The Failure in Identity

Altti Kuusamo


The Failure in the Identity-function of Postmodernism: How the Stubborn Identity Position of Modernism Destroyed the Idea of the ‘Fast Changing Identity Positions’ of Postmodernism?”


Do we really want to be remembered for a shark in a tank of formaldehyde?”
Julian Spalding:
The Eclipse of Art (2003).

I am speaking of certainties, prejudices and identifications around contemporary art. I am also speaking of the social nemesis of late modern art, basically in the West. This nemesis, the inescapable fate, does not leave us alone. It will follow us everywhere and we have to react, it is our obligation and duty. And seldom can we take a real critical distance.

They say that art is universal, but at the same time they say that contemporary Western art is more universal than other art. Moreover they say that old art cannot be universal because it is too old for that? Necessarily newness and “nowness” decide over and over again. Then they say that anti-art is not universal at all; it seems only stand for the West and has rapidly changed into affirmative art, into affirmative avant-garde. When I say late modernism, I mean by this two things: first, for some reason people in the Western art world have stopped to speak about postmodern/postmodernism; second: the horror pleni (lat.), the fear of the multiplicity and heterogeneity still continues in the Western art as a dominant current. 

Julian Spalding, the British critic, has stated in the year 2003: “The very concept of art has been so brutalized in recent years that it is difficult to see how it can survive, let alone revive.” We have to answer instantly: Yes, it revives, because we believe that it (art) can explain itself, always. When arguing like this Spalding does not determine what is this Art we would like to find in a pure, unbrutalized state. Art as such. Can we distill, purify the essence of it, somehow?
Let us say the thing in brief: Art can never explain or justify itself, we do it, and paradoxically, we do it in the name of art, even when we don’t know what it is. And we do it again and seldom change our explanations on art even when it is changing in practice.

Modernism in the visual arts in the West has been a tricky system. In its early phase, a hundred and ten or twenty years ago, it wanted to adopt some models from West Africa and elsewhere and get in this way primitive, at least modestly primitive, still claiming that art, high art or exhibition art, is its main goal. It also wanted to tell that real art is a system that has generated itself, created its skin by denying the Western tradition of subject matters and themes of old art and became in that way art by its own right. The result, Primitivism, was not at all so primitive. On the contrary: Art was about conscious regression of visual subject matters.
Yet, simple and pure aesthetic solutions in visual art guaranteed the highest standard by claiming that the emergent modern abstract art was “aspiring towards a condition of music“, as the critic Walter Pater had it. In this way the highest Western aesthetic standard for visual art was not at all primitive, it pretended to be such.
painting got a new pair of glasses, Paul Cezanne’s – through which also the history of art seemed different, (and got smaller). The result was: there was not much Art-looking art in the history of art. Formalism started to command the history of art.

Before I continue, I would like to say a few words of the history behind this way of thinking: two main developmental lines are of importance: First: In the end of the nineteenth century we in West started to live in the age of undressed or bare iconography: all iconographical and symbolic attributes seemed to be irrelevant in the becoming modern synthetic art or symbolic references were sensed as a kind of ornament, inappropriate for the real core of art.
The West wanted to find a rare jewel called art, the center of it. But it was hard to determine or find that because nobody knew exactly what it was. However we thought that we could find it by purifying the art itself, meaning the picture itself as art.

The second thing is the postulation that hundred and twenty years ago we started to live in the age of art, which was the outcome of the age of the undressed iconography – meaning that all ornaments and symbolic attributes were prohibited as non-art. Still nobody even admitted at that time that we started to live the Age of Art – despite that everybody hoped it. It was our new myth (or belief system), alongside with Christianity. At its worst art in the age of art wanted to be a substitute for all other belief-systems. And this privilege guaranteed that it had a power to deny itself as a belief-system. The point of comparison was missing. Be that as it may, sometimes they succeeded in being critical to the social problems which surrounded art – and helped for a moment to forget the pure art, the divine center of all things.

Lots of things happened when we fully realized this, the fact that we wanted to surround us by art without knowing what it is. And when we realized this, art was getting to be an identity problem; it was the invisible part of our prejudices.

Modernist Art with a big A wanted to deny a tradition and the Western mythology. This didn’t happen in the modern Western literature. No, not at all. It has to be stressed that T.S. Eliot, Paul Valéry, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and many other writers used references to the old literature and mythology. In many ways it was contrary to visual arts of the time, but we/they denied admitting this.

Consequently, art has become a mystery stone around which the whole West has been circulating for more than a hundred years. Over this period we wanted to artify everything, make everything art looking, and really all different isms helped in this process. From impressionism on France was a center which determined what is real art; for example we didn’t take into account Italian Macchiaioli-painting which was contemporary to Impressionism and almost with same pictorial ends. And after the Second World War high modernism in the 1950s and late modernism after that have been USA-centered. Since that the art of late modernism has been a recurring recuperation of the basic canons of the earlier modernism.


The core of the problem in the present situation is: Post-modernism really offered some important methodological ways to criticize Modern art, to make research on it, but it didn’t offer a credible art theory for the art world itself, for the artists to cope with.

The discussion on postmodernism started in the 80s. A curious thing is that It has been over now for a decade. Why? Something happened! Even the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman stopped at once speaking of postmodernism, some years ago.

Yet, we ought to ask: Are there any conceptual tools to make distinction between Modern and postmodern identity? Do things change so rapidly that a personal or a group identity can just change according to the change of the period style? Let us put the question another way: Has a question “how can we change our modern attitude towards art” anything to do with the basic questions of identity? Probably not much if we think that identity is something which changes slowly in the life history of a person. More importantly, the question of identity itself somehow denies the distinction between a personal identity and a cultural identity.

If identity is about signs of certainty and continuity of things, a certainty to belong to some group or a world view, then it changes very slowly. Some time ago Stephen Hall emphasized that a postmodern identity means that we can change our identity position any time. I think this is rubbish. Identity is not an object in the drug store we can freely choose. So called “identity crisis” coined by Erik Erikson in 1968, does not happen very often, because, I think, our identity is bound to our world picture. Wilhelm Dilthey has said: “We do not create world pictures by thinking”. Therefore a specific philosophical doctrine is always different from the common level of prejudices of a certain age, assumptions which have been adopted pre- or unconsciously, by habit or by force. Every age, group or movement has its own average level of knowledge: preconceptions and prejudices, which we call the world-picture of some certain age.

Therefore, cultural identity in the deep sense might really be collectively unconscious; it is a habit system and determines the identity-factor of our collective identifications. A human being is a totemic animal: he/she wants to identify oneself with clans, large groups or tribes. We like to go to big exhibitions because we know that huge amounts of people see the same exhibition. In that situation we do not look at works, we look at the exhibition. We like to follow the make-up of a period – and very often we want to be a part of the pre-established avant-garde group to do that.

Again we have to ask whether the mega-period called Modernism as such was or still is a big part of our life, too big that we couldn’t/cannot easily change our identity, change the identity of a person, totally? If I think of Finnish architects, I have to say, yes, or Finnish art people of my age or older than me, I have to say: yes, again! (They couldn’t change their identity.)

One of the corner stones of modern ethnocentrism or identity-function has been the center-dependency. This means that the old agrarian ethnocentrism has changed and centers have determined the way we sense the meaning of art. However, this structure has characterized the art world of the West even in the postmodern phase. The idea of new critical regionalism, proclaimed by postmodernism, has not yet become true. Of course many happy changes in the global thinking have happened. But even today we have to face the fact: Art is international but it seems to be more international in the centers.

All in all, the critical identity stance against the main canons of Modernism didn’t have power to develop during the debate of postmodernism. Something came up, something happened. I’ll be back to this soon.

Many philosophers think that we have lost our certainty in our present, ever-changing situation. However, this does not mean that we have lost our certainty to see some specific art works of our time central, even if we have a feeling that we don’t get the basic message of a work. Rather we have an urge to be certain of the meaning of the work: The anxious object, the concept that was introduced by Harold Rosenberg long time ago, is no more anxious, but a familiar anxious object, a familiarized anxious object. We have got to use to it. We play this game to make uncertain meanings self-evident. This is to say: we have to affirm them as soon as possible. We can admire the solidity of the object forever, also in the situation in which we don’t even understand why we have to do that.

In present situation there is no room for the art of tarrying (lingering, dawdling) or hesitation (hesitative pauses) in the visual arts. I am now thinking especially the creation of art works. How do we display or show our hesitation visually? We can do it verbally quite easily. Especially in modernism there was no room for hesitation, quite the contrary, the artist was a hero producing unshaking shapes.

The mythical machinery

After people stop talking about postmodernism, the aesthetic status of the object has been guaranteed again and again by referring to the heroic days of the early Modern period. However, the danger could be that at a certain point this ongoing reference (to those early days) turns out to contain more and more features which a myth has. A myth is a narrative which proclaims the origin or the beginning of the state of things, world, universe, and mankind. (A myth is a story about the beginning.) Consequently, when it is machinery which repeats the founding story of Modernism, it begins to have a characteristic of a myth.

Presentness has also been a mythical word for Modernism. The art work has to uncover its meaning through its forms and structure and is not obliged to refer something which is not present. Forms are not “out there”, but present to us. It was also thought that ornament, somehow is not “present”, and in that way can weaken the solid forms of the work. Ornament was doomed. Someway it is partly doomed even today. I just discussed with one famous Finnish artist (the age 62) who said that “my works are not about ornament, rather about rhythm” (Martti Aiha: Rumba, 1992, Helsinki; FIGURE 1). In it dynamic forms of movement are self-referential. This is probably typical example of the Modernist thinking: We just have to see forms in the certain way – referring to the other elements present.

Perhaps this work of the famous Finnish artist Hannu Väisänen (living now in France), called The Gaze of Orfeus (1986; figure 2) will explain the situation, especially the prejudices towards ornament and conscious mythic themes. The art museum people thought that the work is too decorative and too representative to be bought. So, they didn’t dear to buy it. Finally Väisänen had to destroy the work. The exhibition, in which Väisänen showed his work, was on the threshold of modernism and postmodernism, in the year 1986. Of course, now the situation is a bit different: The relationship of ornament and structure in the work of art has been rethought – in most cases.

In his famous book Other Criteria – Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art from (1972), Leo Steinberg debunked the art-judging standards formulated by famous art American critique Clement Greenberg: “The more realistic the art of the Old Masters became, the more they raised internal safeguards against illusion, ensuring at every point that attention would remain focused upon the art.” Steinberg also questions Greenberg’s mechanistic manner of reducing all differences between the Old Masters and Modernist painters to a single criterion, “either illusionistic or flat” (ibid. 74) – as if we didn’t inescapably skate the slippery terrain between these two presumed polarities in the very act of looking at a painting, entering always the elastic domain of pictorial illusion. The age believed on the flatness of visual art, all in vain.

Usually when people do not know what kind of power moves their thoughts, they happen to be inside a mythical system. And in fact it is the period style, the period eye, as Baxandall has put it, which determines our thoughts – in (the) flat West.

Oscar Wilde has said long ago: “It is style that makes us believe in a thing – nothing but style.” So, according to Wilde the style is the belief-pressure. This statement has to be taken seriously: the style is mythical machinery which leads us – always – to share our experiences as wide as possible, and in the end we see what public sees. Wilde said, ironically, about painters “They paint what the public sees, and the public never sees anything”.

A style can be seen as a totemic and pneumatic mechanism: we are desperately seeking like-minded people – as we are seeking the signs of our relatives, from nature (all signs from nature naturalizes our clan) or from the sky, on the astrological configurations, to know us better, or from the fashion system to belong to some cloth clan. As astrology, a style can fortify our belonging to something, to reinforce our cultural ties and in that way our identity in terms of having right signs when belonging to some group.

We have as short critical memory in art as we have in politics! In this way art is close to our most intimate belief-assumptions connected to identity. Because of this art can be seen as a belief system of its own right.

Avant-garde and the Mythic Power of Modernism

I want to underline the following claim that might have some weight in our present situation: In many ways the mythical power of Modernism is and has proved to be greater than the mythical power of postmodernism. I think, this seems to be evident. Today the ideological value of postmodernism is next to nothing. Only Slavoj Zizek still speaks of the postmodern. Unfortunately, from the perspective of art world the identity question of postmodern has run dry. Indeed, it has been proved hard to do art with the help of the postmodern skepsis, with a critical attitude towards the views artists had learned in art schools/academies. That is why the artistic identity of postmodern has shown to be hard to shape.

The second important thing is a paradox: In a situation in which everything seems to be possible, the clear identity-function of critical art has been barred – or disappeared. This concerns especially the destiny of the historical avant-garde.
It has been many times claimed (by Andreas Huyssen, Peter Bürger and Roland Barthes) that conformism has obliterated the original iconoclastic and subversive power of the historical avant-garde. This concerns also the fate of the so called neo-avant-garde. Roland Barthes stated long ago: “As the parasite and property of the bourgeoisie, the avant-garde must follow its evolution: today, apparently, we are watching its slow death.”
In his book
The Theory-Death of Avant-Garde (1991) Paul Mann states: “Today the avant-garde is completely circumscribed by the allegory of its own historicity and rendered posterior to itself.” He has also claimed: “But in modern usage the enemy against which culture sends out its avant-garde is itself.” However, if nobody pays any attention to this paradox, then there is no choice, and the myth wins. It really seems that avant-garde generated the belief-system of its own which overlooks or disdains its own history and in this way the critical attitude diminishes.

This all means that mythic machinery has succeeded in its work: the history around avant-garde has been sensed as non-history: it appears again and again as a fault eternal present. Indeed, the unhistorical condition of avant-garde appears to have the main characteristic of the myth: to defeat history, to make history seem secondary compared to the victory of the self-deceptive newness, victorious presentness!