of the Second World War, the triumphalist history of modernism began to be challenged. There was mounting evidence that the modernist enterprise was failing.
The tenets of the movement, its belief in progress, freedom, and equality, had been sustained from the outset by artists and intellectuals, and embraced by those who reaped the material benefits it brought.
But now there was cause to question these beliefs. After two hundred years of concerted effort, we ask what has been accomplished.
It is true many advances have been made in science, technology, medicine, education, suffrage, life expectancy, and physical comfort, but is the world a better place for all that? Has the modernist experiment resulted in the creation of a better human society? For an increasing number of people the answer is no.
For some, problems in the pursuit of modernism were already apparent early in the 20th century. The senseless, mechanized slaughter of the First World War showed that modernism's faith in scientific and technological progress as the path to a better world was tragically misguided.
For the Dada artists, the ‘Great War’ signaled the failure of all modernist art. It may be claimed that Dada marks the emergence of a post–modernist cast of mind.
In the period between World War One and World War Two progressive modernism continued to pursue its goals, but now often in association with other forces.
Progressive artists actively supported political revolution. Pablo Picasso, for example, joined the communist party in 1944, as did many other artists.
The Russian Revolution had seemed at the time, and for a long time after, to be the answer to the progressive modernist's dream.
Marxist communism was the boldest attempt yet to create a better society, adopting not a political democracy but an economic democracy which aimed at achieving economic equality. Communism offered the vision of universal freedom predicated on the freedom of ideas.
Progressive modernist artists, in the imaginative freedom of their works, exemplified or encouraged this freedom.
In 1932, however, under Josef Stalin, this freedom was sharply curtailed and modern art, such as it was, was forced to adopt a more conservative form, known as Socialist Realism.
The suppression of progressive modernist art in favour of a propagandistic Socialist Realism also occurred at the other end of the political spectrum in Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
Hitler, too, had wanted to create a new and better society, but his method of achieving it horrified the world. Whereas progressive modernism sought to improve the lot of all humankind, the Nazis, utilizing ideas derived from social Darwinism, employed eugenics (the science of improving human hereditary) with the aim of establishing a hierarchically superior and racially pure ‘master race’ (Herrenrasse).
Humans who were considered racially inferior or were deemed medically, mentally, or physically defective, disabled, impaired, or incurable, or otherwise regarded as morally or socially deviant, degenerate, weak, or impure, were targeted, at first, for euthanasia or sterilization, but later, upon being identified as possessing ‘life unworthy of life’ (Lebensunwertes Leben) were simply killed.
The Second World War and the Nazi holocaust, we now realize, dealt a mortal blow to modernism. It shattered the modernist dream and defiled the impulse that sustained modern art.
In 1949, the philosopher Theodor Adorno commented that ‘writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ After the Second World War, optimism in the future was difficult to sustain. And to make matters worse, with the advent of the Cold War and the constant threat of nuclear destruction, any sort of future looked doubtful.
Having rejected tradition and the past many years ago, and now with the future no longer the goal of artistic effort, many artists turned with obvious distress to the present and focused their attention on contemporary popular culture.
Pop artists could still appear progressive under these circumstances, contributing a critique of middle–class ideals and the superficial materialism of the American dream. What was happening in effect, though, was that modernist art itself was under attack as a middle–class ideal.
The comment made by the military officer in Vietnam that his platoon had to destroy a Vietnamese village in order to save it (i.e. from the Vietcong and Communism), seems to have been applied to art; it became necessary to destroy art, or at least the modernist understanding of it, in order to save it.
With it the purpose of modern art began to evaporate. The feeling for some was that modernism had played itself out and was now floundering and directionless.
In recent years, progressive modernism has seemed intent not on defining a future but in destroying the values of the present, especially as they pertained to modern art.
While progressive artists have remained ostensibly hostile to prevailing systems of authority, this position is no longer at all clear.
Conceptual art in the late 1960s and early 1970s concerned itself with ‘concepts’ or ‘ideas’ to the neglect of more traditional concerns with materials, aesthetics, or even simple skills.
In 1967, the American artist Sol LeWitt explained in an article ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’ in the magazine Artforum:
In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.
Conceptual art quickly established itself as another affront to established middle–class values and the public’s hostility toward it was intense.
But conceptualism appeared to step beyond the limits established by modernism.
The artist and writer Victor Burgin has described conceptualism as a revolt against modernism. This may not seem apparent, because, true to form, orthodox art history has managed to assimilate it into the seamless fabric of ‘art history’ while stifling its radicalism.
Nonetheless, conceptualism deliberately was an art that no aesthetic formalism could hope to embrace. It was an attempt to place art beyond all limitations and definitions, to break the stranglehold of middle–class formalist art history and criticism.
The process of ‘making’ and the manipulation of materials was given precedence, with the result that the final object became secondary, almost incidental, and often temporary.
Conceptualism became an umbrella term (in an attempt to define and contain) under which were lumped together a whole range of difficult–to–classify art such as Performance and Earth Art. Conceptual artists produced work that was difficult if not impossible to classify according to the old system.
Art in the latter half of the 20th century deliberately placed itself beyond the limits of control.
Today, art historians and critics — we might call them the art police — throw up their hands in dismay in the face of contemporary art. They have reached their limit — they can no longer absorb contemporary art into the system, patterns of order can no longer be applied.
The critical apparatus of control has broken down; traditional art theory and traditional art history have failed along with modernism.