Faking ItJohn Haber
in New York City
Modernism and Authenticity
In the art world, one often hears that Modernism is dead. To a broader public, however, modern art and whatever else might have followed it are all one—and all highly suspicious. After nearly a century the burden is still on modern art, especially abstract art, to prove that it is not all a fraud. For those outside the arts, that makes it hard to take Postmodernism seriously either. Common sense sees yet another obscure, politically correct layer of academic fakery.
I take a century of art seriously indeed—and not just because it has something to do with what is on TV this evening. The best explanation of culture today takes its very life from looking skeptically at modern art. That, in turn, drives me back to the same old questions. So fine: is it all a fraud? Ironically, the best traditional defense of Modernism was very much its resistance to inauthenticity. Just as ironically, that turns out to be exactly why its life is so in question today.
First, modern art arose from Impressionism, and it carried through the same impulse to connect art to everyday experience. It began in earnest with the Cubists, who portrayed Parisian nightlife and their own lovers rather than something overly grand, exotic, or socially decent. Ever since, from New York's historic Armory Show through Pop Art and today, American artists have been rubbing everyone's nose in a social scene that is all too realistic.
Surprisingly little modern art is abstract, and often it is hard to be sure outside of maybe Mondrian, if even then, which art is really nonrepresentational. The challenger of modern art who clings to easy-to-swallow genres may be the one faking or denying what one sees and feels. No wonder a huge survey settles for the loose title "People, Places, Things," while a Biennial soon after opts for equally vague, all-encompassing themes of "Beings," "Tribes," and "Spaces."
Second, modern art explores the nature of personal identity, the same questions dogging an America torn by racism and racial identification. Modernism, in fact, puts the very reality of the self under scrutiny in ways I can only hope to list. The ceaseless experimentation of modern art, like its chronic refusal to pander to a viewer's expectations, celebrates a realm of creativity apart from commerce and industry. Its drive toward abstraction shows its patient ability to reflect critically on painting, on the creative act, and on just how one perceives.
Modernism and Postmodernism ask how art—or common sense—structures the world. Art shows how self-awareness depends on inner experience that may seem foreign to it, including the unconscious and sheer chance. It objectifies the self, by embedding it in the concrete actions of artistic creation and in a slow, steady contemplation of all that is larger than oneself.
Ultimately, art gets it both ways. It can affirm that much of life is full of phony gestures, like the ones I shall make to my boss after I get through with this essay, whereas art involves the self. It can also show that most of what passes for the self is just as phony, because the self must depend on things outside itself. I include many shared traditions of creating, artistic materials that are so resistant to the hand, a public that will see and judge the art, and means of expression that are always in danger of becoming a cliché, no matter how original the artist once seemed.
The Abstract Expressionists called particular attention to the first half of the equation, the possibility of individual gesture, even while also making the roles of chance and artistic materials inescapable. Art since then has increasingly stressed the latter, ironic side of things, which is why the art world increasingly sees Modernism as dated—if not a mere pawn of a consumer society. I like to measure the change in just the title of two essays, Meyer Schapiro's "The Humanity of Abstract Painting" and Rosalind E. Krauss's "The Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Modernist Myths." However, both sides were always present in modern art, and both contribute to a lack of fakery in the best art of this era.
Both question ordinary criteria for art and expression in much the same way. They show how the question has been loaded even by asking whether art is fake. Fake, after all, can only stand in opposition to authenticity, which presumably means in touch with somebody or other's true being. But that is only one of the ways art makes itself meaningful. If art is to be meaningful at all, it is because art has first been understood, and that demands articulate words and other, more articulate meanings. Otherwise, modern art unmistakably insists, true being is itself a kind of fakery.
In that sense Modernism is necessarily an ideology, and in any period, the official ideology of art is going to sound phony. At any time, patrons, dealers, and the artists themselves are only human, but their concrete humanity is what gives the art its meaning. If the High Renaissance or Impressionism seems any more genuine than art today, I have some folk tales about saints and the almost mass production of images of a single field of flowers that will need to be addressed.
One way to look for art's authenticity is therefore to get down to cases: discuss what has made some actual work of art important to its best admirers. Once one agrees to talk about real meanings (plural), the meaningfulness of it all will quickly take care of itself. In art, as in ethics, fakery is the avoidance of responsibility for concrete acts and interpretations.
It is the plurality and specificity of artistic truth that again bears out Schapiro, even in a postmodern era. When art creates fictions, it dares anyone to imagine something less diverse and more real. In an earlier essay of his, he wrote about that meaningful encounter of the self and the world:
Painting by its impressive example of inner freedom and inventiveness and by its fidelity to artistic goals, which include the mastery of the formless and accidental, helps maintain the critical spirit and the ideals of creativeness, sincerity, and self-reliance, which are indispensable to the life of our culture.
A postmodern critique gains its frightening strength from examining and respecting those ideals. A simple cry of fakery does nothing to preserve them.
The quotation, from Meyer Schapiro's 1957 essay "Recent Abstract Painting," appears in Volume 2 of his collected papers, Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries.