I have long been sick of art and ideas being enclosed in the protective bubble of irony but attempts to move on from the outdated non-ideological ideology of post-modernism are hamstrung by an all encompassing irony that disguises a culture of limits. Irony is failure. Is it clever? Certainly, and it’s often hilarious to boot, but it is inherently limiting. Playtime might be fun, but it’s not the correct sphere: work is. A truly modern artist or intellectual surely doesn’t need the childish comfort blanket of their work not mattering.
Of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I, wedded as I am to Marxism and modernism?
So, those twin titans of the the Enlightenment that mean so much to me, are they to be revived and re-imagined? Hardly. We’d have to resuscitate them first. Both have been on life-support for decades and anyone who wants to bring them back in the future may well have to consider exhuming them. Unfortunately, it seems that every attempt to get to work with the shovel just buries them further.
It seems impossible to today to argue that we need more technology and more democracy – why is the workplace not subject to to suffrage? – just as it seems quaint and quixotic to say that artistic autonomy is not a licence to produce self-indulgent work.
In fact, artistic autonomy from restraint, whether social, political or financial, is vital because it unlocks the door to true creativity.
The failure of socialism was perhaps the greatest political tragedy of the twentieth century – and it’s still playing-out today. There’s plenty of blame to go around: many on the left blame Stalinist authoritarianism, some go as far as saying Lenin got it all wrong. Anarchists will say Marxism is inherently authoritarian and conservatives and libertarians argue that socialism itself is the problem. It doesn’t really matter what one thinks of socialism, that’s not the issue: the real calamity today is that the death of socialism has killed-off the very idea of political battles. Today, we are more likely to argue about minor technical measures than the future of the country, or indeed of humanity, and political ideology is hampered by a kind of tunnel vision that can only see problems, not visions of the future.
Similarly, in the sphere of culture, the largely self-imposed isolation of visual art from wider culture and its attendant culture of cod-philosophical obscurantism laughably referred to as ‘theory’ virtually guarantees that art’s contribution to social, public and cultural life will be severely circumscribed. An educated person of any hue is likely to read books, watch films and perhaps even go to the theatre. They are much less likely to visit an art gallery, and if they do, it will be in the form of a pilgrimage to a totemic institution such as the Tate or to a ‘blockbuster’ show heavily promoted in the press.
Is that dot on the horizon a saviour? Alter-modernity? Super-modernity? Hyper-modernity? Yes, here we can at least see movement beyond the emptiness of post-modernism but do we need this terminology? This is precisely the kind of verbiage which has served to sever art from wider culture and it is one of the lasting legacies of the dead hand of post-modern discourse.
All that is required is a commitment to the Enlightenment: serious thinking and hard work. In terms of its meaning today, the Enlightenment is essentially an approach to life, a way of looking at things, questioning, challenging and demanding answers. It is not about blindly hanging-on to imaginary sets of eternal verities or empty theorising in obscure journals.
In reality it was inevitable that post-modernism would fall out of favour: the job of any upcoming generation is to tear down the work of the previous and post-modernism has had far too long and too easy a ride in the academy.
Post-modernism questions but it doesn’t really want answers. We should. They matter.
So, am I suddenly a conservative just because I continue to seek an aesthetic experience from art? No. It’s not me that’s changed, it was the world of ideas.
Jason Walsh is a ‘hackademic’ based in dear old Dublin. His web site is at jasonwalsh.ie. He’s not quite as fond of himself as he might appear at first.