In the present debate on postmodern art, neither its champions nor its
opponents can ignore the need to study and define the opposite end of the spectrum: modernism. In the process, it becomes clear that there is no consensus about its substance, about the common, unifying properties of its varied manifestations and what these signify.
Ambitious studies setting out to comprehend and describe the artistic development of modernism as a whole are extremely rare, probably because a comprehensive overview is possible only in retrospect and thus not feasible until these developments have drawn to a close.
This has now happened. I therefore intend to fill the gap by analyzing the artistic development of modern art from its Impressionist beginnings to the pluralist art scene of the outgoing twentieth century and presenting it as a coherent, unified and meaningful process. On the one hand, I will elucidate the rise of modern art in terms of the cultural and social context in which it emerged and, on the other, in terms of the psychic structure and psychic
dynamics that underlie the creative process.
Despite a historical mode of presentation, I do not intend to write a history
of modernism. This study attempts only to point out the main lines of its
development and to place them in context in conjunction with chapters
summarizing parallel developments in the humanities, sciences, philosophy, and
politics. These self-contained chapters are printed on gray paper to set them
off against the body of the study. They might be viewed as background material
and provide a condensed summary of the major historical developments to which my
art historical studies refer. In the latter, I have restricted myself to the
visual arts, primarily to painting. Only a few artists, as representatives of
entire groups or movements, are examined in depth. Moreover, I have devoted
fewer pages to the great pioneers, familiar to most readers (C้zanne, van Gogh,
Matisse, etc.), than to more problematic and less easily accessible artists like
Duchamp or Beuys, although this obviously does not entail a value judgment.
I shall illustrate artistic developments in terms of the oeuvre of a few established artists. Those selected not only mirror the artistic production of our age but also its reception by the public. Public response is a decisive factor in artistic development; success and public recognition or the absence thereof affect all artistic endeavor in many and far-reaching ways. Who knows how the oeuvres of C้zanne or van Gogh would have developed, had the artists received recognition in their lifetimes, or how Picasso would have proceeded if practically no one had paid any attention to him. The work of these artists is clearly inseparable from its reception.
The success of an artist indicates that viewers recognize or think they recognize themselves in a work (or its creator) and thus identify themselves with the art or the artist. Only a "successful" work mirrors the consciousness of "its" age. This also holds if awareness-and thus success-comes later, as in the case of many pioneers.
In this respect, my study does not aim to examine the varied output of modern art in all its ramifications but rather to trace the history of its successes and the attendant development of artistic awareness in the 20th century.
A word about the relationship of scientific, political and social
developments to the course of the visual arts. This relationship is of great
significance, for it reveals that the views, attitudes and mental thrust of a
society's artistic output are the same as those that propel its development in
other areas. But there is, in my opinion, no causal relationship between these
parallel and synchronic processes; artists at the dawn of modernism were as
baffled by the trailblazing discoveries of contemporary science as were their
peers in the sciences by the achievements of modern painting and
The congruity is more likely indebted to the fact that these synchronic processes are rooted in a shared cultural past, impressed upon the collective conscious and the collective unconscious, in other words, that they share the same initial givens. However, it does not necessarily follow that such shared givens inevitably lead to similar developments. At the turn of the century, the most varied tendencies and models could be observed in all fields of culture. Every historical turning point is characterized by the fact that new problems can no longer be resolved by the old models, that the established consciousness and established approaches are no longer able to cope with a new situation. To put it differently: new cultural and social givens coincide with a collective mental crisis and demand a solution to that crisis. But the new situation only indirectly determines what solutions are attempted, and these are both manifold and extremely varied. However, through the problems posed and the questions raised by the new givens, these do determine the conditions and premises that may lead to the success of a new model. The point of departure of a cultural development thus defines the criteria used in determining the best among competing proposals.
The problems of any turning point are fundamental in nature. To be resolved they require a new paradigm that can adequately cope with unfamiliar demands, i.e. with the above-mentioned givens involving all areas of endeavor: the resulting shared paradigm yields a meaningful correspondence among the scientific, political, social, philosophical and artistic developments of a new, incipient age (or of a new epoch within this age).
I am well aware of the limitations of my undertaking. In The Poverty
of Historicism, first published in book form in 1957, Karl R. Popper underscores
the distinction between historical and theoretical sciences. While the
theoretical sciences relate their observations to universal laws or use
these laws as points of view from which observations can be made, the
historical sciences cannot rely on such universal laws and must therefore
find other means of fulfilling their function. For, as Popper says, there
can be no history without a point of view; like the natural sciences,
history must be selective unless it is to be choked by a flood of poor
and unrelated material. [
The only way out of this difficulty is [ ] consciously to introduce a preconceived selective point of view into one's history; that is, to write that history which interests us. This does not mean that we may twist the facts until they fit into a framework of preconceived ideas, or that we may neglect the facts that do not fit. On the contrary, all available evidence which has a bearing on our point of view should be considered carefully and objectively. [ ] But it means that we need not worry about all those facts and aspects which have no bearing upon our point of view and which therefore do not interest us.1
Such selective points of view are to the study of history as theories are to the sciences. However, the historical approach or "point of view" can be neither verified or refuted and thus does not satisfy scientific criteria. A selective point of view that cannot be formulated as a verifiable hypothesis is termed by Popper a "historical interpretation."
Historicism2 mistakes these interpretations for theories, a cardinal error according to Popper. It is possible, for example, to interpret 'history' as the history of class struggle, or of the struggle of races for supremacy, or as the history of religious ideas, or as the history of the struggle between the 'open' and the 'closed' society, or as the history of scientific and industrial progress. All these are more or less interesting points of view, and as such perfectly unobjectionable. But historicists do not present them as such; they do not see that there is necessarily a plurality of interpretations which are fundamentally on the same level of both, suggestiveness and arbitrariness (even though some of them may be distinguished by their fertility-a point of some importance). Instead, they present them as doctrines or theories, asserting that 'all history is the history of class struggle'. [ ] On the other hand, the classical historians who rightly oppose this procedure are liable to fall into a different error. Aiming at objectivity, they feel bound to avoid any selective point of view. [ ]
The way out of this dilemma, of course, is to be clear about the necessity of adopting a point of view; to state this point of view plainly, and always to remain conscious that it is one among many, and that even if it should amount to a theory, it may not be testable.3
The German historian Sebastian Haffner comes to a similar conclusion. There is no such thing as a historical science comparable to the natural sciences-and for a very simple reason: Nature is the present but history deals with the past. The present is real, concrete, explorable. But the past is not real anymore, it has become unreal. It has been removed by time, it no longer exists and can therefore no longer be explored. Basically, all historical studies rest on a simple terminological mistake, on the confusion of the terms 'past' and 'history'. [ ]
In a word: History is not a given like nature, history itself is an artificial product: Not everything that has ever happened becomes history but only that which writers of history at some time somewhere considered worth recording. It is the writing of history that creates history. History-to put it bluntly-is not reality; it is a branch of literature.4
In complete agreement with these views, my study represents a rationally founded historical interpretation and, as such, does not allow definitive predictions to be made about future artistic developments.
Any such attempt tacitly or explicitly assumes one or more common denominators that allow us to distinguish, compare and relate the different outgrowths and manifold aspects of a prolific artistic output. There can be no comparative study of art without such parameters; they determine the character and systematics of the respective investigation, for the way in which the question is posed determines the answer. The parameters of my own investigations are based on three main theses that will be examined and supported from a number of vantage points.
Thesis I: The Two Principles of Artistic Creation
"Your speculation that great art involves
both poles of the self is fascinating and
should be pursued."
in a letter to the author, 1980
My first thesis involves two opposing principles, which are a permanent
condition of artistic creation and have a bearing on every artistic
Their universal character is manifested, among other things, in the broad spectrum of statements and descriptions related to them. One of the clearest and simplest is found in Piet Mondrian's essay, "Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art" (London, 1937): Although art is fundamentally everywhere and always the same, nevertheless two main human inclinations, diametrically opposed to each other, appear in its many and varied expressions. One aims at the direct creation of universal beauty, the other at the aesthetic expression of oneself, in other words, of that which one thinks and experiences. The first aims at representing reality objectively, the second subjectively. Thus we see in every work of figurative art the desire, objectively to represent beauty, solely through form and color, in mutually balanced relations, and, at the same time, an attempt to express that which these forms, colors and relations arouse in us. This latter attempt must of necessity result in an individual expression which veils the pure representation of beauty. Nevertheless, both the two opposing elements (universal-individual) are indispensable if the work is to arouse emotion. Art had to find the right solution. In spite of the dual nature of the creative inclinations, figurative art has produced a harmony through a certain co-ordination between objective and subjective expression. [ ] For the artist the search for a unified expression through the balance of two opposites has been, and always will be, a continual struggle. [ ] The only problem in art is to achieve a balance between the subjective and the objective. But it is of the utmost importance that this problem should be solved, in the realm of plastic art-technically, as it were-and not in the realm of thought.5
In his silk-screen series Jazz, Matisse describes a "technical" solution of this kind in an accompanying remark titled "Mes courbes ne sont pas folles": The vertical is in my mind, it helps me give my lines precise direction, and even in my hastily sketched drawings, not a single line, as for instance a branch in a landscape, emerges without a consciousness of the relationship to the vertical.-My curves are not mad.6
Another approach to the two principles is conveyed by the Apollonian/ Dionysian dichotomy. This pair of terms introduced by Schelling refers to the lucid, conscious will directed towards form and order that characterizes the essence of the god Apollo in contrast to the frenzied, unconscious and unclear, creative impulse embodied by Dionysus. In man we find by nature a blind, unrestrained, productive impulse, which stands opposed to a level-headed, restrained [ ] and therefore actually negating impulse in the same subject. [ ] To be both intoxicated and sober not at different moments but at one and the same time, this is the secret of true poetry.7
Friedrich Nietzsche expressed similar thoughts: We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics, once we perceive not merely by logical inference, but with the immediate certainty of vision, that the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollonian and Dionysian duality-just as procreation depends on the duality of the sexes, involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliations. The terms Dionysian and Apollonian we borrow from the Greeks, who disclose to the discerning mind the profound mysteries of their view of art, not, to be sure, in concepts, but in the intensely clear figures of their gods. Through Apollo and Dionysus, the two art deities of the Greeks, we come to recognize that in the Greek world there existed a tremendous opposition, in origin and aims, between the Apollonian art of sculpture, and the non-magistic, Dionysian art of music. These two different tendencies run parallel to each other, for the most part openly at variance; and they continually incite each other to new and more powerful births, which perpetuate an antagonism, only superficially reconciled by the common term 'art'; till eventually, by a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic 'will,' they appear coupled with each other, and through this coupling ultimately generate an equally Dionysian and Apollonian form of art-Attic tragedy.8
The juxtaposition of these few quotations suffices to demonstrate the broad range of meanings that can be applied to our two artistic principles. Despite their divergent approaches, all of the cited writers see the decisive condition of great art in the artistic blend of the two basic tendencies.
What underlies this universal structure of artistic creation? Nietzsche describes the two principles as drives, Schelling as forces or impulses, and Mondrian as human inclinations. But the three authors obviously agree on their significance as elemental, constitutionally conditioned opposites of all human endeavor. The call for their union thus transcends the framework of artistic production and applies to human behavior in general.
The Psychological Aspect
On turning to psychology, we encounter a first rough correspondence to our
two forces or inclinations in the antagonism investigated by psychoanalysis
between the id and the superego.
The concept of the "psychic apparatus"9 developed by Freud in the thirties comprises three psychic instances with distinct functions: The power of the id expresses the true purpose of the individual organism's life. This consists in the satisfaction of its innate needs. No such purpose as that of keeping itself alive or of protecting itself from dangers by means of anxiety can be attributed to the id. This is the task of the ego, whose business is also to discover the most favorable and least perilous method of obtaining satisfaction, taking the external world into account. The superego may bring fresh needs to the fore, but its main function remains the limitation of satisfactions.10
At first sight, it seems obvious that the power of the id lies in the inclination towards the expression of oneself, in the by nature [ ] blind, unrestrained productive impulse of the Dionysian, and that the inclination towards the creation of universal beauty, the Apollonian principle of a level-headed, restrained [ ] and therefore actually negating impulse is the expression of the superego. However, on their own, neither the id nor the superego are capable of any expression at all. Only through the ego can the impulses of the id or the demands of the superego be expressed and formed; the latter are never "pure" or unadulterated but always appear in connection and competition with the attendant claims and demands of the ego. The ego is not only involved in every utterance of the other two instances but also determines every possibility of uniting them in an intelligible form.
In its beginnings, psychoanalysis focused on the investigation of the unconscious and on the conflict caused by the contradictory urges of the id and the superego, which yields the wondrous substance of dreams. The psychoanalytical interpretation of dreams also served as a model for the new science's initial attempts to grasp the phenomenon of art. The specific relationship, in both ordinary behavior and artistic work, of the id and the superego to the integrating, controlling and guiding ego, as well as the psychic structures engaged by the ego in carrying out its tasks, were largely ignored in this first phase of psychoanalysis. Freud and other contemporary analysts were primarily interested in the factors underlying inner-psychic conflict and less in those involved in overcoming it. The integrating function of the ego, of such significance in the artistic process, was only investigated in a later phase of psychoanalytical development by ego psychology (Anna Freud, Heinz Hartmann, Ernst Kris, a.o.). Finally, in the fifties and sixties, investigations of the psychology of narcissism by the American psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut (d. 1981) resulted in a new theoretical and conceptual framework, which allows a deeper understanding of the premises and conditions of our two principles or aspirations.
According to Kohut, self-love-narcissism-is a decisive condition of mental health. Kohut analyzes the structure and dynamics of the self, that is, the conditions which enable us to apprehend ourselves as a center of our own ambitions, interests and values, in short, as an independent being, and thus to accept and love ourselves. He examines the formation and development of our self-love and the psychic "contents" or configurations towards which it is directed.
The infant's first experiences of life do not distinguish between the inner and outer world, between the ego and the non-ego, but only between the sensations of pleasure or "un"-pleasure. The mother (or other parent person), whose caring intervention eases the tension of the infant's needs, is not experienced as a separate, self-contained being but rather blends with the infant's "mono-reality." For the infant, the essential and exclusive contents of reality consist of the repetitive experience of its needs being gratified "as if by themselves." These experiences form the basis of the archaic feeling of omnipotence which becomes one of the first constituents of its psyche.11
Only gradually does the infant learn to associate the fluctuations in its sensation of well-being with the arrival of its mother and to experience her as something separate from itself. She then becomes a larger than life, omnipotent figure. However, child and mother are not always clearly separate and distinct; the infant's self-perception alternates between the two poles of this symbiotic dual unity. The child may "represent" this unity by following the example of the mother and trying to experience itself as a unified whole. The mother then becomes part of itself and in its fantasy, the infant adopts her size and power. Or the dual unity may take shape in the mother so that the child feels it is absorbed in her size and power. A rudimentary form of both poles has thus established itself in the child, between which the experiences and feelings of the self oscillate, namely
a) the feeling of its own greatness and omnipotence, which forms the basis of the grandiose self and which seeks expression and display, and
b) the archaic, omnipotent parent figure, the basis of later idealized structures, which compel the child to live up to this figure in order to become part of its greatness and power.
Further development of this core self is defined by the growing child's
relationship to its immediate environment. The child experiences itself-in the
sense of being mirrored-through the eyes of its parents. Both their positive and
their gradual, reality-oriented corrective reactions to its behavior are
internalized and, in the best of circumstances, enable the child to transform
its archaic fantasies of greatness and omnipotence, step by step, into a healthy
self-confidence, into reality-based ambitions and into exhibitionist pleasure in
its own activities, that is, in their display. The idealized parent figures are
also viewed more and more realistically and the ideas associated with them
internalized to form the foundations of the ideals that guide the growing
In the course of this two-fold process, out of the core self there emerge the decisive psychic "contents" or configurations towards which our self-love is directed, that is, the two essential components or "poles" of the self:
a) the exhibitionist pole of the self (the grandiose self), comprising the sensation and conviction of one's own uniqueness with the related ideas, experiences and pleasure in their display, and
b) the idealized pole of the self (the idealized structures), comprising one's own guiding ideals and the success of one's efforts to live up to them in intent and deed.
From now on these two poles form the inner core of the individual and coincide with the deepest, most intimate perception of the self. They form the basis of the inner experience, which leads us to say "that is me."12
Our self-esteem is the more "rounded" and unified and our self-love is directed more completely at our whole person, the more stable and autonomous is the articulation of the two poles of the self, the more the aspirations of the exhibitionist pole and the demands of the idealized pole are mutually related and their content compatible, and the better the ego succeeds in simultaneously addressing their often diametrically opposed claims and thus fulfilling them both. But even in the case of optimal development in childhood, the corresponding narcissistic equilibrium is not necessarily established once and for all; adults also need ongoing means of mirroring their own behavior and confirming their own worth.
In contrast to early psychoanalysis, Kohut's theoretical concepts do not confine human action exclusively to the gratification of direct, displaced or sublimated drives but postulate that it equally aspires to fulfill and express the self, or rather the two poles of the self. If psychoanalytical instinct theory interprets artistic creation as the expression of the sublimated gratification of instincts, then in view of Kohut's narcissism theory, the work of art may be understood as the gestalt and expression of the self, that is, the ambitions and ideals of an artist and his/her age.
We will deal with Kohut's theories in greater detail later, especially his investigation of the conditions under which the development of a stable self-esteem succeeds or fails, and his analysis of the reactions of a sufferer trying to counteract the loss of self-esteem and narcissistic equilibrium. We will also relate these conditions and reactions to artistic development, above all to that of the present day. For the time being, let it suffice to observe that Kohut's concept of the bipolar structure and dynamics of the self is the psychological equivalent of our two artistic principles. We adopt these as part of the theoretical foundations of our investigations and therefore come to the following conclusion: every work of art thrives on the tension between the demands of exhibitionist aspirations and the requirements of the idealized structures for which it is a vehicle. The elementary challenge of artistic work consists of uniting these two principles into a homogeneous gestalt.
The Cultural Aspect
A correspondence to our two principles is found in the social and cultural
determination of our existence and in the essence of human language, which
mirrors this determination. Every person is a singular and unique individual
and also a member of a society, which s/he represents. As divergent as
their respective demands may seem, society and the individual are still
inseparably bound together. Not only are they mutually dependent, they
also represent two aspects of one and the same phenomenon. All human behavior
must therefore come to terms with both individual and social demands,
but these are intertwined in such diverse and convoluted ways that their
mutual relationship can hardly be exhaustively expressed in the form of
a simple opposition. Thus Kant sees the means, which nature uses to
bring about the developement [sic] of all her predispositions in the unsociable
sociableness of men; that is, their propensity to enter into society,
which is however combined with a thorough resistance.13
Since people experience their guiding ideals as objective and independently valid values, a number of individuals can espouse the same ideals. Common ideals unite those who hold them into a community and thus form the foundations of every culture. To a certain extent they represent the social and integrating aspect of our psychic structure. In contrast, the personal experience of subjective aspirations and ambitions enables individuals to experience themselves as the center of their own initiative and activity, to set themselves off against their co-human beings and also to have an effect on them.
Although these contrasting tendencies of our psyche often contradict each other, both always play a part in all of our doings. Therefore, the opposition between the singular and the general is not coextensive with the juxtaposition of the individual and society. As Arnold Hauser so aptly puts it, the boundary where the social and the individual principle, the general and the singular meet, runs straight through every single individual. In this sense, the social equivalent of our two artistic principles offers interesting insights into the manner of their mutual determination.
Every society is based on a set of conventions and maxims that regulate the behavior of its individual members with a view to the fulfillment of collective goals. These conventions and laws structure the behavior of all the members of a society, so that the behavior of others is more or less comprehensible and predictable, and can also be influenced within the framework of the given order and the individual's possibilities. These conventions form the prerequisite of all social communication and mutual cooperation. However, they can fulfill their function only when they are binding for everyone, that is, when they are obeyed. To this end, they are idealized and, if ignored, sanctions are imposed, ranging from ridicule or contempt to official punishment.
Not only fashions, etiquette, customs and laws, ethical and aesthetic principles, morals and "good taste," but also a society's knowledge and technology-these all are subject to an order. In most cases, the orders of a society are legitimated by both rational and irrational values and argumentation. They are distinguished from each other not only by their function but also by the emotional value they have for the individual and for society.
Every individual takes a more or less conscious stand on the diversity of existing conventions and maxims. In the interests of integrity, s/he seeks to reinforce their mutual coherence and agreement in order to bind them in a comprehensive, overarching structure. To this end, the individual classifies them according to the importance s/he assigns to them. Some will be jettisoned, others pragmatically employed, still others internalized and appropriated as one's own. But society not only confronts the individual with laws and conventions, it also offers, within the social framework, many means of gratifying instinctual drives and exhibitionist aspirations and ambitions. Here the individual must again choose which of these to appropriate. The double choice thus made not only determines the space people assign to their instinctual drives and exhibitionist aspirations, and the particular form they will take; it also determines the way in which people see themselves as individual and social beings. We know from our own experience how difficult it is to make this selection coherent and compatible with the idealized and exhibitionist poles of our self as well as with our social environment.
Similarly, every society tries to establish agreement between its interests and ambitions-or rather those of its members-and the more or less coherent order of its many idealized structures and, in addition, to subject both its aspirations and its values to a guiding paradigm. This leads to a dialectical process in which the leeway of the individual and the rights of a society's members are ceaselessly adjusted to the exigencies of the social structures. The transformation which the two poles of a society's collective self thereby undergo are mirrored in the respective cultural development.
Most social conventions are older than the individuals whose behavior they regulate. They are already there as we grow up. They define us not only from without but also from within because in the long course of childhood, during which time we are dependent on our parents, we have largely internalized the basic principle of all social convention: "always act in conformity with society." For that very reason social conventions bear the mark of the individual as well. Their reality rests on the awareness and the behavior of single individuals and acquires its collective shape only through them.
This is illustrated by language itself. Language is the result of an amalgam of rules and conventions, passed down through the generations, and subtly, minimally but ceaselessly renewed by the individuals who use it. The contribution of the individual is not restricted to following and using existing conventions as a means of attaining his own goals-in the case of language, saying or understanding something, i.e. communicating with others-but always entails the confirmation, stabilization, and also the modification of these conventions and structures. If such modifications are adopted by certain groups within a society, collective variants emerge as general linguistic idioms. Thus language (like any other social convention) is also based on the bipolar dynamics of the tension between a general and an individual principle, the tension between order and spontaneity.
Due to the conventions formed in the course of its history, every artistic genre possesses a language conditioned by its respective medium. This means artists encounter a predetermined structure, which they use and whose development they thereby influence. Even if artists later find what they regard as their own idiom, they have merely redefined a few of the rules and are expressing themselves in a variant of the general language. Every new artistic idiom is comprehensible and thus viable only to the extent that it follows laws whose coherence and inner logic can serve as the basis for new conventions.
These rules, like those of every social convention, are both functionally and ideally determined. They not only fulfill the function of communication-the artist's utterance, that is, the fulfillment of his exhibitionist aspirations-but also embody separate rational and irrational values. They thereby allow the artist to relate his utterances to these values and thus, simultaneously, to satisfy idealized demands with his exhibition.
Every artistic idiom shares one essential aspect with speech. Speech unites sound and meaning. This unity between the sensual and the spiritual is the creative achievement of all human language, for it allows the spiritual to enter a sensual dimension, and thus provides the medial prerequisite of the artistic experience in which the spiritual acquires a sensual shape and becomes one with it.
Given this equivalence and interaction between the sensual and the spiritual, it is possible, within the framework of artistic production, for aesthetic, ethical or logical rules to represent and alternate with each other and thus become vehicles of the same meaning. In art, for instance, the emotional place of moral prescriptions may be occupied, among others, by an aesthetic canon. Kohut also points out that submission to a set of aesthetic rules may yield feelings of satisfaction and security, which are related to the moral satisfaction of having done right.14 Artists thereby obey their own inner standards of beauty-the aesthetic equivalent of the idealized pole of the self. This justifies their exhibition, 'enhances' it as it were, and unites the aspirations of the two poles of the self into a homogeneous form.
The genuinely creative artist then succeeds in charting new territory in the fields of beauty, of ideas and subject matters worthy of idealization, and also of socially accepted individual demands and freedoms. Since message and form are inseparable in art, the artist always creates new linguistic structures that are themselves the message. The Medium Is the Message: Reduced to its actual truth content, namely "the medium is a message," McLuhan's aphorism finds compelling confirmation in works of art.
Thesis II: The Cyclical Course of Artistic Development
I view modernism as an independent cultural age comparable to Greco-Roman antiquity (500 bce-400 ce), the Middle Ages (400-1300), or the Modern Age (1400-1900). A look at this chronology shows that these epochs successively diminish in length. Modernism, whose beginnings I date around 1870,15 already seems to be drawing to a close and is unlikely to survive into the 21st century. This dwindling life expectancy is a consequence of steadily accelerating cultural developments. The fact that modernism is of brief duration does not lessen its status as a cultural age.
The Brockhaus Encyclopedia defines an age as the longest historical period of time determined by the influence and consequences of a certain event, person or idea. In this sense a cultural age is delimited both temporally and geographically. In keeping with Kohut's theory, one might say: Every cultural age is governed by an overarching, idealized conception that lays claim to the validity of its values and standards as applied not only to humankind but also, directly or indirectly, to the entire universe. This conception or idea not only supplies the foundation for the social fabric of people living together in a given society but also coincides with the "religious" vision that bridges the gulf between human and world and joins the two within a larger whole.
Greek and Roman antiquity rested on the idea of the indivisible, the individual, the atom; the Christian Middle Ages on belief in eternity, a human god and life after death; the Modern Age on the notions of genius, almighty God-man and the complete domination of natural forces; and modernism on faith in the sciences, in the rationally comprehensible, consistent predetermination and unity of being. Every age adopts essential aspects of the ideas that preceded it but subjects them to fundamental modification.
The respective paradigms define the self-image and the worldview of their contemporaries and invest individual and collective ambitions with meaning, measure and orientation; they form the spiritual basis of the respective cultures and find representative expression in their art.
The process is dialectical. The paradigm is subject to change as a consequence of the respective artistic endeavors and these endeavors are in turn affected by independent changes of the paradigm. This interplay between specific worldviews/self-images and their formal condensation in the work of art propels artistic developments.
The nature of the process might be compared to the course of a human life and can be viewed and interpreted as such from a number of different vantage points. The guiding idea of an age is delimited by birth and death. It has already germinated in the spiritual heritage of the preceding age now drawing to a close. It enters the stage of history with the emergence of a new ideal; it embarks on its own era. It progresses through childhood and youth (its archaic epoch) and reaches the classical phase of its development on coming of age. All doubts have been dropped; its artistic, aesthetic manifestations have acquired a clear, distinctive and unmistakable shape. The new idea has found its own language, community and conventions. Succeeding generations will test their viability, adapt them to their own expressive needs, and apply and modify them in a host of different ways. The expressive and formal potential of the new, originally unknown paradigm is ultimately exhausted. Despite repeated attempts to regenerate it, it gradually, inevitably loses credibility and appeal until it is finally supplanted by a new vision, a new paradigm.
The process is familiar. Humankind, forever confronted with the frightening vastness, uncertainty and mystery of nature and the cosmos,16 has always tried to plumb the mysteries of existence, to approach the unfathomable, to conquer the diversity of a boundless universe, and to grasp the essence of being through interpretation.
The discovery of a radically new approach, a new paradigm, inspires the impassioned hope that the eternal mystery can be solved after all and lends momentum to new developments. In the initial stages, the new paradigm seems to fulfill its promise; it proves to be a fruitful and compelling principle that leads to unsuspected means of approaching the heart of the matter. But the more these means are explored and exploited from every conceivable angle, the more unavoidable the realization that the distance from ultimate knowledge has not diminished, that the mystery of being has remained untouched.
Giacometti described reality as being behind a curtain that must be swept aside, only to find another reality, and another. It is as if reality were behind the curtains, he writes, You tear them open and there's another reality [ ] and another, I have the impression or the illusion that I make progress every day. That motivates me, as if it were indeed possible to grasp the essence of life. You keep going despite the knowledge that the closer you get to the 'matter', the more it recedes. The distance between me and the model keeps increasing. [ ] It is a never-ending quest.17
Once the illusion of making progress every day begins to fade, the cycle draws to a close. The paradigm of the age has been revealed and integrated into the collective conscious; it has become part of the society's cultural heritage. The human mind begins to look for new dimensions, for new promises. Cultural development is characterized by a general attitude of anticipation and an almost manic delight in experimentation. The time is ripe for a new paradigm.
The character of this cyclical process obviously differs from culture to culture. The artistic production of an age bears telling witness to its respective developments. In connection with a psychological reading of historical processes discussed in his essay, "Creativeness, Charisma, Group Psychology," Kohut maintains that studying the personalities of individuals who exerted a decisive influence on the course of history can make but a limited contribution to a scientifically valid explanation of history within the framework of psychoanalysis. Taking the view that new approaches will have to be found for psychoanalysis to deliver more comprehensive explanations of historical processes, Kohut suggests that we posit the existence of a certain psychological configuration-let us call it the 'group self'-which is analogous to the self of the individual. We are then in a position to observe the group self as it is formed, as it is held together, as it oscillates between fragmentation and reintegration, as it shows regressive behavior when it moves toward fragmentation, etc.-all in analogy to phenomena of individual psychology to which we have comparatively easy access in the clinical (psychoanalytical) situation.18
Kohut is well aware of the difficulties entailed in such an undertaking and asks whether it is even possible to collect reliable data of this kind, i.e. data that a group compiles about itself. It seems to me that the ongoing and observable development of artistic production and the manner of its reception delivers just such data.
The periodicity of this development, the constants of its cyclic course, beginning with archaism, leading to classicism, and drawing to a close with the baroque, has been traced by a number of art historians in both the work of individual artists as well as the history of collective movements or entire epochs.19 Although my understanding of this cyclical process diverges substantially from that of my predecessors (among other things, by explaining these processes on the basis of psychic premises and conditions), I share their conviction that there is evidence of such periodicity in the artistic development of Greco-Roman, medieval and modern times and that it allows conclusions to be drawn about changing views of the self and the world in the respective cultures. Moreover, I assume that the cultural developments now taking place follow a similar pattern.
This assumption and the related conviction that modernism with its fundamentally new paradigm is to be viewed as an age of its own is the substance of my second thesis.
Thesis III: Four Fundamental Artistic Attitudes
Art is a spiritual means of coming to terms with reality; the artist's endeavors provide metaphorical answers to four elementary questions:
- What is real?
- How is everything related?
- How do I fit in?
- What does it all mean?
These questions are closely linked. They themselves constitute the theme
while their answers constitute the 'content' of the artistic message. The artist
pursues four goals which coincide with four basic artistic attitudes or
approaches. With one exception, these can be named after the distinct styles in
which they found their most marked artistic expression in the 19th century.
- The empirical or realistic attitude seeks to perceive external, visible reality in order to recognize and 'take possession of' its essential aspects, i.e. to recreate them in the imagination.
- The pictorial or structural attitude seeks to understand and organize external, visible reality, i.e. to recognize and reveal the principles on the basis of which appearances are related, attuned to each other, and experienced as parts of an interconnected and comprehensive whole.20
- The expressive or romantic attitude seeks to perceive and express inner, invisible reality, i.e. to make it visible.
- The idealistic or symbolist attitude seeks to interpret and evaluate inner, invisible reality, i.e. to relate it to a general and comprehensive meaning.
In artistic practice these attitudes never function in isolation but are always
linked in a variety of ways, whereby one of them takes the lead, dominates
the respective works and directions, and determines their expression and
character. Having chosen an attitude, artists ordinarily remain true to
it although they have also been known to change course in the process
of their individual development. Picasso, for example, shifted from the
idealist-symbolist attitude of his Blue Period to the structural attitude
of Cubism, which he developed together with Braque, returning again to
Symbolism in his late work.
Despite these occasional turnabouts, the four basic attitudes characterize the artistic development of modernism in the form of four different, parallel lines of development. The artistic cycle of an age thus breaks down not only into its successive phases (archaism, classicism, baroque, etc.) but also into the developmental lines of the four different tendencies.
The last two theses-the assumption of cyclical development and of four distinct, basic artistic attitudes-yield a set of coordinates illustrated in the following diagram. The horizontal rows represent the four basic attitudes, i.e. the artistic lines of development which are governed by one of these attitudes; the columns mark the successive phases of this development. This model allows the work of a single artist to be psychologically, stylistically and historically defined within the development of modernism and sensibly related to the works of other artists. (It thus forms one of the preconditions for understanding this development as a meaningful and cohesive process.)
The course of a cycle of development can be altered, disrupted or even brought to a halt by external factors (wars, natural catastrophes or the impact of foreign cultures). For this reason, my cyclical model, despite its inner logic and inherent laws, cannot be applied to every cultural age; nor does it allow binding statements about future developments. But in relation to the artistic development of modernism, the usefulness of these ordering and elucidating structures can be substantiated.