Untimely Observations

A History of the Modern


The word modernus made its first appearance in writing during the 5th century AD. The antique world was at that time way past its heyday. Its final political embodiment, the Roman empire, had in fact been overrun several times by Barbarians of different races. In southern Europe the pantheon of pagan gods had been irrevocably supplanted with the doctrine of Christianism. But even though 5th century Europe indeed saw Christianism conquer the souls en masse, the question as to whether modernus in this context is perhaps a significant byword for an important change taking place in the collective conscience, I shall at present leave aside. Essential to our purpose here is that modernus, together with a later word modernitas, which made its first attested appearance at a church meeting initiated by Pope Gregory VII in 1075 – thus in the momentous era between the Battle of Hasting and the First Crusade--are both derived from the Latin adverb ”modo”, interpreted as now, recently and the Greek word ”modos”, signifying today. The text in question speaks of a modernitas nostra: ”our modernity.”

But something fateful obviously happened to modernitas nostra on the road to Antioch, and we must take a long leap in history before the word resurfaces in the literary world of 19th century Paris. Here on the other hand there is little doubt about its general significance. “Modern” is an attribute of Parisian life after l'ancien régime and the revolution. And it was during the same 19th century that some major national cities, such as London, Paris and New York, began their ascent as international metropolitan areas representing not only the essence of their respective countries, but the entire world in abbreviation. The word modern, apart from being a temporal notion, also has a flair of relentless urbanism and budding globalisation. Balzac, who often used it, should have known, since he had once been one of many hopeful young men moving from the countryside to Paris in search of the blessings of modern civilisation, of wealth, fame and glory.

To Charles Baudelaire, his Parisian contemporary, the word modern was closely associated with la mode, that is, with fashion. In his essay The Painter of Modern Life Baudelaire embraced modernity as the living and fugitive aspect of art, the assimilated zeitgeist if you will, without which the eternal truth and beauty of a work of art can not be appreciated. In other words: without the touch of time--not least the fashion and general atmosphere of a specific era--the more timeless qualities of a work of art can not be spiritually digested. Here, as elsewhere in all the 19th century debate on modern art, the interplay between past and present is still implicit.

Speaking of la mode alone, there has of course in all civilised societies always been a modernity in terms of fashion. We must assume that the noble women of Alexandria or Rome found countless ways of distinguishing themselves from the plebs by quickly adopting different fashions only to drop them when they became too popular. An Icelandic saga records the ultimate moments of a hero who observes the weapon that has just lethally entered his chest while uttering: ”I see that the broad-headed spears have become fashionable again". There was obviously modernity in a new method of storing grains or making olive oil. There was one modernity in warfare, another in how to properly train a horse. There was the exoticism of new products, new tastes, new fragrances. But regardless of the novelty brought to bear on a people of the past, modernity, or its equivalent, was never felt as an intrusion radically splitting the world into a hopelessly bygone yesterday and a just as fervently anticipated tomorrow. This feverish expectation of a morrow in the making is something characteristic of our time only: the modern era par excellence.

It must be understood that definitions of what it is, exactly, that sets the old world at variance with this modern era to this day remains a bone of contention among professional historians. The French academic definition of the beginning of “modern times” is associated with the conquest by the Turkish Ottomans of Constantinople in 1453, and it ends with the advent of the French revolution. History from Napoleon onwards is considered ”contemporary” 

In Anglo-Saxon tradition the beginning of modernity is often seen in connection with Columbus' discovery of America. The line of demarcation between modern and contemporary history is usually set around the First World War and the final collapse of the old empires: the Habsburg, The German, The Turkish, The Russian and, not least, The Chinese.

Historical consensus, however, agrees to regard modernity in western society as something radically opposed to the belief system propagated by the church – in unison, that goes without saying, with kings and aristocracy – and the blind obeisance it demanded from everyone in its fold. I would here like to also underline the observation that the conscious experience of modernity, at least among sensitive artists, appears to preferably manifest itself in the aftermath of major political upheavals, such as the French revolution of the late 18th century, and the Russian revolution, intimately associated with the First World War.

Primarily, though, it was the thought of Renaissance humanists in connection with the mercantilism of their times which paved the way for an increasingly individualistic concept of man. The notion of natural and human rights pertaining to this “new” individual was further emphasised and even elaborated in legal terms by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, all of whom had a rationalistic and fundamentally democratic agenda. French sociologist Michel Freitag sums up the basic tenets of this kind of enlightened modernity as follows:

The prospect of future, within modernity, supercedes the importance of the past and rationalises the judgments associated with human actions. Modernity is the reflective political possibility which allows us to change the rules of the social game. Modernity is also the sum total of the historical, material conditions that allow us to envisage an emancipation vis-a-vis traditions, doctrines or such inherited ideologies which have not previously been questioned by a traditionalist culture.

Thus if modernity, as an existential predicament for the individual, is linked to the idea of equality and democracy, as indeed I believe it is, it is only in the wider context of the industrial revolution that modernity, in all its manifold aspects, begin to also manifest itself as a permanent state of soul and spirit.

During the first half of the 19th century, this existential modernity, cradled by cosmopolitanism and the liberalism of Guizot and others, is in itself still very far from being identical with a doctrinal -ism intent on severing every link with the past in order to enjoy its unbridled ride towards an ever brighter future. To, let's say, Baudelaire, Balzac, Byron, Dickens, yes even to gentle socialists like Ruskin, the hierarchy of both culture and society was not arbitrary. Even the man in the street was familiar with antique myths and every man of learning knew his Latin backwards and forwards, with a dash of classical Greek thrown in for good measure. Consequently, general references to the past – its history, its legends, its art, science and architecture – still constituted the inescapable mental backdrop for any new artistic or philosophical idea, no matter how radical and modernist in essence. Baudelaire, Nietzsche, yes, even Oscar Wilde still lived in a world where this common heritage formed a living bond between people of different nations. And I do believe, that had they known to what extremes democracy and the rule of the majority over the creative minority would lead us in the course of little more than a century, they would have been positively horrified.

To behold the birth of the Medusa head of artistic modernism-- the petrifying regard of which we contemporaries are only all too familiar--we have to move to the beginning of the 20th century. Modernity, now consciously baptising itself an -ism alongside with other ominous -isms--such as fascism, communism, egalitarianism, Nazism--introduces itself practically at the same time, not only in all the arts, but also in such seemingly separated fields of human endeavor as chess and nuclear physics. There is extraordinary variety in these modernist themes, as well as in their means of expression. But the common denominator – regardless of whether the heading spells The Uncertainty Principle in Nuclear Physics by Werner Heisenberg, Reti's opening in chess, Marinetti's Gospel of the Machine, Schönberg's Twelve Tone System, Villa Panoptikon by Mies van der Rohe, Kafka's Trial or Picasso's Les demoiselles d'Avignon, the common denominator, I said, is a conscious rejection of all too neatly symmetrical and linear modes of artistic or scientific representation. This particular asymmetry of early modernism, its conscious aspiration to think “outside the box”, is very characteristic.

It is most pertinent to my hypothesis that this era--we're talking primarily about the inter-war period, in particular the 1920's--coincides, politically speaking, with the rise on the one hand of ruthless authoritarianism and, on the other hand, with the suffrage universel, that is, the constitutional right of every adult person to select individuals to represent and express his political stance in parlament and other public institutions. Modernism as an artistic and scientific concept – and Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, regardless of its scientific veracity, is a modernist creation – can not been seen separated from its political corollary: the increased spiritual independence of the human being and, perhaps paradoxically, his corresponding belief in the secular state, its laws and institutions, as the ultimate protector of this newly acquired freedom.

But to say that the modernism of the early 20th century was forcibly also determined by a capitalist economic system, would in my opinion be erroneous. Although what we for some reason have come to call post-modernism--with its many close ties to American pop-culture, if culture is here an appropriate word--is most definitely promoted by capitalist incentives, the paradox of early modernism is that it took hold of creative minds quite independently of their political convictions. 

T.S. Eliot, for all his artistic modernism, was a conservative, even devout Anglican Catholic. The composer Arnold Schönberg, a Jew fleeing from persecution in his native Germany, still proudly insisted on calling his music exclusively German at a time when Dresden lay in ashes. Eszra Pound, an inveterate literary modernist, was put in a mental asylum for having supported Mussolini throughout his career. Andre Breton, the founder of Surrealism, another well known branch of modernism, was first a Leninist, then a Trotskist. Jorge Luis Borges was both an Argentian nationalist and a cosmopolitan, without any apparent sense of self-contradiction. Others, although I can't come to think of any name, believed in social-democracy. Some of the American modernists were of Liberal extraction, others stout Republicans.

This said, the so-called Frankfurt School of sociology nonetheless made energetic and partly very successful efforts to explain the modernist movement within the framework provided by Marxist theory. Adorno, one of the school's most prominent writers, made a singular case of Arnold Schönberg and his so-called Dodekaphonie, Greek for twelve-tone music. In Adorno's view Schönberg was the examplary representative of modernism, in so far as he had brought the Wagnerian tradition to its logical and inevitable conclusion, only to give Western music, as we thought we knew it, its coup de grace and henceforth make any lingering “bourgeois” complacency in music his life-long enemy.

I can not touch upon any of the technical aspects of twelve-tone music within the limits of this brief exposition. But I'd like to point out that Adorno was convinced that all tonal organisations in western music correspond to certain stages of historical development, from the rule of rural Lords over their subjects (feudalism) to the elitist refusal of any artistic compromise with public taste in a profoundly degenerate capitalist environment. Thus, the artist, as long as the Nirvana of perfect communism has not yet been attained, must remain a negation of his time and in this radical way save his art from irreparable corruption – the rather strange term “negative utopia” is not my invention, it was born within the Frankfurt School. If anybody after that still wants to listen to modernist music, however historically necessary and true, was to Adorno a moot point. The separation in Marxist, modernist thought between the desire of the general audience (assumed to be dangling like puppets in the threads of banal Schlagers and Negermusik) and that of the extremely aware, intellectually refined composer and the musical connoisseur, was a matter of principle. And this was how they envisaged things to remain until modernism would win the day. To the Frankfurt School artistic modernism thus came to represent an acute state of cultural crisis within an essentially perverse capitalist world. That the same School could not have survived in exile without generous donations from capitalist patrons all over the world, was obviously another moot point.

Now, modernist criticism, as formulated by contemporary Marxism, specifically accuses the individual of consumerist capitalistic societies to have become spiritually hollow, solipsistic, hedonistic, atomised and alienated. In Europe modernism therefore long enjoyed a reputation for being deep and important, although very few could honestly say that they really enjoyed it – but then again, enjoying for example music, wasn't that in itself to cave in to bourgeois hedonism and betray the sacred cause of a pure, crystalline art enjoyable only in the rarefied air of intellectual asceticism?

Although general audiences also regarded most of modernist paintings and literature with perplexed eyes, it was explained to them that it was indeed great art because Hitler and Stalin, the two devils of the recent past, had been unanimous in their efforts to suppress it. That in itself was a proof of an indisputable quality in modernism as such. The heroic, political art typical of fascism and communism was brandished as Kitsch – a notion which still today is easily and conveniently applied by modernist critics to any artistic expression that smacks of feeling and pathos. Add to the concept of Kitsch the second fall of Man and the beginning of a new era in the wake of German gas chambers.

The notion of Gas chambers used to exterminate humans conveniently served the purpose of terminating historical time in an apocalyptic sense; it even bestowed a strange kind of legitimacy on the modernist obsession to rid art of any connection with the past. The past, it had now been demonstrated, had ended in such an indescribable cataclysm because there had been something fundamentally wrong with its culture and traditions. The only way of avoiding a repetition of such atrocity was to radically negate all validity of religious creeds and the importance of history, except then as admonitions. Prevailing notions of country, religion, and tradition were consequently revealed as breeding grounds for lingering racism and were categorically opposed in all modernist art and thought. That modernism in this way began to appear with the same totalitarian claims as other isms before it, didn't seem to bother many. Nor was the fact much commented upon, that modernism now also began to rely on its own traditions and set up its own canon of milestone works.

Marcel Duchamp, by introducing in 1917 a urinal as an object of art in a Parisian gallery, both conceptualized and relativised art by explicitly stating that beauty, or truth for that matter, is only in the eye of the beholder, and that the question of whether an object is a piece of art, or just a piece of junk, depends A) on the social context B) on our readiness to accept that context as a fitting environment for art. Contemporary history was to prove him right. Duchamps' “virginal” gesture – because to a true modernist no work of art can ever be compared to another – has since been repeated a million times in installations all over the world, the one more elaborate than the other. But in essence these installations only amount to illustrations of the thesis that it is the context, that is, to art wholly external factors, which determines whether or not an object is to be considered a piece of art. It follows that an unknown Rembrandt painting, covered in dust in a rural Flemish kitchen among other bric-a-brac, a priori is no more worth as art than the reproduction of the Gypsy girl shedding a shimmering tear next to it. If the Belgian peasant woman prefers it, it's a greater piece of art for her, and that's what matters.

With Duchamp the democratisation of art was made complete and the haunting spectre from the past – the crucial question concerning differences in talent, temperament, education, tradition, skill, dedication, talent, even genius among artists, that had made up so much of the pre-democratic and anti-egalitarian cultural debate – was finally, and with a sigh of relief, declared obsolete. Implict in the installation of the urinal was also that the reaction and commentary to it were integral parts of the art piece itself. In other words, modernism, like no other artistic school before it, promoted the art critic, or the artist himself as the critic and explainer of his own works. Not before long practically all modernist artifacts were in need of theoretical explanation to be understood and properly appreciated, which gave commentators a lot of room to swing a broom, since a typical modernist work at first view didn't seem to “mean” anything at all. Along with more concept went of course further abstraction.

Notwithstanding this tendency, modernist art has not over time really moved away from the crude naturalism of the urinal. On the contrary. In so-called post-modernism there is rarely any effort to even imitate nature: one is content to exhibit real-life objects as such, calling their arbitrary internal arrangement for art. And it's not even a question of letting the detail represent the whole: there are only details, or fragments, and these fragments will form whatever coherence they can in the perception of the viewer. The reason why this must be the case is the consequent negation in modernist art to arrange elements of composition in a manner reflecting their relative importance in relation to a dominating idea. What does this mean? Let me give you an example: A couple of days ago, as I passed through security at an international airport, I saw the screen images of passenger bags being x-rayed. The vivid technicolour, the suggestive, distorted content appearing in fantastic forms and arabesques on fluid display, devoid of compositional hierarchy, were actually in themselves perfect modernist artifacts. Copied and made to appear on a wall they would make a terrific exhibition in some Modern Art's Museum.

Nevertheless it's important to keep in my mind that modernism, after World War II, has developed along two principal lines, one – inspired by the intellectual complexity of the Frankfurt School – extremely elitist, gravely serious, academic, cabalistic, not to say abstruse. The other development is towards a total integration of modernist art with fashion and design. Obviously this kind of modernism is consciously and even proudly identifying itself with the fleeting moment and its refractions in a mediatised world. As I hinted at above, the arbitrary content of a teenager's handbag, spread on a canvas and fixed with glue, would make a valid artifact in this context: the brand of her lipstick, of her cell phone, etc. One could say that the temporal side of art, as defined by Baudelaire in his above mentioned essay on modernism, has taken over completely at the expense of any sort of transcendence or teleology, be it an aspiration towards timeless beauty, truth or even any sort of descriptive coherence. For this reason a modernist piece of art is often vaguely referred to as “interesting”, a euphemism for that fact that it's mostly just bewildering and devoid of any intelligible meaning.

The principal instigators of this later development, however, were not European, but American. It's with the aid of a Jackson-Pollock blindly throwing paint at a canvas; it is with the aid of an Andy Warhol spraying some pink or green colours on a blown up photo of Marilyn Monroe; and its thanks to a Roy Lichtenstein filling in the blanks of a comic strip, all to their own economic benefit, that we have arrived at the less than zero point at which modern art now is both defined and appreciated. With these artists modernism became overtly and shamelessly speculative, iconic and geared towards populism of the most vulgar kind. With any common place object safely defined as art, provided it had a famous signature, the artist as a living phenomenon became immensely more important than the actual art he perchance also produced. At this stage of its development the cult of modernism comes close to the unabashed idolatry usually reserved for pop stars. To put a modernistic artifact of the era in proper perspective we might then say, that Warhol's Marilyn stands in the same relation to Raphael's Madonna, as Madonna's latest hit stands to Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge. The art object has from now on been so trivialised that there can in the future only be a difference of degree in its vulgarity, no more in kind.

I mentioned earlier that the term Kitsch was effectively used by the Frankfurt School to depreciate the stereotypical pathos and frozen postures of fascist art. But the qualification of a work of art as Kitsch goes further. Adorno explicitly classified as kitsch any attempt to even look over the shoulder towards the past when trying to construct a meaningful work of art for our time. Even Stravinskij, in Adorno's view, was a vulgar reactionary. What then about a modernist Prokofiev, returning home to a mother Russia under communist constriction, and there pouring out the incomparable Schmaltz of Juliet's death?

According to the Marxist idea of socio-economic laws governing the evolution of society, modernism, as seen through the optic of the Frankfurters and their present day followers, is the forced and, nota bene, only possible answer to a deeply troubling state of society as a whole. If a work of art fails to respond to such austere criterion, it's denounced as an atavism. Consequently we now know for sure that any emotion, any pathos, any serious intent what so ever in a piece of art is part of a past that is no more, and mustn't be any more. Therefore it is an atavism, and therefore it is Kitsch, quite especially if it has been rather skilfully conveyed to the public.

The Norwegian artist Odd Nedrum, having well understood this to be the backbone of modernist theory and propaganda, has cut the Gordian knot here by openly declaring that what he paints is not art but Kitsch. He is a painter of Kitsch and proud of it. Needless to add that this brazen statement has enraged his detractors, who realise that he has expropriated their favorite term of denunciation. It's a smart move though, because nobody can now accuse him of pretending to be what the modernist establishment doesn't want him to be, namely an artist.

Whether or not the flagrant Kitsch of Odd Nerdrum has more of a future ahead than have the sterile works of catatonic modernists, I shall not here pronounce myself upon. I'm content if somehow I have contributed in this forum to raise the awareness of the various historical circumstances leading to the formation of an artistic modernism as such, as well as to the ideological agendas hiding behind contemporary terms such as modernism, and, quite especially, post-modernism. 

It is my personal opinion that western modernism by and large, from having at least temporarily attracted first rate artists during the early 20th century, quickly lost its brilliancy and momentum, only to degenerate into a pseudo-political movement embracing mediocrity, cynicism and philosophical nihilism. By the time of World War II modernism was already dead. I thus regard what remains of this once vital, and perhaps unavoidable reaction, to a western music, art, literature and architecture, that had indeed reached a point of ornamental over-saturation, as a blind alley at the end of which there is John Cage's musical “composition” 4' 33” of Silence, a naked canvas by Fontana and a gang of street rappers making guttural noises and obscene gestures against a wall covered in broken glass, urine, fecal matter and graffiti.

The problem with modernism today is that it is no longer an aesthetic movement entertained by real artists, but a refuge for speculative tricksters and a political establishment in disguise, the professed aim of which is to prevent hierarchical claims to ever enter the art scene again, since any such admittance would also include an acknowledgment of the importance of history, the traditions and the entire know-how of the past. I'm directly opposed to this contemporary will towards nothingness. To me culture is not possible without some sort of hierarchy of values. Democracy and equality are political notions which should never have been allowed to enter the realm of art. They mean nothing there. The fact that modernism is unthinkable without political egalitarianism, thus a kind of philosophical nihilism, as its motivating force, makes it utterly unsuited as a source of inspiration for any really modern, and not just modernist, artist of flesh and blood, heart and sinew, soul and spirit.