Recent Transformations in Western Art from a late 1990's perspective


by Raphael Zimmerman Visual Arts, Monash University 31.11.1998

1. Changes in the modernist artist/audience relationship

From the perspective of the late 1990's, Marcel Duchamp's laying down of a white porcelain urinal on a plinth in a gallery somewhere in France was for art equal to dropping the atom bomb. It affected art in all aspects such as art history, art practice, art theory, art criticism, art teaching, art showing, and art viewing, just to mention a few. We are still living with the reverberations of that big bang and the half life of its' radiation can only be guessed at. This single event is one of the biggest ruptures in the development of recent Western Art and could be contextulized and situated in a particular time frame called Modernity/Postmodernity.

In 1980, Jurgen Habermas, a German philosopher defined modernity thus: "The word "modern" in its Latin form "modernus" was used for the first time in the late 5th century in order to distinguish the present, which had become officially Christian, from the Roman and pagan past. With varying content, the term "modern" again and again expresses the consciousness of an epoch that relates itself to the past of antiquity, in order to view itself as the result of a transition from the old to the new."1

Some writers restrict the concept of modernity to the Renaissance but historically, Habermas considers this too narrow: "People considered themselves modern during the period of Charles the Great, in the 12th century, as well as in the France of the late 17th century, the time of the famous "Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes". This is to say, the term "modern" appeared and reappeared exactly during those periods in Europe when the consciousness of a new epoch emerged through a renewed relationship to the ancients."2

Modernity is a term characterised by temporality. Its particular time consciousness expressed itself through metaphors such as that of the avant-garde. The avant-garde was seen to conquer an as yet unoccupied future, to explore new territories in a landscape into which no one seemed to have yet ventured. Modernity unfolded in various avant-garde movements such as Cafe Voltaire, Dadaism, and Surrealism. According to Jurgen Habermas these forward gropings, this anticipation of a virgin future and the cult of the new, meant the exaltation of the present.3 This new time consciousness, which entered philosophy in the writings of Bergson, did more than express the experience of mobility in society, acceleration of history, and discontinuity in everyday life. The new value placed on the transitory, the elusive, and the ephemeral, the very celebration of dynamism, disclosed the longing for an undefined, immaculate and stable present.4 Implicit in the glorification of the "now" was an anarchistic intention of destroying the whole continuum of conventional history. Seen from the aspect of time, modernity revolts against the normalising functions of tradition. Modernity rebels against all that is normative. Deconstructing the author (creator) is its most radical achievement. This coincided with the renewed interest in Duchamp in the 1960s and everything changed. The concept of modernity itself was examined and beginning to loose its power. There were natural intervals of restoration but even the so called avant-garde had become the tradition, repeating the steps of previous generations. Already in 1967 Peter Burger felt that "we are experiencing the end of the idea of modern art." For him this also spelled the end of art history and the idea of the artist, including the idea of the modern artist. And as things were begining to fall apart for the modernists enter the neo conservatives.5

A neo conservative, Daniel Bell, in his book "The Cultural Contradiction of Capitalism", argued that the crises of the developed societies of the West are to be traced back to a split between culture and society. He attributed any hedonism, the lack of social caring, the lack of discipline on all levels, narcissism, the withdrawal from status and achievement competition and so forth to the field of culture. His voice was part of the acute neo conservative moralising which did not bother to look at the economic and social causes for the altered attitudes to do with work, consumption, achievement, and leisure. Jurgen Habermas proposed that the discontent of the neo conservatives was rooted in deep seated reactions against the process of societal modernisation. Under the pressures of the dynamics of economic growth and the organisational accomplishments of the state, this social (economic) modernisation penetrated deeper and deeper into previous forms of human existence. Habermas described this subordination of the life-worlds under system's imperatives as a matter of disturbing the communicative infrastructure of everyday life. Artists and intellectuals, were identified with those unanalysed causes and were lumped in with the new enemy, -culture.6

Despite the culture wars raging it was still art and culture which were the cohesive as well as the driving forces that constituted a society. After all it is the communication sphere (of human interaction in all its aspects) that overarches all other spheres including that of economics and administration. Put in a historic context, Max Weber characterised cultural modernity as the separation of the substantive reason expressed in religion and metaphysics into three autonomous spheres. They were: science, morality and art.7 Since the 18th century the problems of inherited older world views have been rearranged so that they could be handled as questions of knowledge, or of justice and morality, or of taste. Scientific discourse, theories of morality, jurisprudence, and the production of art, could in turn be departmentalised and institutionalised. Each domain could be made to correspond to cultural professions, in which problems could be dealt with separately by special experts. As a result of this continued specialisation process the distance grew between the culture of the experts and that of the larger public. Culture became more and more elitist and there has taken place an acute "Entfremdung" between every day life and art, to the point of complete irrelevance for most of society. Habermas argued that which constitutes culture for the specialised few, does not immediately and necessarily become the property of everyday praxis in society. With present rationalisations threatening traditional existence, culture and the arts have already been devalued, and society has become more and more impoverished as a result.

During the Enlightenment period artists and thinkers had extravagant notions that the arts and the sciences would promote control and mastery of natural forces for the highest good of all. They also believed that conscious and awake art and sciences would further the understanding of the world and the self, would even promote moral progress, and the justice of institutions, bringing about the happiness of all human beings. The 20th century has shattered that optimism. Habermas summarises historically: "The category of beauty and the domain of beautiful objects were first constituted in the Renaissance by the privileged classes. In the course of the 18th century, literature, the fine arts and music were institutionalised as activities independent from sacred and courtly life. Finally, around the middle of the 19th century an aestheticist conception of art emerged, which encouraged the artist to produce his/her work according to the distinct consciousness of art for art's sake. The autonomy of the aesthetic sphere could then become a deliberate project: The talented artist could strive to lend authentic expression to those experiences he/she had in encountering her own de-centred subjectivity, detached from constraints of routinized cognition of everyday life." 8

Colour, lines, sounds and movement have ceased to serve the cause of representation; and the techniques of production/reproduction themselves have become the aesthetic object. Art for Art's sake may not be such a long way from the intentions of the Renaissance artists, from Schiller's utopia of "beyond art" of which he spoke in his "Letters of the Aesthetic Education of Man", or even Baudelaire's "promesse de bonheur" via art. Jurgen Habermas, however saw all the historical attempts to level art and life as total failures in that they served only to highlight even more glaringly those structures (intitutions) of art which they meant to dissolve. The disillusionment with the failures of those programs calling for the negation of artistic and philosophical institutionalisation have come to serve as an argument for the neo-conservatives. Presently the Western world still furthers capitalist modernisation processes as well as trends critical of culture. The decisive confinement of science, justice, politics and art into their own separate spheres with their many respective substratum alienated from everyday life and administered by "experts" is the current situation. The artist in the Western world of the late 1990s has, like all the other interlocutors of post industrial life processes, become but a small part of vast rationalised and mediating systems governed by market forces.

2. Changes in the form and reception of art

In 1982, Michael Podoro's, "The Critical Historians of Art", interpretive vision is considered the art theoretical version of the broadly Kantian notion that consciousness constitutes its world. It is an idea absolutely central to the modern intellectual discipline of the history of art. According to this idea the artist is not just a recorder of appearances but a shaper and interpreter of them. According to Joseph Beuys, we are all artists because we each create our own perceptions (reality) continuously. Beuys argued that the more we become conscious of this phenomena the more we are becoming the artist that we each are. Beuys equated artist with any conscious person whose aim it is to become "a truly free individual".9

Art has become connected to the viewer and interpreter and has lost its traditionally believed exclusivity with the art-object/matter. The strongest energies seen to be transmitted by any artwork now are those of formation and intention. These connect or not with the same receptors of formation and intention in the viewer or experiencer of the work. The artwork, or better still, its' form, is the agent through which intention and interpretation is expressed. This bridging function, this dialogue function between viewer and doer is one of the main functions of form which is presently interpreted as the actual art(work) and may still be composed of object, material, subject matter, perception, and/or interpretations and so forth.

Traditionally, form had a simple meaning, something like shape, and then a higher meaning, something like essence. In older philosophical language it made perfect sense to talk about intelligible form, which was invisible. The idea underlying this old usage seemed to be that form as shape is the means by which things are distinguished. Form in the second, higher sense is by definition more or less abstract and general and is associated with the spiritual (or mental/intellectual). This ambivalent notion of form, combining a visual metaphor with a definition of the intelligible/non visual, provided justification for long traditions of both allegory and idealisation. Today, form in the post-Kantian sense in which we use it, is still higher than sensation. Even though it has become more specifically visual we still refer to the historical and higher formal sense when we can not perceive things with our eye sense. The opposition between form and content or between form and its reception implies that whatever is not subject matter must belong in the realm of form, expressing not just the spirit of the artist but the "spirit of the age". Given the historical opposition of form and content implicit in the general idea of form, we might call a strong formalist position one governed by the assumption that form in some sense is itself a kind of content, and a weak formalist position one in which form is simply the vehicle of content. For Rosalind Krauss art history is essentially formalist in nature. The idea that a painting is but an allegory, an explanation of higher, unitary meaning is very deeply lodged in our expectations and explanations of images, and has been for a long time. A Renaissance portrait was thought to show not just someone's appearance but the soul through the appearance.

E.H.Gombrich's critique of this kind of form and expression is closely linked to his critique of historicism. Following Popper, Gombrich has argued against the long tradition of Aristotelian metaphysical essentialism that has been abused to justify racism and even genocide in our time. The programmatic ideological scepticism animating Gombrich's arguments unequivocally rejects totalising historical schemes of all kinds and dismisses the Hegelian tradition of historical interpretation, idealist and materialist alike. Historical interpretation is often conducted as if directed toward this essence, formal or thematic or both. According to David Summers this means that the history of art in being formalist is also historicist. Gombrich extends the traditional concept of formalism in art by saying that a line does not just "mean" -or possess, or express- happiness or sadness, rather, he wishes to insist, it means whatever it means in relation to other lines and in general to other forms, and the conditions within which these forms are seen. He strongly argues the point that we cannot see through form to some kind of meaning, and that we must devise new ways for talking about works of art and for making historical inferences from them. He argues that a formalist critic explicitly or implicitly asserts not only that formal art is better, but also that only such art is historically authentic and might fashion a narrative to show that this is so. In the case of criticism as opposed to history, historicism provides a means by which a thin line may be selected from the vast production of artists of all kinds and defended as in some sense necessary, thus at least providing an absolute criterion for the selection of works of art, a criterion at least incidentally necessary to the optimal functioning of the art industry. Donald Preziosi, discusses the role of the modern civic museum of art history in this sense. He refutes the concept that the museum that evolved in the 19th century was little more than a passive collection or archive that simply concentrated on the past. He argues that the mode of address of the museum was and still is to the present; it functioned in and operated on the present in order to reach the conclusion that our presentness is the unavoidable result and a product of a certain past. Therefore, he contends, it may be claimed that the museum (History) has been a social instrument for the construction and conservation of ideologies of modernity and progress that were vital to the self-definition of modern nation-states.

Reception theory states that the reader (viewer) participates in constituting the text (art work). It has became apparent that any form of art work has a communicative aspect inherent in the work and that the work only existed as a bridge or communication between the artist and the audience. Recognised formal possibilities and stylistic regularities of genres were understood as sedimentations of audience taste habits from the previous generation with which the producer had to come to terms. In this way, Gustave Lanson, considered even the masterpiece as a collective achievement constituted by the author, the artistic conditions (market forces for one) and the audience. Consequently the reverse was also true, namely, that a work of art determined in this way intervenes actively in the social structure and elicits reactions which could change the social system. Thus Lanson conceived of art as a web of mediations inside and outside the work. Art could be understood as an open interdependent system causally connected to the social infrastructure. Therefore artistic developments could not be described as an immanent process; rather it was only conceivable as the relation between means of production and changes in taste which in turn originated from changes in the social structure and its corresponding market dynamics. The correlation between social groups and taste as well as between the market and production was observable. The central question was in what form social and economic conditions and behavioural ideals determining artistic taste in a group influenced artistic production and thereby causing changes in form and content. A self perpetuating, self regulating system. The various mediators form a connecting link between social and artistic process. The success of a work or a whole art movement depends on the strength and influence of these active forces and their interaction.10

3. Changes in the production of meaning

In his earlier essays Stanley Fish attempted to show that the act of reading - and not the text - constituted the literary work. He argued that readings and interpretations however were already grounded in what he called the institution of literature. Fish introduced the concept of the institution in 1970 in order to clarify inter subjective aspects of reception. It postulated that the community of readers (audience) was more than a number of persons who devoted themselves to a certain text (artwork); it was an institution. This institution defined and delineated the attitude of readers, not only to literary texts, but also to each other. According to Fish, agreement as well as differences of opinion among readers could be explained by assuming that all readers (viewers) participated in a language game. If one pursued this argument, the validity of an interpretation would then rest on norms and conventions which were known to the participants of the game. An interpretation (agreement as well as difference) was convincing only within the framework of a community (of readers) who are bound together by common values. Fish wrote: "Within any community there are sub communities, and within any community the boundaries of the acceptable are continually being redrawn."

In order to overcome the limiting concept of the institution, Raymond Williams suggested distinguishing between institutions and formations. By formations, he understood scientific, economic, or philosophical tendencies which have an impact on intellectual production. Such formations could align and connect themselves with institutions, but they were not identical to them. Formations were more specialised practices which developed within or at the margins of institutions. It would also make sense to distinguish between the formation and its organisation. In the case of the institution of visual arts the organisation would still be more than just the distribution network of galleries and museums, art councils, festivals, artists, art criticism, and the arts press. Rather the organisation should be understood as the manner in which art is socially produced and distributed in capitalist society through the commodity market. The organisational side of things, therefore, remained bound to the relations of production, whereas institutionalisation occurred in the realm of ideology as the establishment of norms, conventions, and practices in which the participants in arts communications understood and used works and genres.

Art as a commodity existed not only through the material organisation, the institutionalisation and the formation of the individual works but was co-determined through non-material institutionalisation. Peter Burgers attempted to define the institution of art as "the general notions about art (definitions of functions) valid in a given society (or in individual classes and social strata), in their social determinancy." In his expanded concept of institution, the institution of art was equated with the predominant view of art in any given group or social stratum. These general notions about art determine both the production and the reception of individual works. Burger argued: "This increasing differentiation of the determination of function is mediated through aesthetic norms as well as by the proceeds for the artist, while for the recipient via the determination of attitudes of reception". According to this wisdom, to the degree that the conception of art changes, so too will the production and consumption of works of art change.

Since there has been no theory to date which is fully explanatory, Walter Benjamin's contribution to a theory of social shift in artistic function is still valuable. Benjamin's main purpose was to explain the changes in the history of art and practice in terms of a fundamental shift in their function and material base. Proceeding from the phenomenon of reproduction, he argued, that the entire status of art changes with the advent of its possible technical reproducibility. In Benjamin's analysis, the material grounding, existence, and reception of works of art all changed in the late 19th century due to technical advances. Instead of a cultural founding of art, its political motivations emerged; instead of the uniqueness of every work, there was mass reproduction; and instead of individual reception, collective reception became possible, a reception that replaced the contemplative interaction between the individual viewer with a unique original artistic object. Benjamin concluded that changes in production/reproduction methods resulted in a change in form and contend and with that in the function of the artwork.

In his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Walter Benjamin addressed the differences between traditional art and art designed for mass-production in order to identify a certain element as missing in the reproducible object. "One might subsume the eliminated element "authenticity" in the term "aura'", he suggested, "that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the "aura" of the work of art. . ." Marxist thinking about art has been influenced by Walter Benjamin and Georg Lukacs. Both were exponents of Marxist humanism who saw the important contribution of Marxist theory to aesthetics in the analysis of the condition of labour and in the critique of the alienated and reified consciousness of man under capitalism. Benjamin described the changed experience of art in the modern world and the rise of Fascism and mass society as the culmination of a process of debasement, whereby art ceases to be a means of instruction and became instead a mere gratification, -a matter for mass entertainment.
Benjamin posed the question of how the meaning of a work of art was changed by a the different means of production of the work. Before 1900 this question was of little interest because the technical standards of reproduction could not challenge the original work. Since the beginning of the 20th century however reproduction itself had become a form of artistic expression (production of meaning) in itself. Walter Benjamin's ideas were developed in relation to photography and film, yet his seminal essay is still used to characterise what is happening today. It is widely agreed that in some points it is still relevant to areas such as television and video, as well as digital technology. For Walter Benjamin a work of art was foremost a singular object which owed its individual existence to one particular location. This dependency on locale together with the uniqueness of an artwork, created for Benjamin the "aura" of a work of art. An availability of the artwork at any place and time simultaneously destroyed this aura for Benjamin. He claimed that also the authenticity of the work was gone and this change in the social function of art had created a star cult based on a so called "Ersatzaura". The new consumers of art were the masses. This new mass culture brought with it the possibility of democratisation of art but also increased the dangers of abuse for the purpose of propaganda (such as the Film propaganda of the Nazi Reich) as well as unconstrained commercialisation (modern advertising methods). Due to the changes in the production/reproduction and consequently a change of audience, a new form of art consumption replaced contemplation with pure entertainment. Since the advent of digital art the definition of a work of art has shifted from prior concern with the original, to new attitudes of what makes a work of art "Art" and what aspect of the process maybe the "Art" bit. In the late 1990's, the "Age of Digital Communication", preoccupations are shifting from the material (the object) to the immaterial (the process).

4. The Transition from Modernity to Postmodernity

Modernity, according to Jurgen Habermas and Peter Burger, was the continuation of the project of the Enlightenment which Kant had described with the concept of Mundigkeit, the coming of age. The spirit of modernity has been recited once more in the 1960s; after the 1970s, however, modernism aroused a much fainter response than it did before. Octavio Paz, a devout modernist himself admitted already in the middle of the 1960s that "The avant-garde of 1967 repeats the deeds and gestures of those of 1917. We are experiencing the end of the idea of modern art." 10 Peter Burger has described the post World War II period as "post-avant-garde", as a signal of the end of modernity. But there are problems in declaring the idea of modernity dead. Postmodernity has become the cloak used to hide the neo-conservative. In his book, "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism", Daniel Bell, a neo-conservative, argued that the crises of the developed societies of the West was to be traced back to a split between culture and society. Modernist culture had come to penetrate the values of everyday life; the life-world was infected by modernism. Because of the forces of modernism, the principle of unlimited self-realisation, the demand for authentic self-experience and the subjectivism of a hyperstimulated sensitivity came to be dominant. Bell believed that the modernist temperament unleashed hedonistic motives irreconcilable with the discipline of professional life in society. Moreover, Bell, complained that modernist culture is altogether incompatible with the moral basis of a purposive rational conduct of life. He squarely placed the burden of responsibility for the dissolution of the Protestant work ethic, on the adversary: -culture. Culture, in its modern form and the everyday life world which is becoming more and more rationalised under the pressures of economic and administrative imperatives are at war with each other, the so called Culture Wars of the late 20th century.

Many artists such as Joseph Beuys and Antoni Tapies in defence of art argued that aesthetic experience should not be regarded as entertainment value alone but should also be cherished as a life improving memory with instructive and therapeutic potentialities. According to Jurgen Habermas, a defender of traditional modernist ideals: "An aesthetic experience which is not framed around the experts" critical judgements of taste can have its significance altered: as soon as such an experience is used to illuminate a life-historical situation and is related to life problems, it enters into a language game which is no longer that of the aesthetic critic. The aesthetic experience then not only renews the interpretation of our needs in whose light we perceive the world. It permeates as well our cognitive significations and our normative expectations and changes the manner in which all these moments refer to one another."11

Despite the attempts to reconcile art and life in the Western world, a climate has developed that furthers capitalist modernisation processes as well as trends critical of culture and the arts. The disillusionment with the very failures of those programs that called for a reintegration of art and life has come to serve as a pretence for neo conservative positions. On the basis of modernistic attitudes, they justify an irreconcilable anti-modernism. The neo conservatives remove into the sphere of the far away and the archaic, the spontaneous powers of imagination, of self-experience and of emotionality. To instrumental reason, they juxtapose in Manichean fashion a principle only accessible through evocation, be it the will to power or sovereignty, Being or the Dionysian force of the political. In France this line leads from Bataille via Foucault to Derrida, the post-modern champions of our time.12

Post-modernity, in its reactivism against modernity is still part of the avant-garde modernist tradition. Modernist Habermas's idea that aesthetic experience can be used to illuminate life-historical situations and to change cognitive interpretations is unthinkable without the avant-gardist assault which shook up the misguided ideology of so called artistic autonomy. Yet besides a theory of continuity of time and history which so neatly explains the modernisation process up to postmodernity, Peter Burger, proposes that a contemporary theory of culture cannot do without a dialectical comprehension of ruptures. Ruptures, he argues can be key points of knowledge because they reveal the contradictions of a culture.13
Postmodernism is a concept in flux. The nature and description of postmodernism has changed over the past few decades as the movement has developed. Scholars dedicated to the subject generally do not agree on a definition. Very different concepts have been proposed in deconstructionist theory (Derrida, Lacan), politics (Foucault), social theory (Baudrillard), architecture (Jencks), literature (Barthes), philosophy (Rorty), art history (Burger) and more. "We are living in a new world, a world that does not know how to define itself by what it is, but only by what it has ceased to be,"(-Larry Solomon). Postmodernism by its very name defines itself over and against modernism. Modernism is thought of as the philosophical underpinning of modern science and society since the sixteenth century, and in particular the assumption that there is an objective reality independent of what anyone thinks/perceives, a single true way that things are, the truth. On top of this is the modernist confidence that we humans are able to some extent to know this truth. Postmodernism denies these assumptions. The paradigm shift of postmodernism was seeded by two potent factors: 1. a disenchantment with Enlightenment dogma, and 2. an emerging global culture. The Enlightenment, an era of faith in reason and science as the source of truth, began with the Renaissance and reached its last phase in the modernism of the 20th century. It represented the culmination of centuries of progress, knowledge, and culture. The twentieth century, which is often claimed to be the most civilised ever, was, instead, the cruelest and bloodiest in human history. Over fifty million lives were destroyed by World War II alone. The faith in authority had been shaken, in hierarchical class systems, and in the idea of progress itself. Even science was changed. This was the beginning of perhaps the biggest paradigm shift (rupture) in human history, the beginning of the postmodern world, which was, in part, due to a reaction against the previous paradigm, represented by modernism.

In place of the lost dream of modernism, postmodernism gives us a new vocabulary, a new language game, for helping us notice dimensions of experience that were obscured by the modernist vision. It is a dynamic language game, with meanings evolving and changing. There is no longer faith in a single over-all embracing metanarrative or consistency of style and ideas, but rather postmodernism embraces the eclectic. There is greater trust in humour and irony and less in staid and serious theorising. Postmodernism reflects an emerging global perspective, of differing cultures living together on a single planet (pluralism, multi-culturalism, world music movement, greenhouse effect, global climate changes), and an acceptance of these differences, each as valid as the other. Postmodernism validates the beyond words. It validates polytheism and a concern for the environment, up to radical ecology. It has turned from the theoretical to the pragmatic, from uniformity to diversity, and from elitism to populism. Being postmodern is not endorsing a dogma. It is just a new language game, but it is a powerful language game that calls attention to dimensions of reality that were obscured in our forgetting, our denial, such as the political dynamics behind publications which then became recognised as truth. It simply calls attention to the dynamics modernism tried to minimise, or deny and those which it overlooked.

© 2000 - 2019 Raphael Zimmerman