Lately writers have defined post-modernism in various ways, but they share in common the belief that the age of modernist art is over and that a new set of theories is needed to describe art today. No writer, however, seems to have entertained the possibility that what is today thought of as modernism is not really outdated, but merely badly formulated in the first place. Critics today seem to universally equate modernism with the formalist ideas developed by Clement Greenberg in the 1950s. But Greenberg’s definition of modernism has never been adequate to define the full range of 20th-century modern art. A different definition of modernism is that outlined by the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset in his 1925 essay, “The Dehumanization of Art.”
Ortega has a prescriptive role for modernist art. He sees modernism as the characteristic art of the 20th century and of liberal society, which he extols. For Ortega, the primary intellectual force in the 20th century is relativism. This relativism is produced by individuals with a profound capacity for doubt, and necessitates the invention of a tolerant political system that can encompass such doubt. At the root of Ortega’s liberalism is his belief that the positive technological and political advances in society are caused by the unusual individual who is separated from the “mass” of humanity by his “interior necessity…to appeal from himself to some standard beyond himself, superior to himself, whose service he freely accepts.”
In contrast to the unusual individual, Ortega defines the “mass man.” The mass man is not synonymous with the common man. He is not a member of any particular socio-economic class, but rather is an individual who “regards himself as perfect.” The mass man “feels the lack of nothing outside himself.” He feels no compulsion to follow principles of legality when they are not in his self-interest. He regards the benefits of civilization as his natural right rather than as the result of a complex chain of social interactions. The mass man believes in “direct action.” When he rules (as in Nazi Germany or in Stalinist Russia), “the homogeneous mass weighs down on the public authority and crashes down, annihilates every opposing group,” because the mass “has a deadly hatred of all that is not itself.”
Ortega’s liberalism is at odds with the populist aspirations that have shadowed artistic thought in this country throughout the 20th century. Populism insists on majority rule which is the basis of the American democratic approach. Ortega, in contrast, maintains that modern art is not only by nature unpopular but anti-popular, since the ideals it embodies are antithetical to the opinions of the mass man. According to Ortega, modernism is essentially the art that is premised on doubt. In “The Dehumanization of Art,” he sets out the characteristics of such an art. The “new style” tends to:
1) dehumanize art
2) avoid living forms
3) see the work of art as nothing but a work of art
4) consider art as play and nothing else
5) be essentially ironic
6) beware of sham and hence to aspire to scrupulous realization
7) regard art as a thing of no transcending consequence
According to Ortega, the modernist avoids “the round and soft forms of living bodies” because of their strong associations with both “lived realities” and with traditional Western art and its aspirations to “the salvation of mankind” that had been so strong in the transcendentalist atmosphere of the 19th century. Ortega claims that, steeped in Husserlian doubt, the modernist is “ironic,” that “whatever its content, the art itself is jesting. To look for fiction as fiction…is a proposition that cannot be executed except with one’s tongue in one’s cheek… Being an artist means ceasing to take seriously that very serious person we are when we are not an artist.” Modern art functions as “a system of mirrors which indefinitely reflect one another [in which] no shape is ultimate, all are eventually ridiculed and revealed as pure images.”
Ortega views art as a thing of “no transcending consequence,” of no pretenses. “The kingdom of art commences where the air feels lighter and things, free from formal fetters, begin to cut whimsical capers.” He connects the modernist impulse with playfulness and youthfulness. To establish the value of Ortega’s definition of modernism, we must demonstrate its applicability to the past art of the 20th century as well as to artistic events occurring today.
In Ad Reinhardt’s work and writing, we find represented Ortega’s approach to abstraction. In his “Art-as-Art Dogma,” Reinhardt states, “Art-as-art is a concentration on art’s essential nature.” Reinhardt claimed: “The next revolution in art will sound the farewell of the old favorite songs on “art and life” that the old favorite artist-ducks love to sing along with the old bower birds and the new, good, rich swallow audience.
Ortega’s claims that “art ought to be full clarity, high noon of the intellect. Tears and laughter are aesthetically frauds. The gesture of beauty never passes beyond smiles, melancholy or delighted.” Only in such an atmosphere is doubt and reflection possible. And in Ortega’s modernism, such reflection has a high purpose which relates it to the mainstream of 20th-century phenomenological thought:
We use our ideas in a “human” way when we employ them for thinking things. Thinking of Napoleon, for example, we are normally concerned with the great man of that name. A psychologist, on the other hand, adopts an unusual “inhuman” attitude when he forgets about Napoleon and, prying his own mind, tries to analyze his idea of Napoleon as such an idea. His perspective is the opposite of that prevailing in spontaneous life. The idea, instead of functioning as the means to think an object with, is itself made the object and the aim of thinking.
How closely Reinhardt’s statement reflects Ortega’s ideas:
Not only is grieving and rejoicing at such destinies as a work of art presents or narrates a very different thing from true artistic pleasure, but preoccupation with the human content of the work is in principle incompatible with aesthetic enjoyment proper.
To achieve this end, Reinhardt wishes to radically free his art from any subject other than mental pattern and intellectual process. In another diatribe he writes:
No representations, no associations, no distortions, no paint-caricaturing, no cream pictures or drippings, no delirium trippings, no sadism or slashing, no therapy, no kicking-the-effigy…no impasto, no plasticity, no relationships, no experiments.
Instead, he advocates “painting as absolute symmetry, pure reason, rightness…Painting as central, frontal, regular, repetitive….Color as black, empty…. Verticality and horizontality, rectilinearity, parallelism, stasis.” Reinhardt exemplifies Ortega’s claim that modernist “art must not proceed by psychic contagion, for psychic contagion is an unconscious phenomenon, and art ought to be full clarity, high noon of the intellect.”
We also find that Reinhardt’s aesthetic shaped by the decision to take an ironic stance in his work: “Everything that the [abstract] artists were called that was bad I’ve picked up and I’ve made them not bad words. Words like inhuman, sterile, cold—they became cool…. And the others—academic, dogmatic, absolute—I picked them up and said, ‘Well, why not academic?’”
This essay is adapted from an article published in ARTS magazine, November 1981.