On the PBS website, it is said that O’Keeffe’s paintings represent the beginning of a new American art form, “free from the irony and cynicism of the late 20th century”.

From one point of view, her art is not new at all, but has its roots in the deepest traditions of human life, whether European or American or any other kind.

Where does Georgia O’Keeffe’s art stand when measured against modernism, and the concept of art for art’s sake.

Has the concept of art for life’s sake been forgotten?

The Central Purpose of Modernism

In an article from 1995, Hilton Kramer criticizes modern art history, for doing nothing more than naming a succession of styles, or fashions, that have more to do with the history of taste, than its being able to speak about conditions within the human life experience. He claims that Kandinsky’s book On the Spiritual in Art, was a turning point for Modernism, and that the origins and purpose of abstract art is surrounded by foggy thinking and a lack of understanding.

The central purpose of modernism was to redefine our relationship to the Universe.

If we understood the consequences of their early thoughts, it would come as a shock, he says.

Bram Djikstra, in an article from 1998, makes the claim as well, that Modernism – as it is now generally known – is a misunderstanding and that it was Duchamp who pushed Art away and into the intellectual spheres, with its “laconic nihilism”, instead of getting its inspiration in a coop with Mother Nature. He further claims that Picasso is to blame too, through his “misunderstanding of the primarily organical intentions of Cézanne’.

Readymades by Duchamp

Duchamp publicly expressed his disappointment with American art that presented predominantly nature-based abstraction (often considered a defining characteristic of the art produced by Stieglitz’s coterie of artists). He proclaimed in newspapers and magazines that American artists were too dependent on outmoded European traditions and had overlooked far greater subjects such as the skyscraper and the machine.

Duchamp’s comment generated a critical discussion that lasted through 1929, prompting Stieglitz and his circle to define what made their work innovative, original and American.

Duchamp explains his Readymades, in 1961: A point that I want very much to establish is that the choice of these “Readymades” was never dictated by aesthetic delectation. The choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste…in fact a complete anaesthesia.

Duchamp: Urinal, 1917, (photograph A. Stieglitz)

At another time, wanting to expose the basic antinomy between art and “Readymades,” I imagined a “Reciprocal Readymade”: use a Rembrandt as an ironing board! I realized very soon the danger of repeating indiscriminately this form of expression and decided to limit the production of “Readymades” to a small number yearly.

So was he a genius of satire, making fun of the critics, or…?

…or are we beginning to get it?

From the mid 1990-ies and on, several people in the United States are beginning to view Modernism as a misunderstanding. Djikstra’s opinion about Picasso and Duchamp is radical, but without disdaining them as artists, their names have nevertheless been used by art historians and promoted by critics as two important impulses for art in the 20th century.

Paul Cézanne: Mont St. Victoire, 1904-06

Paul Cézanne: Mont St. Victoire, 1904-06

Pablo Picasso: Two Women Running on the Beach, 1922

Pablo Picasso: Figures on a Beach, 1931

And yet what is Modernism? It is undefined.

John C. Ransom


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