On Saturday the Financial Times of London reviewed Paul Greenhalgh's new volume, The Modern Ideal: The Rise and Collapse of Idealism in the Visual Arts from the Enlightenment to Postmodernism, which argues that a centuries-old tradition of art aiming to contribute to social improvement was broken in the 1970s with the arrival of postmodernism....

Weekend Magazine

By Jackie Wullschlager

Financial Times (UK)
October 15, 2005 (posted Oct. 14)


[Review of Paul Greenhalgh, The Modern Ideal: The Rise and Collapse of Idealism in the Visual Arts from the Enlightenment to Postmodernism (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2005), 224 pp, $55.]

Hedgehog or fox? These two personality types divide humanity, according to Isaiah Berlin. Foxes, pragmatic and adaptable, live on their wits; hedgehogs have one big idea, one central strategy for survival. This book is about hedgehogs. They, it argues, led artistic production from the Enlightenment until roughly the 1970s, when secular idealism "came to a clattering halt" and postmodernism embraced instead "the concept of relativism."

Wow! This is bold, sweeping, highly theoretical history, wilful in ignoring the psychological and individual impetuses that make up the creative process, yet passionately individual and committed itself. During the two centuries of what we would recognize as modern life, says Greenhalgh, artists "believed the function of art was to construct works that could contribute to the perfection of society." Simplicity was the dominant style they used.

A train of thought therefore links the Romantic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau -- who reckoned in 1762 that "all ornaments are strangers to virtue, which is the strength and vigor of the soul: the honest man is a champion who wrestles stark naked" -- with the American minimalist Frank Stella, who claimed in 1964 that "all I want anyone to get out of my paintings is . . . that you can see the whole idea without any confusion. What you see is what you see." En route, stop the train anywhere you choose to find sympathizers likely and unlikely, from Oscar Wilde and his friend James Whistler to the pioneer of abstraction Piet Mondrian, before fast-tracking to 2004 and philosopher John Gray's "belief in progress is the Prozac of the thinking classes."

Taut, acerbic and scholarly, Greenhalgh expands his theme in intriguing directions. It is ironic that some of modernity's most successful styles have been anti-modern ones, made possible only because "the motor forces of modernization . . . exploded [them] into full life." Thus the nostalgic Gothic Revival was omnipresent between 1780 and 1900: George Gilbert Scott's St. Pancras Station (1866-76) is a key London example.

Art Nouveau succeeded the Gothic Revival and lasted 20 years rather than 120. Since then fashion cycles have evolved so fast that "the question arises, to what extent has modernization destroyed the possibility of style in the visual arts?" This rapid change, says Greenhalgh, "involves at its core a sadness, brought on by the inevitability of disappearance . . . Modern culture is melancholic because it is the first in history to be constantly forced to observe what it is leaving behind . . . It is a salient condition of modernity that successive generations of often very bright thinkers persist in melancholically conceiving of a golden previous."

T.S. Eliot is one of his examples -- but so are the pre-moderns Goethe and Plato. With so all-embracing and absolutist a theme, Greenhalgh's argument is dogged by inconsistencies and weaknesses. Some movements -- Arts and Crafts, Minimalism -- fit his theories about progress and simplicity. With others, notably painterly ones such as Impressionism, which was about more than simplified brushstrokes, he struggles vainly. This is indicative: as in most theoretical histories of art, the piquancy of ideas is a substitute both for looking at and venturing to judge works of art on aesthetic terms. Circa 1910, for example, Greenhalgh makes no distinction between Jean Metzinger, one of Picasso's "horribles serre-files" (awful stragglers) of cubism, and the masters Braque and Picasso.

A hundred years later he spends pages justifying the Turner Prize-winning work "The lights go on and off" because one "should make allowances for Martin Creed . . . In our last three individualistic, relativist decades, every nothingness has had to have a unique and critical angle. Making something out of nothing has become terribly difficult."

But should an art historian desperate to be au courant hype rubbish? In the final chapters, Greenhalgh's critical intelligence vanishes in a puff of banal eulogizing of the postmodern. It is no cause for rejoicing that "in terms of quantities at least, the contemporary visual arts have literally never been so successful." Who ever judged art by quantity, and especially in a book whose argument for modernist simplicity goes back to Mies van der Rohe's "less is more"? Worse, it is untrue that "the skill level . . . across the range of visual culture has hardly ever been higher" than now. It has rarely been lower. Few art students today even learn to draw, and the skill level will get lower still if critics such as Greenhalgh are cowed into dishonest flattery by the video age.

And yes, Matthew Barney is an original video artist, but it is a fantasy that his "mass popularity" is "in the manner of Marilyn Monroe or John Lennon," or that a long list of media mediocrities who "bristle with commentaries on the shrillness of existence in the 21st century" constitutes a meaningful contemporary culture. Indeed a few pages later Greenhalgh acknowledges that art is "no longer a grand projet to do with the unfolding of civilization," making it "far less dangerous and far more popular."

Yet he never follows this crucial point through, wondering only why, when "history began to reconstruct its hierarchies," artists such as Philip Guston and Lucian Freud "came powerfully to the fore," never daring to explore the (élitist) idea that this is because they are the late-20th-century's greatest painters.

Like T.J. Clark's wonderful Farewell to an Idea (Yale, 1999) this is a turn-of-the-century history of modernism which is, inevitably, elegiac, even though Greenhalgh wants so desperately to be of the moment. Clark's thesis is similar -- "modernism was an extreme answer to an extreme condition, the one Max Weber summed up in the phrase 'the disenchantment of the world'" -- and more cogently and brilliantly argued. He ends with a more honest and heartbreaking epitaph, from the Italian modernist poet Pasolini, which could also serve as a conclusion to The Modern Ideal: "But I, with the heart and consciousness/of one who can live only in history,/shall I ever again be able to act from pure passion,/when I know that our history is finished?"

--Jackie Wullschlager is the FT's chief art critic.