Podium: `Post-modern' is an obsolete term

From a talk at the Tate Gallery, London, by an art history professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia
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The Independent Culture
I CONTEND that the modernism that is said to have begun as an avant-garde style, with Manet or Brancusi or Frank Lloyd Wright or whoever, and came to dominate the art of the first half of this century, is now no longer modern. There exists now a powerful consensus, and one with which I agree, that it ceased to dominate art practice during the Sixties, when a new historical style that still goes by the absurd name of post- modernism suddenly appeared upon the intellectual horizon.

The word "post-modernism" is not only absurd, it's semantically vulnerable, because it depends, for its very name, upon a modernism that's no longer modern. On the other hand it invokes, so far as the future is concerned, an infinite regress of post-modernisms, post-post-modernism", etc. We must find a better way to describe what occurred during the Sixties and thereafter.

In my view, words such as "modern", "modernism", "modernity", possess a much more powerful semantic durability than words such as "postmodern", "post-modernism", "post-modernity". The word "modern" and its linguistic equivalents have served us since the sixth century to mean, broadly speaking, what my New Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines as "of or pertaining to the present and recent times". My hunch is that it will continue to mean just that, during the 21st century and beyond. But if this is so, post- modernism is likely to become a period-style term for the art and thought of the last three decades of this century.

I contend that modernism has been an endemic component of art practice since the 15th century, but that, like Proteus, it changes its shape and look in response to new generational challenges and a gradual exhaustion of the immanent potential of historic styles.

Modernisms are avant-garde movements that foreshadow period styles. Somewhere I recall reading that the Gothic was once called "le style moderne"; Vasari certainly called the art of Giorgione and Leonardo "la maniera moderna" and Ruskin, of course, wrote his Modern Painters. But today we think of Gothic as Gothic, not modern; Giorgione as early Renaissance; Ruskin's painters, such as Turner, as Romantics. The modern, then, is normative, not a period style term, a changeable feast.

I have coined the term Formalesque as a suitable name for the period style that emerges as an avant-garde movement during the last quarter of the 19th century, is then institutionalised between the wars, and flourishes as a late style from 1945 to 1960. It is essentially a late-19th-century style that developed at a time when Europe was the colonial master of the world.

No art style created within a specific time-frame is going to be called modern for ever. But this raises sharply the semantic status of the post- modern. It is now free to be seen not as post-modernism but as the real modernism of the 20th century, which emerged during the First World War initially in the form of Dada and then was developed out of Dada, between the wars, by Surrealism in France and Neue Sachlichkeit in Germany, when the Formalesque was institutionalising itself.

On this view Dada, Surrealism and the Neue Sachlichkeit are not to be viewed merely as three more avant-garde movements within the steady flow of 20th-century modernism, but rather as modes of art practice that opposed all that the Formalesque stood for. They were certainly viewed most unfavourably by many of the most influential champions of the late Formalesque, such as Clement Greenberg and William Rubin.

However, it is better not to view them, simplistically, as independent modes, in binary opposition to the institutionalised Formalesque, but rather as operating in a kind of continuous dialectical feedback against its dominance.

Precisely because the Formalesque remained the dominant style until the Sixties even those oppositional modes were deeply coloured stylistically by it. Magritte, for example, is surreal in his imagery but Formalesque in his style. So are the others.That's what a period style does: it colours all it comes in contact with.

It is time now to place late-19th-century modernism within the history of art, and not pretend that that which was once modern is still modern. In the last three decades of this century we have chosen to exchange an art that was grounded in the universalisms of autonomy, for the art of fragmentation. A 20th-century art that in the end decided to give up its 19th-century ambitions to create an imperial, universalising art.