On the Value of Modernism: A Repost/Riposte for Jeanne-Claude

The piece below first appeared in April 2005 on One Blog Two Blog, a concept blog that featured Jay Fanelli and me each responding to a prompt in 600 words or less. The prompt for this piece was “Best 86ed Idea in 86 Years,” a response to the Red Sox first World Series win in—you guessed it—86 years.

At the end of the piece, I discuss “The Gates,” by Jeanne-Claude and Christo; I repost the piece today in honor of Jeanne-Claude, recently deceased.

You don’t see a lot of uninhabitable $8-million houses anymore. It’s also been a while since anybody went very far towards getting a 900-page stream-of-consciousness novel published (and it was no picnic the first time around).

Today, many of the artistic projects that constitute historical modernism inspire little more than discomfort, if they inspire at all. Understandably so: A perceived irrelevance of modern art, architecture, literature and music was a desirable effect for some of the great moderns, who took an elitist position in which the masses weren’t meant to grasp the deeper meaning of their works at all.

Modernism’s growing emphasis on individual freedom of expression after the Second World War led to an eventual unravelling and commercializing of the category, perhaps by way of noted celebrity stalker Andy Warhol. Such postmodern disarray certainly benefits me as I weigh the delicate balance between my pocketbook and my decorative tastes, but still I long for a time when artists challenged themselves instead of following any whimsical impulse that floated their way, as many seem to now. I’d rather live naked for a year in the Farnsworth House than walk through another masturbatory Venturi exhibit, for example, or hear another word about the “friendliness” or “exuberance” of the Las Vegas Strip. I’ve been there, and I don’t mind telling you the “friendliness” costs at least $200 and comes with a circus of crab lice.

More to the point, the assumption that pastiche itself is an art form, though not entirely objectionable, belies a deeper cultural conviction that places the consumer at the center of all art. After all, what is the promise of Vegas if not to see Paris, Egypt, and Times Square for $79 round-trip, plus the cost of getting shitfaced and whatever you lose at the slots? The consumer-as-Id model does little but infantilize the public, stuffing a neon pacifier in our mouths as soon as we open them to object.

To be sure, there are also objections to be made to modernism’s severity and exclusivity, but if we can’t have a wholesale return to the artistic rigor of modernism, let’s at least find some middle ground, some artistic space that is both challenging and inclusive, that encourages not consumption but enjoyment. Let’s take pleasure in the art itself, not in how little (or how much) we paid to see it.

As a closing note, I’d like to offer one last, late defense of The Gates, Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s recent installation in Central Park. Like modern art, The Gates took a simple concept (tall, rectangular archways draped with bright orange fabric) and followed it to an extreme (7,608 of those gates along the 23 miles of walkway in Central Park).

The duo’s project, though, unlike high modernism or postmodernism, sought to challenge their audience without mystifying us, or, from the other side, to embrace the public without coddling us. “Here are these gates,” they seemed to say. “We don’t care what you think of them but We’re glad you think it.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s