third year: 1999 series of lectures: lectures / conversations with lecturers / lecturers

course for curators of contemporary art: course participants / study excursions / program collaborators / exhibition /


Charles Harrison
The merits of Incompetence

A current discussion about art tends to be inflected by the idea of the global, by the idea of the post-modern, and by various forms of connection between the two. There is a widespread tendency to conceive the global as modern, progressive and dynamic. The global is thus given a positive cultural value coinciding with the value it is given in the expansionist rhetoric of multinational companies. Where the global is associated with the post-modern, the implication is that global culture is more modern than modernism itself. On the face of it, it might seem somewhat contradictory to reject the values of modernism in favour of the new. So what is it that we are supposed to have finished with? What do we now understand by modernism?

In general, modernism stands for a certain relationship between socio-economic reality and cultural forms; a relationship in which the tendencies of the latter are supposed to maintain some critical autonomy with respect to the former. The pessimistic view of modernism, as articulated for instance by the American sociologist Daniel Bell, is that modernism encourages divergence, dissent and non-conformism, and that it is productive of conflict. As the French students boasted in 1968, 'Nous sommes tous undésirables'. The model students of the post-modern age, however, are supposed to respect the differences of others as much as they assert their own. 'We are all citizens of the world', is their cry.

There have been two principal concepts of modernism in art. The first form of modernism stands for belief in the autonomy of art and in the aesthetic as an absolute value, distinct from the social. The English writer Clive Bell was representative of early modernist theorists. He believed that all works of art were united by their 'significant form' and by their ability to arouse emotion in the spectator. From this perspective, the differences attributable to different conditions of production seemed of less importance than the aesthetic properties that works of art have in common. As to artists, Bell believed that there was no point in trying to conceive them as social beings, for they were 'the salt of the earth'. Between the wars abstract art was conceived within the modernist tradition as a form of ideal planning from above: an utopian model for a better world. However, after 1939 it ceased to be possible to associate the ideal with any form of social order. In the second - American - phase of abstract art, the work of art was conceived rather as the model for an ideal personal relationship; a kind of all-absorbing equivalent for other people.

However there is a price to be paid for keeping the rest of the world at bay. As thus conceived, the work of art required increasingly specialised conditions of display and encounter if its integrity was to be preserved. By the 1960s it seemed that there was a tendency for modernist art to impose a kind of disregard for the social order. It had become specialised, professional and competent - at least as represented in the discourse which accompanied it.

The Conceptual Art movement may be seen as a reaction against this tendency and this discourse. It was aggressively unprofessional, irresponsible and incompetent. It said, 'We don't know what is aesthetic', and 'There are no universal values'. In the most radical elements of the movement, the competencies of painting and sculpture were deliberately abandoned or frustrated, and the practice of art was recast as a task of learning, discussing and writing - a project to re-view modernism from outside its own framework of ideas and beliefs. The history of modern art itself was recast in the process. This led to a second, revisionist, form of modernism.

In this second form, modernism stands for the critical and oppositional tendency in modern culture, and for the constant revision of concepts of the aesthetic. The origins of modernism as thus conceived lie in an avant-garde break with the values of bourgeois art and culture, initiated in the mid-nineteenth century. The art in question aspires to reflect those truths which normal bourgeois consciousness seeks to conceal from itself. Its tactic is to render its non self-critical spectators incompetent - though at the risk of being condemned as incompetent itself. Thus Cézanne was dismissed as an incompetent in the 1880s. Now, however, we see his art as the very standard of modernist competence, and the work of his Salon detractors as morally incompetent - lacking in taste. Cézanne's inability to paint like the Salon painters - whatever its causes - appears as a virtue. A conservative sophistication is shown up by the critical 'innocence' of the 'primitive'.

During the twentieth century the association of modernism with the critique of sophistication meant that modernist styles were increasingly distinguished from naturalist and realist modes of picturing. In the post-war period critical modernism stood apparently opposed to a doctrinaire realism. In fact the contrast was misleading. On the one hand the title of 'realist' was applied with increasing inappropriateness to merely conservative forms of figuration. On the other the critical power of modernist art was diminished to the extent that it became established as a culture in its own right. This circumstance of misleading contrast was ironically represented in Art & Language's Portraits of V.I.Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock of 1980.

One sign of the supposedly post-modern is the executive reconciliation of modernism and realism, west and east; the idea of a global culture again. In the work of Feng Mengbo (as shown at Documenta X in 1997), clips of Chinese Socialist Realist film are incorporated into high-tech videos displaying typically modernist formal devices. In the postmodern world, the global technology of electronic communication reigns supreme. The video screen brings 'original art' direct into (almost) every home. The late-'60s photos of political violence on the streets now look curiously old-fashioned, local and 'modern'. We say 'there was a little local difficulty'. Harmony is global. Yet beneath the streets, or above them, there are still those who keep watch for signs of trouble, on screens where there is no art to be seen. And trouble is made by incompetents.

In fact, if art is global, it is not by virtue of its engagement with the technology of the day, or even with the 'issues' of the day, but because it touches what touches us all and defines us as human. From the noisy world of Documenta X - the first truly 'global' Documenta - two images stick in the mind. The first is from Gerhard Richter's Atlas: the image of a candle, its flame blowing in the wind - the simplest of images for the fragility of life, yet still somehow affecting in the hands of an artist confident of his means. The second is a painting showing the open spread of a printed book, from Art & Language's installation Sighs Trapped by Liars - an image which reanimates the centuries-old dialectic between looking and reading, pictures and words. These images are made of everyday materials, yet as images they are given the power to touch us as though for the first time. They bespeak that form of resolution without which art cannot persist: trust in the potential of a medium.

Art must embody some form of resistance to the dominant regimes of the culture - some form of incompetence. It cannot be good unless it does. This is a basic tenet of modernism. Does it follow that it is an outdated notion? Does it no longer hold true in the post-modern world? Or is the idea of the post-modern, like the idea of the global, no more than a return to the earlier, discredited version of modernism, in which all differences were overcome in the eyes of the global aesthete-cum-consumer?