“POSTMODERN” is a rather new term. It’s a catchy one and has been coming up more and more often in talk and writing about the arts, and not only about the arts. I’m not clear as to just what it points to except in the case of architecture. There we know more or less definitely what “modern” means, so we’re better able to tell what “post” means when prefixed to “modern.” Modern architecture means — to put it roughly — functional, geometric rigor and the eschewing of decoration or ornament. Buildings have been put up or projected lately that break with these canons of style, and therefore have gotten called postmodern. Everybody concerned knows what’s meant, including the architects themselves.
Can postmodern be identified in an equally agreed upon way in any of the other arts? I haven’t yet seen or heard the term applied in earnest to anything in recent literature. It’s come up in connection with music, but haphazardly and with no agreement about what it means there. And from what I can tell it comes up hardly at all in talk about the dance or the movies. Away from architecture, it’s in the area of painting and sculpture that I’ve mostly heard and seen postmodern used — but only by critics and journalists, not by artists themselves.
There are reasons and reasons here. One possible reason is the return to the foreground of figurative or representational pictorial art. But there’s been enough precedent, since De Chirico and surrealism and neoromanticism, for including figurative art in the modern. There have to be other, less obvious, and at the same time more general reasons for the currency of postmodern in talk about recent painting and sculpture. All the more because no critic or journalist I’m aware of who makes free with postmodern points to any specific body of work he or she feels really confident in calling that.
Now the post in postmodern can be taken in a temporal chronological sense. Anything that comes after something else is “post” that something else. But this isn’t quite the way in which postmodern is used. It’s supposed, rather, to mean or imply art that supersedes, replaces, succeeds the modern in terms of stylistic evolution, the way that the baroque succeeded mannerism and the rococo succeeded the baroque. The corollary is that the modern is over and done with, just as mannerism was over and done with when superseded by the baroque. But the problem for those who claim this becomes to specify what they mean, not by post, but by modern. Anything in its own time can be called modern. However, what we usually mean by modern is something considered up-to-date, abreast of the times, and going beyond the past in more than a temporally or chronologically literal sense.
Well, how are you to decide what is and what isn’t modern in present-day art in a sense that goes beyond the literal one? There’s no rule, no principle, no method. It comes down to a question of tastes, or else a terminological quibble. Different stylistic definitions of the modern have been proposed in every generation since the word first came into circulation as applicable to painting and sculpture in more than a merely temporal sense, and none of them have held. Nor have any of those offered by the proponents of the postmodern, whether stylistic or not.
I want to take the risk of offering my own definition of the modern, but it will be more in the nature of an explanation and description than a definition. First of all, I want to change the term in question from modern to Modernist — Modernist with a capital M — and then to talk about Modernism instead of the modern. Modernism has the great advantage of being a more historically placeable term, one that designates a historically — not just chronologically — definable phenomenon: something that began at a certain time, and may or may not still be with us.
What can be safely called Modernism emerged in the middle of the last century. And rather locally, in France, with Baudelaire in literature and Manet in painting, and maybe with Flaubert too, in prose fiction. (It was a while later, and not so locally, that Modernism appeared in music and architecture, but it was in France again that it appeared first in sculpture. Outside France later still, it entered the dance.) The “avant-garde” was what Modernism was called at first, but this term has become a good deal compromised by now as well as remaining misleading. Contrary to the common notion, Modernism or the avant-garde didn’t make its entrance by breaking with the past. Far from it. Nor did it have such a thing as a program, nor has it really ever had one — again, contrary to the common notion. Nor was it an affair of ideas or theories or ideology. It’s been in the nature, rather, of an attitude and an orientation: an attitude and orientation to standards and levels: standards and levels of aesthetic quality in the first and also the last place. And where did the Modernists get their standards and levels from? From the past, that is, the best of the past. But not so much from particular models in the past — though from these too — as from a generalized feeling and apprehending, a kind of distilling and extracting of aesthetic quality as shown by the best of the past. And it wasn’t a question of imitating but one of emulating — just as it had been for the Renaissance with respect to antiquity. It’s true that Baudelaire and Manet talked much more about having to be modern, about reflecting life in their time, than about matching the best of the past. But the need and the ambition to do so show through in what they actually did, and in enough of what they were recorded as saying. Being modern was a means of living up to the past.
But didn’t artists and writers before these two look to the past for standards of quality? Of course. But it was a question of how one looked, and with how much urgency.
Modernism appeared in answer to a crisis. The surface aspect of that crisis was a certain confusion of standards brought on by romanticism. The romantics had already looked back into the past, the pre-eighteenth-century past, but had made the mistake in the end of trying to reinstall it. Architecture was where this attempt became most conspicuous, in the form of revivalism. Romantic architecture wasn’t all that slavish, it wasn’t the dead loss it’s supposed to be, but still it didn’t sufffice; it may have maintained a look of the past, but not its standards. It wasn’t revised enough by later experience, or revised in the right way: as Baudelaire and Manet might have put it, it wasn’t modern enough. There ensued finally an academicization of the arts everywhere except in music and prose fiction. Academicization isn’t a matter of academies — there were academies long before academicization and before the nineteenth century. Academicism consists in the tendency to take the medium of an art too much for granted. It results in blurring: words become imprecise, color gets muffled, the physical sources of sound become too much dissembled. (The piano, which dissembles its being a stringed instrument, was the romantic instrument par excellence; but it is as if precisely because it made a point of dissembling that it produced the wonderful music it did in romantic times, turning imprecision into a new kind of precision.)
Modernism’s reaction against romanticism consisted in part in a new investigating and questioning of the medium in poetry and painting, and in an emphasis on preciseness, on the concrete. But above all Modernism declared itself by insisting on a renovation of standards, and it effected this by a more critical and less pious approach to the past in order to make it more genuinely relevant, more “modern.” It reaffirmed the past in a new way and in a variety of new ways. And it belonged to this reaffirming that the balance was tipped toward emulation as against imitation more radically than ever before — but only out of necessity, the necessity imposed by the reaffirmed and renovated standards.
Innovation, newness have gotten themselves taken as the hallmark of Modernism, newness as something desired and pursued. And yet all the great and lasting Modernist creators were reluctant innovators at bottom, innovators only because they had to be — for the sake of quality, and for the sake of self-expression if you will. It’s not only that some measure of innovation has always been essential to aesthetic quality above a certain level; it’s also that Modernist innovation has been compelled to be, or look, more radical and abrupt than innovation used to be or look: compelled by an ongoing crisis in standards. Why this should be so, I can’t try to account for here; it would take me too far afield and involve too much speculation. Let it sufffice for the moment to notice one thing: how with only a relatively small lapse of time the innovations of Modernism begin to look less and less radical, and how they almost all settle into place eventually as part of the continuum of high Western art, along with Shakespeare’s verse and Rembrandt’s drawings.
That rebellion and revolt, as well as radical innovation, have been associated with Modernism has its good as well as bad reasons. But the latter far outnumber the former. If rebellion and revolt have truly belonged to Modernism, it’s been only when felt to be necessary in the interests of aesthetic value, not for political ends. That some Modernists have been unconventional in their way of life is beside the point. (Modernism, or the avant-garde, isn’t to be identified with bohemia, which was there before Modernism, there in London’s Grub Street in the eighteenth century, there in Paris by the I830s, if not before. Some Modernists have been bohemians more or less; many more others haven’t been at all. Think of the impressionist painters, of Mallarme, of Schoenberg, of the sedate lives led by a Matisse, a T. S. Eliot. Not that I attach a particular value to a sedate as against a bohemian life; I’m just stating a fact.)
By way of illustration I’d like to go into a little detail about how modernism came about in painting. There the proto-Modernists were, of all people, the Pre-Raphaelites (and even before them, as proto-proto-Modernists, the German Nazarenes). The Pre-Raphaelites actually foretold Manet (with whom Modernist painting most definitely begins). They acted on a dissatisfaction with painting as practiced in their time, holding that its realism wasn’t truthful enough. It seemed to belong to this want of truth that color wasn’t allowed to speak out clearly and frankly, that it was being swathed more and more in neutral shading and shadows. This last they didn’t say in so many words, but their art itself says it, with its brighter, higher-keyed color, which marks off Pre-Raphaelite painting in its day even more than its detailed realism (to which clearer color was necessary in any case). And it was the forthright, quasinaive color, as well as the quasi-innocent realism of fifteenth-century Italian art that they looked back to in calling themselves Pre-Raphaelite. They weren’t at all the first artists to go back over time to a remoter past than the recent one. In the later eighteenth century, David, in France, had done that when he invoked antiquity against the rococo of his immediate predecessors, and the Renaissance had done that in appealing to antiquity against the Gothic. But it was the urgency with which the Pre-Raphaelites invoked a remoter past that was new. And it was a kind of urgency that carried over into Modernism proper and remained with it.
How much Manet knew of Pre-Raphaelism, I can’t tell. But he too, ten years or so later than they, when he was starting out, became profoundly dissatisfied with the kind of painting he saw being done around him. That was toward the end of the I850s. But he put his finger on what dissatisfied him more “physically” than the Pre-Raphaelites had, and therefore, as I think, to more lasting effect. (From the seventeenth century on the English anticipated ever so much, in culture and the arts as well as in politics and social life, but usually left it to others to follow through on what they’d started.) Seeing a “Velazquez” in the Louvre (a picture now thought to be by Velazquez’s son-in-law Mazo), he said how “clean” its color was compared to the “stews and gravies” of contemporary painting. Which “stews and gravies” were owed to that same color-muffling, graying and browning shading and shadowing that the Pre-Raphaelites had reacted against. Manet, in his own reaction, reached back to a nearer past than they had in order to “disencumber” his art of those “halftones” responsible for the “stews and gravies.” He went only as far back as Velazquez to start with, and then even less far back, to another Spanish painter, Goya.
The impressionists, in Manet’s wake, looked back to the Venetians insofar as they looked back, and so did Cézanne, that half-impressionist. Again, the looking back had to do with color, with warmer as well as franker color. Like the Pre-Raphaelites, like so many others in their time, the impressionists invoked truth to nature, and nature on bright days was luminous with warm color. But underneath all the invocations, the explanations, and the rationalizations, there was the “simple” aspiration to quality, to aesthetic value and excellence for its own sake, as end in itself. Art for art’s sake. Modernism settled in in painting with impressionism, and with that, art for art’s sake. For which same sake the successors in Modernism of the impressionists were forced to forget about truth to nature. They were forced to look even more outrageously new: Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, van Gogh, and all the Modernist painters after them — for the sake of aesthetic value, aesthetic quality, nothing else.
I haven’t finished with my exposition and definition of Modernism. The most essential part of it comes, finally, now. Modernism has to be understood as a holding operation, a continuing endeavor to maintain aesthetic standards in the face of threats — not just as a reaction against romanticism. As the response, in effect, to an ongoing emergency. Artists in all times, despite some appearances to the contrary, have sought aesthetic excellence. What singles Modernism out and gives it its place and identity more than anything else is its response to a heightened sense of threats to aesthetic value: threats from the social and material ambience, from the temper of the times, all conveyed through the demands of a new and open cultural market, middlebrow demands. Modernism dates from the time, in the mid-nineteenth century, when that market became not only established — it had been there long before — but entrenched and dominant, without significant competition.
So I come at last to what I offer as an embracing and perdurable definition of Modernism: that it consists in the continuing endeavor to stem the decline of aesthetic standards threatened by the relative democratization of culture under industrialism; that the overriding and innermost logic of Modernism is to maintain the levels of the past in the face of an opposition that hadn’t been present in the past. Thus the whole enterprise of Modernism, for all its outward aspects, can be seen as backward-looking. That seems paradoxical, but reality is shot through with paradox, is practically constituted by it.
It also belongs to my definition of Modernism that the continuing effort to maintain standards and levels has brought about the widening recognition that art, that aesthetic experience no longer needs to be justified in other terms than its own, that art is an end in itself and that the aesthetic is an autonomous value. It could now be acknowledged that art doesn’t have to teach, doesn’t have to celebrate or glorify anybody or anything, doesn’t have to advance causes; that it has become free to distance itself from religion, politics, and even morality. All it has to do is be good as art. This recognition stays. It doesn’t matter that it’s still not generally — or rather consciously — accepted, that art for art’s sake still isn’t a respectable notion. It’s acted on, and in fact it’s always been acted on. It’s been the underlying reality of the practice of art all along, but it took Modernism to bring this out into the open.
But to return to postmodern. A friend and colleague had been to a symposium about postmodern last spring. I asked him how the term had gotten defined at that symposium. As art, he answered, that was no longer self-critical. I felt a pang. I myself had written twenty years ago that self-criticism was a distinguishing trait of Modernist art. My friend’s answer made me realize as I hadn’t before how inadequate that was as a conveying definition of Modernism or the modern. (That I hadn’t the presence of mind to ask my friend just how self-critical art could be told from art that wasn’t self-critical was only incidental. We both understood, in any case, that it hadn’t to do with the difference between abstract and figurative, just as we also understood that the modern wasn’t confined to particular styles, modes, or directions of art.)
If the definition of Modernism or the modern that I now offer has any validity, then the crucial word in “postmodernism” becomes “post.” The real, the only real, question becomes what it is that’s come after and superseded the modern; again, not in a temporal sense, but in a style-historical one. But it’s no use, as I said in the beginning, asking the critics and journalists who talk “postmodern” (which includes my friend); they disagree too much among themselves and resort too much to cloudy generalizations. And anyhow there’s nobody among them whose eye I trust.
In the end I find myself having to presume to tell all these people what I think they mean by their talk about the postmodern. That is, I find myself attributing motives to them, and the attributing of motives is offensive. All the same, I feel forced to do so, by the nature of the case.
As I said, Modernism was called into being by the new and formidable threats to aesthetic standards that emerged, or finished emerging, toward the middle of the nineteenth century. The romantic crisis, as I call it, was, as it now seems, an expression of the new situation, and in some ways an expression of the threats themselves insofar as they worked to bring about a confusion of standards and levels. Without these threats, which came mostly from a new middle-class public, there would have been no such thing as Modernism. Again as I said earlier, Modernism is a holding operation, a coping with an ongoing emergency. The threats persist; they are as much there as they ever were. And right now they may have become even more formidable because more disguised, more deceptive. It used to be the easily identifiable philistines who did the threatening. They are still here but hardly matter. Now the threats to aesthetic standards, to quality, come from closer to home, from within it were, from friends of advanced art. The “advanced” used to be coterminous with Modernism, but these friends hold that Modernism is no longer advanced enough; that it has to be hurried on, hurried into “postmodernism.” That it will fall behind the times if it continues to be concerned with such things as standards and quality. I’m not manipulating the evidence here in order to make a rhetorical point; just take a look at what these “postmodern” people like and at what they don’t like in current art. They happen, I think, to be a more dangerous threat to high art than old-time philistines ever were. They bring philistine taste up-to-date by disguising it as its opposite, wrapping it in high-flown art jargon. Notice how that jargon proliferates nowadays, in New York and Paris and London, if not in Sydney. Realize, too, how compromised words like “advanced,” as well as “avant-garde,” have become of late. Underneath it all lies the defective eye of the people concerned; their bad taste in visual art.
The making of superior art is arduous, usually. But under Modernism the appreciation, even more than the making, of it has become more taxing, the satisfaction and exhilaration to be gotten from the best new art more hard-won. Over the past hundred and thirty years and more the best new painting and sculpture (and the best new poetry) have in their time proven a challenge and a trial to the art lover — a challenge and a trial as they hadn’t used to be. Yet the urge to relax is there, as it’s always been. It threatens and keeps on threatening standards of quality. (It was different, apparently, before the mid-nineteenth century.) That the urge to relax expresses itself in changing ways does but testify to its persistence. The “postmodern” business is one more expression of that urge. And it’s a way, above all, to justify oneself in preferring less demanding art without being called reactionary or retarded (which is the greatest fear of the newfangled philistines of advancedness).
The yearning for relaxation became outspoken in presumedly avant-garde circles for the first time with Duchamp and DADA, and then in certain aspects of surrealism. But it was with pop art that it became a fully confident expression. And that confidence has stayed in all the different fashions and trends of professedly and supposedly advanced art since then. What I notice is that the succession of these trends has involved, from the first, a retreat from major to minor quality; and a cause for concern about the state of contemporary art is just that: the retreat from the major to the minor, the hailing of the minor as major, or else the claim that the difference between the two isn’t important. Not that I look down on minor art, not at all. But without the perpetuation of major art, minor art falls off too. When the highest levels of quality are no longer upheld in practice or taste or appreciation, then the lower levels sink lower. That’s the way it’s always been, and I don’t see that way changing now.
The notion of the postmodern has sprouted and spread in that same relaxing climate of taste and opinion in which pop art and its successors thrive. It represents wishful thinking for the most part; those who talk about the postmodern are too ready to greet it. Yes, if the modern, if Modernism, is over and done with, then there’ll be surcease, relief. At the same time art history will have been kept going, and we critics and journalists will have kept abreast of it. But I happen to think that Modernism isn’t finished, certainly not in painting or sculpture. Art is still being made that challenges the longing for relaxation and relief and makes high demands on taste (demands that are more taxing because deceptive: the best new art of latter years innovates in a less spectacular way than the best new art used to under Modernism). Modernism, insofar as it consists in the upholding of the highest standards, survives — survives in the face of this new rationalization for the lowering of standards.