Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe

1. Roots of Modernism

2. Art for Art's Sake

3. Modernism & Politics

4. Modernism & Postmodernism

5. The End of Art

  • Bibliography

  • Copyright © (text only) 2000 - Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe - This essay appeared originally in What is Art?...What is an Artist? (1997)

    5. The End of Art

    The comment made by the military officer in Vietnam that his platoon had to destroy a Vietnamese village in order to save it (i.e. from Communism), seems to have been applied to art; it became necessary to destroy art, or at least the modernist understanding of it, in order to save it. With it the whole modernist enterprise began to collapse.

    In June 1970, the French writer Jean Clay observed: "It is clear that we are witnessing the death throes of the cultural system maintained by the bourgeoisie in its galleries and its museums."

    In recent years, progressive modernism has seemed bent not on defining a future but in destroying the values of the present, especially as they pertained to art. It has remained largely hostile to prevailing authority-systems, though this position is no longer at all clear. In the late 60s and early 70s, conceptual art emerged as another affront to established to established values (Carl Andre, for example).

    Carl Andre, 81 CuFe (The New of Hephaestus), 1981
    Copper, steel (81 square units) (Ho-Am Art Museum, Seoul)

    Hostility to it was intense, beyond any question of mere aesthetics. Victor Burgin states that conceptualism was a revolt against modernism. This may not seem apparent, because, true to form, orthodox art history has managed to assimilate it into the seamless tapestry of "art history" while stifling its radicalism.

    However, conceptualism deliberately was an art that no aesthetic formalism could hope to embrace. It was an attempt to place art beyond all limitations and definitions, to break the stranglehold of bourgeois formalist art history and criticism. Attention was turned towards "making" and the manipulation of materials. The process of making was given importance, with the result, the final object, became secondary, often temporary (Christo and Jeanne-Claude, for example).

    Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Surrounded Islands
    1980-83, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida

    Conceptualism became an umbrella term (in an attempt to define and contain) under which were lumped together a whole range of difficult-to-classify art such as Performance and Earth Art.

    Conceptual artists deliberately produced work that was difficult if not impossible to classify according to the old system. Some deliberately produced work that could not be placed in a museum or gallery (Robert Smithson, for example).

    Robert Smithson
    Spiral Jetty (now under water)
    1969-70, Great Salt Lake, Utah

    Art in the latter half of the 20th century deliberately placed itself beyond the limits of control. Today, art historians and critics -- we might call them the art police -- throw up their hands in dismay in the face of contemporary art. They have reached their limit - they can no longer absorb contemporary art into the system, patterns of order can no longer be applied. The critical apparatus of control has broken down; traditional art theory and traditional art history have failed along with modernism.

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    MODERNISM | Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe | Sweet Briar College