no new order

no new order


“In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” Walter Benjamin

Broadly speaking it was the 1980 Venice Biennale which brought the phenomenon of postmodernism to the wider public’s attention. It was the Biennale of Art which introduced New Image painting as a “return to tradition”, and together with the architecture section (entitled The Presence of the Past ), began the serious debates over whether to take postmodernism seriously.

“Self-appointed guru” Charles Jencks argued at the time that the idea of postmodernism being merely a return to historical eclecticism, as a way of enriching architectural language, was a misrepresentation of the radical potential of postmodernism. “Postmodernism is more inclusive than historicism and it has a major goal, that of heightened communication … Postmodern architecture is doubly-coded (one half modern and one half something else) in its attempt to communicate both with the public and a concerned minority, usually architects.”

The important point being that postmodernism is radical eclecticism rather than historical eclecticism: “Radical eclecticism by contrast starts to design for the tastes and languages prevailing in any one place … although it starts from these codes, it doesn’t necessarily use them to send the expected messages, or ones which simply confirm existing values. In this sense it is both contextual and dialectical, attempting to set up a discourse between different and often opposed taste cultures.” As we said in a letter to The Face in 1983, arguing for the radical potential of postmodernism … “what a difference one word makes.”

As Hal Foster puts it: “In cultural politics today, a basic opposition exists between a postmodernism of resistance and a postmodernism of reaction. The postmodernism of reaction is far better known; though not monolithic, it is singular in its repudiation of modernism. This repudiation is … of the one (modernism) for the ills of the other (modernisation).
With cause and effect thus confounded, ‘adversary’ culture is denounced even as the economic and political status quo is affirmed – indeed a new ‘affirmative’ culture is proposed.” 1

Needless to say however, it is as historical eclecticism, a “return to tradition”, that postmodernism has for the most part entered into the public consciousness and professional debate. Charles Jencks has become identified as the main promoter of postmodern classicism in art and architecture through glamorous, sometimes vacuous, publications.

Literal, sometimes ironic, but mostly banal references to “classicism” are glorified as the illusory return to a consensus of values, supposedly so desperately needed in a fragmented society. Once again the authority of tradition is called upon to solve the problems of the lack of democracy in the present.

The Edinburgh International was selected by Douglas Hall, former keeper of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; Michael Compton of the Tate Gallery, and Martin Kunz of the Kunstmuseum in Lucerne. 2 It uses “the site of the exhibition itself, the Royal Scottish Academy with its ordered spaces and classical facade” as the occasion to present a selection of international artists, most of whom merely illustrate the chapter on postmodern classicism from Jencks’ handy manual. Presented here as a major definition of art in our postmodern times; “The reinvigoration of the classical tradition and the dialogue with classicism is one of the most notable strains in art of the past ten years.”

This is the first large-scale exhibition of art in Britain to our knowledge which has consciously attempted to deal with the issue of postmodernism. Not surprisingly, it is both defensive and reactionary, presenting postmodernism as a “return to order” under the guise of a “return to tradition” and the need for a consensus concerning the good, the true and the beautiful.

Subtitled Reason and Emotion, the authority of the classical tradition of supposedly “universal values” is wedded to the liberal-humanist tradition of the “emancipated universal subject” in an attempt to return to “civilised” and humane values, defined here as decent and reasonable behaviour.

As Michael Compton’s catalogue essay, referring to aspects of the “classic”, puts it: “Perhaps one may offer the notion of decent or reasonable behaviour in art, a notion that combines (but not too stringently) the moral, the professional, the craftsmanly, the serious, the thoughtful, the feeling, the learned, and so on; what one may call the civilised” (our italics). Thus an appeal is made through this exhibition by administrators for art to behave itself.

As we all know, classicism has traditionally been used as the language of power and, despite what aristocratic claims are made for it, has never enjoyed a popular consensus. Universal truth or value cannot be proven to exist, and claims made to the contrary are an insult to cultural difference. Ancient Greece was a slave state which only survived on the hidden economy of women and slaves, and its ideas were taken from diverse non-white cultures. History has been purged by academics, artists, architects and colonial administrators to forge an Aryan model to validate the industrial slave state.

It is perhaps not surprising that in today’s post-industrial economy, artists and architects can only use this language of power ironically – as “power is now an effect of the system; it resides everywhere and nowhere at once and therefore cannot be represented.” (Foucault)

As a result, ‘history’ has now been detached from power, reduced to signs and entered the market place of interchangeability. Classicism becomes the surface gloss of acceptable history on the unacceptable face of corporate capitalism. Perhaps aesthetics have always been used to serve power, but today the new realism of our postmodern social condition, with the contemporary re-structuring of capital and class is based on the unification of the contradictory forces of modernisation and traditionalism.


Ian Hamilton Finlay Aphrodite of the Terror 1987


The work of Ian Hamilton Finlay, Aphrodite of the Terror, is central to the concerns of this exhibition. To a plastercast of Aphrodite, Finlay’s “minimal intervention” consists of adding a red thread necklace, such as was worn during the French Revolution by relatives of those executed by the guillotine. The organisers have appropriated Finlay’s concern with the disappearance of ethical, moral and spiritual values from social life (and their replacement with merely technological imperatives based on consumption in the name of progress), as no more than an anti-revolutionary defence of the spiritual ideal.

Such is the difficulty for an artist attempting to “re-appropriate” classicism for radical purposes and points to the importance of the issues of intention and context. Aphrodite of the Terror at the Edinburgh International is used to warn us, (now that modernism is over and the ugliness of modernisation is visible to all) that “beauty” is always the first victim of “revolution”. However, as we all know, it is in fact consensus (concerning beauty, truth, etc) which is in fact the first victim.

Michael Compton, not only one of the selectors of Edinburgh International but interestingly also one of the selectors of the 1980 Venice Biennale, would seem to be a master of such administrative revisionism, as when he talks about art of the 70s which attempted in various ways to escape the confines of both tradition and the museum:
“An effect of the kinds of art I have in mind is that they draw attention to the curator’s real responsibility to the artist, the art work in his care and to the public … The parody of art and museum institutions in much (of Broodthaer’s) work has a force opposite to that which appears at first glance. The element of criticism which is seen, serves finally to remind the curators and the visitors of their duty to preserve and continue the great culture which they inherited from artists of the past and present …
So the very different kinds of art, however it has been interpreted and perhaps whatever may have been the intentions of the artists themselves, have succeeded in reconstructing the relationship between artists and intermediaries and so has become, one may hope, domesticated in its own terms.” [our italics] 3

In short, modern art which aimed to overthrow tradition and revolutionise real life, ends up validated and administrated by the museum; and the more difficult the art (if selected for inclusion), the more important the curator’s role … in ensuring its domestication.

“No consumption, production, communication, transportation. illness, health care, death. learning or exchange occurs without the intervention of centralised administrations or professional agencies” (Gorz).

In our corporate state systems of exploitation and administration of work together, hand-in-hand with the continual simulation of signs of “individuality”; to mask the relationship of power to knowledge (Foucault); as well as the temporary and political nature of both culture and identity – to produce a totally colonised but “irresponsible” subject. In other words, the “free” individual, and this is where Reason and Emotion come in.

Reason and Emotion are both administrative categories produced in and through language, but there is an attempt to deny their status as representation with all the vested interests and affiliations to power that this entails. The puritan ideal of reason validates the work ethic, while the romantic notion of emotion validates consumption and “as a result, these twin cultures ensure the continued performance of those contrasted but interdependent forms of behaviour essential to the perpetuation of industrial societies, matching consumption with production, play with work … and it is on the tension generated between them that the dynamism of the Industrial West depends.” 4

Well-crafted objects and paintings are chosen by Martin Kunz to represent the “wholeness” of the man emancipated enough to use a civilised degree of reason together with a reasonable amount of emotion … sounds like the perfect man for the job in our corporate state; an unalienated machine sliding between Reason and Emotion, production and consumption.

If everyday life under the sign of capital is “pornographic” then it would seem from the Edinburgh International that “sentimentality” is the approved response. That is, a nostalgia for a past (of universal values) that did not exist and a yearning for a future (of universal “wholeness”) which cannot appear; as both are founded on administrative categories in the present.

“Unlike humanism, which implies a conscious, knowing, unified rational subject; post-structuralism (and postmodernism) theorises subjectivity as a site of disunity and conflict, central to the process of political change … Subjectivity is produced in a whole range of discursive practices – economic, social and political – the meanings of which are a constant site of struggle over power.” 5

Utilising overpowering spectacle to convince us of a consensus, the Edinburgh International attempts to overshadow the many diverse and different contributions which further critical debate concerning the fragmented reality of our postmodern social condition, where the future of art rests in the hands of those with “no loyalty whatsoever to the tradition of art, nor to its professionalisation; nor to its commodification or its efficient administration.” 6

As Hal Foster says: “A postmodernism of resistance then, arises as a counter practice not only to the official culture of modernism but also to the ‘false normativity’ of a reactionary postmodernism.
In opposition, a resistant postmodernism is concerned with a critical deconstruction of tradition, not an instrumental pastiche of … pseudo-historical forms; with a critique of origins, not a return to them. In short, it seeks to question rather than exploit cultural codes, to explore, rather than conceal social and political affiliations.” 7

Such a postmodernism combines the critical practice of deconstruction with theories of hegemony and representation; for, as Gorz says, “There is nothing to be hoped from history, and no reason to sacrifice anything to that idol. No longer can we give ourselves to a transcendent cause, expecting that it will repay our suffering and reward our sacrifice with interest … the crisis of the industrial system heralds no new world.
The silence of history returns individuals to themselves; forced back upon their own subjectivity, they have to take the floor on their own behalf. No future society speaks through their mouth, since the society disintegrating before our eyes heralds no new order.” 8

Published as:
No New Order: The Edinburgh International
Review: Art in Ruins
Building Design No 869 Jan 22 1988
Edinburgh International Alba No 7 1988