Tom Phillips

  • English Art and Modernism 1900-1939 by Charles Harrison
    Allen Lane, 416 pp, £20.00, February 1981, ISBN 0 7139 0792 4

If that famous omnibus has not yet reached Clapham, its poor browbeaten passenger, the unwitting touchstone of our century’s discourse, should he turn his thoughts towards art, might reasonably assume that Modernism and Modern Art were acceptable ways of referring to what is going on at the moment. He would perhaps be bewildered and dismayed to learn that we are so well into Post-Modernism that Neo-Modernism must be just over the hill. Indeed, according to Frank Kermode, we passed out of Palaeo-Modernism some time ago (imperceptibly, one presumes, as through the tail of a comet). He might, however, be consoled by the knowledge that artists themselves are confused, though themselves in turn consoled by remembering Barnett Newman’s aphorism: ‘Aesthetics is to the artist as ornithology is to the birds.’ It is not difficult to imagine a painter, like some character in Borges, looking himself up to find out what to call what he was doing; the isms grow in quick and dull profusion, and a week is beginning to be a long time in art as well.

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