Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Modernism: art's suicide?

I was at an exhibition a few weeks back. The question the curator wanted to tackle was whether modernism had "murdered art". If so, it would, of course, be a case of suicide. After all, it was modernist artists who confronted their predecessors and, if the thesis is right, ushered in an Oedipal tearing down of earlier understandings of what art is.

The core of the curatorial position was that "Modern art ... opposed everything associated with representation and replaced it with reality." Central to the idea was the arrival of Marcel Duchamp's Ready Mades. Artists such as Duchamp, so the argument went, were no longer seeking to "represent" reality. Instead they were creating it.

The argument has its merits. But it misses the target in some subtle ways. In particular, it overlooks the ways in which the context in which art is experienced remove an object from "reality" and make it into art. When Duchamp displays a bicycle wheel or an upturned urinal in an art museum they do not have the same "reality" as such objects outside the museum. The museum denudes them of their previous "realities". A bicycle wheel in an art museum is not a bicycle wheel. Even if the artist has done very little to transform such a Ready Made, the context does the work and turns it into art. That is the social function of art institutions. Remnants of the original, intrinsic "reality" remain, but to view such Ready Mades as "reality" rather than "depictions" underplays the social and cultural function of the institutional in the arts

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