear progress is still in place in our consciousness, though the linearity that it assumes is no longer a tight line but one that spreads out like a broad river delta, yet still advances toward its end, where many channels empty into the sea.

This is not so much a revision of history as an abrogation of it. To say that all rivers will melt into the sea—that history is over—is simply to erase the line from the page, leaving an ahistorical blank. Such a situation, of course, is unlikely to occur, not only because the achievement of some still point of stasis always seems more a theoretical possibility than a practical one, but because multiculturalism in particular is a complexification of the picture rather than a simplification of it. It cannot be an end, for it contains countless unresolved themes and issues. f it is to be anything, it will certainly be a turning toward a new dynamic with its own benefits and dangers. The contentious rise of new co-optive moves in the hierarchical mode, such as pan-Africanism and pan-Indianism, already demonstrates this.

THE DIFFICULTY OF GETTING beyond models of history that are merely lightly disguised power trips has something to do with the appeal of the simple explanatory principle. The circular, the spiral, and the straight-line models of history all rest on primary shapes; they all bear something of the Platonic ideal of metaphysical simplicity, and in this they parallel the ideology of geometric abstract art—the goal of appearing to unveil the secret inmost structures of the universe, and so on. The most prominent multicultural formulation of history also demonstrates this temptation. In this view, instead of one big History moving across the page of otherwise unhistoricized time, several smaller histories all cruise along together, albeit with different languages, skin colors, and cultural styles. Instead of one deeply etched line crossing the page, a series of more lightly inscribed lines run parallel. Surely this view is a big improvement over the Eurocentric one. Yet it still incorporates all the linearity and one-directionality of the Modernist model, only rendering them more pluralistic; it might almost be a magnified view of the Modernist line, revealing the microscopic components that the naked eye sees as a single trace.

A model that might express our moment of realization more accurately is. an array of dissimilar line fragments flung randomly down on the page, some intersecting each other, some paralleling each other, some more or less isolated. We are entering a period when every ethnic group or bonding group or community of taste or belief will write and rewrite its own fragment of history, and probably in many conflicting versions. A more or less unconnected array of micronarratives will for a time replace the single metanarrative. If this process goes on uncontrolled—without, that is, the premature imposition of a new, controlling metanarrative—a general cohesiveness or sense of framework or of mutual relationship may naturally emerge, like a pattern appearing among leaves on the ground after enough of them have fallen. A more copious, ample meta-narrative may begin to articulate itself, made up of the interaction of the many fragments rather than imposing itself upon them.

There are enormous problems to this hopeful idea, though. One has already been illustrated: the danger that different groups, not content with writing their own micronarratives, will try to take over the metanarrative in the old style that they had suffered from, as the pan-Africanists and pan-Indianists are already attempting. Another problem may be that we will look at the emerging pattern not merely as leaves but as tea leaves, providing interpretive readings to constitute a metanarrative before one is ready. It may also turn out that various peoples, all writing their minihistories in their separate cubicles in the scriptorium of the world, will use different historiographic conventions, rules of evidence, methodologies, and so on. At the end of a few years, they may be writing history in such different ways that a new metanarrative cannot be conceived to encompass them all without becoming indiscriminately accommodating to contradiction.

On reflection, though, this last may be the least of the problems we face—less a problem than a temporary solution. Why not let the world breathe for a while without a metanarrative constricting it into a narrow space that is claimed as ultimate? Why not let it feel its way into the future without those totalizing, globalizing, universalizing redemptionist myths, which have so much in common with religious prophecies? Note, though, that this acceptance of a suspended moment is not the same thing as saying that history is over and anything goes. Post-Modernism is not an anarchic or nihilistic trashing of access to a sense of coherence, framework, direction, or meaning. It is a remapping of the terrain for a new and difficult era. History, it may well be, is over—but histories endure.

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor of Artforum. His most recent book, Art and Discontent, was published last May by McPherson & Company, Kingston, N.Y.


1. Or with something like what Dave Hickey has referred to as the “dimestore sublime,” in “Polke in America—The Non-Returnable Flounder and the Dime-Store Sublime,” Parkett no. 30,1991, pp. 86-91.

2. Arthur C. Danto, “Post-Historical Abstract Painting,” Tema Celeste, Autumn 1991, p. 55.

3. See, for example, Frank M. Snowden, Jr., Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983, pp. 7-8.

4. See Cheikh Anta Diop, Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Lawrence Hill Books, 1991, and The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Lawrence Hill Books, 1974.

5. See Paramesh Choudhary, The Indian Origin of the Chinese Nation, Calcutta: Dasgufta and Company, Private, Ltd., 1990.