Decades after the start of Modernism, a handful of artists wanted to make art that was part of society again.
We certainly live in unsettled times. Even as the New Year begins and we hope it will be an improvement, not many people are thinking that things are going to instantly return to normal. On the contrary, we will probably be living with the effects of the crescendoing trauma of the past few years for quite some time.
Those same remarks could have been uttered 100 years ago without changing a single word. Artists in Europe looked around in 1920 and surveyed a society that had been completely uprooted and destroyed. The most devasting war that anyone could imagine had been followed by a global pandemic that killed more people than the war did. In the face of this, what were European artists to do?
A new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City offers us one possible
answer to that question. The exhibit is called “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented, 1918-1939” and it chronicles an attempt on the part of artists – particularly graphic artists– to put an end to the isolated attitude that had characterized Modernism and to take art back to the point at which it, and the artists that create it, were functioning and contributing parts of society.
These artists wanted to make art not for art’s sake—the clarion call of the Modernists—but for the sake of trying to advance a society that was literally crawling out from the wreckage of the previous one. They believed that art and artists no longer had the luxury of staying aloof if they wanted to have a say in what the New World was going to look like and be like.
What you'll see in this exhibit is the dedicated attempt by a handful of artists—many of whom you’ll have never heard—to change the course of contemporary art back to something much more real for the people who see it.
One of those artists, an Austrian named Ladislav Sutnar, said that “Art must create a new language of form that is accessible to all and in unison with the rhythm of life.” A clearer refutation of the rarified attitude of the modernists can hardly be imagined.
I really want to get my hands on a copy of the catalog from this exhibit and it really makes me want to teach my class on the history of Modernism again.
What you see at work here is a little bit like what American artists were doing during the New Deal in the Great Depression—a different but also unsettled era in a very different place. But the impulse felt by artists, to be part of the changes going forward, was the same.
The odds are very slim that I’ll get a chance to get up there and see this before it closes in April. But you might. And if you do let me know what you think about it. I hope you get go.