The art history I write and teach is stuck in the mid-century modern period across much of the globe–roughly 1945-1970–because those years saw the end of a “modern” way of thinking and the start of a contemporary, or some would still say “postmodern,” outlook. I want to go back and remain there until I can understand what happened. They were so different from us, the moderns, so much more certain about what art stood for, about the value of a notion of the self with a boundary between interior and exterior, about the need for creative articulation of abstractions that a collective known as “humanity” might gather around as they lived their particular, individual lives. The contemporary way of thinking tends to allow the market to be our main form of unity, consumerism to be what global citizens have in common, and then focuses its energy on articulating and re-articulating our different identities and our particular traumas. We do this for good reason, and my desire to return to the middle of the twentieth century to observe how artists adapted to and struggled with the shifting framework may be foolish and self-defeating. Nevertheless, my intuition is that there were other paths forward than the ones that have dominated artistic thought since the late 1960s, and that it will benefit our work today to spend time with some of the strategies and structures that people found that perhaps fell out of fashion too soon.
Richard Wright, White Man, Listen! (1957), reprinted in Black Power: Three Books from Exile: Black Power; The Color Curtain; and White Man, Listen! (2008)
Wright’s commitment in the late 1950s to the “western value” of freedom and to the necessity of becoming modern is stunning today–because so alien. He approaches early African American literature and the struggle in the newly or barely independent African states between tradition and modernity with empathetic, brilliant analysis of the feelings that motivate their literary and political forms. Yet he is completely certain that for modern people today–epitomized by the figure of the educated, secular, post-colonial black subject–there is no going back to a period of faith in the supernatural, nor is recourse to be found in the compromises of an earlier black bourgeois elite — both types of return would only disadvantage those at the bottom of the power hierarchy. The modern world would be shaped and held up by ordinary creative human beings, in whom Wright had tremendous confidence.
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith (1995)
Still the best slam on the vicarious experiences that the image-verse asks viewers to accept in place of more embodied and collectively shared pleasures and satisfactions. What I love about this book is that undergirding all of Debord’s damning rhetoric is a firm, modern belief in the greater strength of social life and practice when compared with spectacle. He conjures his readers’ access to that real so that they might wield it, deflate the images’ powerful flatness, and proceed three-dimensionally.
Rosalind Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture (1981)
No work of art history better encapsulates the draw of the surface for postmodern thought–how utterly seduced we have been in the contemporary period by the idea that maybe everything that matters comes from an external source rather than an internal one and furthermore happens outside. Culture and the complex processes by which sign systems are constructed and used–these forces for Krauss have displaced modern interiority, which will be understood from here on out as the guarded illusion of self-deceiving, patriarchal jerks. I don’t think Passages is right in the end, but as a full throttle exploration of one crucial component of art’s meanings, it is a necessary text for anyone writing contemporary art history who wants to think about whether making everything about the outside has let us off the hook from certain responsibilities–starting with the role of feeling and felt understanding in art and art criticism.
Anne Wagner, Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O’Keeffe (1996)
Anne Wagner, my PhD dissertation advisor, is one of the few art historians who explicitly brings together modern and contemporary ways of thinking. Her social art historical commitment to looking through the lens of gender in Three Artists is contemporary; considering how the particular constraints and insights that came with being a woman in the twentieth century affected the meaning of these three very different artists’ work is feminist. Yet because O’Keeffe, Krasner, and Hesse all embraced modernist modes of making and thinking, what emerges from Wagner’s inquiry is how high the stakes were when people who belonged to an identity category traditionally excluded from the art world’s spotlight took modern art’s promise to “reorient our vision” seriously. By the end of the book, we feel that the old modernist efforts to bring together body and abstraction, matter and order, self and system were never more profoundly performed than when women artists stepped up to the plate.
T.J. Clark, Picasso and Truth (2013)
Like Wagner, Clark was one of my graduate advisors. Healthy or not, I cannot write anything for the past couple of years without this book–published several years after I finished my PhD, thank you–nearby. It’s the story of transition that it tells: the reluctant transformation of the old, safe, touchable notion of bourgeois interiority into a new kind of space–one in which the wildness of that which is exterior, unknown, and un-possessible is allowed inside, allowed to become part of the artistic (bourgeois) understanding of the world. Clark’s account of modern people’s changing relation to their own embodiment pulls no punches — it is devastatingly attuned to how the human species has morphed in response to what we endured over the course of the twentieth century. But, like Debord, Clark insists on the reality of the concrete, and calls on us to use, like Picasso, our grasp of and groundedness within it to make our art and carry out our practices in the face of virtualization.
Elise Archias is associate professor of art history at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She is the author of the award-winning book The Concrete Body: Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneemann, Vito Acconci.
Clark, T.J. Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Zone Books, MIT Press, 1995.
Krauss, Rosalind. Passages in Modern Sculpture. New York: Viking Press, 1977; Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1981.
Wagner, Anne. Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O’Keeffe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
Wright, Richard. White Man, Listen! (1957), reprinted in Black Power: Three Books from Exile: Black Power; The Color Curtain; and White Man, Listen! New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008.