Monday, January 16, 2006


by Donald Kuspit

Twentieth Century Art: An Overview of Critical Opinion

"The real problem of modernity is the problem of belief," writes Daniel Bell, the sociologist and political theorist. "To use an unfashionable term, it is a spiritual crisis, since the new anchorages have proved illusory and the old ones have become submerged. It is a situation which brings us back to nihilism; lacking a past or a future, there is only a void."(1) Modern art, in all its seemingless limitless variety, presents itself as one solution to the problem, indeed, as some think, the only important solution. As Bell says, it has become a "substitute for religion,"(2) a spiritual antidote to social poisons, the esthetic alternative to moral nihilism. This view is seconded by the historian Jacques Barzun, who, discussing "the rise of art as religion" in the 19th century -- initially the equation of art and religion, and finally the substitution of art for religion(3) -- remarks that "Art. . . became the gateway to the realm of spirit for all those over whom the old religions have lost their hold. Most romantic artists needed nothing higher. Art was sufficient and supreme."(4) The poet Wallace Stevens adds: "The paramount relation between poetry and painting today, between modern man and modern art, is simply this: that in an age in which disbelief is so profoundly prevalent or, if not disbelief, indifference to questions of belief, poetry and painting, and the arts in general, are, in their measure, a compensation for what has been lost."(5)

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