• Brendan Graham Dempsey

After Postmodernism: 4. Remodernism



EXHIBIT A:

REMODERNISM

I begin with Remodernism, a label put forward by British artists Billy Childish and Charles Thompson back in the year 2000. Childish and Thompson were responding even then to the institutionalisation of the Postmodern avant-garde, which was more or less complete by the late 90s. The confluence of the capitalist establishment and the Postmodern aesthetic was nowhere better on display than at the prestigious Tate gallery, where Postmodernism ruled under the directorship of Nicholas Serota, and which now found itself patronised by big business sponsors. In response to this growing enervation of Postmodernism, Childish and Thompson called for a revival of more Modernist principles and practices, which they saw as more honest, hardy, inclusive and compelling. With a nod to the Modernist penchant for drawing up manifestos and naming new movements, they called themselves ‘Stuckists’ and articulated Remodernism. Its 14 theses are concise enough; I reproduce them in full below:

Remodernism

‘towards a new spirituality in art’

Through the course of the 20th century Modernism has progressively lost its way, until finally toppling into the pit of Postmodern balderdash. At this appropriate time, The Stuckists, the first Remodernist Art Group, announce the birth of Remodernism.

1. Remodernism takes the original principles of Modernism and reapplies them, highlighting vision as opposed to formalism.

2. Remodernism is inclusive rather than exclusive and welcomes artists who endeavour to know themselves and find themselves through art processes that strive to connect and include, rather than alienate and exclude. Remodernism upholds the spiritual vision of the founding fathers of Modernism and respects their bravery and integrity in facing and depicting the travails of the human soul through a new art that was no longer subservient to a religious or political dogma and which sought to give voice to the gamut of the human psyche.

3. Remodernism discards and replaces Post-Modernism because of its failure to answer or address any important issues of being a human being.

4. Remodernism embodies spiritual depth and meaning and brings to an end an age of scientific materialism, nihilism and spiritual bankruptcy.

5. We don’t need more dull, boring, brainless destruction of convention, what we need is not new, but perennial. We need an art that integrates body and soul and recognises enduring and underlying principles which have sustained wisdom and insight throughout humanity’s history. This is the proper function of tradition.

6. Modernism has never fulfilled its potential. It is futile to be ‘post’ something which has not even ‘been’ properly something in the first place. Remodernism is the rebirth of spiritual art.

7. Spirituality is the journey of the soul on earth. Its first principle is a declaration of intent to face the truth. Truth is what it is, regardless of what we want it to be. Being a spiritual artist means addressing unflinchingly our projections, good and bad, the attractive and the grotesque, our strengths as well as our delusions, in order to know ourselves and thereby our true relationship with others and our connection to the divine.

8. Spiritual art is not about fairyland. It is about taking hold of the rough texture of life. It is about addressing the shadow and making friends with wild dogs. Spirituality is the awareness that everything in life is for a higher purpose.

9. Spiritual art is not religion. Spirituality is humanity’s quest to understand itself and finds its symbology through the clarity and integrity of its artists.

10. The making of true art is man’s desire to communicate with himself, his fellows and his God. Art that fails to address these issues is not art.

11. It should be noted that technique is dictated by, and only necessary to the extent to which it is commensurate with, the vision of the artist.

12. The Remodernist’s job is to bring God back into art but not as God was before. Remodernism is not a religion, but we uphold that it is essential to regain enthusiasm (from the Greek, en theos to be possessed by God).

13. A true art is the visible manifestation, evidence and facilitator of the soul’s journey. Spiritual art does not mean the painting of Madonnas or Buddhas. Spiritual art is the painting of things that touch the soul of the artist. Spiritual art does not often look very spiritual, it looks like everything else because spirituality includes everything.

14. Why do we need a new spirituality in art? Because connecting in a meaningful way is what makes people happy. Being understood and understanding each other makes life enjoyable and worth living.

Summary It is quite clear to anyone of an uncluttered mental disposition that what is now put forward, quite seriously, as art by the ruling elite, is proof that a seemingly rational development of a body of ideas has gone seriously awry. The principles on which Modernism was based are sound, but the conclusions that have now been reached from it are preposterous.

We address this lack of meaning, so that a coherent art can be achieved and this imbalance redressed.

Let there be no doubt, there will be a spiritual renaissance in art because there is nowhere else for art to go. Stuckism’s mandate is to initiate that spiritual renaissance now.

One notes immediately the sense of loss of all transcendent categories in cultural production and the desire for their return. The manifesto’s epigraph, “towards a new spirituality in art”, makes this explicit, and its dissatisfaction with the unidimensional plane of pure immanence is heard in its call for a new period, one that “embodies a spiritual depth and meaning and brings to an end an age of scientific materialism, nihilism, and spiritual bankruptcy”. For Hassan, this desire for spirit is rooted largely in the ethical realm, in an attempt to bridge the solipsistic gaps opened by Postmodern fragmentation and factionalisation. As the aspiring Remodernists write, “Why do we need a new spirituality in art? Because connecting in a meaningful way is what makes people happy. Being understood and understanding each other makes life enjoyable and worth living.” To an art world steeped in the hermeneutics of suspicion, dedicated to subversion, disruption, deconstruction, and problemitising, such words may seem ridiculously banal and naïve, boring and platitudinous. And yet, read in the light of Wallace’s critique of Postmodernism, they might seem entirely subversive, even radical—expression of a new sensibility, whose rebels “have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions…with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.”


Finally, it is clear that the spirit of this “new spirituality” here aspired to is not simply the old, traditional notion (we recall Hassan’s similar disclaimer that a new post-Postmodern spirit “[c]ertainly…would not mean atavism, fundamentalism, or occultism”, i.e., a reactionary recoil), but something different, something still subversive, not coopted or institutionalised. “Spiritual art is not religion,” they write, marking off “spirituality” from institutionalised forms of organised “religion” (a move that will become increasingly common in the new period).[1] Rather, “Spirituality is humanity’s quest to understand itself and finds its symbology through the clarity and integrity of its artists…” Spirituality is placed within the domain of what is felt—that is, aesthetics, art: the new locus for spirit “reinvented” (Hassan). Indeed, as the manifesto claims, “The Remodernist’s job is to bring God back into art but not as God was before”. God itself is thus reinvented, and invoked by these post-Postmoderns to reinfuse art with new depth in the search for individual identity, “in order to know ourselves and thereby our true relationship with others”.


Such aspirations, though, are toward more than simply a change in attitude and ethos; they are linked to actual formal strategies and methods in which this ethos might find proper expression. For the Remodernists, then, the means of spiritual reinvigoration of art requires a departure from Postmodern methods like conceptual art and a return to older forms, particularly painting. As they put it in their Stuckist Manifesto (1999): “Art that has to be in a gallery to be art isn’t art.” And, more brazenly, “Artists who don’t paint aren’t artists.” In short, deconstructive and ironic methods, now co-opted and institutionalised, must be abandoned in favor of something more direct, honest and earnest. As they go on to say in their Stuckist Manifesto:

Post Modernism, in its adolescent attempt to ape the clever and witty in modern art, has shown itself to be lost in a cul-de-sac of idiocy. What was once a searching and provocative process (as Dadaism) has given way to trite cleverness for commercial exploitation. The Stuckist calls for an art that is alive with all aspects of human experience; dares to communicate its ideas in primeval pigment; and possibly experiences itself as not at all clever!

One hears echoes of David Foster Wallace’s “anti-rebels” here, I think, those coming artists “who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching,” as he put it, and “have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.”

Tangential to this Remodernist development of the early 2000s, one saw a similar move taking place in the contemporaneous formation of the so-called “Kitsch movement”, begun in 1998 by Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum and continuing into the present day. Employing the tried-and-true method of embracing a pejorative as one’s flag of endearment, Nerdrum (ironically?) conceded to the assessments of institutionalised Postmodernism that art which did not engage an audience ironically, and in a spirit of conceptual deconstruction, was not actually real “art” but simply sentimental “kitsch”. As a then-rare defender of the tradition of the “Old Masters” (the tradition of painters from the Renaissance to the 19th century) and their craft, Nerdrum accepted this unfortunate bifurcation as an opportunity, a clarion call for a new movement. Because they wanted to represent the old, untrendy human concerns, they were, they wryly accepted, the “painters of kitsch.” The movement quickly gained a stream of young converts: artists, disillusioned with the landscape of a predictably “shocking” Postmodern art, and inspired instead by the rich tradition of pre-Postmodern painting, including their forms of representation.


This movement has grown in exponential fashion, experiencing a full-blown renewal of representative painting, something which had dwindled to general obscurity during the heyday of Postmodernism. Currently, in 2019, a generation of young painters (born after 1970) are continuing this revival, some under the banner of “Post-Contemporary” art, an explicitly “post-Postmodern” tradition. Artists like Richard T. Scott, Adam Miller, Martin Wittfooth, Patricia Watwood, Graydon Parrish, Luke Hillestad, and Carl Dobsky are emerging as some of its rising stars, who eschew Postmodern strategies of deconstructing reality in favor of realist and neo-Romantic attempts at (re)constructing beautifully crafted narratives of self-discovery, renewal, and collective transcendence.


These developments in the arts are representative of both conservative and progressive returns to ontological dimensionality, either as a reactionary recoil from Postmodernism (e.g., Arts Renewal Center), or as intra-immanent developments that sublate the Postmodern critique of transcendence into a higher synthesis of “reinvented” transcendence (e.g., some Post-Contemporary painters).[2]


Returning to Remodernism, though, one should note its artistic/strategic and not academic/theoretical provenance. That is, Remodernism was proposed prescriptively, as an agenda articulated and promoted by particular artists. This is one way to take the culture’s temperature, as it were. The remaining labels I wish to consider, however, were put forward by cultural theorists, and aim toward dispassionate descriptions of the contemporary moment rather than any generative invitation or call to action. They are offered as heuristic, historical labels for our current cultural period, the heir of Postmodernism.


NEXT POST: After Postmodernism: 5. Performatism

[1] As witnessed by later millennials’ tendency to identify as SBNR (“spiritual but not religious). Linda C. Ceriello writes about this phenomenon in post-Postmodern culture in her article, “Toward a metamodern reading of Spiritual but Not Religious mysticisms” in Being Spiritual but Not Religious: Past, Present, Future(s), edited by William B. Parsons (Routledge, 2018). Included in her insightful analysis are accounts of contemporary mystical experience by young people. Ceriello quotes one young woman’s experience, very relevant to the current discussion in the way it relates transcendence as something one experiences as fully immanent:

“She reports “an extreme continuity between you and the material world around you…an extremely heightened awareness of…the Interaction of earth, air, ground, sky and water…an experience of unity with the forces of both the material world and the spiritual world within that.” She then characterizes the spiritual state as “within” the material realm, rather than outside, above, or in some way superseding it, by qualifying with apophatic remarks on what the experience is not: You could not say from this experience that life had a special meaning and purpose. You could only say: ‘Life has a meaning, and it is this: We are continuously a part of this material and spiritual world.’ It is not that, ‘There is a transcendent world.’ I don’t think we need to go so far as to say this is a vision of a new world, nor of a new heaven and earth. …What is important is the enhancement of creativity and awareness in the moment. The reason we don’t have to do that ‘transcendent-for-Evermore’ bit is because, by this means, we can have great, great eternity In one great, great moment” (pp. 206-207).

[2] Of course, a hard dividing line cannot always be drawn between these approaches, and one finds coalitions of the two arising out of mutually-shared interest in furthering particular aesthetic means (e.g., representation, craft, etc.).

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Contact Brendan at generationofleaves@gmail.com