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Peter Halley: Against Postmodernism: Reconsidering Ortega


Essay is published connected to the Diagonal Histories

—Imre Bak, Peter Halley

show at Art+Text Budapest,

10 October, 2015 — 8 November, 2015 
© courtesy of Pater Halley


See Imre Bak's essay here

"In Greenberg’s formalist Modernism, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are treated as a unified historical epoch. The essential differences between the industrial nineteenth century and the post-industrial twentieth century are ignored."
"Ortega, in contrast, maintains that Modernist art is not only by nature unpopular but anti-popular, since the ideals it embodies are antithetical to the opinions of the mass man."
"An Ortegan Modernist pantheon is very different from that of formalists like Greenberg. In contrast to a Greenbergian canon, the Modernists chosen here demonstrate no unity of formal concerns. Instead, a like mechanism of meaning unifies their work."
"Today, the Postmodernist critics claim younger artists are no longer working within the parameters of Modernism. This is true—and has been for a long time—if we define Modernism as Greenbergian formalist Modernism."

In the last few years, there has been a growing interest on the part of many critics in the idea of Postmodernism. These writers define Postmodernism 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No writer, however, seems to have entertained the idea that what is today thought of as Modernism is not really outdated, but merely badly formulated in the first place.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 twentieth-century Modernist art. This formalist Modernism was no better suited to define the past than it is the present. An alternative definition of Modernism, outlined by the Spanish writer José Ortega y Gasset in his 1925 essay, “The Dehumanization of Art,” is both possible and more useful.


Any attempt to define the extent and character of Modernist art is both a descriptive and a prescriptive exercise, since no definition of the characteristics of a society’s artistic production can be free of the author’s aspirations for that society. Greenberg’s Modernism sought to provide an artistic equivalent for America’s postwar aspirations for leadership of the Western and developing nations. Today, with those aspirations in shambles, it is not surprising that the ideas behind the equivalent aesthetic movement seem irrelevant and distant.


Greenberg also sought to provide a theory of Modernism for a country that, unlike its European counterparts, was not yet post-industrial, but still completing its initial state of industrial growth. The art of postwar America, Abstract Expressionism, was transcendentalist, expressionistic, and confident, like European art of the nineteenth century, when Europe was still an industrializing culture. Greenberg’s Modernism provided a positivist, determinist theory to support American art that was tied, ironically, to the values of both nineteenth-century capitalism (with its emphasis on “taste” and “quality”) and nineteenth-century Marxism. In order to form such a theory, Greenberg was forced to ignore a great deal of twentieth-century European art. Dada, Surrealism, Duchamp had no place in his system. He was forced to label even Analytic Cubism a “counter-revolution”1 against Modernism and to push back the beginning of the Modernist era to the middle of the nineteenth century to include the Impressionists (especially Monet), who were paradigmatic to his theory.


This strategy blurred important distinctions between this century and the last. In Greenberg’s formalist Modernism, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are treated as a unified historical epoch. The essential differences between the industrial nineteenth century and the post-industrial twentieth century are ignored. But, in fact, the nineteenth century was the era of industrialization in the Western world, of mechanism, empiricism, and of popular art (both Romanticism and Realism). It was characteristically confident and passionate. The twentieth century, on the other hand, is the age of relativity and doubt: Einsteinian physics replaces Newtonian mechanism as Freudian subjectivity succeeds Victorian absolutism. In philosophy, Marxist positivism is replaced by existential and phenomenological doubt. Automation, electronics, and the welfare state halt the ascendancy of the worker in heavy industry. To create a theory of Modernism that bestrides these very different periods, as Greenberg attempted to do, is bound to create difficulties. In Ortega, we find instead a theory of Modernism that confines itself to the art of the twentieth century.


Like Greenberg, Ortega has a prescriptive role for Modernist art. He sees Modernism as the characteristic art of the twentieth century and of liberal society, which he extols. For Ortega, the primary intellectual force in the twentieth 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. For Ortega, that political system is liberalism, “the noblest cry that has ever resounded in this planet.”2 In 1930, at a time when fascism was on the rise throughout Europe and the Russian revolution had degenerated into the horrors of Stalinism, he wrote:


Liberalism is that system of political rights, according to which the public authority, in spite of being all powerful, limits itself and attempts, even at its own expense, to leave room in the state over which it rules for those to live who neither think nor feel as it does…


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.” Such individuals, by force of their unusual effort, bring about the characteristic institutions that define our civilization, although their work more often than not remains unacknowledged. Advances like municipal water systems, the protection of law, or automobiles are seen by the “mass” as natural rights instead of the result of the struggles of committed individuals.


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 twentieth century. In part, the aspiration to populism is due to a belief in majority opinion, which is so much at the basis of the American democratic approach. It is also the result of the humanistic aspirations of the American intellectuals of the postwar era. From the Marxist flirtations of Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro to the socialist populism of Gregory Battock and Kim Levin, to such recent rightist enfants terribles as Jedd Garet, there has been a recurring discomfort with liberalism by writers on art and a consequent desire to make Modernist art somehow conform to the populist mold. Ortega, in contrast, maintains that Modernist 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 art that is premised on doubt. In “The Dehumanization of Art,” he sets out the characteristics of such an art. The “new style” tends


1) to dehumanize art

2) to avoid living forms

3) to see the work of art as nothing but a work of art

4) to consider art as play and nothing else

5) to be essentially ironic

6) to beware of sham and hence to aspire to scrupulous realization

7) to regard art as a thing of no transcending consequence


In each of these points, he seeks to differentiate the doubting art of the twentieth century from the passionate, positivist, confident art that characterized the nineteenth. Fifty years later, the legacy of nineteenth-century art is perhaps no less with us, and it is worthwhile to retrace Ortega’s reasoning.


In his first point, Ortega claims that Modernist art is “dehumanized.” Here, he attempts to separate the effect of art, “a seeing pleasure,” from the autobiographical emotionalism that dominated nineteenth-century art. By dehumanization, Ortega means to “de-emotionalize.” Modernist, doubting art must be aloof from the “contagion” of “personal feelings.” Ortega traces this phenomenon in music:


From Beethoven to Wagner, music was primarily concerned with expressing personal feelings. The composer erected great structures of sound to accommodate his autobiography…. Wagner poured into Tristan and Isolde his adultery with Mathilde Wesdendonck, and if we want to enjoy this work, we must, for a few hours, turn vaguely adulterous ourselves.


But “lived” realities are too overpowering not to evoke sympathy, which prevents us from perceiving aesthetic relationships in their “objective purity,” and so should be avoided as the content of Modernist art:


Music had to be relieved of private sentiments. This was the deed of Debussy. Owing to him, it became possible to listen to music serenely, without swoons and tears.


The contrast between these two attitudes is explicitly evident in the cinema today, where Modernist and popular art exist side by side. In the popular cinema, we are wrenched by coercive illusionist techniques into experiencing fear and joy almost beyond our will. In the Modernist cinema of Brackage, Frampton, or Goddard, on the other hand, we are treated to an “algebra of metaphors” that allows us to “be surprised, to wonder,” those facilities which “lead the intellectual through life in the perpetual ecstasy of the visionary.”


Ortega 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 Ortegan Modernism, such reflection has a high purpose which relates it to the mainstream of twentieth-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 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.


In this way, Ortega ties this Modernism to the attitude of twentieth-century Husserlian phenomenology rather than to the positivism and determinism of nineteenth-century Marxism. Ortega emphasizes the limitations of human ideation: “We possess of reality, strictly speaking, nothing but the ideas we have succeeded in forming about it.” But for Ortega this process is unnoticed. “By means of ideas we see the world, but in a natural attitude of mind we do not see the ideas…the spontaneous movement of mind goes from concepts to the world.” He points out that traditional art was content to accept ideas as synonymous with reality; reality was “idealized, although this was a candid falsification.” The Modernist, aspiring to “scrupulous realization,” inverts this process:


…if turning our back on alleged reality, we take the ideas for what they are—mere subjective patterns—and make them live as such, lean and angular, but pure and transparent; in short, if we deliberately propose to “realize” our ideas—then we have dehumanized and, as it were, derealized them.


The Modernist artist reverses the “spontaneous” movement from world to mind. “We give three-dimensional being to mere patterns, we objectify the subjective, we ‘worldify’ the imminent.” Writing in the 1920s, Ortega finds this tendency “in varying degrees” in both Expressionism and Cubism, reconciling approaches that formalists consider antithetical. “From painting things, the painter has turned to painting ideas. He concentrates on the subjective images in his own mind.”


From this derealized view of art follow the other characteristics of Ortega’s definition. 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 nineteenth 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.” Modernist 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.”


Similarly, he 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.” Ortega connects the Modernist impulse with playfulness and youthfulness. In fact, Modernism has been characteristically the stance of young artists who, as they grow older, often lapse into a condition of solemnity reminiscent of the nineteenth-century artist hero.


In order to establish the value of Ortega’s definition of Modernism, we must demonstrate its applicability to the past art of the twentieth century as well as to artistic events occurring today. An Ortegan Modernist pantheon is very different from that of formalists like Greenberg. In contrast to a Greenbergian canon, the Modernists chosen here demonstrate no unity of formal concerns. Instead, a like mechanism of meaning unifies their work.


As Ortegan Modernism is a theory of the behavior of all the arts, it applies equally well to music and writing. Quintessential Modernist musicians are figures like Erik Satie and John Cage; Modernist writers are playwrights like Luigi Pirandello, Samuel Becket, and Bertolt Brecht, or novelists like James Joyce, Alain Robbe-Grillet, or Thomas Pynchon.


Concentrating on the visual arts, one can point to Picasso (between 1907 and 1914), Duchamp, Jasper Johns (between 1955 and 1960), Ad Reinhardt, and Andy Warhol. All are unmistakably committed to creating art based on twentieth-century relativism rather than on the “psychic contagion” of romanticism or the mechanism of nineteenth-century empiricism.


In the visual arts, of course, Picasso initiates Modernism. Analytic Cubism is a complete negation of previous assumptions about visual art. In Cubism, we first see the artist concentrating completely on the patterns in his mind and “realizing” them on canvas. It is in Cubism that we first find the artist content to regard his work as a “thing of no transcending consequence,” an essentially ironic and playful undertaking. (Note the frequent puns on the letters J-O-U in which the reality of the nineteenth-century journal is transformed into pictorial play.)


In Duchamp, this Modernist point of view is equally well-defined. The ready-made is an attempt at “scrupulous realization” in which the re-presentation of the object is exactly equated with the (presumed) presence of the object itself. Similarly, The Large Glass is, as Duchamp himself describes it, “the apparition of an appearance.” Duchamp was, as well, largely occupied with play (note his fascination with games, with roulette and chess). One of his later pieces is a plaster relief with the entirely Ortegan title of With My Tongue in My Cheek, Torture-Morte (1959).


In Jasper Johns, we also observe this concern with “scrupulous realization.” In his early work, he abandoned the attempt to represent three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional plane, preferring either to scrupulously confine his representations to two-dimensional motifs (such as flags, targets, or numbers) or to render three-dimensional objects by making casts of them (in the case of body parts and flashlights, etc.). Overlapping objects are only rendered by overlapping canvases (as in Three Flags, 1958). Through all this, Johns maintains his ironic stance (he has even made an imprint with a clothes iron in some of his recent paintings). Play is specifically evoked in his work by the target (equipment in a game of marksmanship), his use of newspaper cartoons (in Alley Oop, 1958) and rubber balls in Painting with Two Balls, 1960. By making signs the subject of his art, Johns has “given three-dimensional reality to mere patterns” as Ortega suggests. Johns himself states that he painted “things the mind already knows. That gave me room to work on other levels.”3


In the work of Ad Reinhardt, we see represented an Ortegan approach to abstraction. In his essay, “Art-as-Art Dogma,” he 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 of “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.4


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 was 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?”


But it is perhaps Warhol who takes the premises of Ortegan Modernism to their furthest limit. Warhol applies the “inversion” of Modernist dehumanization not only to his art but to his life. He is not content simply to accomplish the “realization” of his ideas in his art, but, to a greater extent than even Duchamp, he realizes his ideas in his day-to-day life, as well. He abandons his “human” life not only in his art but also in his daily existence. As Warhol himself states: “I think that once you see emotions from a certain angle you can never think of them as real again. That’s what more or less has happened to me.”5 With the help of electronic recording devices, Warhol abandoned “lived realities” to concentrate on the “pane of glass” of perception:


The acquisition of my tape recorder really finished whatever emotional life I might have had, but I was glad to see it go. Nothing was ever a problem again, because a problem just meant a good tape, and when a problem transforms itself into a good tape, it’s not a problem anymore.


This echoes Ortega’s description of the artist:


The painter, in fine, completely unconcerned, does nothing but keep his eyes open. What is happening here is none of his business; he is, as it were, a hundred miles removed from it. His attitude is a purely perceptive attitude; indeed, he fails to perceive the event in its entirety. The entire inner meaning escapes his attention which is directed exclusively toward the visual part…. In the painter we find a maximum of distance and a minimum of feeling intervention.


Warhol was fascinated with figures in the media whose lives had been “dehumanized”— movie stars, celebrities, transvestites. To Warhol, the movies provided the most vivid example of this inversion: “The best atmosphere I can think of is film, because it’s three-dimensional physically and two-dimensional emotionally.” At the same time, Warhol shares with Ortega an appreciation of the playfulness of the whole Modernist endeavor. Again, Ortega states:


To the present-day artist the kingdom of art commences where the air feels lighter and things, free from formal fetters, begin to cut whimsical capers.… The symbol of art is seen again in the Great God Pan which makes the young goats frisk at the edge of the grove.


Warhol echoes this view:


In some circles where very heavy people think they have very heavy brains, words like “charming” and “clever” and “pretty” are all putdowns, and all the lighter things in life, which are the most important, are put down.


Today, the Postmodernist critics claim younger artists are no longer working within the parameters of Modernism. This is true—and has been for a long time—if we define Modernism as Greenbergian formalist Modernism. However, if we adopt the assumptions of Ortegan Modernism, we find that a good many younger artists, especially among those supported by Postmodernist critics, are working within the assumptions of this fifty-year-old theory. R.M. Fischer, Steven Keister, Cindy Sherman, and Richard Prince come to mind as artists who aspire to the kind of Modernism that Ortega advocates.


On the other hand, a variety of art being produced today truly is something other than Modernist. However, to call this art Postmodernist is probably a mistake, since it exhibits all the signs of being, in fact, pre-Modernist. The return to perspective techniques, the unique art object, human expression, “sensibility”—these are simply a retreat into nineteenth-century strategies by retrograde artists, as Benjamin H. D. Buchloh has pointed out in his recent essay on Neo-Expressionist painting.6


There has always been retrogressive art in our culture, but the unusual phenomenon today is that such work has gained the status of major art. This is the result of the changes in our society that have occurred with the last decade. From the 1950s to the 1970s, it was the entrepreneurial class, buoyed by economic prosperity, that supported Modernism, in the medium characteristically associated with that class—the visual arts. Today that class has largely retreated in a fog of fear and paranoia from its interest in the Modernist point of view (just as it has retreated from its aspirations to liberalism). Instead, it seeks to reassure itself by withdrawing into commodity fetishism, historicism, and a kind of parodic individualism.


Today, Modernism has largely moved to a different arena where it is supported by a different class. Modernism is as alive in music as it is under attack in the visual arts. Groups with such names as the Talking Heads, the Clash, the Gang of Four, and Public Image Limited, have all moved to an essentially Modernist position. David Byrne, of the Talking Heads, for example, sings that “facts are useless in emergencies,” that:


Facts are simple and facts are straight

Facts are lazy and facts are late

Facts all come with points of view

Facts don’t do what I want them to

Facts just twist the truth around

Facts are living turned inside out…7


The Clash sing about a cartoon confrontation between “G.I. Joe” and “Ivan,” a “Ruskie Bear,” ironically turning jingoistic labels in upon themselves. The Gang of Four sing:


The problem of leisure

What to do for pleasure

Ideal love a new purchase

A market of the senses 8


They are turning the attitude of advertising into an “algebra of metaphors” and neutralizing the “contagion” of popular culture. Similarly, the leader of the band the Dead Kennedys uses the nom de plume of Jello Biafra (running for mayor of San Francisco on the slogan, “There’s always room for Jello”).


In their instrumentation, these bands constantly parody phrasing of earlier, unselfconscious pop music. Their playfulness allows the B-52’s to transform the mindless drone of ’60s instrumental music into something else. Many of these musicians have also adopted a clearly Modernist attitude toward their own public personas. John Lydon of Public Image Limited said in an interview in the Canadian magazine, Maclean’s: “I’m tired of the past and even the future’s beginning to seem repetitive. I don’t really know what to say. I talk crap all the time. I’m a liar, a hypocrite, and a bastard. I shouldn’t be tolerated….”


The Modernism of these musicians is particularly significant because it is assaulting one of the most important strongholds of popular art in the nineteenth-century mold—electronically reproduced music. Because they apply Modernist attitudes of irony and doubt to political and social issues, their work comes to serve the very purpose that was advocated by Ortega as the aim of Modernism—the preservation of the possibility of liberal democracy. Their willingness to deal with the major events of our culture singles out these musicians as important successors to the daring Modernists of the past.


In time of economic adversity and uncertainty, like the present, it is characteristic of the wealthy to retreat into a position of fear and reaction. On the other hand, during these adverse periods, there are also likely to be small groups among those without a large investment in the status quo who will be moved by adversity to a position of intense thought and doubt. These musicians are not supported by a wealthy entrepreneurial class (as have been Modernist artists), but by this minority: those thinking, doubting individuals with the few dollars available necessary to purchase a record album.


This market-structure has allowed Modernism to flourish today in music. It could provide the necessary impetus for a Modernist resurgence in the visual arts.



—courtesy of Peter Halley





Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in The New Art, edited by Gregory Battock (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1973), p. 72.



All quotations from Ortega are from two sources: The Dehumanization of Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968) and The Revolt of the Masses (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1932).



Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria (Oxford University Press, 1975).



Quotations from Ad Reinhardt are from Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, edited by Barbara Rose (New York: Viking Press, 1975).



Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975).



Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression,” in October, No. 16 (Spring 1981), pp. 39-68.



Talking Heads, “Crosseyed and Painless,” in Remain in Light (Sire Records, New York, 1980).



Gang of Four, “Natural’s Not in It,” in Solid Gold (Warner Brothers Records, New York, 1981).

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