Musing on Modernism

The reflective nature of Facebook means I can post short links then muse upon responses..I then cut and paste here as a kind of ‘sketchbook’ for later theorising….a work in turn it automatically feeds back onto my facebook wall..a complete loop…

Altermodern Week 2: What’s it all about, Nicolas? | NoiseLoop
Welcome back to Altermodern Week here on Click Opera. I very much liked how yesterday’s conversations went — in the wee small hours people were exchanging recommendations for Chinese pop videos. Today I want to round up definitions of the Altermodern, from its inventor, curator Nicolas Bourriaud, but also via the Chinese Whispers about the idea that have percolated through the press and the web since the Altermodern show opened at Tate Britain last month. In a way I’m just as interested in the misconceptions as the official version, and I think Bourriaud — eager not to overdetermine the idea in advance — has kept things tactically vague

Wayne Burrows
Altermodernism is yet another attempt to build a cack-handed theory that ignores the fact that Modernism contained every single aspect of Postmodernism at its own inception, including the irony and superficiality, alongside everything else it did (read Edith Sitwell’s Facade (1923) or Eliot’s Prufrock (1917) if you doubt it). And Surrealism was pushing post-colonial positions in the 1930s, hence its influence in places like Martinique and Francophone Africa (again, look at Aime Cesaire and Leopold Senghor for evidence). Much of the art theory of the past 50 years seems to have been one big concerted effort to ignore the grey areas and complexities that have made art interesting…but I’m guessing Bourriaud wouldn’t make the waves he does if he didn’t keep manufacturing a straw version of Modernism (which contained its own opposition) to gloss the present against…

Shaun Belcher
interestingly this set of articles written by one Momus and I believe it the ex Creation singer…good reports..there is something below the hysteria though …and it looks like modernism to me.

Shaun Belcher
check out stephen hicks below which a calmer analysis of what basically a end of the frippery of postmodernism..

Shaun Belcher

Hicks says…..My second theme will be that postmodern art does not represent much of a break with modernism. Despite the variations that postmodernism represents, the postmodern art world has never challenged fundamentally the framework that modernism adopted at the end of the nineteenth century. There is more fundamental continuity between them than discontinuity. Postmodernism has simply become an increasingly narrow set of variations upon a narrow modernist set of themes. To see this, let us rehearse the main lines of development.

Or your argument entirely?

Wayne Burrows
My favourite quote (can’t remember who said it, but it stuck in my mind) was to the effect that ‘postmodernism is the mannerist strain of modernism’, which I felt then (late 1980s/early 90s?) struck the proverbial nail squarely on its head, and still does…

Shaun Belcher
I like that a Postmodern Fin De Siecle Yellow Book era seems apposite..Hirst as the Wilde, Emin as Beardsley?

Which leaves us where..pre WW1 and Bourriaud as a new Roger Fry?

I dislike the ‘tie-in’ nature of much contemporary curation…even NC guilty with its spurious and completely facile aping of 1968 recently…one of reasons I think curation at NC ‘trendy’….

Bourriaud well aware of the echoing of ‘classic’ modenism and Altermodern. Can we see a pattern maybe?

Shaun Belcher
There was an excellent radio 4 (yes I must be 50 as I finally listening to radio 4!) on Frankfurt School and it struck me that much of what modern(post/alter)ism drew in terms of its ‘terroir’ was from this particular soil..Adorno, Benjamin etc..fatalistic, nihilistic, etc etc…the shock of WW2 led to its virtual manifesto being adhered across the art world….ending in Beuys and Richter..we can only fail..someone like Fuller with his positivist message was ridiculed by its followers….so we end up with Hirst’s mock religiosity..ironically..

Wayne Burrows
Fuller’s promotion of Ruskin was taken, I think, as part of the wider (big and small C) conservatism of the time, as in Thatcher’s comment on Victorian Values, the promotion (and frequent misconstruing) of Samuel Smiles’ ‘Self Help’ and the rest – somewhat wrongly, although many of his favoured contemporary artists weren’t much help in making his case either (eg: Robert Natkin).

There also seemed to be a bit of Oedipal revolt against Berger in there that led him to move from one extreme (ex-SWP Left) to the other (books like Left High and Dry: the Posturing of the Left Establishment) so his positions didn’t seem as nuanced or ever quite convincing (I talked to Christopher le Brun last year, and he mentioned that while he felt his painting was linked to the kind of Ruskin ideas Fuller promoted in Modern Painters, Fuller didn’t like his work largely because it was linked to the neo-Expressionism Norman Rosenthal was pushing, and NR was the enemy…). So I’m not sure Fuller ever made his case as well as he might have done, really…certainly less convincing on the UK turf than someone like Robert Hughes in the US, maybe…

Shaun Belcher
Interestingly there an article published in Modern Painters after his death where he cites ‘landscape painters’ much more convincingly (including Terry Shave! *Professor of Fine Art Nottingham Trent University)..I think the ‘High Church aura’ skewed his argument as did writing for Telegraph however a lot of the good stuff he did was thrown out too especially by the Goldsmiths crowd …

I would have thought Le Brun closer to Fuller than Rosenthal’s Neo Brutalists…in long term but then Fuller didn’t have long term..wonder how he’d react to present set up?

Shaun Belcher
I was interviewed by Goldsmiths twice in 1987 then again in 1988 on second occasion I referenced Fuller and they started screeching like hoot owls! To them he was the anti-marxist traitor…pivotal moment for me I thought they clowns…was year Hirst arrived and the rest is history. Still support Fuller not Craig Martin any day.

Shaun Belcher
Ah Ruskin as exemplar of a fake Victorianism Conservatism instead of the Ruskin of the Working Man’s College??….to this day there a fundamental clouding of his name and meaning…especially in Oxford …Ruskin School of Art V Ruskin College….two sides of a coin maybe?

Shaun Belcher
Ironically Berger the winner in short term. His Ways of Seeing in a pile in Waterstones (Foundation text) whilst no Fuller to be seen let alone read..I can see how Berger fits into the altermodern scenario and his Peasant Culture texts were ahead of their time. I feel Bourriaud has condensed essential traits of the post 1968 left..anti-colonialism…eco politics and anti-capitalism into a neat construct but once it examined in detail it does seem to fall apart.

Theorists seem agreed that postmodernism shot its metaphorical bolt but nobody seems quite sure where we are now…that indecision has been cleverly built into the altermodern ‘anti-theory’ positioning.

I like Momus’s idea of it merely being a ‘placeholder’ for whatever comes next. Hopefully it won’t be generated as before by cataclysmic war…but then maybe we already in that phase it simply, in an Orwellian sense, being kept beyond the borders of our comprehension. Haiti, Kabul, Baghdad..all becomes digital chaff…we are not receiving truth so what price artistic truth anyway? Seems like a vain posturing to even care..

The New Modernism

“We cannot obscure the creative phenomenon independently of the form in which it is made manifest. Every formal process proceeds from a principle, and the study of this principle requires precisely what we call dogma. In other words, the need that we feel to bring order out of chaos, to extricate the straight line of our operation from the tangle of possibilities and from the indecision of vague thoughts, presupposes the necessity of some sort of dogmatism”.

Igor Stravinsky “Poetics of Music” 1

“….knowing must therefore be accompanied by an equal and equivalent capacity to forget knowing.”
Lapique by Jean Lescure 2

“I believe that art is the interpretation of emotion and consequently of the idea. I recognize that the discipline of the technique is necessary to this emotion, and at present I feel that the simpler the technique and more limited, the better the idea emerges.”

Henri-Gaudier Brzeska – Letter to Sophie Brzeska 3

“As I squeezed out everything that smacked of literature…I was so naturally a painter that the two arts, with me, have co-existed in peculiar harmony – there has been no mixing of the genres.”

Percy Wyndham-Lewis – Super-Nature V Super Real 4

“The poet thinks in images – art cannot teach anything – write across the paper instead of on the lines”

Andrei Tarkovsky – Sculpting in Time 5

“Works of first intensity obey the dictates of their own material, works of second intensity imitate and ‘disperse’”

Ezra Pound – Theory of Imagism 6

“No ideas but in things”

William Carlos Williams – ‘A sort of song’ 7

Welcome to the Future. We live in a supposedly always on ‘digital’ age where ideas and concepts like megabytes freely flow across borders. In this ‘Alter-Modern’ world all previous states of the avant-garde have been absorbed, rendered obsolete or simply been ‘re-configured’ if we believe ‘postmodernism is coming to an end’ (Tate Gallery Alter-modernism 2008) .

The modernist quotes above are not instantly available from the internet. They were all written down painstakingly by hand by the author into a folder of ‘art notes’ kept during the heyday of his physical practice in the 1980’s. They are not easily dropped into facebook or to be found on twitter yet they have an immediacy and a relevance, in my opinion, to the current debate around the manipulation and ‘dumbing down’ of certain parts of the international art world.

We live in such a ‘sound-bite culture’ that it becomes easy to forget that the achievements of the original modernists were hard won and against prevailing trends. In this ‘connected’ world where vacuous posturing and dilettante ‘intellectualism’ reign supreme it can be chastening to read anything from an artist in the early part of the 20th century especially against the din of success and ‘flash’ fact or fiction.

What was once the preserve of a ridiculed and elitist band be it in Bloomsbury or Manhattan has become a far more fluid, fractured and fashion-orientated ‘scene. That scene bares little resemblance to the world of Wolf, Bunting and Yeats, Pound and Eliot. Maybe that is a ‘democratic’ good as some would argue but year on year the ‘cutting-edge’ of this new cyber ‘elite’ becomes more blunted, more introspective and less vital. The death of Dash Snow is somehow emblematic. His threadbare output couched in bohemian verbiage and his limited artistic estate popularised and administered for the best return but all along we know this is merely role-play. This is an affectation of avant-garde principles not the real thing.

So where did the cutting edge lose its cutting quality? Do we ransack the archives for the exact moment? Was it Fluxus…..Cobra.. was it Barcelona or East Village….Miami or Berlin? Myths outweigh the reality.….

So do we examine the avant-garde’s apparent ‘implosion’ against a wider backdrop? In terms of my own practice it became most apparent in the mid to late 1980’s. It seemed then and seems now that the very process of ‘making’ itself started to lose ‘currency’ for a certain part of the art world and ‘thinking’ or at least the affectation of thinking became its default replacement. The internet of itself had hardly begun then so it cannot be blamed for creating the phenomenon but its arrival did signal a massive acceleration in the propagation of singular themes and certain dogmas.

The web allowed disparate and possibly provincial scenes to merge and intellectual bodies, be it in studio groups or academia, to find common cause and we began a new era of unacknowledged ‘dogma’. The idea that ‘knowing could be accompanied by an equal and equivalent capacity for not knowing’ was anathema to minor talents emboldened by group certainties. This new ‘certainty’ translated swiftly by osmosis into a new dogmatism in the academies of learning. One not only shouldn’t get one’s hands ‘dirty’ with the reality of stuff but one could quickly pick up a intellectual (usually French) justification for not toiling away in a studio. From being places of ‘instruction’ the academies became places of ‘imitation’.

In Pound’s words we had arrived at a period dominated by works and artists of ‘secondary intensity’….imitation was and is still rife. To walk round a modern art college is to view the international art world as seen in a magazine then turned into a template and recast again and again. The place of ‘ideas’ became an ancillary to career development. The idea that an artist should struggle with the physical aspect of paint or steel became ‘old-fashioned’ as artists busily networked and contrived ever more fanciful variations on themes. Yet the concept of a ‘new’ idea hard won through years of toil as exemplified by many an early modernist suddenly fell from favour. Art markets gorged on the fountain of investor’s money and had no time to wait. Careers exploded, imploded and fortunes were made as a completely new industry was born.

That industry fed on secondary works of art. Certain artists with either too much integrity or an inability to jump on the bandwagon continued to apply the methodology and principles of the works of first intensity but were and are increasingly ignored. Fractured by the new ‘everybody wins’ cash imperative these two art worlds began to exist side by side. They still do.

So if this analysis is correct and the art world has become a double-headed beast how do we then is the artist to proceed? How do practicing artists produce artworks in a fractured system? Or is it impossible to actually function in a dysfunctional model?

Despite convincing evidence to the contrary there are reasons to remain optimistic. It is hard to believe that technology will actually affect the outcome as much as it once appeared to be doing. Cyber reality is so different to actual reality that, apart from the most obsessive 3-d avatar driven individuals, there will come a time when fashion in the art-world will swing back towards experiential theory and fully craft-based instruction systems. The signs are there that this is already occurring. Students brought up on a screen-based diet are finding the simple pleasures of drawing and writing to be vastly more satisfying than photo-shopping and pointing camcorders at anything and everything. This is because the complexity of actual hand-eye co-ordination goes beyond anything achievable through point and shoot technology.

Practice….or creating artworks.. or simpler still ‘creating’ will increasingly draw on a constellation of ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’ some of which may be digital some of which may not. The underlying patterns of investigation and exploration that create meaningful artworks will need to resolve and connect with the early modernist programmes and the depth of intellectual and practical endeavour they represent.

No ideas but in things?


1. Stravinsky, Igor ‘Poetics of Music in the form of six lessons’ Harvard University Press Cambridge 1947
Available from:
Accessed 6.01.2010

2.Jean Lescure, Lapicque, Flammarion, 1956

3. Ede, H. S. Savage messiah / by H.S. Ede Fraser, London : 1971

4.Wyndham Lewis on Art: Collected Writing 1913-1956.
Introduction and notes by Walter Michel and C.J. Fox. London: Thames and Hudson, 1969.

5. Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time – Reflections on Cinema, The Bodley Head, London, 1988

6. Pound’s artists: Ezra Pound and the visual arts in London, Paris and Italy
Richard Humphreys, Tate Gallery, 1985

7. Williams William Carlos The Wedge The Cummington Press 1944
Available from:
Accessed: 06.01.2010