“Art is modern when, by its mode of experience and as the expression of a crisis of experience, it absorbs what industrialization has developed under the given relations of production.”
–Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory
Anti-modernism, pre-modernism, and post-modernism each hold increasing power over the contemporary mind. The reason for this transfixion cannot be articulated until each of these are fully and exhaustively expressed, at which point the world will become modern–not once again, but for the first time. Furthermore, it is unclear whether these frameworks in contemporary consciousness truly negate modernism, or merely attempt to avoid its ever-present and pervasive shadow, one that projects at the ground in front of us, and that we define by being in the way, shielding history with our backs. Such shadows are the negative spaces of modernism. It is their missing parts, what we block out, rather than its actual light, that is of concern.
Contemporary anti-modernism fallaciously equates the passage of time with social progress, taking for granted that with an increase in years comes greater quality of life and cultural freedom. Parallel to this is the fact that a sincere revisitation of past art and what it pointed to without achieving – far more than just a referential nod – is condemned taboo. The destitution of our era necessitates an ignorance of it’s social conditions and the history that catalyzes it. The contemporary assumption that time alone provides the criterion of judgment is an expression of passivity.
The contemporary art experience can be likened to that of a child born into a room covered in wallpaper printed with an underwater nature scene. The child recognizes through some extrasensory faculty that she is probably not actually under water, but she cannot be certain. The child senses that someone at some point probably put up this wallpaper for a reason, while she herself was born into the room by mere circumstance. Finding the familiar in the wallpaper is a pathology resulting from the necessity of having to look at it, and having no alternative. The child, in order to get to the bottom of things, studies the empirical qualities of the wallpaper, drawing grandiose, often far-fetched conclusions.
Like the child and the wallpaper, we find ourselves with an art that seemingly precedes us, and consequently lies beyond our grasp. Contemporary art is largely complacent with this presupposition, happily proclaiming impenetrable or irrelevant the question of art’s existence. Art and culture blogs wish to lay claim to their content’s impending annihilation, as the accrual of images becomes a historically destructive project, contrary to their potentially archival nature. In the realm of blogging, all culture equals all culture. This isn’t simply a deplorable contamination of art by culture either—one can only recognize such a difference when art’s own mythology is assumed concrete. The blog strives for objectivity, homogeneity, and infinite and pervasive community: a leveling out of the cultural terrain.
Meanwhile, style is fungible because crisis in culture is not. While net art proclaims a freedom of culture, new nostalgic painting is casual in its safe historicism. What looks like a return to modernism in the geometric abstraction of contemporary painting, or in the neo-Dada collage of web-art, may not be modern at all if it is unable to recognize the contradictions of its existence as a symptom of a crisis in experience. What is generated by the proliferation of stylized objects today is not simply art. It may be equally accurate to say that it is everything that art is not.