Has Modernism Failed?
In a film shown in 1982 at Documenta in Kassel, Germany, the English "living sculptors" Gilbert and George take turns enumerating their own characteristics. They tell us that they are unhealthy, middle-aged, dirty-minded, depressed, cynical, empty, seedy, rotten, badly behaved, arrogant, stubborn, perverted, and successful--finishing with "we are artists."
Who could ask for anything more? In the artificial, decaying environment of urban industrialism, art is not born of moral virtue; it is not meant for the saving of souls. If my attempt to throw light on the main issues of our present situation, "to show what contemporary art is and does, and how it came into being," has been realized at all, it must be fairly obvious by now that ours is not a healthy society, enjoying an optimistic, conciliatory kind of art. If the modern artist once embraced modernism with hope, pride, and a crusading spirit of disobedience, at this stage of the day he seems to cling on with desperation, feeling indefinably sad and shoddy. If Gilbert and George can be taken as any yardstick, it is from his unfitness that the contemporary artist draws his power. The mood has changed from vehemence to decadence and weary cynicism. Are these words, then, a reasonable obbligato to what has become of Western cultural history--a tradition of revolt gone sour? Do they draw a fair portrait of the collective sensibility of an age dying of industrial exhaust, and without a breath of rapture?
I would betray the seriousness of the question were I simply to declare that modernism had failed, or even that it has come to a sticky end. The fact is no answer can be given without first examining what the ideals of modernism have been, and what has been essential to its system of values. What we finally think about all this will depend on what we now regard as the true end and purpose of art.
The period through which we have just lived has been, on the whole, one in which whatever was inherited from the past was thought of as a tiresome impediment to be escaped from as soon as possible. The first Futurist manifesto, published in 1908 by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, declared that only by becoming free of "the stinking gangrene of professors, archaeologists, touring guides and antique dealers," only by burning libraries and flooding museums, could Italy save itself. The new world of speed and technology required a new language of forms derived not from the past but from the future. A second manifesto declared that only by denying its past could art correspond to the intellectual needs of our time. Tradition was reactionary. Modernism alone was revolutionary and progressive.
But between that time and the end of the First World War in 1918, disenchantment of another kind set in. By the 1920s, the postwar generation of Dadaists was already doubtful "given the mercenary nature of our society, which in the words of Richard Huelsenbeck "is at best a cartel of pelt merchants and profiteers in leather, at worst a cultural association of psychopaths" whether it was feasible, or even morally justified, to make art at all. The catastrophic effects of the war had shattered everyone's faith in a rational and peaceful future. A civilization that had condoned such inhumanities did not deserve the conciliations of art: it had lost its credibility. And so the public was baited with meaningless, aggressively absurd objects--white-haired revolvers, Lesbian sardines, vaccinated bread, and flashes of lightning under fourteen years old. The Dadaists and Surrealists wished to infiltrate a disturbed world, in order to destroy all its existing patterns, all its accumulated truth, however compulsive and authoritative.
Once art began its relentless advance into traditionlessness, every new style served as a new beginning, a new plunge ahead. Beliefs had to be continually changed, replaced, discarded--always in favor of newer and better ones, which would only be rejected in turn. (Neither science nor art in our era has been content with what has been believed before, associating traditional beliefs with backwardness and a lack of momentum.) The "new" became the chief emblem of positive value. "Being an artist," in the words of Joseph Kosuth, "means questioning the nature of art. If you make paintings, you are already accepting (not questioning) the nature of art." The impulse to experiment continuously is profoundly different from the goal of tradition, which implies a conservative attitude and considers the past as a model, or guiding example. But what the early modernists failed to foresee, in their dedication to the new, was that such a conception of history could only be built on sand, since no belief ever had anything solid to support it. Maximizing the variable of change, "stimulating it artificially and making it the most important thing on the stage", destroyed stability. Pressed to its ultimate conclusion, the steady violation of expected continuities"--which has been the crucial element in modernist "progress"--is radically at odds with systemic wisdom and equilibrium.
To sustain itself, a society must also have values that resist change. One of the social functions of tradition has been to foster stability, and so to hinder change. The reflex of negation, in the effort to perpetuate itself as a mode of thought, has ended up destroying not only tradition, but also the art of the previous avant-garde. At this point, the possibilities for stylistic innovation seem, paradoxically, to have reached a limit. Radical consciousness has been stymied, along with the authority of tradition. Art must now proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition. So many metamorphoses and revolutions of every kind, so many differing values presented simultaneously, have finally done away with the entire frame of things--and destroyed the conviction that there are any limits to art at all. Having thus removed any standard against which we might any more measure ourselves, we no longer know what rules we ought to follow, much less why we ought to follow them. And so the very question of what constitutes success or failure has to be an ambivalent one: it can only be judged by being measured against some valid conception of what a work of art is, and this is a conception we no longer have.
Only with hindsight can we now see that tradition and authority may be necessary, even to make a genuine avant-garde possible--in order to provide something to revolt against. At this point, we have neither: the polarizations have flattened out, and everything simply reverses into its opposite. The artist finds himself under continuous pressure to be modern, but discovers that to be modern now is to be traditional--a law of history that Heraclitus called enantiodromia. That is to say, when one principle reaches the height of its power, it collapses into its opposite. Artists are finding that the only way to make something new is to borrow from the past. All this has led, in the last few years, to a disaffection with the terms and conditions of modernism--a repudiation of the ideology of progress and originality.
Traditions are a product of the recurrent affirmations that have gone into their practice. When modernism made its massive assaults on the accomplishments of the past, it deprived subsequent generations of artists of any ground plan or guidance for the future. More stable traditions of art imposed certain standards on their practitioners, patterns which were accepted as the natural and right way to do things, and which became part of the individual's practice and second nature as an artist. These standards were transmitted from teacher to pupil, handed down from master to disciple. This transmission is what has sustained practices and given them their history. One of the unsettling characteristics of modernism, as a tradition, is that it has failed to develop the means for training artists. Nowadays, the artist has no function to transmit traditional skills, or even to impart a knowledge of art--nor is there any consensus as to what should be learned. Certainly, nothing more sharply distinguishes the modern view of art from that of the past--a state of affairs that was well described by the painter Bruce Boice in a lecture I heard recently at the School of Visual Arts in New York. The talk was entitled "What It Means to Be an Artist," and Boice was addressing a group of students. "After leaving school," he said, "students often don't work, because there's no reason to work. Nobody pays attention any more, so there seems no reason to press on. There's never a reason to do art work--it doesn't seem to matter--it all looks all right, but it just doesn't matter. You get bored doing it because you're in a vacuum. There's no motivation, no rules to say what you should do, or whether it's good or not. Confidence is the thing that allows you to work eventually--you know you can do this thing and succeed at it. It gets harder all the time, but you get more used to the frustration. If there were rules it would be simple enough to know what to do. But you find yourself looking for something, and you don't know what it is. So how do you ever know when you find it?"
Needless to say, these comments underline the core weaknesses of the modernist ethos, the retreat into privatism and self-expression, which means that there is no example to follow, no authority to rely on, no discipline to be received. It is almost as if the freer the artist has become, the more impotent he feels himself to be. If we accept as accurate Erich Fromm's description, in The Sane Society, of which human needs are basic and essential--the need for relatedness, for transcendence (a concept which for Fromm has nothing to do with God but refers to the need to transcend one's self-centered, narcissistic, alienated position to one of being related to others, and open to the world), the need for rootedness, for a sense of identity, and for a frame of orientation and an object of devotion, then the achievements of modernism would appear to have been had at too high a cost. Its renunciations of so much that is crucial to human well-being "in the name of freedom and self-sufficiency" are what will have failed us. In the end, we could not sustain these virtues without suffering their defects. Seductive though it may have seemed to escape from the world into the self, something vital has been lost along with the forsaking of reality. "Failure" is perhaps a very highly charged word--but in ways that are only gradually coming to light, something, it would seem, has miscarried.
We have obviously reached a threshold where the achievements of modernism can only really be understood against the implicit contrast of other values. The question of whether or not modernism has failed turns, finally, on the question of whether it was appropriate in the first place to reject tradition. It is just this sense that we may have taken too much to heart the drive to innovate and emancipate-- regarding them wrongly as the only goals to be pursued and claiming them as the standard for all that progress and modernity mean--which has led the philosophers Edward Shils and Alasdair Maclntyre to argue on behalf of traditions as essential to the worthwhile life. The relentless emancipation from all traditions has resulted, in the opinion of Shils, in the loss of much that is indispensable to the good order and happiness of individuals. Traditions set standards from which to draw practical guidance as to what is right and wrong; they generate stable and durable systems of relationship, which help to situate individuals in the social order and establish for them a network of social obligations and responsibilities. Modernism so embraced notions of freedom and autonomy--and of art needing to answer only to its own logic, its own laws, the pure aesthetic without a function--that we now have whole generations of artists who doubt that it was ever meant to be organically integrated with society in the first place. It was during the 1950s, among the community of artists out of which Abstract Expressionism emerged, that the totally self-possessed, self-reliant individual became the model for the typical artist's role. The gesture of putting paint on canvas became the ultimate gesture of liberation--not only from political and social norms, but from previous art history as well. History (which implies responsibility to the past and a dependence on the achievement of others) was the obstacle to be transcended. A new art was necessary, and according to Barnett Newman, "we actually began from scratch, as if painting were not only dead but had never existed." Harold Rosenberg wrote at the time, about Willem de Kooning, that he "discards all social roles in order to start with himself as he is, and all definitions of art in order to start with art as it might appear through him." In a similar vein, but much more recently, the German Neo-expressionist Georg Baselitz has stated, "The artist is not responsible to anyone. His social role is asocial; his only responsibility consists in an attitude, an attitude to the work he does. . . . There is no communication with any public whatsoever. The artist can ask no questions, and he makes no statement; he offers no information, message or opinion.... It is the end-product which counts, in my case, the picture."
Individuality and freedom are undoubtedly the greatest achievements of modern culture. But insistence upon absolute freedom for each individual leads to a negative attitude toward society, and the sense of a culture deeply alienated from its surroundings. The desire for an unconditioned world can only be realized, when all is said and done, at the cost of social alienation--in the absence of integration and union. If freedom is the absolute value, then society limits, or even frustrates, what is most essential and desirable. When art had a social role--when artists knew clearly what art was for--it never functioned entirely in terms of self-interest. Today, there is a sense that only by divorcing themselves from any social role can artists establish their own individual identity. Freedom and social obligation are experienced in our world as polar opposites which run at cross purposes to each other.
But the paradox of freedom, as I have been trying all along to show, is that it is very difficult for the individual to preserve his identity in a society where traditional institutions and values offer no support. Liberation and alienation turn out to be inextricably connected, reverse sides of the same coin. Beyond a certain point, freedom, like technological progress, is counterproductive: it defeats its own ends and becomes alienating. For artists to lose the sense of being members of a tradition which transcends both themselves and their contemporaries leads to demoralization.
In its quest for autonomy and its belief that art cannot possibly thrive any longer constrained by moral or social demands, modernism discouraged the individual from finding any good outside himself. But, as Alasdair MacIntyre argues so cogently in After Virtue, in a society where there is no longer a shared conception of the communal good, there can no longer be any substantial concept of what it is to contribute more or less to that good. A tradition can only maintain its character as a tradition if it exists in a medium of certain virtues which impose restraints and provide a conception of excellence. A good is something that is not uniquely mine--it is bound up with the concept of observing a limit. For practices to flourish, it is necessary that they embody the virtues. In societies in which the virtues are not valued, it is difficult for practices to flourish. Modern society views discipline as a form of constraint submitted to grudgingly, but certain aspects of the moral character can be achieved only through the exercise of virtues that exist independently of each individual, and cannot be altered according to taste. The imperative quality of the rule lies precisely in the fact that it is binding--the element of choice is taken out. It requires us to act in a certain way simply because it is good to do so. Virtues are the necessary instruments which help to keep a balance between stasis and change, conservation and innovation, morality and self-interest--and which provide us with a sense of limits. It is this balance which our culture seems fatally to have lost.
Obviously, what the good life is taken to be is always relative to the individual's historical and social context. We act according to the way we see things. MacIntyre points out that the virtues are fostered by certain types of social institutions and endangered by others' cultures differ considerably in the kinds of self they enable the individual to develop. In our society, satisfaction is to be found in the vice of acquisitiveness, and virtue concepts play almost no part at all. What were vices in the Aristotelian scheme, and in the Athenian milieu--specifically, the wish to have more than one's share--is not only perfectly normal in the modern world, it is the driving force of modern productive work. Modernity emphasizes quantity: more is always better. Between the values of tradition and those of modernity, there has been a fateful conflict, a radical alteration in what the human imagination is prepared to envisage and demand. Desires, needs, and expectations have expanded exponentially. Confronting each other are not merely two ideologies, but two very different modes of being. What is required to live well and flourish in the tradition of the virtues is very different from what is required to live well and flourish in the culture of bureaucratic individualism. Indeed, the possession of the virtues--the cultivation of truthfulness, moderation, and courage--will often, according to MacIntyre, bar us from being rich or famous or powerful.
"Thus," he states, "although we may hope that we can not only achieve the standards of excellence and the internal goods of certain practices by possessing the virtues and becoming rich, famous and powerful, the virtues are always a stumbling block to this comfortable ambition. We should therefore expect that, if in a particular society the achievement of worldly success were to become dominant, the concept of the virtues might suffer first attrition and then perhaps something near total effacement." Within the competitive ideals of capitalism, virtue and success are not easily brought together.
In itself, capitalist society cannot foster a communal spirit or generate the virtues; it can only generate affluence. By now it must be clear that one of the ways in which the adversary culture of modernism has failed was through surrendering its inner independence to the pressures of external, bureaucratic power. The growing dependence on a market-intensive, professionally manipulated art world has resulted in artists losing their power to act autonomously and live creatively. This particular change happened without being instigated. It was nondeliberate. It happened because late capitalism, with its mass-consumption ethic, weakened the capability of art for transmitting patterns of conscious ethical value. And, as we have seen, this was so because often the very same artists who opposed capitalist ideology in their art were not really resistant to it; at the level of personal intention, they had a double standard, and were in complicity. They were unwilling to put their own career interests at stake in the service of convictions they were ready to accept in their art. Whether or not this process can be reversed will depend on what we all now think of the hopes and ideals with which the modern era began--and whether we believe that art is related to a moral order, or that its function is purely an aesthetic one.
Many artists, imagining perhaps that the time has come for a resolute turning away from this forced antithesis between tradition and modernism, have begun to relinquish the modernist imperative to break with the past, and are doing some antiquarian shopping in old styles. The Italian Neo-expressionists, in particular, are working in all directions--backwards and forwards, up and down. It is almost as if there were a general consensus among younger artists that, since the market has been so successful in capitalizing on innovation as a profit-making factor, the only relevant approach to the present situation is to be found in the absence of innovative and radical art. At this point, however, it is hard to tell. Ambiguities abound, given the even greater financial success of Neo-expressionist works. It may also be the case that for many of these artists, capitalist society is here to stay, and they no longer find the means to condemn it, or see any point in maintaining a radical position or posture. There is also the ironical feeling that complicity itself is now passed off as subversion, and being hospitable to traditional values is the most radical act.
These situations may well mirror one another, but they are not at all clear. All that postmodernism has proven so far is that something can be more than one thing at the same time, and can even be its own opposite. Obviously, the key question of the moment is whether Neo-expressionist painting is yet another symptom of our society's compulsive need to disenchant, or whether it holds the potential--however amorphous still--to restore a failing mode of consciousness. All that can be said so far is that it brings the problem to the surface in a very compelling way. Writing in Art in America, the critic Craig Owens, for instance, interprets Sandro Chia's depiction of the Sisyphus myth as a testimony to the painter's ambivalence about his own activity. Chia portrays Sisyphus as a comic, slightly ridiculous figure, a grinning bureaucrat in a business suit and fedora, condemned to the eternal repetition of pushing a giant boulder up the side of a mountain. In Owens' view, the myth of Sisyphus has been trivialized by Chia into a joke, and its tragic despair parodied. What we are witnessing, Owens feels, is the wholesale liquidation of the modernist legacy, in the form of contempt. Raiding the antique and commandeering the forms of tradition become the fate of the artist who finds that his avant-garde mission has failed.
If Neo-expressionism is indeed our peculiar, crippled effort to understand the lifeless symbols we inherit, the issue at stake will be how to determine which artists are merely scavenging the past and which are seeking, more actively, to influence and transform the spiritual vacuum at the center of our society. Ours is a culture in which, as the sociologist Theodore Roszak has pointed out, the capacity for transcendence has become so feeble that when confronted with the great historical projections of sacramental experience, we can only wonder what these exotic symbols really meant. After more than a century of alienation and a negative attitude toward society, art is showing signs of wanting to be a therapeutic force again. There is no doubt that a new process has started asserting itself; but the problem remains of sifting out that which is largely sensationalism geared to the media-machine from that which carries a genuine potential for developing a more luminous culture.
If the eclectic image-plundering of the Americans Julian Schnabel and David Salle never quite coalesce into commitment or meaning--and therefore seem more like a symptom of alienation than a cure--there are others, like the German Anselm Kiefer, whose imagery is engaged and even suggests a willingness to believe again. Kiefer, it seems to me, is one of the few artists working today who opens up the vision and ideal of apocalyptic renovation and makes the effort to regain the spiritual dignity of art. It is as if he were opening up the fenestra aeternitatis--the window onto eternity and spiritual clairvoyance--which in our society has been closed for a long time.
Kiefer lives in the countryside somewhere between Frankfurt and Stuttgart, and avoids art centers. Nature, in his pictures, is projected as the center of a timeless, archetypal reality rich with symbols, evocations, and incantations. The burned and parched wheat fields, often encrusted with real hay and straw, are metaphors for a devastated earth, but at the same time, since Kiefer is almost Wordsworthian in his nature mysticism, they hold out hope for a regeneration of the Wasteland. Like his mentor Joseph Beuys (whom he once visited every day for two months, in a rare instance of genuine discipleship), Kiefer would like to bring back the ancient healing function of art. Both Kiefer and Beuys perceive that the only way to create significantly political art today is by making the visionary powers central. This widening of the creative field by grounding oneself in transformational vision is the only thing that can eliminate the spiritual sterility of modern life, and possibly save the world from suicide.
In a remarkable series of works, Kiefer has converted disused Nazi architecture--former Gestapo headquarters--into painters' studios. These provocative images assimilate the burden of German culture, its agony and its defeat, by transforming shame into renewal. In Kiefer's vision, art once again can be the great redeemer, a cure for the mistakes of the past; but for this to happen, not only is a mythical language of transcendence necessary, but the virtues, too, must be reinstated. In a remarkable image called Faith, Hope, and Love, he presents us with an image of the tree of life in which art and the virtues are one. The three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love (which were added by the Christian religion to the four cardinal virtues of the Roman world--prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice) are written on the trunks of three trees whose roots are embedded in an artist's wooden palette. In a related work, Resumption, done in 1974, a winged palette--Kiefer's emblem of the artistic imagination--hovers like a spirit in the sky above a grave heaped with ashes. We have a source outside the world, this art seems to say, and it is from this source that we affect the world. Kiefer's work allows no escape into despair. It is not easy optimism either, but affirmation that all has not been lost, that something, some potentiality, even from the shadow of Hitlerian evils, will emerge again.
Like Kiefer, Joseph Beuys has a declared interest in the reenergizing of art's transformational power. Both share a preoccupation with images of planting and growth, with energy fields, and scenes of death and transfiguration. Beuys has described his sense of purpose as the need to provoke people and make them understand what it is to be a human being; and teaching has always been a major aspect of his creative life. But his real interest lies in the potential of radical transformation--whether of thought patterns, materials and substances, states of consciousness, or political and social reality.
In 1943, in a now legendary event, Beuys was shot down in the Crimea and rescued by Tartar tribesmen, who saved his life by wrapping him in fat and felt to help his body regenerate warmth. As a result of this experience, Beuys found himself drawn to the healing properties of these materials, which later became the basis for many of his sculptures. Among his early works are a piano which has been completely covered with felt, and a chair whose seat is covered with a thick layer of fat. These substances were deliberately chosen by Beuys because normally they would be considered unaesthetic and economically worthless. Fat expands and soaks into its surroundings. Felt attracts and absorbs what surrounds it. "It is the transformation of substance," Beuys has written, "that is my concern in art, rather than the traditional aesthetic understanding of beautiful appearances." Once he spent a week with a coyote in a New York art gallery. While the artist himself lay on the floor wrapped in felt, the coyote played with copies of The Wal1 Street Journal.
Beuys' work has always had a multiplicity of layers. He does not place primary value on the artist as the producer of his work, but on the quality of his vision and imagination--on his ability to function as a pontifex, or bridge-builder, between the material and spiritual worlds, and between art and society. The emphasis is always on moving art out of the private studio into a more worldly concern, in which politics and art become linked through the idea of social sculpture. Education should have the socially engaged personality as its goal, not the disaffected, dropout genius. Trying to make meaningful art in a society that doesn't believe in anything requires breaking down the rigidity of specialization, the segregation of functions and activities, both within the personality and within the community as a whole. It means reintroducing the artist in his role as shaman, a mystical, priestly, and political figure in prehistoric cultures, who, after coming close to death through accident or severe illness, becomes a visionary and a healer. The shaman's function is to balance and center society, integrating many planes of life-experience, and defining the culture's relationship to the cosmos. When these various domains (the human and the divine) fall out of balance, it is the shaman's responsibility to restore the lost harmony and reestablish equilibrium. Only an individual who successfully masters his actions in both realms is a master shaman. The artist as shaman becomes a conductor of forces which go far beyond those of his own person, and is able to bring art back in touch with its sacred sources; through his own personal self-transformation, he develops not only new forms of art, but new forms of living. By offering himself as a prototype for a new creative mode--that of a self without estrangement, able to transcend the world without negating it--Beuys shows us how we might actually achieve the possibility of a society that would maximize personal autonomy and social relatedness
at the same time. Learning to shuttle from one wave length to another
as healer, diviner, leader, and artist offers an alternative to entrapment
in the web of bureaucratic imperatives and stylistic gamesmanship. Beuys
seeks an enlarged vision that carries the artist outward, toward a new
externality, and away from the mutually destructive relation of alienation"”that
reduction of the link between art and society to a purely negative function.
In this sense, he provides us with a model which has passed through
the fundamental errors of modernism, and whose raison d'
Obviously, it is not possible to simply give up our individuality and return to earlier times when the freedom of human action was more limited and social roles were strictly prescribed. Our present problems cannot be resolved by seeking to restrain individualism through the reimposition of traditional forms of authority, or by a regression to a past state in which they had not yet been brought into being. At this point, our possibilities rest with the use we make of our freedom--whether we decide, finally, to use it for self-aggrandizement or for moral rearmament. If anything is to change, we will need to subordinate the overdevelopment of this valued function to the dynamic good of the whole, and a new object of devotion must take the place of the present one. "I've been rich," Sophie Tucker once said, "and I've been poor, and believe me, rich is best." As long as money remains the one unambiguous criterion of success, the standards of the moneyed life will continue to prevail. The effort to get rich, and then become richer, will remain the sovereign value, as other values become weaker and weaker. The revolution in aspirations and expectations, as many have pointed out before me, must be the single great revolution of our time. It is only as individuals that we can find the way back to communal purposes and social obligation and reconstitute the moral will. If we accept as relevant and necessary the project of spiritual regeneration, we will look for means by which we can approach art again as total human beings--not only with an aesthetic nature, but also with a moral nature, and with a philosophical and social purpose in mind.
Our art seems, in the last few years, to be leaving its experimental period behind. There has been so much varied activity over the past half-century that most prejudices have now been destroyed. The old and the new intermingle; and it has become clear that imitation and invention are not, of themselves, either good or bad. In our present state of freedom, there is no recognized means of prescribing or forbidding anything to anyone. We can see now, however, that rebellion and freedom are not enough: modernism has moved us too far in the direction of radical subjectivity and a destructive relativism. At this point we might do well to make the most of a few well-observed rules again, for this is the mainspring of all art. Only when traditional rules exist, and one is used to expecting them, can one then enjoy breaking them. Tradition teaches wisdom, and the final lesson of modernism may be no more than this: that we need a fruitful tension between freedom and restraint. The concept of the good is necessarily bound up with the concept of observing a limit. Perhaps after a long phase of rebelliously throwing out everything, we are more able to recognize that what is most acutely missing now is a sense of limits. Since immunity from the responsibility of tradition has itself become a tradition, perhaps we can go forward from the point we have reached by also going back, with a new knowledge of how form, structure, and authority sustain the spirit and enable us to live our lives with more vision; they are a necessary condition of our well-being.
It may well be that only a cultural critic who looks at the dynamics of the total situation can contain and express its contradictions rather than taking a stand on one side or the other, or submitting to serve the ends of any particular ideological group or stylistic tendency. The role of criticism today, as I see it, is to engage in a fundamental reconstruction of the basic premises of our whole culture; it can be nothing less than challenging the oppressive assumptions of our secular, technocratic Western mentality. It is not just a matter of seeing things differently, but of seeing different things. Our culture expects us to be manic--to overproduce, to overconsume, and to waste--but in all this, something vital is missing: the knowledge that life can be transformed by a sacramental experience. For this reason, the essays assembled here invite the reader to step outside our current outlook, and its fixed investments in the soulless power-politics of cultural bureaucracy, in order to see it in perspective--to compare our world view with others, and to acquire insights that defy cultural conditioning. Direct knowing is the only thing that can break the cultural trance: deliberately and soberly changing one's mind about the nature of truth and reality, and about what is really important.
Like all ideas, the idea of modernism has had a lifespan. Its legacy requires that we look at art once again in terms of purpose rather than style if ever we are to succeed in transforming personal vision into social responsibility again. Perhaps the real answer to the question of whether or not modernism has failed can only be given, in the end, by changing the basic dimensions in which we measure not only happiness and unhappiness in our society, but also success and failure.
This is the last chapter in Suzi Gablik's book Has Modernism Failed?, published in 1982 by Thames & Hudson