We live now amidst the ruins of a civilization, but most of these ruins are in our minds.
—John Lukacs, The Passing of the Modern Age

We do not nowadays refute our predecessors, we pleasantly bid them good-bye.
—George Santayana, Character and Opinion in the United States

Nothing has been more remarkable in the cultural life of the past decade than the speed with which the imperatives of the modern movement have been stripped of their authority. Twenty years ago it was rank heresy to suggest that modernism might already have entered upon its decline. The assumption was that the modernist spirit was not to be construed as a period phenomenon, but as a permanent and irreversible condition of cultural life. Ten years ago it was still controversial, though no longer unthinkable, to claim that a decisive break had already occurred. Defections from modernist orthodoxy were too widespread to be discounted, yet there was a distinct reluctance to explore—or even, indeed, to acknowledge—their implications. Today, however, it is suddenly chic to speak of a “postmodernist” art, and scandal no longer attaches to the idea that modernism has run its course. Even the stoutest defenders of the old absolutes concede that something has happened.

It was to be expected, of course, that modernism would be significantly modified once its tenets came to dominate the culture it had long sought to topple and displace. Modernism was born, after all, in a spirit of criticism and revolt. It was predicated on the existence of an official culture—at once bourgeois in its origin, unenlightened in its intellectual outlook, and philistine in its taste—that would remain adamant in its resistance to fundamental change. (Never mind that this view of bourgeois culture was something of a fiction, omitting as it did all reference to the complexity and dynamism of its achievements. It was a fiction that served to strengthen the conviction of the avant-garde that bourgeois culture had forfeited its right to exist.) What in fact happened, however, did not conform to the myth of bourgeois resistance to change. In due course, bourgeois culture adroitly accommodated itself to virtually every aesthetic challenge mounted by its avant-garde adversaries. What was condemned in one generation was embraced in the next. The periodic transformation of the “accursed” into the accepted and then, more often than not, into the official and beloved soon became fixed as the pattern by which bourgeois culture sustained itself. Thus, through a series of enlightened adjustments and measured increments, the révolté impulses of the avant-garde were absorbed into the cultural mainstream.

Once established, this pattern of challenge and assimilation was bound to alter the outlook of both parties. Each came to have a stake in the power and vitality of the other. Like partners in a stormy but enduring marriage, the avant-garde and the bourgeoisie came more and more to depend on each other and even to resemble each other. The avant-garde developed a keen sense of how far it could go—or, as Jean Cocteau shrewdly put it, of how far it could go in going too far—without causing some irreversible rupture. Bourgeois culture, for its part, acquired a finely developed sense of what could be absorbed and what deferred. For this process of selection and adjudication, it created special institutions—museums and exhibition societies, schools, publications, foundations, etc.—which functioned, in effect, as agencies of a licensed opposition. This was something new in the history of Western culture—bourgeois liberalism’s most distinctive political contribution to the life of culture.

The consequences of this institutionalization of the avant-garde proved to be more profound than either party could have foreseen. For the dissident avant-garde it secured a fixed position in the cultural system. For the system itself it provided a steady source of new energy and ideas—a dynamism analogous to that of the economic and political life of bourgeois society. Much—if not quite everything—that we continue to esteem in the creative achievements of the last two centuries owes its existence to this curious compact between the bourgeoisie and its licensed opposition. But the dynamism of the avant-garde, with its unremitting appetite for innovation and its steady erosion of established values—including the values established by its own efforts—came in time to exert a powerful control over the very culture it still ostensibly “opposed.” So completely did bourgeois society cede its cultural initiatives to this licensed opposition that the terms of their compact came to be fatefully altered. It was now the avant-garde that dominated cultural life—thus, in effect, ceasing to function as an authentic avant-garde—and the surviving remnants of bourgeois “reaction” that went through the motions of a principled resistance.

This, essentially, is the course that has brought us into the “postmodern” era. The culture of modernism has triumphed in the schools, in the marketplace, in the media, and in virtually every other citadel of opinion and influence. Yet this triumph has proved to be remarkably hollow—a victory that is, in some respects, indistinguishable from defeat. For something very odd happened to the culture of modernism while it was achieving its unexpected ascendancy over our institutions and our tastes. It was, so to speak, subverted from within. It developed an unmistakable affinity—even a certain envy and nostalgia—for the bourgeois culture it had worked so hard to discredit. It acquired a yearning for what had been destroyed. To satisfy this yearning, it launched itself on a program of excavating the ruins of the very civilization it had buried. And in true romantic fashion, the discoveries it made among the ruins of that civilization were promptly upheld as models of excellence and guides to creation.

The revival of nineteenth-century Salon painting and Beaux-Arts architecture, the sweeping revaluation of German romantic painting and of the American artists of the Hudson River School, the elevation of Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art, and the boom in Art Nouveau design and even in Art Deco ornament—these are but the most spectacular symptoms of a craving that is central to the whole aesthetic outlook of postmodernist art. About these revivals of bourgeois art and design, which now enjoy such impressive critical favor, it is sometimes said that they signify little more than the gyrations of the art market and the special tastes of a generation of art historians too young to have participated in the classic battles of modernism. There may be some truth in this, but as an explanation it does not take us very far. Neither the art market nor the world of scholarship on which it depends functions in a void. They too are subject to the pressures that shape the life of culture. A reversal of this magnitude requires a larger perspective. For what, after all, is being sought out in these revivals of bourgeois styles? What, indeed, does it mean to revive a discredited style?

We may take it as axiomatic in our culture that every revival of a style involves something more than style. All revivals are governed by the sense of loss that overtakes our culture when it comes to feel that its ambitions are faltering and its momentum declining. What determines the course of a revival is not so much the study of the past, which only accelerates in a particular direction when the need for it is keenly felt, as the present condition of culture itself. A revival of bourgeois art would have been unthinkable, for example, in the heyday of the Abstract Expressionist movement. It had to wait for the breakdown and de-mystification of the modernist ethos that came in the 1960s. This brought with it not only certain changes in contemporary style—the most important of which was the emergence of Pop art—but a decisive shift away from the attitude of high seriousness that had long been a fundamental component of the modernist outlook. It was only then, in the more “swinging” and accommodating atmosphere created by this shift in attitude, that the revival of bourgeois styles would be permitted to nourish without impediments or constraints.

In this altered atmosphere, the traditions governing nineteenth-century bourgeois art and architecture were seen to embody a great many envied qualities and capacities. They were taken, indeed, to represent a better world than ours—specifically, the world as it was seen to exist before it had been systematically stripped of its pretensions and extravagances (and thus of its fun!) by trie dour moral injunctions of modernism. What was now admired in these rediscovered styles of the last century had nothing whatever to do with a strict aesthetic probity, the traditional hallmark of the modernist outlook. On the contrary, it was their freedom from modernist constraints—from modernist “conscience"—that commended these styles to their new admirers. The productions of bourgeois art were now admired for their amplitude and flamboyance, for their easy access to grand gestures and a showy sociability, even for their mediocrity and frivolity. What appealed also was their high technical proficiency combined with an unembarrassed espousal of sentiment, anecdote, and declamatory rhetoric. In the period that saw Andy Warhol emerge as the very model of the new artist-celebrity, moreover, sheer corniness was no longer looked upon as a failure of sensibility, nor was superficiality—or even vulgarity—regarded as a fault. Bad taste might even be taken as a sign of energy and vitality, and “stupid art"—as its champions cheerfully characterized some of the newer styles that began to flourish in the late Seventies and early Eighties—could be cherished for its happy repudiation of cerebration, profundity, and critical stringency. Try to imagine Arshile Gorky or Mark Rothko or Robert Motherwell countenancing such a turnabout in attitudes and you have a vivid sense of the differences separating the last stages of modernist orthodoxy from the very different moral climate of postmodernist art.

What is essential to understand about this “reactionary” phenomenon is that it is itself a creation of modernist culture—albeit, of modernism at the end of its tether. It is not the work of aesthetic conservatives. Salon painting and Beaux-Arts architecture had always retained their popularity among the so-called philistines even when the tide of modernist influence was running high. But this philistine element, despite its commanding numbers, was incapable of exerting any real pressure on the course of the culture from which it felt itself spiritually estranged. Its outlook was backward, in any case, and its energies numbed. Even its negativism was more a matter of sentiment than of ideas. It could withhold support—and did—but when it came to artistic initiatives of its own it had nothing to offer.[1] The revival of bourgeois art was thus left for the modernists themselves to carry out, and this naturally determined its outcome. It guaranteed that the revival would convert bourgeois art into terms compatible with modernist taste.

Exactly how this conversion was accomplished tells us much about the inner dynamic of modernist sensibility, especially its tendency to empty art of its “content” and establish style as its true subject matter. (That we feel obliged to place the word “content” in quotation marks is itself a reflection of this tendency.) For the purposes of this conversion, no instrument has proved to be more powerful or more pervasive than the attitude of irony we call Camp, which has the effect of neutralizing the substance and aggrandizing the style of whatever it embraces. Irony ridicules, of course, and ridicule normally wounds and discredits. But the ridicule of Camp is a mock ridicule that contains a large element of praise, accommodation, and affection. Irony of this special sort places us in a relation of comic intimacy with the objects of its attention. It encloses them in an atmosphere of flirtation and familiarity. The antagonism normally associated with the ironic attitude is merely feigned. By focusing on what is truly outrageous in these objects, and then lavishing a fulsome solicitude upon precisely that aspect of them, Camp makes a joke of the offending attributes while at the same time suggesting that there is something endearing—even, perhaps, something necessary and redeeming—in their very absurdity.[2]

Camp, in short, confers legitimacy on what it pretends to ridicule. But the kind of legitimacy it confers is distinctly double-edged. For what it offers to the cognoscenti—a “forbidden” pleasure in objects that are corny, exaggerated, “stupid,” or otherwise acknowledged to have failed by the respectable standards of the day—is not at all the same as what it bequeaths to the “straight” public that believes itself to be abiding by those very standards. The Camp attitude thus works to preserve modernism’s distinction between the avant-garde and the philistines—between “us” and “them"—even while engaged in the task of reviving the philistine art that the avant-garde had formerly consigned to oblivion. The same act of rehabilitation that allows “us” to enjoy the inanities of Salon painting as absurd comedy also supplies “them” with new masterpieces to admire without irony. In that division of taste lies the essence of the revival of nineteenth-century bourgeois art.

The gratifications of Camp are all the sweeter, of course, because of this success in persuading an eager public to accept its jokes as the real thing. This is something the public readily consents to do, usually with gratitude and a sigh of relief, a feeling that it has at last had restored to it the kind of art it can really understand and respond to. To the delight and astonishment of the public, it also seems the modish thing to do. From the Camp point of view, however, “they” still understand nothing since “they” don’t get the joke. The esoteric pleasures to be derived from the art remain a sort of cult possession. (Thus, though the avant-garde may have ceased to exist as an avant-garde, its spirit lives on in this power to “nominate” the objects of esoteric delectation.) And it is not only the “lay” public that can be counted on to respond to the stratagems of Camp sensibility. Even more essential to their success is the alacrity with which the professional art world falls into line. The whole apparatus of curators, dealers, critics, art historians, and collectors, having been rigorously schooled by the lessons of modernism to be on the alert for a new trend to exploit, promptly goes into action, organizing exhibitions, making “discoveries,” creating new reputations and new markets, etc., while remaining oblivious to the comic implications of its new role in the postmodern scenario and indifferent to the corruption of standards that results from its efforts.

The implications of this phenomenon are by no means simply comical, however. Much is at stake in the outcome. And what is primarily at stake is the concept of seriousness. Against the concept of seriousness, Camp invokes an alternative standard—the facetious, which has proved to have a far more insidious power to shape the course of culture than anyone has yet acknowledged. (Not the least of its power lies in the fact that it is not taken seriously enough to examine.) The facetious does not repudiate high culture in favor of its middlebrow or lowbrow substitutes, but on the contrary remains devoted to it, as the parasite remains devoted to its host, and prospers by cheerfully degrading its characteristic modes of discourse. These, as Marcel Duchamp was the first to demonstrate, are in fact essential to the facetious outlook, but toward them—and the concept of seriousness they embody—it adopts an attitude of blithe impiety and insouciance. (Andy Warhol remains the outstanding example in the visual arts, John Cage in music, John Ashbery in poetry, and Donald Barthelme in prose fiction. The later work of Philip Johnson is the most celebrated example in architecture.) The strategy of the facetious in relation to the serious is not a strategy of direct attack but a strategy of inversion.

It is worth recalling, in this context, that in her famous Notes on “Camp” Susan Sontag described Camp as “the sensibility of failed seriousness.” Now this embrace of “failed seriousness” was not to be construed as a failure of mind. It was deemed to be an accomplishment of mind—a mode of aesthetic transcendence. It was welcomed as one of the essential preconditions for achieving what Miss Sontag, in another of her definitions of Camp, spoke of as “the consistently esthetic experience of the world.” In contrast to the sensibility of high culture, which she found to be “basically moralistic,” Miss Son-tag upheld Camp sensibility as “wholly esthetic.” Camp was indeed acclaimed as “a solvent of morality.”

Notes on “Camp,” the pronouncement that marked the successful entry of Camp into the realm of established culture, was first published in Partisan Review in 1964 at the very moment when Pop art was taking the art world—and the media—by storm. (It was this pronouncement that made Miss Sontag herself a media figure.) This important essay can now be seen to have performed for critical discourse a service very much akin to that which Pop art performed for the fine arts. It severed the link between high culture and high seriousness that had been a fundamental tenet of the modernist ethos. It released high culture from its obligation to be entirely serious, to insist on difficult standards, to sustain an attitude of unassailable rectitude. It relaxed the tension that had always existed between the fierce moral imperatives of modernism—its critical conscience—and its appetite for novel aesthetic gratifications.[3] “The whole point of Camp,” Miss Sontag wrote, “is to dethrone the serious,” thereby defining the special temper of postmodernist culture.

It was thus in the 1960s that there was launched on a significant public scale the whole complex of attitudes that signaled the decline of the modernist outlook and its absorption into the looser, less stringent, and more avowedly hedonistic and opportunistic standards of postmodernist culture. Art historians, bemused by a development that effectively dissolves the standards on which their whole intellectual enterprise is founded—for Camp also severs the link between connoisseurship and the concept of quality—have not shown much of an inclination to explore this fateful turn in our artistic affairs. Interestingly, it is the architectural historians who have faced up to the matter with more candor, and it is in the architectural literature that some of these salient meanings of postmodernist culture can be most clearly glimpsed.

In Charles Jencks’s Modern Movements in Architecture (1973), for example, there is an admirably plain-spoken account of the pivotal role of Camp in the new architecture of the Sixties. With appropriate acknowledgements to Miss Sontag, Mr. Jencks observes that “the Camp attitude is essentially a mental set towards all sorts of objects which fail from a serious point of view.” He goes on:

Instead of condemning these failures, [the Camp attitude] partially contemplates them and partially enjoys them. . . . it tries to outflank all the other stereotyped views of failure which are morbid or moralistic and substitute a sort of cheerful openmindedness. It starts from failure and then asks what is left to enjoy, to salvage. It is realistic, because it accepts monotony, cliché and the habitual gestures of a mass-production society as the norm without trying to change them. It accepts stock response and ersatz without protest, not only because it enjoys both, finding them “real,” but because it seeks to find those usually disregarded moments of interest (the fantastic hidden in the banal). Thus the epitome “it’s so bad that it’s good,” which accepts the classifications of traditional culture but reverses the verdict.[4]

Mr. Jencks is an exceptionally intelligent critic, and while he is not unsympathetic to certain aspects of Camp architecture, he has a very clear view of its character, and remains undeceived about its quality. He understands very well that Camp represents a collapse of standards, and he knows, too, what this collapse brings in its wake. “The Camp artist . . .” writes Mr. Jencks, “sends up his critics with the riposte 'there are no rules, anything goes,' cheerfully shuffles form regardless of content (with an eye on the audience) and does not try to produce integrated, serious works. He is content to remain in farce, in sin, in short, in Camp.”

In Mr. Jencks’s account, the cynicism of the Camp attitude is patent, and so is the narcissism that it engenders. The Camp architect, he writes, “knows (in his candid moments) that his works are not the profound jewels he sells them as. This is the point that must be stressed to avoid confusion: candor. The Camp architect admits at once that whoever he is, it is much more important than whatever he does.” Under the Camp dispensation, the only effective standard is notoriety, not quality, and criticism surrenders to the exigencies of publicity. “One must cultivate naïvety and forgetfulness,” Mr. Jencks writes, “because the memory of fashion cycles has to be shortlived if the process is to go on. In fact comparison with the past and a critical temper upset the process at once.” No wonder, then, that Susan Sontag called her first volume of essays—the book that included Notes on “Camp” and in general celebrated the so-called “new sensibility”—Against Interpretation.

The “underlying genesis of Camp in architecture,” Mr. Jencks points out, lies in “the movement of formalism"—which is to say, in an architectural aestheticism that has divorced itself from its functionalist origins and become pure style. And he unflinchingly traces the course that has led from formalism to Camp—which, in one of its aspects, is formalism become ironical about itself—to the sheerest nihilism. As a kind of centerpiece in this discussion of Camp in contemporary architecture Mr. Jencks gives us a lengthy quotation from a dialogue between Susan Sontag and Philip Johnson, recorded by the BBC in 1965, on the subject of artistic morality. It is in the utterances of Philip Johnson, who began his career as the quintessential formalist and then emerged in the uproar of the Sixties as the undisputed leader of the Camp style, that we hear the chilling voice which sums up the spiritual bankruptcy of the postmodern era: “What good does it do you to believe in good things? . . . It’s feudal and futile. I think it much better to be nihilistic and forget all that. I mean, I know I’m attacked by my moral friends, er, but really don’t they shake themselves up over nothing?” “There thus develops underneath [Camp’s] grinning optimism,” Mr. Jencks writes, “a strong pessimism: nothing can be changed, we are all determined by the process, it will end in disaster. Camp is eternally hopeful and yet eternally apocalyptic.” The cult of the facetious, it appears, leads us straight back to the spiritually impoverished culture of the waste land. Which, it will be remembered, it was one of the foremost functions of the modernist vision to subject to the most stringent moral analysis.

Well, the philistines have certainly had their revenge—even if they have had to leave it to their enemies to secure it for them. Our cities now boast expensive new buildings that remind them—almost—of the good old days. In our museums everything from Salon painting to the inanities of kitsch has been dusted off, freshly labeled, and solemnly placed on exhibition, almost as if the modern movement had never altered our view of them. Scholars can always be found to study these objects, and critics to praise them almost as if they believed them to be worthy of their attention. Almost, but not quite. For history, though it can be revised, can never be repealed, and it is an illusion—one of many illusions induced by the Camp phenomenon—to believe otherwise. We have only to confront the real thing—say, the great Picasso retrospective of 1980 or the Cézanne exhibition of 1977, to name but two of the outstanding events of the last decade—to be reminded of the crucial differences that separate the essentially factitious claims of the postmodern era from the central achievements of modernism itself.

Only now, perhaps, are we in a position to appreciate the extent to which so many postmodern developments in art are actually anti-modernist in spirit, a betrayal of the high purposes and moral grandeur of modernism in its heyday. Philip Johnson’s new buildings have removed any last doubts that might have been entertained on this score, and Andy Warhol is now the classic example of the artist who is more important for “what he is” than for “whatever he does.” To say that such figures and their many artist-confreres represent a decisive break with the tradition that comes out of Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, et al. is only to state the obvious.

Yet modernism, though now stripped of the nearly absolute authority it formerly wielded in artistic matters, is anything but dead. It survives as a vital tradition—the only really vital tradition that the art of our time can claim as its own. The revenge of the philistines is anything but complete. Inevitably, our relation to this modernist tradition is not what it once was. We are far more aware than earlier generations needed to be of its many divisions and contradictions and countervailing currents, and more knowledgeable, too, of what is central and what is merely peripheral and even destructive to its creative life. The modern movement was always, perhaps, a more complex and pluralistic phenomenon than its more doctrinaire champions—and, for that matter, its more doctrinaire enemies—could ever bring themselves to recognize. It required a certain historical distance to see it whole—to see what it was, and what it was not. In this respect, at least, postmodernist art has certainly performed a service of sorts, albeit at a great cost in spirit. In a purely negative way, it has placed the modernist heritage in dramatic historical relief, and thus helped to redefine its importance to us. It is, in any case, only in relation to the paradoxes of this situation that the art history of the last decade can be readily understood. Which is also to say that it is only in the differences that separate the imperatives of modernism from those of postmodernist art that the present prospects for art can be clearly discerned.

  1. Thus the attempt of Huntington Hartford to revive the Pre-Raphaelites when he founded the Gallery of Modern Art in the early 1960s came to nothing. What Hartford’s efforts demonstrated was that it was not the art itself but the attitude one adopted toward it that was the critical factor in negotiating a revival. Go back to the text.
  2. 2 We are thus reminded that the origin of Camp is to be found in the sub-culture of homosexuality. Camp humor derives, in its essence, from the homosexual’s recognition that his condition represents a kind of joke on nature, a denial of its imperatives, and thus a mode of psychological artifice. Go back to the text.
  3. “Ordinarily we value a work of art because of the seriousness and dignity of what it achieves,” Miss Sontag wrote. “But,” she added, “there are other creative sensibilities besides the seriousness (both tragic and comic) of high culture. . . . And one cheats oneself, as a human being, if one has respect only for the style of high culture, whatever else one may do or feel on the sly.” Go back to the text.
  4. Isn’t this, by the way, a fairly accurate description of the attitude that took possession of a good deal of “serious” movie criticism in the Sixties? The practice of lavishing extravagant praise on failed and even trashy movies from the Camp point of view had probably existed from the time that movies were first produced. But in the Sixties it came to be codified as a respectable critical method, and now virtually dominates the movie reviews in our major newspapers and magazines. This, too, must be counted as an aspect of postmodernist culture. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 Number 1, on page 36
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