by Pil and Galia Kollectiv
Well the old world may be dead
Modern Lovers, "Old World"
In 1976, as punk rock was busy smashing the cultural rubble left behind by the second world war and rejecting the consumer society that had emerged from the ruins, one band bravely announced that it wanted no part in this destruction. Jonathan Richman's Modern Lovers sang about how they still loved the old world. Neither parents nor girlfriends could understand, but the decaying inner city with its false promises of progress still held a fascination for Richman, who claimed he wanted to keep his place in this arcane landscape. Punk's assault on culture was the logical conclusion of modernism's linear narrative of art as a force of innovation that must reject preceding artistic movements to establish new ones. Echoing the negations of Dada, it set out to put an end to this narrative, an end to culture. It is partly because of this inherently destructive and totalising side of Modernism that it has come under harsh critique in the post modern era. Nevertheless, we are still caught up in the same dialectic of progress, revolution and destruction. Post modernism has failed to unseat our desire for the revolutionary moment, even as it has been co-opted to the degree of meaninglessness by the discourses of marketing and Capitalism.
The term 'reactionary modernism' has been applied by Jeffery Herf to the Weimar republic and the Nazi party's fraught alliance with science and simultaneous rejection of the enlightenment values from which it had evolved . More recently, writers like Kanishka Jayasuriya and John Gray  have observed that contemporary Anglo-American neo-liberalism is similarly engaged in a reactionary modernising project, imposing the free market everywhere as a kind of scientific, rational economics, while disposing of the universalistic values that are its logical conclusion: "Economic borders are opening for the movement of capital while political borders are closing to the movement of people" . But if 'reactionary modernism' is not an oxymoron, then neither is a non-nostalgic appropriation, or retromodernism. In his Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche describes 'historical man' as impelled towards the future by looking to the past , and it is this kind of utopianism that must be recovered from modernism to counter the conservatism of its current neo-liberal incarnation.
In the introduction to his history of modernism, Farewell to an Idea , T. J. Clark imagines an archaeologist of the future stumbling upon a painting by Malevich, a collage by Heartfield and so on, and attempting to interpret the twentieth century in retrospect . In many ways, the culture we are currently living in is the culture of that archaeologist: we are retromodernists, living and reliving the ruins of the twentieth century as a collection of relics and rituals whose original meaning we are unable to understand or embrace. Unlike Clark's archaeologist, though, we do not seek to reconstruct the past from the evidence. We are not looking for truth and we make no pretence at scientific objectivity. Le Corbusier looked at the house as a machine, Mondrian reduced painting to a mathematical formula and Rodchenko designed uniforms for the proletariat, but we are more selective in our appropriation of their discourse, refraining from such wide enforcement. In a recent article relating to the Modernism exhibition at the V&A, J. G. Ballard has written about the performance anxiety that modernist architecture inspires through its expectation of rationality and clarity at all times . We are no longer horrified by universalism. It has become so implausible that its exemplars are now empty stages for us to inhabit with our own subjectivity. We are truly modern lovers, driven by a love for the modern, a desire to make it our own.
Take a closer look at that geometric Mondrian, though, and a different picture emerges. It is easy to forget what any major retrospective show reveals: that modernist art was seldom perfect. The Joseph Albers paintings that look so crisp on Tate Modern's exhibition poster are nothing of the sort in real life. The edges of the collaged paper cuttings stick out of the canvas, austere black and white silk printed images are smudged, the lines dividing a canvas according to some obscure equation are hand drawn. Nor was the approach to science as cold and objective as we like to think it was, the Suprematists were preoccupied with "non-objective feeling" and the fascination with the machine was often quite spiritual, art and research converging in the bizarre experiments of Nikolai Ladovski's psychotechnical laboratory. Modernism was only truly modern insofar as it functioned as a blueprint for cataclysmic change, as ideology rather than pragmatics. It's not a coincidence that the arrow is its graphic icon, always pointing towards, but never arriving at, a utopian plateau. Modernism is about becoming, not being, and as such, it is not interested in attaining resolution, which is why soon as they came into power and toiled to make this utopian blueprint a reality, the great modern ideologies stopped being modernist. In comparison, our own times seem to lack this sense of a projection towards an unmaterialsed future. Art today presents us with a subjectivity that is a process of repression and remembrance, of chasing down fragments of ethereal memory, a nostalgia for cohesion. This is perhaps why so many artists and writers are again finding the modernist moment so irresistible, despite the negative connotations of totalitarian regimes. Suhail Malik, writing in the Showroom Annual documenting the gallery's New Moderns conference, identifies this renewed interest in the legacy of modernism with "the return of a certain faith in the power of transformation through cultural activities" .
Rather than looking back at a better or simpler time, when the avant garde gesture was still a disruptive possibility, the artists in the exhibition Modern Lovers use the blueprints of utopia to look forward, inscribing their own arrows on their archeological findings. Like Jonathan Richman, they keep returning to modernism for something else. Instead of taking it at its word when it proffers revolution, they turn to it in search of reform, opting for negotiation and strategic repositioning instead of an outright rejection (as Regis Debray pointed out, the revolution revolutionises the counter-revolution). Still loving the old world and desiring a dialogue with the past, perhaps as an antidote to the eternal present of Capitalism, they are willing to engage with its aesthetics and ideas on equal ground. Leaving behind the ironic deconstructions of post modernism, they find perspectives worth salvaging and juxtapose them with contemporary visual productions. Trading in the grand narratives of modernity for a more personal approach, they don't seek the purity of form that drove the avant garde movements that inspire them but rather revel in adulteration, dilution and contamination of the past by the present.
1 Herf, Jeffrey, Reactionary Modernism : Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
2 Gray, John, Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern, London: Faber and Faber, 2004.
3 Jayasuriya, Kanishka, "Howard, Tampa, and the Politics of Reactionary Modernisation", in Australian Review, March 2003 [accessed 10.5.06].
4 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Untimely Meditations [R. J. Hollingdale - trans.], Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
5 Clark, T. J., Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism, New York: Yale University Press, 1999.
6 Ballard, J. G., "A Handful of Dust", The Guardian Review, London: Guardian Unlimited, 20.3.06, at: [accessed 10.5.06].
7 Malik, Suhail, "What is New About 'New Moderns'?", The Showroom Annual 2004/5, London: The Showroom Gallery, 2005, p. 53.