Friday, March 5, 2010

Discrediting the Object: Modernism and Modernity

 Vasily Kandinsky, seeing Claude Monet's "The Haystack" at an exhibition of French Impressionists in Moscow in 1896 said that this event "stamped my whole life and shook me to the depth of my being." What especially captivated Kandinsky was Monet's "discrediting of the object as an essential element within the picture." [I quote from Rachel Polonsky's richly informative review of Russian and Soviet Views of Modern Western Art in this week's edition of TLS (2-26-10)]

This phrase, "discrediting the object" aptly describes not only huge tracts of modern and modernist art but accounts for the fear and loathing it aroused in conservative or official minds. If the authority of the object is discredited, what's next? Impressionism set the alarm bells ringing in the 1880s and 90s and I'm not sure they have ever really stopped. A Russian critic writing in the 1890s about the "frightening" new art from the west said it seemed to be "penetrating secret and very dangerous places," another thought he saw the devil at work, another the "fruit of demonic possession." The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century were especially hostile to anything that might seem to discredit the authority of the state on any subject whatever. Democratic states on the other hand, which make no claims to omniscience, give a shrug of indifference: art, like religion, is of none of their business. So what if the authority of the object is being discredited? Objects don't have authority.

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