Defending Modernism / by Chris Hall

I support classic Feminism and consider myself a champion of equal rights and opportunity, but I do not get why Feminist and Post-Colonial Deconstructionist critical theory seem so hell bent on destroying Modernism.  I have yet to be convinced that Modernist aesthetics equals political repression, homophobia, misogyny, sexism, anti-Semitism, racism, Fascism, imperialism, and colonialism, all accusations leveled toward the movement.  It just doesn’t balance.  Clearly there are some bad apples, but I do not see why it has to spoil the whole bunch. You need not throw out the baby with the bathwater.  There might have been a few examples of intolerance among art, artists, and critics, but I do not see how this is endemic of the Modernist mission as a whole.  

Much of what Feminist and Post-Colonial criticism finds problematic in Modern Art can not be proven as concrete examples of racism and misogyny.  We can never clearly know what goes on in the mind of the artist during an artwork’s creation without an explicit explanation.  Consider Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907.  Does Picasso’s rough portrayal of Barcelona’s prostitutes make him a woman hater or is the portrayal a representation of the psychological uncomfortably of the client/viewer and prostitute/art relationship?  And what about Picasso’s appropriation of African masks?  Is his borrowing of another culture’s aesthetics done with admiration for the art or with Colonial insensitivity? 

Considering the Modernist mission . . . to wake people up from their slumber, does shaking an audience out of complacency necessarily mean that you are elitist, self righteous, or Fascist?  No . . . I don’t think so.  I believe that argument was applied to Modernist Art (which championed artist-as-hero art) in order to make room for less ambitious, quieter art (which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily).  There is room for both the heroic and the humble in the Art World.  Quiet, humble art expresses as much a philosophy and rhetoric as larger, louder, and heroic art does.  So, if believing in something, having a point of view, and expressing it is considered Fascist, well then, both camps are guilty.  

 Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907

 Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907