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Peter Lowe © 1999


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Since its inception in the early 1960s, the term 'postmodernism' has been one over which theorists and critics have argued ceaselessly. Rather appropriately, the debate centres on the meaning of the 'post' in 'postmodernism'. Does postmodernism mean that the 'high' modernism of Picasso, Joyce, Stravinsky et al. is at an end, and that its landmarks have been superseded, or is its modernity a state from which we cannot escape, but one that demands , but one that demands new aesthetic approaches as we seek to make sense of it?

In the struggle between continuity and change, two continental giants command the opposing camps. Jürgen Habermas, of Frankfurt, believes that the 'project of modernity' is still incomplete. He sees the purpose of art as emancipatory and looks back to the Enlightenment as the original attempt to fuse art and life. He asserts that, as art became harder to comprehend in its attempt to justify its existence in the modern world, it lost its ability to address people and drifted into the ghetto of aesthetic formalism to a point where its claims to affect the larger world were invalidated. He doesn't, however, want to bury modernism. He thinks it's quite a good thing, and a Project with which to persevere.

The recently-deceased Jean-François Lyotard, a Parisian, sees the radicalised character of contemporary art as being necessary for its survival. The world is too varied and alienating for art to claim the knowledge with which Habermas credits it, and by absorbing the eighteenth century concept of the sublime he calls for a new post-modern art, which draws attention to its own limits as a means of presentation. The route to this, in Lyotard's view, becomes clear only if we declare the modernity project, which Habermas wishes to preserve, to be defunct.

Who's right? Is the modernity project still something that can be realistically discussed in this postmodern age, or s it something we ought to be fighting for, to bring it it fruition?


Jürgen Habermas's essay "Modernity - an Incomplete Project" was given as a lecture on receiving the Theodor Adorno Prize in Frankfurt in 1980. In allying himself with the Frankfurt School of thought, Habermas calls to arms a long line of cultural theorists, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse and Adorno himself. Habermas sees postmodern culture as a reaction against modernism, and argues that, in this respect, it is nothing new, that 'reactionary' art and the conflict between the Ancients and the Moderns has characterised the history of art for quite a long time now. The Modernist project did, however, introduce something new. It began, claims Habermas, with the cosmological inversions and challenges to traditional authority of the Enlightenment. With limitless room for "progress of knowledge and the infinite advance towards social and moral betterment" [1] (Brooker127) came a new aesthetic, and a new relation to tradition. In breaking with the past, the future and the new became desirable.

As the nineteenth-century evolved, he goes on, modernity defined itself not in relation to the past, but by virtue of its having no relation with the past, and this carries with it the abandonment of the past as any measure of aesthetic reference.

The emphatically modern document no longer borrows this power of being a classic from the authority of a past epoch; instead, a modern work becomes a classic because it has once been authentically modern. [2]

Aesthetic modernity therefore relies upon the quest to 'make it new', in Ezra Pound's words. For Habermas, modernism arises out of 'modernity', the condition of the new which lines the constantly changing path to the future.

In his definition of modernity, Habermas is influenced by Walter Benjamin. Like Benjamin, he identifies the rise of the condition in the mid-nineteenth century when Romantic idealism fused with the ideologies of industrial revolution to form "that radicalised consciousness of modernity which freed itself from all specific historical ties" [3].

For Benjamin, the French poet Charles Baudelaire, and in particular his "The Painter of Modern Life", was at the centre of nineteenth-century modernity. Describing the Paris of the Second Empire, the author of Les Fleurs du Mal made the case for a 'flaneur' -- a wandering observer with the ability to impart, through the artistic medium, the essence of what it means to be 'new' and fashionable. The prime directive of Baudelaire's aesthetic was the need to be new; all else was secondary. Art would be recognised because of its relevance, and even if it confused or shocked it would derive value from what Benjamin called "the fact that it is new, regardless of how repulsive or wretched it may be" [4]. The avant-garde's momentum came from its ability to give expression to the fundamental uncertainty and temporal flux of its world. Karl Marx put it rather well in The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848):

Everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relationships are swept away, all new-formed ones become obsolete before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned [5].

Habermas sees a line of aesthetic innovation running from Baudelaire to Dadaism, but raises the possibility that the avant-garde may be losing its momentum. He cites Daniel Bell's view that Western societies are experiencing, in the guise of postmodernism, a split between culture and society, leading to the conclusion that "although the avant-garde is still considered to be expanding, it is supposedly no longer creative. Modernism is dominant but dead" [6]. There is a clash between the hedonism on the avant-garde, and the strict demands for functionality in the modern world. The 'life world' in which we live is infected by modernism but the 'systems-world' in which we function imposes economic and administrative rationalisation upon behaviour which frustrates authentic self-experience. If the project of modernity was about the levelling of boundaries between art and life, dissolving everything into the celebration of the transitory and fashionable, how has modernism become so distant from the world that it exists in the ghetto of formalism occupied by an avant-garde that is no longer creative?

Habermas sees the Enlightenment as the point at which a new role for art was devised. Increased attention to objective science, universal law and morality and autonomous art would lead the way towards an improved world, as all advances facilitated everyday life through rationalisation. Through an increased concern with form, the aesthetic object could enrich the lives of its audience, offering within the artwork an example of the harmony absent in the world outside.

The Enlightenment philosophers wanted to utilise this accumulation of specialised culture for the enrichment of everyday life - that is to say, for the rational organisation of everyday social life [7].

Adorno identified the mid-nineteenth century as a point at which art's mimetic nature was overtaken by the realisation that the aesthetic and social worlds were no longer reconcilable. The social world was not ordered and rational, as the eighteenth century treatment of it had been, it was in constant flux. This constant movement served to give the artistic world a new purpose, an anti-mimetic avocation brought to life in the Cubist, Expressionist and Surrealist. Art rejected the path of mimesis for that of formalism and transcendence, but in doing so vacated its social position, moving towards what J. M. Bernstein refers to as 'aesthetic alienation':

To consider art as 'merely' aesthetical, where 'aesthetics' has come to mean the understanding of beauty and art in non-cognitive terms, entails alienating art from truth and morality [8].

For Habermas, the history of aesthetic modernism, up to the shock tactics of the Surrealists, was the history of a retreat from the world which had successfully deluded itself that its 'flux' was in fact 'progress'. In protest, art pursued formalism to the extent that it "alienated itself from life and withdrew into the untouchableness of complete autonomy" [9], but in doing so it found itself smothered by jargon, becoming increasingly specialised and ineffectual at the same time.

As the twentieth century progressed, therefore, art was absorbed and subsumed by the commodity culture it wanted to criticise, and its credentials as an emancipatory tool in the Enlightenment sense were thrown into doubt. Terry Eagleton notes:

Art can only hope to be valid if it provides an implicit critique of the conditions which produce it - a validation which, in evoking art's privileged remoteness from such conditions, instantly invalidates itself. Conversely, art can only be authentic if it silently acknowledges how deeply it is compromised by what it opposes; but to press this logic too far is precisely to undermine its authenticity [10].

This, then, is why Habermas believes that the project of modernity was abandoned by the Modernists, who allowed the spheres of art, science and morality to become increasingly stylised and disjoined to the point where they became hermetically sealed domains. In embracing the new, Modernists discounted the valuable links between these spheres which tradition offered, instead choosing to develop art in isolation from society, and which such a degree of specialisation that the public is excluded from the charmed circle of élite artists and critics. Duchamp's shock tactics may have seemed eminently worthwhile to a handful of Dadaists, but no-one in the larger world was emancipated by his actions.

Habermas attributes the ineffectiveness of the avant-garde's revolt to its inability to make itself clear to a wider audience, to its élitism. He does not deny the importance of an 'inner-logic' within art as a regulatory presence but counsels against an "exclusive concentration on one aspect of validity alone and the exclusion of aspects of truth and justice" [11]. The wider audience of what he calls the "layman or everyday expert" will not receive art in the same manner as the professional critic. If art wishes to complete the modernity project it must refrain from increasingly extravagant attempts to justify itself through the construction of a framework that legitimises art by making it obscure to the point where the observer sees nothing to be gained by attempting to unravel a mass of exegesis. Terry Eagleton puts it like this: "Art is at once precious and worthless" [12], and it has a social role that diminishes with increased theoretical complication.

Habermas identified the core of the problem in his book Legitimation Crisis, expanding on Adorno's view that "Everything about art has become problematic; its inner life, its relation to society, even its right to exist" [13]. The modernity project remains unfulfilled because art wrongly assumed its existence was central to the life of the masses, and that its innovation had repercussions outside the cultural arena, while it was removing itself from the very world that it wanted to reform through its increasing obscurity and specialisation. Art has to regain the ground it abjured in the mid-nineteenth century if the project of modernity is to survive in any form.


Jean-François Lyotard's essay "What is Postmodernism?" appeared in 1982 and formed part of his larger opus The Postmodern Condition. It begins with a summary of Habermas's position on the Postmodern debate, reading in his work the desire to bring writers and artists back into the bosom of the community. Lyotard is scathing in his attack on what he sees as a disposition "to liquidate the heritage of the avant-gardes" [14] and reassert the aesthetic of realism, in the manner of the salons and academies of nineteenth-century Paris, against which the 'modernité' of Baudelaire originated. For Lyotard it would be a regression for the avant-garde to return to 'therapeutic' art and to conform to the medium that attains widespread public appreciation. Only in the challenging specialisation of the avant-garde does art find the opportunity to ask questions.

[Artists] must question the rules of the art of painting or of narrative as they have learned and received them from their predecessors. Soon those rules must appear to them as a means to deceive, to seduce and to reassure, which makes it impossible for them to be 'true' [15].

Realism "always stands somewhere between academicism and kitsch" [16] and, in the light of twentieth century events, is compromised by its use and abuse at the hands of fascist and communist regimes. If art survives political conformity it will be caught in the conformity of the art market, which is run by the capitalist economy and seeks the lowest common denominator to maximise returns, adopting kitsch to "pander to the confusion which reigns in the 'taste' of its patrons" [17].

For Lyotard, the avant-garde is under threat, both from cultural policy in its political sense, and from the forces of the market. It is in danger of finding itself blunted and weakened, comforting instead of challenging. This is not the experience of modernity identified by Marx and Baudelaire:

Modernity, in whatever age it appears, cannot exist without a shattering of belief and without discovery of the 'lack of reality' of reality, together with the invention of other realities. [18]

Lyotard brings the concept of the sublime to the forefront of his argument, turning the lack of presentation into the treatment of "ideas of which no presentation is possible" [19]. Like Habermas, he invokes the Enlightenment using Diderot and Kant to propose that art may abandon mimesis to the point of presenting nothing as a means of drawing attention to the fact that something unpresentable exists. Lyotard follows Kant in making the passage from the Old Testament "Thou shalt not make graven images" [20] as evidence of the sublime because it makes the absence of representation evidence of the magnitude of the presence behind it. Rather than see the abandonment of mimesis as art retreating from the world, Lyotard sees it as the only degree of engagement with the world that art can successfully attain.

As painting, it will of course 'present' something though negatively; it will therefore avoid figuration or representation. One recognises in those instructions the axioms of avant-gardes in painting, inasmuch as they devote themselves to making an allusion to the unpresentable by means of visible presentations [21].

Whereas many theorists have taken the term postmodern to mean a movement that comes after high modernism, Lyotard claims that every artwork is, in fact, postmodern at the moment of its production.

All that has been received, if only yesterday, must be suspected. A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant [22].

However, Lyotard avoids excessive reliance upon the cultural product in itself. He would prefer us to focus on "the power of the faculty to conceive" [23]. He seeks an art that, through its form, draws attention to "the powerlessness of the faculty of presentation, on the nostalgia for presence felt by the human subject" [24].

This approach brings Lyotard into conflict with realist aesthetics because the sublime finds expression in an absence or a rejection of form. The artist must display a medium that is struggling to cope with the subject, because mimesis is an academic construct set up to limit the chances of the unpresentable from being seen.

The modern artwork presents the unpresentable only through its absence, and its consistently recognisable form provides solace and pleasure to the viewer. For Lyotard, postmodern artwork must continue to challenge its situation.

The postmodern would be that which puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable [25].

Lyotard concludes his article by criticising the Frankfurt School's Quest for Enlightenment Unity as potentially dangerous. He asserts that the reconciliation between spheres of life, sought by Habermas, can only be achieved only through a transcendental illusion, bought at the price of terror. Art fulfils its role in society by refusing to supply comforting illusions. For Lyotard, the adoption of formalistic innovation is not a regression but an attempt to confront the issues ignored by the art understood by Habermas's layman. By following this course, the avant-garde retains its artistic integrity, and postmodernism is not a ghetto of aesthetic theory cut off from reality but a field of inquiry in which art is still addressing the world in which it finds itself situated. Lyotard therefore dismisses the 'modernity project' as a potentially dangerous illusion. The world is too complex for the 'spheres' that Habermas writes of ever to be aligned.

The scientific progress which began in the seventeenth century inverted the universe, and man's position in it has diminished accordingly. Habermas's view of art assumed the existence of a deeper 'essence' that could be touched if stimulated in the right kind of way by works of art. Inspired by art, man could reassert himself amidst the chaos of his age. For Habermas, the project of modernity was a continuation of the Age of Reason, it worked on the premise that man could be restored to the centre of a rational world, that was harmonious in scientific and cultural life. Lyotard, the theorist who dismissed the 'grand narratives' of history in The Postmodern Condition denies that man's place outside the chaos can be regained, claiming that man's illusions are failing him and that representation is no longer possible. The edifice of global capitalism has absorbed what was once innovative and drains it of any content. Art must survive by moving into different, often challenging, territory.


The project of modernity remains incomplete, and in the uncertainty of the postmodern age the unity that Habermas seeks shows no signs of being realised. Life is increasingly fragmented, and to many observers the artistic community seems to retreat further into sterile abstraction and pretentious conceptualisation with every 'controversial' exhibition or statement. Lyotard argues that this specialisation proves it is impossible to present a total world view, but other more cynical observers, like the critic Donald Judd feel that "the elaboration of the term 'postmodern' is not due to real change but to naked fashion and the need to cover it with words" [26]. The failure of the Surrealist revolt, cited by Habermas, illustrates the gap that exists between art and life, and it is widening all the time, with increased specialisation in all areas of life becoming the only approach to the sublime vastness of a world that is too much to take in. The modernity project is incomplete, and it is hard to see circumstances in which the degree of reunification that Habermas seeks could occur. It is, however, far more comforting to think it possible than to have to concede, with Lyotard, that we have no choice but to theorise our ineffectiveness into a postmodern sublimity and abandon ourselves to an aestheticising of the chaos around us.


1: Jürgen Habermas, "Modernity: An Incomplete Project" (1980) in P. Brooker, ed., Modernism / Postmodernism (Harlow: Longman, 1996), p.127.

2: Brooker. p.127.

3: Brooker. p.127.

4: D. Frisby, D., Fragments of Modernity: Theories of Modernity in the Work of Simmel, Kracauer and Benjamin (Cambridge: Polity, 1985), p.15.

5: Frisby. p.20.

6: Brooker. p.129.

7: Brooker. p.132.

8: J. M. Bernstein, The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno (Cambridge: Polity, 1992), p.2.

9: Brooker. p.133.

10: Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p.349.

11: Brooker. p.135.

12: Eagleton. p.357.

13: A. Benjamin, ed., The Problems of Modernity (London: Routledge, 1991), p.49.

14: Lyotard, Jean François. "Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?" (1982), in Brooker, op.cit., p.142.

15: Brooker. p.143.

16: Brooker. p.144.

17: Brooker. p.145.

18: Brooker. p.146.

19: Brooker. p.146.

20: Exodus 20.4

21: Brooker. p.147.

22: Brooker. p.148.

23: Brooker. p.148.

24: Brooker. p.148.

25: Brooker. p.149.

26: Judd, Donald. "Not about master-pieces but why there are so few of them." 1984. Art in Theory: 1900-1990. ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992. p.1032.




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