The Social implications of Modernist Syntax: The Radical Meaning of Non-Determinism

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It is my intention to show that the syntax of modern art, the way our era structures its use of visual language, reflects a new cultural attitude of anxiety. This instability is an essential aspect of our culture.

Today's art remains compositionally and emotionally fragmented and disorienting, deriving from Cubism, Surrealism and Dada. Fragmentation is the very essence of our pictorial language. Despite the apparent changes in Post-Modernism, from the idealism of High Modernism, to the political and social realism of Post-Modernism, underlying the various stages of Modern art, is the philosophic concept of uncertainty, chance and accident, as a means of understanding and structuring our language and our reality. This primary acceptance of uncertainty as a means of structuring culture is unique in the history of Western Culture.

Relativity and uncertainty are deeply understood principles of modern thinking. The uncertainty principle is central to modern physics. Quantum theory stresses the uncertainty of sub-atomic events which can occur without clear cause. In philosophy, existential thinking suggests that there are no deterministic meanings in life. In biology, random mutations are the essence of evolution theory and in politics and social organization the moment now determines and reinterprets reality. This is radical because most individuals in western cultures believe in a 'deterministic', a priori or causal system of thought.

Nevertheless, we live in a Modernist, non-deterministic reality in which a breakdown occurs between cause and effect. Logic gives way to a new continuum of uncertainty and chance becomes the central contemporary creative understanding. This is the central meaning of Modern syntax. Not until the language of Modernism and the implications of these values on our culture is understood by the larger public can a deeper harmony with our society evolve.


Keywords: Non-Deterministic, Fragmentation, Instability, Visual Syntax, Chance
Stream: Arts Theory and Criticism
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Social implications of Modernist Syntax, The


Michael Phillips

Professor, Studio Arts Department, College of Charleston
Charleston, SC, USA

Born in 1937 in New York City, I received an MA Degree from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University in 1962 having studied with H.W. Janson and Robert Goldwater. I have received a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in painting in 1989-90, been Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome in 1987-88 and 1994-95. I received a CAPS fellowship in painting from New York State in 1980 and an NEA major grant in painting in 1980-81. My work is in collections in England, France, Italy, Germany, Holland as well as the United States. I have exhibited in group and one person shows in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston, Columbia, SC, Budapest, Hungary and Cardiff, Wales, and I have been Visiting Artist at the San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco, CA. Cardiff School of Art, Cardiff Wales, Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, The School of Visual Arts, NYC, Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, The American Academy in Rome, Italy, the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Reed College, Portland, Oregon and the University of Connecticut in Stoors, CT. I have taught at The California Institute of the Arts, Brandeis University, New York University and Tufts University before coming to The College of Charleston in 1984.

Ref: A09P0470