BY Roland Kapferer in News | 12 JUN 05
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Issue 92

New Moderns?


BY Roland Kapferer in News | 12 JUN 05

I want to try and cut quickly to the core of this strange, anachronistic conference. The first speaker was Thomas Lawson, the Dean of Fine Art at Cal Arts, Los Angeles, who cheerily told us that he was ‘completely unprepared’. As a result, he decided to gift us with a stream of consciousness about stuff he thought was ‘kinda amazing’. I think this was rude – if you’re asked to give a paper, then you prepare a paper. Lawson returned to the ‘end of art’ theme he first introduced in 1981, when he wrote about painting repeating itself as a ‘radical exit.’ His musings struck a chord – particularly his suggestion that a sudden growth of grass in Death Valley had something to tell us about new possibilities emerging from decaying Modernist systems.

And here we have the ‘New Moderns?’ conference in a nutshell. In one way or another each participant was attempting to define a ‘moment’ (there are, apparently, no movements any more) in contemporary artistic practice that responds to the Postmodern, globalizing conditions of Empire. After the wrong turns of Postmodernist irony and cynicism, what can be reclaimed of the Grand Modernist Hope? Annie Fletcher, a curator from the Netherlands, used the work of Gabriel Byrne, Phil Collins and Maria Pask to discuss the ways we might explore ‘strategies of representation’ and employ methods from the theatre to re-stage and re-play Modernist themes. If this sounds like your garden-variety Postmodern shtick, it is – it’s Lyotard to the letter. Next, Nicolas Bourriaud developed the major theme around which the conference was structured – the notion of alter-Modernism. His paper rehashed a lot of his book Relational Aesthetics (1998/2002). It is becoming clear that Bourriaud will be writing books like Deepak Chopra or Paulo Coelho in years to come. I found his New Age-y style unbearable – particularly when he started to talk about ‘dialoguing’ and Taoist acceptance as a remedy to linear, aggressive and progressive Modernism. But hasn’t this always been the disconcerting possibility of the kind of Deleuzian/Guattarian thinking Bourriaud goes in for?

The Deleuzian inspiration for the conference really came to the fore when Simon O’Sullivan hit the stage. O’Sullivan, a lecturer in art history at Goldsmiths, appeared at times like a Bible Belt preacher, delivering the Deleuzian good news at a hectic pace. But it all happened too fast. As time ran out, he resorted to simply shouting out the names of Deleuze’s concepts, managing in the process completely to destroy the sense of anything he was saying. This was a shame, because despite the disastrous aspects of this conference, I think each of the speakers did have something worthwhile to say, searching for a way to express the dynamic qualities of contemporary art practice in the context of the momentous socio-political transmutations we are currently experiencing. In the face of a cynical, reductive and hyper-individualistic Postmodernism there is an urgent need to recapture the still untapped power of structural thought about culture and society – all the speakers recognised this. Again the distinction between Postmodernism and the important, critical theories of Post-Structuralism must be drawn. Postmodernist theory is more an apology for wild capitalism than anything else. Post-Structuralism – best represented by Deleuze – conceives a multiplicity of immanent, structural dynamics which refuse reduction to a unity. All the speakers were reaching for this idea. Mostly, however, these born-again, Postmodern Moderns lapsed into transcendental and externalist theorizing – paradoxically reproducing the very Modernist/Postmodernist distinction they sought to displace. A touchy-feely neo-Functionalism, the idea that the substance of art can be reduced to its supposed purposes, was the result.