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January 11, 2005

A Tale of Two Modernisms

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards:

About six months ago, when I gave up active blogging, I decided I’d do some in-depth reading to try to make better sense out of Modern Art. There was just too much about the standard discussions of Modernism that just didn’t make much sense to me.

Oddities and Gaps in the Conventional Story of Modern Art

1. Accounts of Modern painting only touch in the most cursory way on Academic painting—and then, mostly, as a sort of bogeyman. Yet Academic painting in the late 19th century and even well into the 20th century was a huge, and increasingly international, activity. National schools that had never before produced more than a stray artist or two sprang vigorously into existence, packed with considerable talent. Salon painting was the large ocean in which Modern Art bobbed like an oppositionist cork. Surely this vast context had some kind of cultural logic (or logics) of its own. Despite this, I’ve never read a meaningful discussion of Salon painting--surely a major cultural artifact of the modern era--in any history of Modern Art. I've never even been able to find a definitive history of Salon painting—you know, one that lays out the major figures, the major themes, etc., etc. That strikes me as a very curious elision.

2. Histories of Modern Art really don't know how to treat English painting during the 19th century. Is it really part of the Modernist 'story line' or not? The whole topic seems to make writers on Modern Art a tad queasy, and they'd really rather not talk about it. This peculiarity is perhaps epitomized in the odd but widely repeated phrase: “Paris was the capital of the 19th century.” Say what? By any remotely rational measure London, not Paris, was the political and economic capital of the 19th century. And Parisian painting in the latter part of the century largely ended up recapitulating themes and formal developments that had occurred across the Channel some 50 years earlier. How is it that histories of Modern Art generally don’t begin with Constable and Turner? Well, these ‘revolutionary’ Englishmen are safely tucked away in the drawer marked 'Romantic Art. Um, question: what exactly is the difference between Romantic and Modern art? Have you ever seen a meaningful distinction drawn between the two that isn't strictly chronological? I've read several, but none that stands up under close examination. This appears to be one of those classic 'distinctions without a difference.'

3. Why is the definition of Modern Art, or even of Modernism, so darn slippery? How can you tell the story of something you can't define?

Is Modern Art a period label? That is, does the term refer to the art from 1860 or so to 1930, or to 1970, or to whenever? If Modern Art is a period label, why do accounts of it focus on only such a tiny sliver of the art produced during that chronological period, and why is such a deliberate darkness cast on so much other art produced during that period?

Is Modern art a thematic label? If so, what exactly is the theme? It would be fairly neat, of course, to describe Modern art as the art of the Industrial Revolution, but I fear that would make it awfully difficult to defend the conventional focus on French art, when the U.K., Germany and the U.S. were obviously more important players from an industrial point of view. So far as I know this is not a commonly used definition.

Even if we define Modern Art as art that engages the peculiar issues of the 'modern era' (i.e., the 20th century) why is the “Gross Clinic” of Thomas Eakins—a painting about the revolutionary advances of scientific medicine during the era—not an icon of Modern Art?

T. Eakins, The Gross Clinic (detail), 1875

If Modern art is thematic, and not chronological, why is the art of Joseph Wright of Derby not considered ‘modern’? Wright’s painting certainly doesn’t sit comfortably under the rubric of Baroque, or Rococco, or Neoclassical painting.

Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768 (Detail)

Of course, we can (somewhat anachronistically) call Wright a Romantic painter, but that gets back into the whole peculiar artificiality of the separation between the so-called Romantic and the so-called Modern. Heck, if one really wants to run amuck on the topic of thematic treatments of Modern Art, why isn’t the painting of Canaletto ‘modern’? It certainly embodies a very ‘modern’ scientific objectivity.

Canaletto, London Seen Through An Arch of Westminster Bridge, 1746

G. Caillebotte, On the Europe Bridge, 1876-7; R. Delaunay, Tour Eiffel - La Tour Rouge, 1911

4. Thematically, one could take a more Marxist approach, and define Modern art as the art of the bourgeois capitalist urban environment. But then isn’t it odd how theories of ‘modernity’ confine themselves to the 19th and 20th centuries, as if history had begun on the first day of the French Revolution? Why shouldn't a theory of bourgeois capitalism in an urban context also account for the medieval Italian city-states? The Italian city-states of the ‘popular communes’ era (in the 1200s and early 1300s) were dominated by the political and economic interests of middle-class merchants and industrialists, just like Paris or New York in, say, 1910. (This is the ambience from which Giotto emerged.) And the Italian city-states weren't unique as early examples of urban bourgeois capitalist environments: much the same could be said of the strikingly ‘modern’ urban culture of the Netherlands during its Golden Age in the 1600s. Heck, if we adopt this approach, theories of modernism should should stand or fall as much by making sense of Giotto and Frans Hals as by making sense of Manet and Picasso. They should even be able to make sense of the British Victorian social moralist painters.

4. Another possible 'thematic' definition of Modern Art could be European art that shows the influences of non-European and ‘primitive’ art. (This accords pride of place to European imperialism of the Victorian era as a cultural explanation). But again, if this definition is adopted, we would have to consider a much wider range of art to be 'Modern.' A strong argument can be made for the Rococco being a European response to Chinese art. Likewise, where would Neoclassicism have been without the inspiring examples of ‘primitive’ art such as Pompeiian wall murals and Greek vases? Where would the Gothic Revival have been without, er, Gothic? Or, heck, where would the Gothic itself have been without the influence of Arabic architecture? But I'm not holding my breath waiting for discussions of Modern Art to include all these other examples of exotically inspired European art.

5. Finally, another thematic definition of Modern Art might be that of art that responded to the impacts of the reproductive and distributive technologies of the Second Industrial Revolution—photography, the cinema, the phonograph, the high-speed press, mass advertising, etc. This is perhaps the most logical thematic definition in general use, but it makes me scratch my head a bit. I’m not aware of the art of any other period being explained quite so literally by contemporary technological innovation. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall much discussion suggesting that medieval art was the obvious result of the revolutionary application of water- and wind-power during the period between 1000 and 1350. Or that Renaissance art was the obvious outcome of the period’s advances in optics, leading to the mass manufacture of eyeglasses in Florence and Venice during the mid-1400s. Generally, such technological explanations are considered, well, rather reductionist (at least when advanced by David Hockney) but appear to be accepted without much demur in the case of Modern Art.

Two Suggestions for Cultural Theories of Modern Art

1. In art history generally, epochal changes are commonly associated with significant shifts in the political landscape. Let me give you some examples. Gothic architecture is associated with the resurgent French monarchy under the Capetian kings. Italian medieval and Renaissance art is clearly connected to the political rise and fall of the Italian city-states. Mannerism seems to be a straightforward consequence of the Valois-Hapsburg wars in Italy after 1497 and the consequent loss of Italian civic autonomy. Baroque art is obviously linked with the political dominance of Spain over much of Europe from roughly 1550 to 1650 (as well as Spanish sponsorship of the Counter Reformation). Neoclassicism and Romanticism are commonly considered to be fellow travelers with the French Revolution. Impressionism arrives right along with the Third Republic. Etc., etc., etc.

So perhaps we should be consistent across the centuries and incorporate the political shifts of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries into our theories of Modern Art. Modern Art fits quite neatly into the era when the military and political dominance of the European continent passed from France to Germany, or, more generally still, from Western to Central or even Eastern Europe. The central political question in European capitals ceased to be, ‘What is Louis XIV or Napoleon thinking?’ and became ‘What is Bismarck or Hitler or Stalin thinking?’ Perhaps this was really the central drama underlying Modern art. It would certainly account for why Salon painting, the cultural product of the previous, Franco-centric era, ultimately became marginalized as French political and military prestige waned.

2. If you don't like that one, I’ve got another. Modernity, as best I can tell, is the result of several simultaneous but quite independent ‘modernizing’ tendencies. Two of these might called Commercial Modernism and State Modernism. (There are, of course, other such tendencies, including Religious Modernism and Technologic Modernism, but those are subjects for another post.)

Commercial Modernism refers to the remaking of society along money-making lines, granting political power or influence to businessmen (the bourgeoisie) and usually resulting in high rates of urbanization, economic specialization and industrialization. This historically manifested itself in such highly urban societies as North Central Italy, Flanders and Southern Germany during the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the “Dutch” Netherlands during the 1600s, and England in the 1700s and 1800s.

State Modernism (or what before the French Revolution might have been called Princely Modernism or Absolutism) is a tendency for the centralization of political power. This politically privileges bureaucrats and the military. Historically, this was associated with significantly lower rates of urbanization, economic specialization and industrialization. Examples include Spain, France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire (including Northern Italy) and Russia. During the 1800s, however, there was a sort of forced blending of these two tendencies—it became a matter of urgency for all ‘modern’ countries to adopt both Commercial and State Modernisms.

What is generally called Modern Art is overwhelmingly the work of artists who hailed from cultures that had traditionally emphasized State Modernism. During the latter 19th and early 20th centuries these artists and their fellow countrymen were feeling quite shocked and disoriented by their society's frantic effort to catch up in the commercial/industrial sphere, and the new conditions necessary to permit this catching up. This is why Modern Art--supposedly the distilled essence of modernity--didn't originate in the world's most modern cities (London or New York) but rather in the capital city of a 'laggard' modernizer: France. Paris may not have been the capital of the 19th century, but it was unquestionably a city where a tradition of state modernism had to confront the new influence of commercial modernism.

This theory would also explain why the 'founding' countries of Modern Art had such a fatal attraction for strong-man government: Vichy France, Hitler's Germany, Anschluss Austria, Stalin's Russia, Franco's Spain, Mussolini's Italy...quite a roll call, eh? It all goes together neatly:

State Modernism ->
Late commerical/industrial modernization ->
Social unrest that doesn't fit into traditional politics ->
Avant-garde artists creating Modern Art in response to social tension ->
Totalitarian government

The ultimate embrace of totalitarian government (really, a quite natural outcome given each country's tradition of State Modernism) also explains why ‘the Modernist Project’ was associated with socialist rather than liberal economics. Such an approach to economics reflected a perfectly natural desire among artists and cultures which had traditionally taken direction from a strong military/administrative state and who were unused to the dislocations of Commercial Modernism.

Of course, the art of countries which had commercially modern cultures like England and America reflected the same dynamic but from the opposite point of view. In these countries, the new element was the adoption of State Modernism. Naturally, coming from such a different perspective, the native art traditions of these countries doesn't fit into the categories of Modern Art. This fundamental difference is, of course, totally ignored by orthodox theories of Modernism and is usually dismissed as merely reflecting the provincial and reactionary aesthetics of those benighted regions.

And this opinion of British and American native art was reinforced from within. Many native artists and writers in these countries, trying to make sense out of this newfangled State Modernism, looked to countries with a tradition of State Modernism (above all, France) for a clue of how to be 'modern.'

Well, those are my theories. You are, of course, under no obligation to like them. But at least they generalize to cover trends in many different times and places, unlike the conventional explanations of Modern Art.



posted by Friedrich at January 11, 2005


"The inventiveness of people like Courbet, Whistler, Manet, Van Gogh, and Gauguin might justly have been seen as a proper tonic to an over-academicized milieu. But of course the critics misinterpreted all of them as replacements for art history and tradition instead of additions to it. The critics saw every novelty not as an enrichment, a widening, of artistic sensibilty and achievement, but as a redefinition of art and a dismissal of all previous art. In part the artists were also to blame. There have always been artists, overexcited by their own achievements, who have wanted to claim that they have reinvented art. But no one ever took them seriously before"

Miles Mathis,"The Beginnings of Modernism"

ARC Articles

They are polemicists at ARC (Mathis is a painter), but for me, they are asking some good questions. Formalism? I know nothing about art, but the demand for radical formal innovation from each artist may have also destroyed jazz & classical, and is damaging rock.

Anyway, understanding their bias, they do have an appreciation of Salon and Victorian painting, and are examining the issues.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on January 11, 2005 3:56 PM

Mr. McManus:

I agree, the ARC website is the closest thing I've ever seen to a good survey of academic art or Salon painting. I've even spent a few hours looking closely at pictures by Bougereau to see if I could understand his iconography, in the sense that I could hook them up to the late 19th century French political, religious and cultural environment. I was quite excited to see that they seemed to make a good deal of sense to me. It would be fascinating to go through ARC decade by decade, and see how subjects and treatments evolved. Maybe some academics have published multi-volume studies of this art genre, but I've really never seen one. Anybody else out there know of a good study of Salon painting?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 11, 2005 4:11 PM

It seems like it sort of boils down to: we're way behind on the commercial/industrial sphere, so we're going to create art which conveys how incredibly stupid the commercial/industrial sphere really is. This way...we convey our superior sensibilities. It isn't that we can't compete in that's that we choose not to. Isn't that kind of what all modernism says? You poor lemmings...we are the enlightened ones who will show you how dumb the conventional world is. Maybe?

Posted by: annette on January 11, 2005 4:30 PM

As usual, yet another fascinating post from Friedrich.

What follows are some tip-of-the-tongue, unresearched thoughts that are distinguished by a probable lack of originality

Agreed that academic art has yet to find its Boswell. Given that Victorian painting has been undergoing a transition from utter contempt (at mid-20th Century) to curiosity (and maybe grudging respect), it's possible that said Boswell might already be scribbling away. In the meanwhile, snippets of the academic scene can be found in biographies of academicians whose reputations are in the rehabilitation process. For example, in the last few months I've found material in short illustrated biographies of Alma-Tadema, Waterhouse and Millais.

By the way, it's interesting to note who writes history. The usual cliches are that "the victors" do it. Or that it is done through the prism of what is contemporaneous to the historian. I was first familiarized with Modern Art via MoMA catalog books in the Seattle Public Library back in the mid-50s. In retrospect, I was probably being fed a (small-M) marxist view of history as progression. I got the same sort of thing in Art History classes at the University of Washington (late 50s): The Impressionists set up their anti-Academy exhibit then art went on its predestined way through various stages to Abstract Expressionism, its ultimate form. Well, maybe the claim wasn't made that AE was "ultimate", but at this late date I can't recall any alternatives being offered.

I'm beginning to imagine parallels in this Fifties art history narrative to conspiracy-like theories. Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky strike me as starting with a conclusion ("Everything rotten in the world is ultimately the fault of the USA: For example...") and then marshal whatever evidence they can scrape up to that end while ignoring everything else. Once their work is done, it can seem persuasive to an ignorant (of other information) reader. So Abstract Expressionism is the Art of Today (remember, I'm talking of circa 1958) and it got to that point by thus and so of a route; everthing tangential such as academic art can be ignored or else dismissed as unserious art (I'm leaving out the good guys vs. bad guys aspect, where the academicians were heavy-handed reactionaries trying to smother the spark of creativity. Yes, there might have been a little truth to that charge, but that wasn't the whole story.)

Also Friederich, interesting theories you are mentioning. For what it's worth, as a "recovering sociologist", I'm thinking why not relate schools of Modern Art to Europe's cultural geography. For instance, LATIN countries (France, Italy, and artists from Spain) can be linked to Cubism, Futurism and Surrealism. Expressionism, on the other hand, can be aligned with GERMANIC countires. Dada is a little harder to place (I'm not really researching this, remember), but I think it was a bunch of Great War ex-pats in Switzerland that got the ball rolling. The ANGLOSPHERE, on the other hand, pioneered nothing until late in the game (1945-ish) with Abstract Expressionism. This latter point ties with your Commercial Modernism concept, perhaps. But I'm not yet sure what, if anything can be made regarding the other groupings.

Enough for now.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 11, 2005 9:04 PM

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall much discussion suggesting that medieval art was the obvious result of the revolutionary application of water- and wind-power during the period between 1000 and 1350. Or that Renaissance art was the obvious outcome of the period’s advances in optics, leading to the mass manufacture of eyeglasses in Florence and Venice during the mid-1400s.”

Friedrich: if you can, get hold of a James Burke British TV series called “Connections,” which covers just this territory. It’s also a book, but may be out of print—should be in the library.

“The Italian city-states of the ‘popular communes’ era (in the 1200s and early 1300s) were dominated by the political and economic interests of middle-class merchants and industrialists, just like Paris or New York in, say, 1910. (This is the ambience from which Giotto emerged.) And they weren't unique: much the same could be said of the striking ‘modern’ city culture of the Netherlands during the 1600s.”

Now you’re using exactly the same argument that you got on my case about before—which is that human nature essentially never changes!

“I've never even been able to find a definitive history of Salon painting—you know, one that lays out the major figures, the major themes, etc., etc.”

This museum in NYC exists for that purpose:

“Another possible 'thematic' definition of Modern Art could be European art that shows the influences of non-European and ‘primitive’ art.”

To wit, this exhibition:

Posted by: winifer skattebol on January 11, 2005 10:43 PM

One other thing:

"Baroque art is persuasively linked with the political dominance of Spain over much of Europe and Spanish sponsorship of the Counter Reformation from roughly 1550 to 1650."

How, then to explain the oft-quoted rubric that "music lags behind the other arts," so that the Baroque period in music winds up being about 100 years later?

Posted by: winifer skattebol on January 11, 2005 10:51 PM

Great post, great comments. People interested in these questions should also read Alan Macfarlane's The Riddle of the Modern World and The Making of the Modern World, if they haven't already.

Posted by: Jim Bennett on January 11, 2005 11:57 PM

I think that the academy art and the art of the impressionists were really just two competing schools of Romanticism. The Pre-Raphaelites, for instance, were somewhere between the two.

I don't think that real "modern art" began until Cubism. Perhaps you could push it back to Cezanne (whom I don't understand).

Van Gogh and Gaugin were Romantics rather than modernists.

I think "modern art" is really the triumph of the brain over the heart -- a repudiation of Romanticism. I think it peaked with Duchamp and that everything since the famous urinal and bottle holder has largely been a re-telling of Duchamp's old joke in different contexts.

Turner was a great painter, but he had the misfortune of being one of those whose work looks infinitely better in real life than it does in reproductions. This is also true, but to a lesser extent, with some of the Pre-Raphaelites like Maddox Brown and Holman Hunt, as anyone who has visited the Birmingham City Art Gallery can attest.

In Matisse we see a blend of both traditions: the Romantic and the modern.

Posted by: Graham Lester on January 12, 2005 12:48 AM

Great posting, tks. What do you say we send a copy of it to the modernist propagandists who gave you and me our lousy college educations?

And let me second your idea that modernism-as-usually-thought-of and Romanticism are really one long continuous thingee. How odd that anyone should ever have defined "recent art history" as "the history of that one particular thingee," as though the visual arts didn't have many different branches and schools and individuals goin' on at the same time.

Do you buy Stephen Toulmin's notion (he doesn't expand on it much, but there it is) that art-Modernism (which he seems to take to mean lasting from circa 1900 to circa 1975) was a Euro response to the anxieties and upsets that resulted in WW1 and WW2, Communism, and all the various other Euro-disasters of the era?

He's making a comparison between the 1600s and the bulk of the 20th century. In his view, the political wars and religious upsets of the 1600s made Euros anxious and terrified and eager to grasp at anything that might offer stability and certainty -- hence their embrace of Descartes-ian rationalism. In the 20th century, searching for a similar kind of certainty, they embraced "modernism," another one-size-fits-all meta-concept that seems to answer everything.

Toulmin points out that as the western world relaxes and finds its bearings a bit after WW2 and after the communist world begins to fall apart, the modernist meta-notion of Art is gradually replaced by a more relaxed and informal jumble of notions -- po-mo at its (pre-theorized and untheorized) best.

Makes me happy as a general picture. How about you?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 12, 2005 12:04 PM

Thanks for all the comments. Specifically:


I think to some extent Modern Art was a reaction by people used to State Modernist societies to Commercial Modernism. This reaction pretty much amounted to: "This stuff scares us, and when we turn to the traditional verities of our state-modernist past, we find them under siege and not standing up for us. Everything solid is melting. Help!'

Mr. Pittenger:

I suppose history is always written by the winners, but that suggests that the winners you were reading in 1958 were the American elites that had enthusiastically embraced State Modernism, to the point where they felt they had to publicly disrespect more traditional American Commercial Modernist values and culture. Apparently, it was a rather insecure victory, because they didn't hesitate to advance some pretty odd arguments!

Ms. Skattebol:

I'll check out your links and recommendations, thanks.

I agree that people don't change, but I would offer that cultures differ quite a bit, and they constrain people's artistic tastes more than they may be aware.

Mr. Bennett:

I'll check out your recommendations as well. Thanks for the kind words.

Mr. Lester:

Calling Van Gogh and Gauguin romantics won't get much argument out of me. But although Duchamp utilized gags and games to express himself, I'm not so sure that you couldn't find Romantics who would, like him, have considered art to be chiefly a matter of the privileged consciousness.


I think Toulmin's hypothesis is right on the nose, although (modest cough) I think I've anatomized the matter a bit further as to the causes of the anxiety he talks about. I'm not sure, ultimately, that this is a matter of anxiety alone; everyone is fairly anxious all the time. It seems to involve a sort of cultural or structural anxiety, rather than personal emotion. But by and large we're reading off the same page. Wow, that makes me feel like I'm playing in the big leagues (deservedly or not.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 12, 2005 8:24 PM

Any of you art scholars familiar with the elusive background of the black and white painting Celestine V?

Posted by: Gary L Clayton on January 13, 2005 5:06 PM

You suck

Posted by: tehe on January 31, 2005 4:00 PM


Posted by: hello on January 31, 2005 4:02 PM

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