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  • Modernism Post-postmodernism:Art in the Era of Light Modernity
  • Luke Smythe (bio)

In the wake of postmodernism has come a widespread interest in the art world in revisiting the fate of modernism in the visual arts, a trend that has resulted in two main appraisals of the movement’s current fortunes. The first stems from authors who argue for its present-day persistence and the second from those who lodge a claim for its revival. A leading member of the first group is Nicolas Bourriaud, who has declared the onset of an age of altermodernism. As modern art goes global, Bourriaud suggests, so too does modernism, carrying its detraditionalizing impulses into a range of new geographies and climates.1 Alongside Bourriaud is Terry Smith, whose mapping of the major modes of contemporary art includes a strand of practice he labels remodernism. Remodernist art perpetuates the modernist imperatives of reflexivity and avant-garde experimentality, but its practitioners no longer share the faith of early modernists that these initiatives might help spark social progress.2 The members of the second group advocate for modernism’s recrudescence. They include David Geers, who has lamented the resurgence of formalist and self-expressive tendencies in the New York art world, and Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, who claim that a return to the commitment and sincerity of modernism has recently displaced the irony of postmodernism.3

If these neomodern theories share a common focus, then they also share a common failing, namely a tendency to say too little about the movement that sustains them. Of the above-listed authors, Bourriaud, Geers, and Vermeulen and van den Akker choose to focus on discrete traits and tendencies of modernism, [End Page 365] but offer no more comprehensive picture, thus limiting the scope of their conclusions. Smith, by contrast, reaches for a more expansive view, but in so doing succumbs to vagueness and reductivism. After describing modernism as “the invention and the effective pursuit of artistic strategies that seek not just close but essential connections to the powerful forces of social modernity,” he then presents modernity as “the cultural condition in which the seemingly absolute necessity of innovation becomes a primary fact of life, work and thought.”4 That modernism, like modernity, has long been wed to innovation is true enough, but here Smith’s account abruptly ceases. No further forces of modernity are specified and no further links between society and art are ever outlined. The result is a near-empty presentation of a highly complex issue. On one side, therefore, we have a group of closely focused theories that remain silent over larger issues, and on the other, a holistic theory that is all too abstract.

To reach a more complete account of modernism’s current standing, a more thoroughgoing view of the movement and its history is needed, in which the key links between a fuller conception of modernism and a broader spectrum of modern social dynamics are outlined. What follows is an effort to confront this challenge, one that takes the passing of postmodernism as an invitation to rethink the histories of both modernism and modernity alike from the ground up, tracing their main lines of development and intertwined fortunes from the late-eighteenth century to the present day. Proceeding from a strand of recent social thought that sets aside the postmodern construct in favor of a two-stage account of modernity, I argue for a parallel account of visual modernism. Adapting terminology from Zygmunt Bauman, I cut the timeline of modernism into two broad phases, an early “heavy” phase, aligned with the heyday of industrial modernity, and a later “light” phase, aligned with our more recent postindustrial past. Defining and distinguishing these phases are the developing responses of artists to a shifting series of historical pressures, most notably the need to balance the competing requirements of individual autonomy and social integration in the modern pursuit of freedom. Whereas heavy modernists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries suffered from a deficit of individual liberty and sought accordingly to free themselves from a range of social constraints, the situation of their light-modern successors has been reversed. Freed from the oppressive...


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pp. 365-379
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