Художественный журнал
digest 2005 – 2007

The Spirit Of Modernity As Antiquity

Georgi Litichevsky
Irina Korina. Happiness Does Exist. Pencil on paper. 2004

In the 1970s, there was a very demanding professor of pedagogy and psychology at the Historical Faculty of Moscow State University. He required the future history teachers in his charge to be able to prove to Soviet high school students that, while reading Alexandre Dumas, they should suppress their sympathies for the musketeers and sympathize with Cardinal Richelieu instead; after all, Richelieu was trying to establish absolutism, which was far more progressive than the feudal conception of freedom. The university students didn't have much sympathy for this professor, not because of his radical dialectical thinking, but because he was stingy with good grades, so that someone even poured sugar into his carburetor; his car wouldn't start, and kept him from coming to give the an exam. At the same time, the story of the musketeers and the cardinal really isn't all that clearcut, and Dumas knew it too; it is no coincidence that in "Twenty Years After," D'Artagnan and his friends are on different sides of "the barricades" in a battle with Cardinal Mazin and the king on the one side, and the aristocratic Fronde on the other.

Psychological and logical interpretations can relate to various binary oppositions in different ways. In fact, this is something Lévi-Strauss wrote about in "La Pensée Sauvage," where he juxtaposes an unambivalent opposition of Jacobins and Royalists to the far more ambivalent opposition of Fronde and king. The thing is that those people who sympathize with the Jacobins will tend to project the values of the Great French Revolution onto 17th century France; here, they honestly lend their sympathies to either the king or the Fronde; depending on the arguments and context, both the one side and the other presents itself as a progressive force or a factor in the defence of national interests.

Irina Korina. Happiness Does Exist. Pencil on paper. 2004

Anyone with a system of values formed by the experience of 20th century avant-garde art will find him-herself in a similarly ambivalent situation, projecting the opposition of modernity and antiquity, one that Charles Baudelaire suggested in the mid-19th century. For us, antiquity already lies far beyond the bounds of actuality, kept on the reservation of museums and encyclopedias. In Baudelaire's time, antiquity seemed real enough and even somehow really was a reality, albeit limited by official academic. Now, in turn, modernity has long since become a reality, and has even almost already retreated into the past, while for Baudelaire, modernity was something completely new and fresh, though it wasn't even really as much as it promised.

As is commonly known, Baudelaire first formulates the problem of artistic modernism in his famous article "Le peintre de la vie moderne" (The Artist of Modern Life). This article is dedicated to a certain Monsieur G. (M. G.). We now know that these initials belonged to a Parisian graphic artist of Dutch origin, a certain Constantin Guys. In Baudelaire's time, Guys was popular; Baudelaire himself spent almost all of his available money on lithographs by M. G. Today, his work is all but forgotten, known only to a small circle of specialists, if at all. But in his day, one could even compare M. G. to Daumier, though he was a little younger. Was he a good artist? This is the wrong question entirely. The fact is that M. G. was Baudelaire's favorite artist. His work, in the latter's opinion, embodied the very spirit, the mysterious beauty (la beaute mysterieuse) of modernity.

Unlike the cumbersome reproductions of alleged antiquity that dominated the art of the time, Monsieur G.'s works were light croquis drawings, conveying an acute sensation of the festively fleeting moments of everyday life under Napoleon III. The 19th century had already seen such ephemera before, but in the drawings and lithographs of Monsieur G., this transience reached its apogee. According to Baudelaire, artists like Monsieur G. are able to find the elements of eternal harmony in such flowing, elusory moments, justifying the hope that modernity might indeed be a new antiquity.

Irina Korina. Happiness Does Exist. Pencil on paper. 2004

This is exactly where Baudelaire placed his emphasis. The point was not to annul, supersede, or replace antiquity or ancient art, but to be worthy of it, and consequently, to make the elusive and momentary worth the eternal and fundamental. Of course, Baudelaire was not the last person to turn to this binary opposition or this symmetrical dyad. One might, for instance, remember a debate at a conference on the Russian avant-garde in the Greek town of Delphi, during which the specialist on constructivism Selim Khan-Magomedov issued a passionate rejoinder. Essentially, he said that we only know two pure order systems in art history; one of these is that of ancient Greek art, the other that of constructivism. All others are unhealthy admixtures and crossbreeds that give rise to the metastases of post-modernism. This statement's pathos and its object both had their definite boundaries, but, again, it is yet another articulation of the idea of modernity as a second antiquity, though from a position very different than that of Baudelaire.

It turns out that one could profess modernity whilst deflecting its vector from the constant change of the ephemeral to the systemic and the fundamental. At the same time, a "second antiquity" did not necessarily need to throw the first modernity overboard. Quite on the contrary, modernity could even lead to a rediscovery of antiquity, uncovering its essence not in secondary attributes (togas, helmets, and column caps), but in its constructive or structural invariants, all the way to an immediate actualization of antiquity, beyond any classicist-academic attributes, as in the cubist-constructivist productions of Tairov, in which one found onself "immersed in the atmosphere of Hellas," according to contemporaries. But maybe this was just the atmosphere of free art?

By the way, not all modernists belonged to some kind of neo-fundamentalist formation, even if they were contemporaries of suprematism, constructivism, or Bauhaus; not everyone adhered strictly to some kind of system. It is enough to remember the examples of Mel'nikov or Tatlin, who did not really fit into any of the major tendencies and never suggested any "algorithms." Instead, their works were always bursting with experimental energy, which is what made them into modernist artists per se. And of course, antiquity is not always just an order, canon, or, even less, an academic tradition. From its very beginning, the art of antiquity was the modernism of its own time, and this is something Baudelaire knew full well. Centuries before it became the classical art of antiquity, Greek art was new; it rejectwed the archaic overload of attributes, opting for ephemeral and elusive sensations in a truly revolutionary way, uncovering a new sensuality. This revolution did not pass without scandal; it is enough to remember how Phidias stood trial for sacrilege – infected (inbued) with the most genuine spirit of modernism, whatever shape or form it might take.

The notion of modernity itself will only appears later on. The terms modernus and modernitas date to the Middle Ages and stem from the Latin modus, which, among other things, means "transient, rapidly passing moment" or "fashion." By the time these terms appear, antiquity was already associated with eternity. It also stood for high culture in general. In the epoch of the Rennaiscance, artists would use it (i.e. antiquity) to oppose not modernity, but "Gothic" barbarism. When antiquity finally grew old for the second time around, Balzac would introduce the term modernite, and not only to designate chronological participation in the present – this is what the word contemporain is for – but to speak of the spirit of the modern.

Irina Korina. Happiness Does Exist. Pencil on paper. 2004

If we now begin to speak of antiquity and modernity again, it probably means that we need to rediscover both the one and the other. If modernity wants to rid itself of senseless post-modernist deconstruction, it must, strangely, tear off its blinders and abandon the modernist systems and their parochialism. It must reject avant-gardist snobbery, if one can put it that way. And at the same time, it needs to offer a helping hand to antiquity, though this hand should not be ultra-magnanimous and bloated in that old Platonic-Aristotelian way, but intellectually modest (Karl Popper's term) and at the same time, precocious and brave, pre-Socratic, like Socrates himself, an antiquity that had enough verve to permit itself the pleasure of knowing that it knew nothing at all.

Maybe it would be better not to think about antiquity so much and, in any case, not to canonize the avant-garde? The main thing is to unlock the spirit of modernity in oneself, the spirit of keen attention to the fluidity and elusiveness of the moment, without fearing the disquiet it involves. One person who has succeeded at doing this, to avoid looking around for examples too long, is Ira Korina. Is IK (and let me use initials to imitate Baudelaire; she abbreviates her name as IraK) the M. G. of our time? Baudelaire's M. G. made lithographs, sketches, croquis; IK usually makes large-scale installations. One could say that they are monumental in an ancient sense, absolutely devoid of bulk or heaviness. M. G's sketches capture the transient atmosphere of the Second Empire, which is soon doomed to disappear. IK's world is our hyper-virtualized world of cyberspace and media-gloss, and she is not interested in its particular realities, but rather in its groundlessness, angst-inspiring to the point of catastrophe. Has IK turned to the tradition of modernism, just as the majority turned to antiquity in Baudelaire's time? If so, then, not as a dogma at any rate, but as a resource (a term the editor in chief of MAM was kind of enough to point out to me). Either way, the result is prime-grade modernism, though one can hardly speak of IK's adherence to any system or algorithm. And by the way, the artist might disagree; it doesn't matter.

New systems of modernism? Why not? The more the merrier! Modernism is dead; long live modernism! But this is exactly where modernism's Fronde comes back to life, ready to take on any form of absolutism at all.

Georgi Litichevsky
Born in 1956 in Dnepropetrovsk. Artist, art critic. Member of the editorial board of "MAM".
Lives in Moscow.
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