Art is a subject of the Elite—not in the sense that the artist necessarily belongs to or enjoys the privileges of those whom they serve—what makes art elitist is its, inevitable, destiny to suit and please the particular taste of the upper-class, and to obtain the approval and exclusivity of that elite and its institutions.American Sociologist, Charles Wright Mills, defined the elite groups as ‘those political, economic, and military circles’ (Mills, 1957) that involve powerful members of the bureaucratic, corporate, intellectual, and government groups that control and influence fundamental institutions and policies.And with the expansion of capitalism, a globalized market economy, and a western military authority, it is clear that class division on a global scale developed alongside, since contemporary globalization did not convey that ‘everything in the global economy is global,’ (Castells, 1997) in fact, a global economy is characterized by, and reliant on, these class divisions and the competitiveness towards sharing the benefits from economic growth and profit.
Looking at the rise and domination of capitalism and industrialization that originated in the West in the early 19th century, and taking into consideration Arts’ primary and dependent relationship to these powers, the true nature of Modern art movements are, therefore, put in question. If the ethos of what embodies art is an impression of the global political, economic, and cultural spheres mentioned earlier, then is global art history truly global? Is post-modernism still, essentially and primarily, western-centric, elitist, and ahistorical, similar to the modern art movement that preceded it? It is, thus, necessary to lay out a theoretical framework based around Modern and Postmodern art, what constitutes and defines them, so that we may be able to pin down how adequately the economic, social, political, and genealogical dimensions of the topic reflect on this framework; Furthermore, through reviewing and examining the most comprehensive postmodern survey books on art, an aspect of the imminent nature and the implementation of Postmodernism in art—and possibly art history in general—is possibly disclosed to us and may allow us to discern a more plausible understanding of the topic in question.
The urban and industrial development in western culture during the 19th century, altered change—politically, socially, and economically, to the conditions of the west. It was under these conditions that modernism originated, a movement initiated by individuals who, at present, would be considered modernists—or the markers of advancement—that developed ideas and notions to reflect their modern period. This cultural substance is what is understood as modernity—the cultural experience of existing in a modern world;Thus, modernism is an echo, a mien and, in some forms, an enmity of that shift.From a genealogical perspective, modernist art is considered to have been located in two major centers of the western world: In Paris, during the mid-19th and 20th century—from Edouard Manet and the Impressionist—as well as New York in the mid-20th century—to American abstract expressionism—onwards.
In examining the primary focal point of early modernist painting, it is evident how artists such as Manet, Paul Cezanne, and Pierre-August Renoir, depicted this progressive shift through their radical modes of visual representation. The Impressionists seem to have initiated a reaction against the earlier epoch of the orientations of the subject matter of a work of art. They, thus, developed a new method of portraying what their title implies, an impression of the appearance of reality, and not the entity itself. In his book, Modern theories of art: From Impressionism to Kandinsky, Moshe Barasch explores the advent of impressionism by suggesting that, as a response to the earlier methods of artistic practice, 19th century modern painters, in particular the impressionists, focused on attempting to capture the ephemeral through their modes of painting rather than a shift from the subject matter that is usually portrayed in art. He proceeds to explain that in an attempt to shift the intention behind their works of art, it is inevitable that the process itself shifted with it.
This shift that Barasch speaks of is observed in the manner in which these artists diverted from the traditional methods of artistic representation, their rejection of the common and administered forms of painting, their departure from classical subject matter—which mostly portrayed the notion of the heroic—as well as their break from the conventional, long-established painting techniques governed by the academies. A few aesthetic examples appear in the rustic and unelaborate brushstrokes, the perversion of colours, the flattening of dimensions and perspectives, and the dismissal of chiaroscuro—contrast between light and shade.
Reflecting on the aesthetic modes of representation mentioned above, and on Barasch’s description of early modernist art, it is comprehended that while these artists were only capturing and depicting their reality—underlyingly the shift in power, and the rapid industrialization of Europe—they had, inadvertently, revealed the intrinsic nature of modernity, and what it brought with it—mass-produced consumer goods, and eventually, the commodification of art. These artists disclosed the rise of a modern age under a dominant capitalist system, that in time, imbedded itself deeply in western culture. This is evident in many early modernist paintings such as Renoir’s ‘Bal du Moulin de la Galette’ (1876), ‘Portraits at the Stock Exchange’ (1879) by Edgar Degas, and Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergere’ (1882). In his essay, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his followers, art historian Timothy J. Clark, delved into constructing a framework around this notion by questioning whether these artists, by painting the everyday representations of their reality—whether it bourgeoisie societies or petits bourgeois, drinking at bars and dining in gardens, or bar maidens, street performers and prostitutes, or just the streets of Paris and parks—praised this consumer-driven culture. Clark goes on to question whether modern art’s rejection of ‘realist illusionism’ was an embodiment of their ignorance towards the devastations of modernity’s political oppression, and the malevolent nature of capitalism.
Is it then acceptable to indicate, that the political and economic fabric of early modern society manifested in its cultural substance? And since capitalism, commerce, mass consumerism, and imperialism remain deeply submerged in the structure of society, could that imply that post-modernism is inherently just another fragment/reflection of that system?