The work of Brian O’Doherty, who served as editor of this magazine in the early 1970s, is included in “Forty,” a group exhibition at MoMA PS1 marking the institution’s fortieth anniversary. It’s an occasion for us to publish writing by and about O’Doherty from our archives online. “Decoding O’Doherty” by Saul Ostrow, a monographic 2007 essay responding to a traveling retrospective, offers a thorough overview of his work as an artist. As an editor, O’Doherty introduced the “Issues and Commentary” rubric to A.i.A., creating a platform for writers to sound off on pressing artistic and social matters of the day. In one of his early columns for the department, O’Doherty tries to make sense of post-modernism.—Eds.
Now that the modernist era (1848–1969?) is over, many of us are camped around the exit of that vertiginous tunnel peering back in and reporting to each other what the passage through—squeezed by the giant muscle of historical inevitability—was like. What appeared so diverse when we were in transit now assumes, in all its forms, a certain familial appearance. The pride we had in that diversity—that our own age was unique because it had no single complexion—has been humbled. Time will further clarify the “look” of the modernist era, will graft its artifacts together into a discernable modernist style, underlining those key tics and mannerisms by which an age betrays its visual habits. Soon, along with the Renaissance and Baroque, we will capitalize Modernism.
And so we speak of post-modernism—a word that came into common usage in the late sixties. Though it is our diagnosis for what surrounds us, one never hears it defined. Perhaps there is an unconscious agreement to withhold a definition, partly because everyone’s definition will expose the confusion the word is designed to cover. Even trying to define it now seems a consciousness about our consciousness that is a leftover habit from a previous age.
Of the many processes that characterized modernism two seem of importance here. One, the progressive loss of an idealism (or anti-idealism—modernism always produced these dialectical twins) that lurked behind most of its endeavors. Second, the gradual development—as the first disappeared—of complicated strategies by which thought could be conducted and art made. This was marked by an increasing paradoxicality which became institutionalized, providing well-defined limits within which modernism could maintain its “movements,” its illusions of progress, its eventually smug avant-gardism.
The risks that modernism cultivated now seem to us distinctly less radical. Assured even in its doubts, cultivating its dilemmas with virtuosity, it authenticated itself by a tradition disguised as the lack of one. As confident of the future as it was doubtful of the present, it ever approached its own vindication. The void, once so delicately sounded by the formal and linguistic implements that modernism perfected, is now our common and factual environment, energized here and there by that leftover process modernism bequeathed to us—process itself. For process is the last resort of an art surfeited with paradox and deprived of confidence. Art partially mobilizes itself out of its stasis by tasks and procedures which mimic and parody life, thus exposing life’s artificiality and donating to it some semblance of art—usually by virtue of these two current academies of order and chaos. Much of this is done under the aegis of finding a morality in the materials. But this—as well as the search for new materials and media—can be seen not as an enterprising expansion of art’s capacities, but as a failure of the imagination, a further loss of confidence by an art that for the first time is pondering its self-liquidation. Just as the growth of the industry to “explain” art to every citizen may be a sign not of greater sympathy and understanding, but of cultural fatigue.
Modernism ended when the unexpected no longer arose from the expected territory, when we were deprived of the need that prompted us to recognize the solution.[pq]Perhaps there is an unconscious agreement to withhold a definition of post-modernism, partly because everyone’s definition will expose the confusion the word is designed to cover.[/pq]When modernism’s clear lines of discontinuity were formally dissolved, it became obvious that modernism itself could be looked on as a Post-Romantic age—an addition to tradition rather than a break with it. In the post-modernist devolution, doubt has no context to give it meaning, choice is deprived of any authority (even that of chance), and expectation forestalled. Nothing commands our allegiance, and if it does, it is by definition worthless. A move in one direction immediately reveals its hollowness by calling up alternatives and opposites that are themselves hollow. Assurance is self-delusion, and self-delusion does not provide assurance. Modernist art resulted from the exploitation of contradictions, or from an escape into an absolutism which such contradictions simultaneously promised and revoked. By the end of modernism, contradiction (and history) expired in a parody of the dialectical process—an attempt to prolong an art-making process that had become impossible. This impossibility is not the modernist “impossible,” with its overtones of conquest and transcendence, but simply the recognition that if something could not be done it should not be attempted. Modernist silence—that glamorous self-exile with its sardonic mask—has been succeeded by an angry dumbness.
This anger is post-modernism’s main emotional content—fundamentally an anger at being forced to contemplate its own obsolescence. This has gone in a number of directions. The means of art, occasionally worried to yield some morality, are more often subjected to an immense distaste; ambiguous relations with materials have been displaced by irritation, for materials only reflect empty dilemmas. And since in post-modernism all the strategies of modernism have become highly conscious, there is equal distaste for the habits of mind that could bring art to such a pass. To apply these strategies now is to raise a headstone over one’s efforts before one begins. And previous art—the art in the museums—exists across an abyss. It seems the product of minds that, no matter how pressed, still had options open to them, and illusions enough to make them workable. The resentment arising from our toleration of the intolerable declares previous art irrelevant—as indeed it is to artists’ dilemmas now.
This post-modernist hatred—of materials, of previous art, of a habit of mind that will not let us alone—focuses the activities that now stand in in the place of art, each cherishing its own fallacy.
Is not the exacerbated social conscience also a way of finding certainties that art no longer affords? Is not the move away from the gallery an attempt to prolong it by making the world a gallery?[pq]Modernism ended when the unexpected no longer arose from the expected territory, when we were deprived of the need that prompted us to recognize the solution.[/pq](It is small enough now.) Is not the flight from the object to words an attempt to obscure our state with a discourse which—as words do—makes art’s translucency comfortably opaque? Is not the new realism an attempt to find (as Western art traditionally does) certainties that can restore confidence? Is not the lyrical painterliness a way of ignoring the whole problem by accepting an exquisitely marginal position in return for small satisfactions?
I think it was Nietzsche who said that we have art to prevent us from dying of the truth. Now we have the truth and it may be that art is dying of it. If this were true then it would, in that laborious habit from which we cannot escape, be grounds for confidence; it would be a certainty we could begin to perplex. Or must we be reduced to the thought that the threat of obsolescence is sometimes the preface to a transformation of usage?