| Against Post-Modernism: Reconsidering Ortega
Published in Arts Magazine, New York, Vol. 56, No. 3, November 1981.
the last few years, there has been a growing interest on the part of many
critics in the idea of post-modernism. These writers define post-modernism
in various ways, but they share in common the belief that the age of modernist
art is over and that anew set of theories is needed to describe art today.
attempt to define the extent and character of modernist art is both a
descriptive and a prescriptive exercise, since no definition of the characteristics
of a society’s artistic production can be free of the author’s
aspirations for that society. Greenberg’s modernism sought to provide
an artistic equivalent for America’s post-war aspirations to leadership
of the western and developing nations. Today, with those aspirations in
shambles, it is not surprising that the ideas behind the equivalent aesthetic
movement seem irrelevant and distant.
order to form such a theory, Greenberg was forced to ignore a great deal
of twentieth-century European art. Dada, Surrealism, Duchamp had no place
in his system. He was forced to label even Analytic Cubism a “counter-revolution”
against modernism and to push back the beginning of the modernist era
to the middle of the nineteenth century to include the Impressionists
(especially Monet), who were paradigmatic to his theory.
To create a theory of modernism that bestrides these very different periods, as Greenberg attempted to do, is bound to create difficulties. In Ortega, we find instead a theory of modernism that confines itself to the art of the twentieth century.
Like Greenberg, Ortega has a prescriptive role for modernist art. He sees modernism as the characteristic art of the twentieth century and of the liberal society, which he extols. For Ortega, the primary intellectual force in the twentieth century is relativism. This relativism is produced by individuals with a profound capacity for doubt, and necessitates the inversion of a tolerant political system that can encompass such doubt. For Ortega, that political system is liberalism, “the noblest cry that has ever resounded in this planet.” In 1930, at a time when fascism was on the rise throughout Europe and the Russian revolution had degenerated into the horrors of Stalinism, he wrote:
At the root of Ortega’s liberalism is his belief that the positive technological and political advances in society are caused by the unusual individual who is separated from the “mass” of humanity by his “interior necessity…to appeal from himself to some standard beyond himself, superior to himself, whose service he freely accepts.” Such individuals, by force of their unusual effort, bring about the characteristic institutions that define our civilization, although their work more often than not remains unacknowledged. Advances like municipal water systems, the protection of law, or automobiles are seen by the “mass” as natural rights instead of the result of the struggles of committed individuals.
In contrast to the unusual individual, Ortega defines the “mass man.” The mass man is not synonymous with the common man. He is not a member of any particular socio-economic class, but rather is an individual who “regards himself as perfect.” The mass man “feels the lack of nothing outside himself.” He feels no compulsion to follow principles of legality when they are not in his self-interest. He regards the benefits of civilization as his natural right rather than as the result of a complex chain of social interactions. The mass man believes in “direct action.” When he rules (as in Nazi Germany or in Stalinist Russia), “the homogeneous mass weighs down on the public authority and crashes down, annihilates every opposing group,” because the mass “has a deadly hatred of all that is not itself.”
liberalism is at odds with the populist aspirations that have shadowed
artistic thought in this country throughout the twentieth century. In
part, the aspiration to populism is due to the belief in majority opinion
which is so much at the basis of the American democratic approach. It
is also the result of the humanistic aspirations of the American intellectuals
of the post-war era. From the Marxist flirtations of Clement Greenberg
and Meyer Schapiro to the socialist populism of Gregory Battock and Kim
Levin, to such recent rightist enfants terribles as Jedd Garet, there
has been a recurring discomfort with liberalism by writers on art and
a consequent desire to make modernist art somehow conform to the populist
world. Ortega, in contrast, maintains that modernist art is not only by
nature unpopular but anti-popular, since the ideals it embodies are antithetical
to the opinions of the mass man.
In each of these points, he seeks to differentiate the doubting art of the twentieth century from the passionate, positivist, and confident art that characterized the nineteenth. Fifty years later, the legacy of nineteenth-century art is perhaps no less with us, and it is worthwhile to retrace Ortega’s reasoning.
In his first point, Ortega claims that modernist art is “dehumanized.” Here he attempts to separate the effect of art, a “seeing pleasure,” from the autobiographical emotionalism that dominated nineteenth-century art. By dehumanization, Ortega means to “de-emotionalize.” Modernist, doubting art must be aloof from the “contagion” of “personal feelings,” Ortega traces this phenomenon in music:
“lived” realities are too overpowering not to evoke sympathy,
which prevents us from perceiving aesthetic relationships in their “objective
purity,” and so should be avoided as the content of modernist art.
The contrast between these two attitudes is explicitly evident in the cinema today, where modernist and popular art exist side by side. In the popular cinema, we are wrenched by coercive illusionist techniques into experiencing fear and joy almost beyond our will. In the modernist cinema of Stan Brackage, Hollis Frampton, or Jean-Luc Goddard, on the other hand, we are treated to an “algebra of metaphors” that allows us to “be surprised, to wonder,” those facilities which “lead the intellectual through life in the perpetual ecstasy of the visionary.”
Ortega claims that “art ought to be full clarity, high noon of the intellect. Tears and laughter are aesthetically frauds. The gesture of beauty never passes beyond smiles, melancholy or delighted.” Only in such an atmosphere is doubt and reflection possible. And in Ortegan modernism, such reflection has a high purpose which relates it to the mainstream of twentieth-century phenomenological thought:
In this way, Ortega ties this modernism to the attitude of twentieth-century Husserlian phenomenology rather than to the positivism and determinism of nineteenth-century Marxism. Ortega emphasizes the limitations of human ideation: “We posses of reality, strictly speaking, nothing but the ideas we have succeeded in forming about it.” But for Ortega this process is unnoticed. “By means of ideas we see the world, but in a natural attitude of mind we do not see the ideas… the spontaneous movement mind goes from concepts to the world.” He points out that traditional art was content to accept ideas as synonymous with reality; reality was “idealized, although this was a candid falsification.” The modernist, aspiring to “Scrupulous realization,” inverts this process:
…if turning our back in alleged reality, we take the ideas for what they are – mere subjective patterns – and make them live as such, lean and angular, but pure and transparent; in short, if we deliberately propose to “realize” our ideas – then we have dehumanized and, as it were, derealized them.
The modernist artist reverses the “spontaneous” movement from world to mind. “We give three-dimensional being to mere patterns, we objectify the subjective, we ‘worldify’ the imminent.” Writing in the 1920’s, he finds this tendency “in varying degrees” in both expressionism and Cubism, reconciling approaches that formalists consider antithetical. “From painting things, the painter has turned to painting ideas. He concentrates on the subjective images in his own mind.”
From this derealized view of art follow the other characteristics of Ortega’s definition. The modernist avoids “the round and soft forms of living bodies” because of their strong associations with both “lived realities” and with traditional Western art and its aspirations to “the salvation of mankind” that had been so strong in the transcendentalist atmosphere of the nineteenth century.
Ortega claims that, steeped in Husserlian doubt, the modernist is “ironic,” that “whatever its content, the art itself is jesting. To look for fiction as fiction…is a proposition that cannot be executed except with one’s tongue in one’s cheek….Being an artist means ceasing to take seriously that very serious person we are when we are not an artist.” Modernist art functions as “a system of mirrors which indefinitely reflect one another [in which] no shape is ultimate, all are eventually ridiculed and revealed as pure images.”
he views art as at thing of “no transcending consequence,”
of no pretenses. “The kingdom of art commences where the air feels
lighter and things, free from formal fetters, begin to cut whimsical capers.”
Ortega connects the modernist impulse with playfulness and youthfulness.
In fact, modernism has been characteristically the stance of young artists
who, as they grow older, often lapse into a condition of solemnity reminiscent
of the nineteenth-century artist-hero.
Ortegan modernism is a theory of the behavior of all the arts, it applies
equally well to music and writing. Quintessential modernist musicians
are figures like Eric Satie and John Cage; modernist writes are playwrights
like Pirandello, Samuel Becket, and Bertold Brecht, or novelists like
James Joyce, Alain Robbe-Grillet, or Thomas Pynchon.
the visual arts, of course, Picasso initiates modernism. Analytic Cubism
is a complete negation of previous assumptions about visual art. In Cubism,
we first see the artist concentrating completely on the patterns in his
mind and “realizing” them on canvas. It is in Cubism that
we first find the artist content to regard his work as a “thing
of no transcending consequence,” an essentially ironic and playful
undertaking. (note the frequent puns on the letters J-O-U in which the
reality of the nineteenth century journal is transformed into pictorial
In Jasper Johns, we also observe this concern with “scrupulous realization.” In his early work, he abandoned the attempt to represent three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional plane, preferring either to scrupulously confine his representations on two-dimensional motifs (such as flags, targets, or numbers), or to render three-dimensional objects by making casts of them (in the case of body parts, flashlights, etc.). Overlapping objects are only rendered by overlapping canvases (as in Three Flags, 1958). Through all this, Johns maintains his ironic stance (he has even made an imprint with a clothes iron on some of his recent canvases). Play is specifically evoked in his work by the target (equipment in a game of marksmanship), his use of newspaper cartoons (in Alley Oop, 1958) and rubber balls in Painting with Two Balls, 1960. By making signs the subject of his art, Johns has “given three-dimensional reality to mere patterns” as Ortega suggests. Johns himself states that he painted “things the mind already knows. That gave me room to work on other levels.”
In Reinhardt, we see represented an Ortegan approach to abstraction. In his “Art-as-Art Dogma,” he states, “Art-as-art is a concentration on art’s essential nature.” Reinhardt claimed:
The next revolution in art will sound the farewell of the old favorite songs on “art and life” that the old favorite artist-ducks love to sing along with the old bower birds and the new, good, rich swallow audience.”
How closely Reinhardt’s statement reflects Ortega’s ideas:
Not only is grieving and rejoicing at such destinies as a work of art presents or narrates a very different thing from true artistic pleasure, but preoccupation with the human content of the work is in principle incompatible with aesthetic enjoyment proper.
To achieve this end, Reinhardt wishes to radically free his art from any subject other than mental pattern and intellectual process. In another diatribe he writes:
he advocates “painting as absolute symmetry, pure reason, rightness…Painting
as central, frontal, regular, repetitive….Color as black, empty….
Verticality and horizontality, rectilinearity, parallelism, stasis.”
Reinhardt exemplifies Ortega’s claim that modernist ‘art must
not proceed by psychic contagion, for psychic contagion is an unconscious
phenomenon, and art ought to be full clarity, high noon of the intellect.”
But it is perhaps Andy Warhol who takes the premises of Ortegan modernism to their furthest limit. Warhol applies the “inversion” of modernist dehumanization not only to his art but to his life. He is not content simply to accomplish the “realization” of his ideas in his day-to-day life as well. He abandons his “human” life not only in his art but also in his daily existence. As Warhol himself states:
I think that once you see emotions from a certain angle you can never think of them as real again. That’s what more or less has happened to me.
With the help of electronic recording devices, Warhol abandoned “lived realities” to concentrate on the plane of glass” of perception:
The acquisition of my tape recorder really finished whatever emotional life I might have had, but I was glad to see it go. Nothing was ever a problem again, because a problem just meant a good tape, and when a problem transforms itself into a good tape, it’s not a problem anymore.This echoes Ortega’s description of the artist:
was fascinated with figures in the media whose lives had been “dehumanized”
– movie stars, celebrities, transvestites. To Warhol, the movies
provided the most vivid example of this inversion:
the same time, Warhol shares with Ortega an appreciation of the playfulness
of the whole modernist endeavor. Again Ortega states:
Today, the post-modernist critics claim, younger artists are no longer working within the parameters of modernism. This is true—and has been for a long time—if we define modernism as Greenbergian formalist modernism.
However, if we adopt the assumptions of Ortegan modernism, we find that a good many younger artists, especially among those supported by post-modernist critics, are working within the assumptions of this fifty year-old theory. R.M. Fischer, Steven Keister, Cindy Sherman, and Richard Prince come to mind as artists who aspire to the kind of modernism that Ortega advocates.
On the other hand, a variety of art being produced today truly is something other than modernist. However, to call this art post-modernist is probably a mistake, since it exhibits all the signs of being, in fact, pre-modernist. The return to perspective techniques, the unique art object, human expression, “sensibility” – these are simply a retreat into nineteenth-century strategies by retrograde artists, as Benjamin H.D. Buchloh has pointed out in his recent essay on “new image” painting.
From the 1950’s to the 1970’s, it was the entrepreneurial class, buoyed by economic prosperity, that supported modernism, in the medium characteristically associated with that class – the visual arts. Today that class has largely retreated from its interest in the modernist point of view (just as it has retreated from is aspirations to liberalism). Instead, it seeks to reassure itself by withdrawing into historicism, romanticism, and a kind of parodic individualism.
Today, modernism has largely moved to a different arena, where it is supported by a different class. Modernism is as alive in music as it is under attack in the visual arts. Groups with such names as the talking heads, the Clash, the gang of four, and Public Image Limited, have all moved to an essentially modernist position. David Byrne, of the Talking heads, for example sings that “facts are useless in emergencies,” that:
Here he reflects Ortega’s stance on the limits of ideation. The Clash sing about a cartoon confrontation between “G.I. Joe” and “Ivan,” a “Ruskie Bear,” ironically turning jingoistic labels in upon themselves. The Gang of Four sing:
They are turning the attitude of advertising into an “algebra of metaphors” and neutralizing the “contagion” of popular culture. Similarly, the leader of the band the dead Kennedys uses the modernist nom de plume of Jello Biafra (running for mayor of San Francisco on the slogan, “There’s always room for Jello”).
In their instrumentation, these bands constantly parody phrasing of earlier, unconscious pop music. Their playfulness allows the B-52’s to transform the mindless drone of ‘60’s instrumental music into something else. Many of these musicians have also adopted a clearly modernist attitude toward their own public personas. John Lydon of Public Image Limited said in an interview in the Canadian magazine, MacLean’s: “I’m tired of the past and even the future’s beginning to seem repetitive. I don’t really know what to say. I talk crap all the time. I’m a liar, a hypocrite, and a bastard. I shouldn’t be tolerated….”
The modernism of these musicians is particularly significant because it is assaulting one of the most important strongholds of popular art in the nineteenth-century mold—electronically produced music. Because they apply modernist attitudes of irony and doubt to political and social issues, their work comes to serve the very purpose that was advocated by Ortega as the aim of modernism – the preservation of the possibility of liberal democracy. Their willingness to deal with the major events of our culture singles out these musicians as important successors to the daring modernists of the past.
In time of economic adversity and uncertainty, like the present, it is characteristic of the wealthy to retreat into a position of fear and reaction. On the other hand, during these adverse periods, there are also likely to be small groups among those without a large investment in the status quo who will be moved by adversity to a position of intense thought and doubt. These musicians are not supported by a wealthy entrepreneurial class (as have been modernist artists), but by this minority: those thinking, doubting individuals with the few dollars available necessary to purchase a record album
This market-structure has allowed modernism to flourish today in music. It could provide the necessary impetus for a modernist resurgence in the visual arts