Podium: `Post-Modern' Is an Obsolete Term from a Talk at the Tate Gallery, London, by an Art History Professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia

By Smith, Bernard | The Independent (London, England), December 14, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Podium: `Post-Modern' Is an Obsolete Term from a Talk at the Tate Gallery, London, by an Art History Professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia


Smith, Bernard, The Independent (London, England)


I CONTEND that the modernism that is said to have begun as an avant-garde style, with Manet or Brancusi or Frank Lloyd Wright or whoever, and came to dominate the art of the first half of this century, is now no longer modern. There exists now a powerful consensus, and one with which I agree, that it ceased to dominate art practice during the Sixties, when a new historical style that still goes by the absurd name of post- modernism suddenly appeared upon the intellectual horizon.

The word "post-modernism" is not only absurd, it's semantically vulnerable, because it depends, for its very name, upon a modernism that's no longer modern. On the other hand it invokes, so far as the future is concerned, an infinite regress of post-modernisms, post- post-modernism", etc. We must find a better way to describe what occurred during the Sixties and thereafter.

In my view, words such as "modern", "modernism", "modernity", possess a much more powerful semantic durability than words such as "postmodern", "post-modernism", "post-modernity". The word "modern" and its linguistic equivalents have served us since the sixth century to mean, broadly speaking, what my New Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines as "of or pertaining to the present and recent times". My hunch is that it will continue to mean just that, during the 21st century and beyond. But if this is so, post- modernism is likely to become a period-style term for the art and thought of the last three decades of this century. I contend that modernism has been an endemic component of art practice since the 15th century, but that, like Proteus, it changes its shape and look in response to new generational challenges and a gradual exhaustion of the immanent potential of historic styles. Modernisms are avant-garde movements that foreshadow period styles. Somewhere I recall reading that the Gothic was once called "le style moderne"; Vasari certainly called the art of Giorgione and Leonardo "la maniera moderna" and Ruskin, of course, wrote his Modern Painters. But today we think of Gothic as Gothic, not modern; Giorgione as early Renaissance; Ruskin's painters, such as Turner, as Romantics. The modern, then, is normative, not a period style term, a changeable feast.

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