Sometimes you are not really in the mood for art, or at least for a blockbuster historical revisionist exhibition of art like The Whitechapel’s ‘Adventures of the Black Square – Abstract Art and Society 1915–2015.’ But as they say in theatreland ‘the show must go on’ as you have promised to experiment with art criticism by posting 750 words a week, every Friday by midnight. The reason for your lack of enthusiasm today is dental surgery that leaves you unnerved at the continuing brutality of supposedly modern medicine. You would think that in an age of virtual technology a large tooth could be spirited away without the use of anything so crude as glorified pliers and brute force. Despite the application of modern painkillers the experience keeps returning and repeating itself as a traumatic memory in your nervous system. Meanwhile your normally sensitive and agile mind feels sluggish and greyed-out by drugs.
Your initial response to the show is, unsurprisingly, unenthusiastic, even cynical, but this also alerts you to the fickle nature of much art criticism and its dubious claims to objective authority and judgement. You must at least acknowledge your subjective plight, the way ONLY YOU feel on this PARTICULAR day as you strive to shrug-off negativity and find something to affirm or at least get to grips with in rooms overflowing with examples and variations of the show’s title. But even this very quantity gets on your nerves. It must cost millions of pounds and take extensive negotiations to bring these works together for the event, but as with several of the big London shows you’ve seen this year, you can’t help feeling that curators may have lost touch with the gracious deployment of space and composition that informed high modernists along with their famous dictat ‘less is more.’ Recently, and repeatedly you have begun to quietly crave a revolution in curating whereby the now orthodox free-modelling of space innovated by Harold Szeemann in the late 1960s might be replaced by curators who assert their own eye and a more personal grip on spaces, lighting, images and objects in order to compose truly alternative experiences.
But maybe you are just grumpy. As you prop your weakened frame against a vitrine a set of projected images depicting things and places that you have never encountered and which could not be brought to the show (including modernists’ studios and offices, events and performances, objects that no-longer exist etc.) holds your interest for some time, until a professional colleague comes up and greets you, leading to the inevitable re-narration of your tooth extraction, clumsily mumbled in the animal tones of someone whose mouth has become an unfamiliar too numbed by injections.
Afraid of any further social encounters and feeling a little like Elephant Man cowering through backstreets you make your way all-too rapidly and slightly shamefully through the rest of the exhibition with, admittedly, only half a mind on the works. You take a moment to note a now fashionable and always gratifying assertion of non-Euro-American modernisms, as well as some seductive abstract photography, but all in such a cursory manner that it would be inappropriate to assess this show in any way. But then, that has never been your intention in experimenting with art criticism here, rather, what is most interesting to you is not the deployment of judgment but locating that which art inspires and which is always most difficult to articulate, whether your mouth be temporarily numb and wretched or not. Here that challenge lies kernel-ed within the starting point of the show where Malevich’s black square is deployed as a symbol of utopia – a non-space, a hoped-for, possibly perfect, replete and yet almost certainly non-existent form and value; a black square, blackness, a square, utopia, all synthesised as the ur-symbol of modernism.
Following the recent Malevich blockbuster at Tate Modern you worry that modernist history and revision shows are becoming repetitive. Of course on a better day this show might inspire, inform and enliven you more, but art criticism has probably always seen most and seen best when it is not simply ‘Liking’ (as we all mindlessly do on social networks) but actively seeking out problems and striving to counter presumptions.
When Malevich hung his famous abstract series in 1915 under the title ‘The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings: 0.10’ one of the works clearly occupied the corner space traditionally preserved for religious icon paintings, and it’s hard not to think of modernism as secular modernity’s substitute for lost or discarded religion. Emphasising the black square so explicitly here reminds us that modernism is a belief system that, for all its assumed iconoclasm nevertheless demands images and forms by means of which to orient and guide it – just as a crucifix might do for Christianity, the lotus flower or postures of the Buddha for Buddhism, non-representational repetitive patterning for Islam etc. Indeed, for modernism, its forms become its very purpose, its content, its aspiration, its all-in-all.
But despite repeated revisions made by our great museums and curators, on this dour and doubtful day when your faith in art is so tested it seems to you that the geometric regime of modernism appears all-too flimsy and short-lived in comparison with these more ancient and enduring belief systems. Of course modernism may, by definition, have always been inclined to shine brightly and burn-out, like those comets to which Nietzsche compared the superhuman modern thinker. Whatever quasi-spiritual values may have been applied to squares, circles and triangles at the Bauhaus; and however much the modernist creed may have enabled artists, architects and designers to successfully service the modern world with affordable style, modernism, as a transcendent outcome of heroic analytic enquiry (like that of Cezanne, Cubism etc.) is today roundly usurped by its zealous and ubiquitous deployment as a pervasive and convenient tool of capitalism, a means by which and with which to rationalise a world according to economic restraint and rarity, and all this despite alternative possibilities suggested by more radical and marginalised aestheticians and economists, like Surrealist Georges Bataille who insisted that, aside from the fearful austerity, contrived wants and needs, gluts and dearths, booms and busts of consumerist capitalism there is also and always an excess of ‘sacred’ energy and ‘base’ material available in the universe, as well as less rational ways and means of organising (or dis-organising) a society.
More even than its value as a reassuringly chic art historical accessory, modernism today is a plaything of the chain-store and the architect. It has successfully resisted and to a large extent shrugged-off all ‘postmodern’ challenges, leaving supermodernity as the trademark of our supercapitalism. It thus remains an oppressive orthodoxy, even crowding us out of our cities with a plethora of cheap images of desirable and ‘affordable’, ‘stylishly modern’ ‘lifestyle choices’, its once spirited and liberatory rhetoric expropriated as a sales pitch and a buzzword to pull the wool over the eyes of new-build apartment-buyers queuing to sign-up for a life-sentence of indebted ‘urban living.’
You leave The Whitechapel Gallery wanting to explore the more insidious legacies of modernism; to see and feel anything but replete, self-confident black squares, as for the umpteenth time today, your tongue, as if it had a life of its own (which it surely does) feels its way to where, until very recently a gleaming white molar proudly reigned, there to encounter an unrepresentable void of vague and formless gore, a fitting symbol of those messy and unquantifiable aspects of history and human experience with which this show, and our increasingly graphic, increasingly image-oriented society, doesn’t feel the need to concern itself.