Modernism is supposed to have ended sometime in the 1960s. Much that has been written about this alleged transformation is confused, if not nonsensical, and, in any event is unhelpful to the working artist trying to situate himself or herself in the 21st century. A refreshingly useful exception is the work of Hans Belting, particularly The Invisible Masterpiece, and Art History After Modernism.
In Invisible Masterpiece, Belting chronicles the history of the idea of the masterpiece and how its significance changed in the Renaissance as the role of art changed from religious explanation to individual expression. Belting describes the diminution of the importance of the individual artwork to the point where it can be presently asserted that a work itself is unnecessary. He describes the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1913, and how the theft contributed to the commodification of this painting, a process that continued through Duchamp’s moustache and goatee recreation and goes on in great detail about conceptual art and other recent manifestations of post-Modernism. Duchamp in the end reasserted the primacy of autonomous art with detailed instructions for the posthumous construction of an installation titled Étant donnés (Invisible Masterpiece, 329-32).
As Susan Buck-Morss puts it with respect to the work of Walter Benjamin:
The Passagen-Werk suggests that it makes no sense to divide the era of capitalism into formalist “modernism,” and historically eclectic “post-modernism,” as these tendencies have been there from the start of industrial culture. The paradoxical dynamics of novelty and repetition simply repeat themselves anew.
Modernism and post-modernism are not chronological eras, but political positions in the century-long struggle between art and technology. If modernism expresses utopian longing by anticipating the recognition of social function and aesthetic form, post-modernism acknowledges their nonidentity and keeps fantasy alive. Each position thus represents a partial truth; each will recur anew,” so long as the contradictions of commodity society are not overcome.
The assertion of the elimination of the work, let alone the masterpiece, as a necessary outcome of the process of making art, does not so far convince me that the work can or should be dispensed with. In fact, the work has had its range expanded. Alfred Leslie’s move to, if not invention of, hyperrealism in the 1960s could be considered reactionary, especially when viewed in light of the subsequent trajectory of realism, at least in North America. It was, in fact, confrontational, as he stated at the time. Leslie’s subsequent work bears out his progressive intentions.
A work of any kind is currently considered acceptable, from painstakingly executed technically demanding pieces to ephemeral actions requiring neither manifestation of technical competence nor creative risk.
The issue really isn’t a particular work itself, but rather the context within which it is produced. A metaphysical, let alone divine, source for subject or content is not susceptible to rational discussion. The Brechtian argument for socially useful work falls short as it denies the autonomy of the individual.
After working through Brecht’s dialectical approach Benjamin concluded that the “. . . images of the unconscious are thus formed as a result of concrete, historical experiences, not (as with Jung’s archetypes) biologically inherited.” (Dialectics, p. 278.) Thus, autonomous work can be seen as a product of the autonomous artist, not beholden to theocracy, the bourgeois market place, a need to be socially useful, nor even to resolve dialectic tensions.
To this I add my own compulsion to produce visual art, which I consider a product of innate talent, informed by study and practice, and refracted through an intensely militant individuality.