The first time someone accused me of hating modern art, I was confused. I love modern art, I replied. I revere Cézanne. I adore Matisse. It took a few minutes to understand that ‘modern art’ in this conversation meant what I would call contemporary art, the art of today, as opposed to a type of art that evolved in the later 19th century and reached full self-awareness about a century ago, with the incendiary works of Picasso and the rivalrous responses of Matisse.
Modernism, I would have replied at the time, ended in about 1960. Now I’m not so sure. It seemed very naive and historically stupid, a few years ago, for people to be calling the work of, say, Antony Gormley or Tracey Emin “modern art”. It appeared to be an unfortunate educational side-effect of the rebranding of the Tate. In calling a new museum with a contemporary flavour ‘Tate Modern’, the world’s most influential art institution rode roughshod over definitions, categories, accuracy. How many times have I complained, “but it’s really Tate Post-Modern”. And yet, it no longer seems such a dumb or confused choice of words.
We live in modern times. Every generation thinks it does, of course. The new is always new. But these times are the most rapidly, unpredictably and promisingly molten since the 1900s when Picasso was creating cubism. At the time when modern art exploded into being, the world was visibly becoming a different place: electric light, the first powered flight, the motor car, the phonograph, radio, cinema ... It was a moment of possibility. Between, say, 1890 and 1914, the world became, in a word, modern.
Today, changes of comparable depth and grandeur are taking place. Modern life is becoming — well, more modern. We’re entering the science fiction age. New technologies are materialising and mutating with a speed that’s utterly exhilarating. I guess this is why I’ve given up hating what that person meant by ‘modern art’. In a world changing as fast as ours, you can’t really ask artists not to be excited by the endless metamorphoses of everything. We can no longer be cynical about modernity.
Everything’s changing, and the changes promise ... who knows. Perhaps a ‘post-human’ future, a time of cyborgs. Again, that is how it looked to people a century ago, when Brancusi and Duchamp were creating images of the robotic and alien.
Art now is ‘modern’, perhaps even modernist. It’s certainly not post-modern any more. That definition belongs to the 1980s, when the decline of socialism and fall of communism created the illusion of a time after history. Some call these times ‘altermodern’, but I think the right word is, simply, modern. Artists are trying to respond to the new, the modern, in ways at once liberated and uneasy. It is a courageous moment, and at least, this time around, we have a tradition of the new to help us find our bearings.
So, I love modern art, 1907- ?