chapter  2
What modernism was
Art, progress and the avant-garde
Pages 19

A justified scepticism has spread in aesthetic discourse regarding concepts of

universality and historical evolution, linear chronology and homogenous

periodisation. This scepticism is directed in equal measure against artists’ own

self-understanding and against historical description relying on such vocabu-

lary. This is particularly true in the case of the modern avant-garde, insofar as it

contained, in its very concept, ideas of the superiority of the new and the notion

that it is possible today to determine which art is ‘ahead’, thus to help map out

the future. But does this partly justified criticism mean that history – what Hegel

called ‘the fury of disappearance’ – has outplayed its role? History is itself a modern product. History, modernity and art are

contemporary and intertwined concepts, and we cannot have one without the others. The very history that made art possible also generated modernism in art, in which the past itself became a problem. When today – from an allegedly postmodern vantage point – we historicise modernity or declare ourselves to have reached a postmodern state, this itself is a modern impulse. The cunning of history is possibly even greater than the cunning of reason.