Modernism: Past and Future

Over the course of human history since the Renaissance, advances in science and humanities have continued to expand our sphere of activity and provide greater individual freedom. Over time, this has brought an end to absolute monarchies and led to the emergence of democratic societies. The history of art has also taken shape within this overall context.
A prime example can be seen in the development of realism in painting.
Realism can be taken to refer to either a realistic feel or a precise style of painting. In either case however, the realist way of viewing things stems from considerable advances in self-consciousness, coming from the same standpoint as the anti-monarchy movement. Under an absolute monarchy, there are simply too many contradictions for things to be viewed realistically.
In contrast, painting under an absolute monarchy is characterized by embellishment. There are other paintings that give a very personal insight into the artist through their individual imagination, they are not directly linked to the flow of history.

Democracy started to become a reality in the 19th century and came to fruition in the 20th century with the establishment of countless democratic nations. The characteristics of 20th century art that most reflect this process are abstract art and Modernism.

Abstract art tends to be regarded as something that isn’t representational, something far removed from realism. As works are composed of recognizable shapes and colors however, they essentially represent without illusionism. In that respect, abstract art contains elements of realism that go beyond conventional realism. This also indicates that the viewer has undergone major changes to feel that artwork is real and find value in it. With that in mind, it would be fair to say that abstract art is just another new form of realism that emerged after the start of the 20th century.

The other key characteristic of 20th century art is Modernism, which is a mood and order into visual culture that captures the euphoria and vitality of life in the democratic nation. In that respect, Modernism extends far beyond abstract art, which is just one form of expression. Modernism is not just a 20th century phenomenon. It can be traced back to any country in history that established a democratic approach to politics, no matter how incomplete, going all the way back to Ancient Greece, let alone the Renaissance.

Although Modernism is sometimes regarded as synonymous with abstract art, it actually includes representational painting and all other forms of art that capture that same mood. There is one major hole in the argument that Modernism is the same as abstract art, namely that there are forms of expression that are abstract without being modernist. This is typically illustrated by the architecture under fascist dictatorships during World War II or under communist regimes. Buildings were stripped of all embellishments and simplified using straight lines. This deformed type of expression on a massive scale is the simplest, most effective means of visual expression, taking the sense of euphoria from Modernism and adding an overbearing dose of sanctity. In prewar Japan too, huge torii gates were used as state-sanctioned symbols of Shintoism designed to boost national prestige.
Unlike forms of expression such as this, modernist expression inevitably creates a positive sense of individual humanity. Entasis pillars in Greek architecture are a prime example of this, with their gentle swelling and vertical embellishment.

The fact that the Russian Avant-Garde movement and Abstract Expressionism emerged separately in the Soviet Union and the United States is no coincidence. Divided along the lines between capitalism and communism, these two superpowers led the way for most of 20th century. Apart from the early years, the Soviet Union was a dictatorship that collapsed in 1991. In spite of differences in terminology, with the Soviet Union governed by the workers for the workers and the United States by the people for the people, and in the way in which these two superpowers achieved their goals, they both had philosophies that were essentially similar and inevitably adhered to Modernism, based on people from all over both nations coming together in the name of progress. In the Soviet Union in particular, the fact that state did not even allow religion gave rise to a purified form of Modernism, as typified by Malevich’s square painting. As that struggled to gain acceptance straight away in the Soviet Union however, there was a shift towards formal Socialist Realist painting from the Stalin era onwards.
Postwar American Abstract Expressionist painting was also based strictly on Modernism. The contrasting use of freehand lines and a wider range of colors however found acceptance and have continued to develop into a sustainable form of expression, paving the way for more free-form practices such as Color Field painting or Shaped Canvas.

After the war, the center of the art world shifted to the United States, ushering in a fully-fledged era of Modernism from the 1940s to the 1970s. Although the 1980s saw the arrival of so-called Post-Modernism, this was just a limited movement that was essentially Modernism with the addition of  such as problematic architectural embellishments or New Painting motifs. Post-Modernism is essentially a popularized extension of Modernism.

Since the days of large-scale computers in the 1980s, personal computers have become commonplace, enabling anyone to easily access information via the internet. Reflecting such an era, formal Modernism has evolved into a popularized form of Modernism and has become a more integral part of our everyday lives today. As Modernism continues to evolve, it is increasingly spreading out around the globe, in line with the emergence of new economic powers in other parts of the world.

With more and more democracies springing up all over the world, democracy is likely to become a more or less universal political regime in the future. Even so, each new era will bring with it new threats to democracy. The disappearance of anti-democratic forces will make democracy itself, and its central essence, harder to distinguish. This will make it difficult to clearly define and maintain a continual awareness of democracy. At this point, preventing democracy from descending into a grey area is likely to become a top priority.

Art always reflects the hopes of the current era. Although it may seem like art is leading the way, it is in fact reacting passively to current events. To put it another way, you could say that the function of art is to take stock of the current era and to help establish it in a cultural context. During good times, art helps lay the foundations for better times, but the reverse is also true. As a grey area begins to open up within democracy in the future, the art world is likely to find it harder and harder to determine what constitutes good art. It needs to be determined on the basis of Modernism, the fundamental language in the visual culture of democracy. Even today, democracy runs the risk of falling into a mobocrary or, somewhat less likely, totalitarianism under the control of a government of right- or left-wing party. Anyone involved in the art world take great care and strive to sharpen their eyes to truly discern the works of art in the day when there is an increase in expression that is underpinned by excessive extravagance and embellishment or a sense of emptiness as exceeding minimalism, even if it seems to have purity, so that the art world will move in a better direction wherever possible. This matter will be an important responsibility for everyone involved in the art world in the future.

I can but hope that Modernism will remain buoyant and positive in the future and that art will continue to evolve stably in line with the current era.

Eizo Nishio, December 2017

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