The Rise and Fall of (Post-)Modern

Essay by R.Cronk

When Clive Bell pondered the nature of the common quality shared by the windows of Chartres, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets and a painting by Cezanne, he concluded the existence of 'significant form.' Bell substituted significant form for the concept of beauty in an aesthetic adaptation of Immanuel Kant's transcendental idealism. In the Formalist aesthetic, the viewer sought significant form through transcendent inquiry. The apprehension of significant form is based on sensitivities distinct from analytic reasoning. In an insight missing from much of the Formalist rhetoric that followed, Bell described the aesthetic response as the "expression of that emotion which is the vital force in every religion." (Bell, "Art," 1914) In a concern for the cognitive significance of the perception of form, the Formalist aesthetic isolated the spiritual enigma in art. For the Formalist, the painting was a crossroads between the empirical and spiritual and between the rational and symbolic.

Formal Modernism systematically eliminated traditional religious and social obligations and representative subject matter. In a reductive quest for the enigmatic source of the aesthetic response, art became an introspective dialogue in a formal language that developed in the process of painting. The quest centered on a search for a priori form. The artists would discover just how little visual information was necessary to achieve the aesthetic response. In time the Modernists would also discover there was no final statement, no final metaphor, no checkmate, no consciousness-negating reduction and no a priori form.

After World War II, America became the dominant force in the international art scene, with New York as the center of avant-garde activity. American and expatriate European Modernists abandoned the muted rhetoric and intimacy of European tradition for the increased drama and life-size scale of post-war Abstract Expressionism. The artists realized that anything life-size was easier to understand. The larger scale lent an (additional) anthropomorphic quality to the art object. 'Presence,' the aesthetic term for the psychological phenomenon of anthropomorphism, became the substantiating factor of Formalism. For the Modernist, presence was apprehended as an attribute of form.

The innovations of Abstract Expressionism, and of Jackson Pollock in particular, set the agenda for art and aesthetic discourse for decades to come. In what might be described as a pointillist Color Field, Pollock's Action paintings marked a significant juncture in the development of both Formalism and post-modern Structuralism. With the drip paintings we enter into a contemporary view of art -- one that includes both gesture and process. These paintings forced recognition that process and semiotic structure, as well as the aesthetic response and significant form, were subjects of aesthetic inquiry. Revolutionary in their simplicity, the Action paintings exposed new ground for art.

Pollock's paintings were innovative, provocative and vital. Clement Greenberg, the influential critic and theorist of high Modern, adapted Bell's theory of significant form to explain the importance of the Action paintings. Greenberg was quick to realize the paintings were important, but his narrow view glossed over the subjective nature of the aesthetic response, and ignored the semiotic implications of the drip paintings as signifiers in the structural analysis of art.

Much has been written on the significance of the Action paintings, but seldom does the academic perspective acknowledge the artist's intention. Pollock re-enacted the Dionysian drama in his method. When Pollock stepped up to the unstretched canvas spread out on the floor, he may have had a notion as to what he expected but he came otherwise unrehearsed. The resulting image was the direct expression of the unconscious (or at least undirected) mind. The drips were the symptomatic tracing of unconscious desire. Pollock effectively reduced art to the cosmic dance of the primitive. He intended to strip away the facade and reveal the unknown self. His work was an extrapolation of experience designed to strike the emotive chords of aesthetic perception. Aware of Jungian psychology, Pollock adapted automatic writing as the vehicle for the transcendent expression of unconscious symbol formation.

While praised for their significant form, Pollock's drip paintings followed the Dada course of automatism. In the Dada spirit Pollock offered a conceptually bracketed activity as art. By restricting the spectator's frame of reference to the painting process, the Action painter, with one eye toward history and another toward the psychology of the art experience, reduced art to the recording of an unconscious (undirected) aesthetic act. He took the underlying potential for metonymic symbolism apparent in the indexing of the photograph and in the Impressionist's attention to surface and texture, and made it the primary concern. Action painting was no less symbolic than previous art, but the strategy was metonymic relation by causation (indexing) rather than metaphoric similarity. Pollock's drip paintings would become the metonymic symbols of unconscious expression in art.

In the art that followed, the heated aggression and emotional content of Abstract Expressionism cooled to become Color Field. In time, the avant-garde would deny any relation to the spiritual or the symbolic (Rothko is the notable exception). Greenberg had laid the foundation for the Color Field painters by assessing the Action paintings with the rhetoric of significant form. The high Modernists espoused flatness, reduced shape and reduced surface. Art rid itself of excess baggage. Color Field painters attempted to eliminate everything save reference to the painting. The esteem of the representative image reached an all time low.

The rubric 'significant form' became the guiding concept of Color Field. It gained such popularity among the Modernists that some still wave it like a banner. How removed from the emotive content of Abstract Expressionism were the austere rarefactions of Color Field. Looking at the simplified shapes depicted in the Color Field paintings, one cannot help but wonder if the artists of high Modern may have taken too literal an interpretation of the word 'form' in the term 'significant form.' Had Greenberg coined 'significant harmonies' or 'significant spatial relationships' to describe the innovations of the Action paintings, would the history of Modernism have taken a different course?

As a concept, the term was appropriately applied to Pollock's drip paintings. Significant form provided a discursive context for examining the process by which the mind mediates new experience. The subtle apprehension of significant form was an awareness of the symbol forming process as it encodes sensory experience. The symbol is the enigmatic source of formal perception. The symbolic function determines form as an instrument of thought. Significant form is symbolic form. It is symbolism clarified of non-perceptual concerns, or at least structured within an art context. Modernism's aesthetic response was the transcendent apprehension of the symbol. The accompanying feelings and emotions were the result of the non-discursive content of the symbolic experience.

After Color Field established itself as a movement in the Modern tradition of continuous innovation, where was it to go? Freed from the subject, freed from all but the format, Modernism had no choice but to fulfill its reductive logic and eliminate the rectangular image and self-referential meaning. As Greenberg's flock played out its final solutions, the Color Field painter reduced image to 'objectness.' In an at first subtle shift in direction from the perceptual preoccupations of Color Field to the conceptual concerns of Minimal art, the painting became a shallow relief object. The primary object was all that was left, and it was still recognizable as art. Structuralism ensued.

Post-Modern Structuralism

Drawing on parallels between art and language, artists in the late 1960's began adapting structural linguistics as a conceptual reference for assessing art's methodological integrity. A new branch of aesthetics developed from the theories of de Saussure, Barthes, Chomsky, Wittgenstein, Lacan and Levi-Strauss (among others). This group finds commonality in their emphasis on language in the development of personality.

The realization that the figure of speech had more to do with what could be known than the subject it addressed, prompted artists and critics to abandon traditional philosophical and psychological models for understanding art. The new aesthetic made the assumption that beneath art lay an internal logic that could be understood through language theory. These artists were concerned with producing art that established its own context within the dialectics of aesthetic discourse. The intent was to provoke aesthetic sensibilities into the realization of art as a semiotic device.

In the history of art theory, Romanticism lionized the artist. Formalism focused on the art object. Structuralism would center on process and systems analysis. The Structuralist sought the rules that made art. Structuralism is based on logical operations instead of the straightforward intuition of perceptual gestalts. The artist abandoned the search for iconic form in favor of an aesthetic based on propositional logic. He turned from the considerations of formal perception to approach art in self-analytic conceptual terms.

Structuralism and the aesthetic theories that followed entrenched themselves behind a reductive hypothesis that denied the relevance of the numinous art experience. The symbolic and the spiritual were out. They were no longer interested in presence or significant form. Art establishment aestheticians abandoned transcendent aesthetics for a system of value based on man's greatest attribute -- the contemplative intellect.

The Structuralists rejected what earlier movements took for granted -- that art communicates non-discursive ontological knowledge. The question of primary interest to the Formalist, 'what is the knowledge that logic cannot know?,' falls outside what Structural aesthetics acknowledged as meaningful.

The Formalists were limited to manipulating elements within a medium. For the Structuralist, the idea and its context became the subject. There were no restrictions on the medium. The artist could mix media and include theory and environment as elements of the work. The artist could put mirrors in the landscape and call it sculpture because the idea was the art, not the object. By contrast, the Formalists had contemplated attributes inherent to the object without regard to surrounding spaces. Minimal artists rejected the Formalists' concern for internal relationships. The Minimal shape, like the blank canvas, stood for itself. There was no attempt at illusion. It presented no further signification.

Where the Formalist's intent was to enrapture the viewer, the Structuralist was content to challenge the established priorities of art at a theoretical level. The transcendent visual encounter sought by the Modernist was purposely played down or eliminated. Structuralism separated meaning from affect. It shifted the importance from image to idea. The product communicated the idea. The gallery experience became a laboratory experiment supporting a theoretical model. Structuralism sublimated art to theory.

Non-objective imagery had always been dependent on a specific line of reasoning, but it was not until post-modernism that the artist's statement became essential to art appreciation. Prior to the conceptual movements in art, the viewer approached the object with a working knowledge of art and potentially experienced the perceptual aesthetic response. Structuralism required the viewer to come to the encounter willing to study supplemental text to set the work in the context of the Structural aesthetic.

Art was conceived as a primitive (but not precursive) language combining visual signs and linguistic principles. Structural aesthetics classified art as a subheading in linguistic theory. Structuralism was not about a depicted subject but about its own construction; about the language that exists between the compositional elements and the conventions of art.

Under increased academic pressure in a commodity-oriented market, the artist became an active participant in the despiritualization of art. The Structural aesthetic denied the connotative powers of visual imagery. Chosen images and products were intentionally lifeless and without transcendent potential. The artist resigned himself to exploring the politics of interpretation for art's discursive significance and definable values.

The Structuralists attempted to release art from the psychology of perception. They denounced the perceptual criteria of Modernism and relied on conceptually substantiated art statements. The viewer was expected to "follow his predetermined premise to its conclusion avoiding subjectivity." (LeWitt, quoted by Lucy R. Lippard, "10 Structuralists in 20 Paragraphs") Structural art was not intended to inspire the viewer through aesthetic perception. Rather, the Structural work was a model for the analytic reappraisal of art. Art became systems analysis.

The rationale released art from its obligations to the precious object, the originality of the product, the integrity of the medium and the quality of presence. Without the validation of the subjective response, and without the restrictive maxims of Modernism, cultural concepts could be redefined to include or exclude almost anything. The logic of the Structural aesthetic allowed the photographic reproduction, as well as the earthwork and the ready-made, to be exhibited as art.

Structuralism opened the door on an array of a new source material. Language and concept, as well as any novel gestalt, became source material for the artist. Where the Modernist had looked at art as a medium of self-expression and formal innovation, the Structuralist utilized the object as a sign to be manipulated in the exploration of art's structural properties. Where Formalism reduced art to formula, the Structuralist diagramed art like a sentence.

Structuralism as the Apogee of Modernism

The question has been asked before: How can there be a post-modern? As we work through the conceptual mannerisms that constitute current directions in art, are we to suppose the next trend will no longer be Modern? Or will critics be forced to affix prefixes such as neo and supra to continue the context of Modernism? As a term, 'post-modern' may have been introduced prematurely into aesthetic discourse. In the clamor to claim new nomenclature, critics danced around the art object contriving distinctions that served to distinguish their own careers.

There is a reciprocal polemic in art history based on the opposing truths of mathematical idealism and aesthetic symbolism. History follows a pendular path between the two. Structuralism, seen as the dialectic antithesis of Formalism, is based solely on the former. But Structuralism is not the much anticipated paradigmatic shift that marks a new direction in art. Rather, it represents the apogee of Modernism, and the conclusion of a continuous tradition.

Where Modernism ends in the art historical chronology is decided according to the definition of Modern. If defined as the rarefaction of high Modern that nearly choked itself to death with Color Field, then art has certainly passed beyond the tenets of Modernism. On the other hand, if Modern is decided to include the manneristic and methodological investigations of Manet, Duchamp, Dada, Cubism, Surrealism, Action painting, the anxious object and the photo montage, then the precedent is well established for including Structuralism in the context of Modernism. Modernism has a wider base than the singularity of direction indicated by the Formalist aesthetic. Only if Manet's parodies and Duchamp's non-retinal art are considered anti-Modern can today's propositional deconstructions be considered other than Modern. The deconstructive strategy was a concurrent theme at work in Modernism from its inception.

Structuralism is rooted in Duchampian irony and developed on foundations laid by synthetic Cubism and Dada (the daddy-Buddha of post-modern). Picasso and Braque's use of collage elements in synthetic Cubism presented the first problematic investigation of art's structural and semiotic properties, but it was Duchamp and the Dadaists that established the conceptual complement to Formalism that would become the historical precedent for structural aesthetics.

Duchamp developed rapidly through blossoming Post-Impressionist styles only to reject them as 'retinal' and turn to an alternative view of art -- one based on pun and photograph rather than paint and symbol. Taking his cue from art's rapid advance on style, Duchamp realized the avant-garde as its own direction in art (forever different). His later work differed from that of his contemporaries in its contextual relationship to history. The change in emphasis was from formal progression to novel idea, and from perceptual response to structural analysis. Duchamp and the Dadaists revealed the intellectual ironies of art while Matisse and Cezanne developed Formalism through stylistic innovation.

It was only after analytic philosophies exposed the erroneous assumptions of Occidental philosophies and structural linguistics provided a new theoretical framework for speaking about art that deconstructive strategies took on the look of a new direction.

For all its distinctive attributes, Structuralism is only as post-modern as the Dada impulse that emerged with the Post-Impressionist styles. High Modern and post-modern are as similar as two peas from Pollock's pod. Despite the conceptual nature of post-modern, the underlying preoccupations with gestalt recognition, self-discovery and historical context persevere. And there is still the traditional exhibitionism and narcissism of the art activity. The painter is no less the picador in the post-modern arena.

The post-modern painting, as with the paintings of Modernism, challenges its own existence as art. Both push the envelope or they are of little value. In a tradition that started with the Impressionists, post-modernism continues to isolate self-analytic signifiers to reflect on the nature of art. Modern and post-modern are both art about art.

The positivistic deconstructions of Structuralism are no less idealized and no less symbolic than the art of Formal Modernism, only differently so. The ideal is mathematical idealism. The symbolism is the metonymic symbolism of the (de)generation of Modernism.

The Modern art establishment made the transition to post-modern aesthetics without breaking stride. Post-modern art still supports (and is supported by) the established hierarchy of universities, galleries, critics and art publications with measured innovations aimed at insuring recognition, tenure, monetary reward, etc..

The denial of the relevance of the ontological value of the art encounter condemns Structuralism to a short reign as a major movement in art. Without acknowledging the role of the viewer, the future of 'non-retinal' art appears bleak. For the artist, the nihilism of post-modern art presents a dead end. Propositional logic cannot discover anything that is not implied by the stifling ideology that sets the parameters of the inquiry.

The systems analysis of Structuralism provides an inadequate tool for exploring or explaining the non-rational, holistic nature of art appreciation. Art does not read like a sentence. For the rational intellect, elements of the composition are plastic signs; signifiers to be manipulated in syntactic arrangements, but in the art experience the same elements become a symbolic whole.

The Structuralists believed that analytic proposition could reveal the essential nature of art. But art is not grounded in rhetoric or in the objectively perceived, or within itself as a system. Instead, art is grounded in the encounter, and in the role it plays as a civilizing force within society.

While it appears we are nearing the end of Modernism, the blinkers must be removed from the reductive vision of Structuralism (and capital must be exorcised from culture) before art can begin the paradigmatic swing that will bring Modernism to a close.

Copyright © R. Cronk 1996 - All Rights Reserved

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