It is my contention that modernism in art existed between two historical moments. The 'death of god' brought about by Darwin and the rise of scientific rationality and the 'death of death' brought about by invention of penicillin. Modernism was the striving, questioning expression of an age that had to live with doubt about the metaphysical and the permanent threat of death. An infected finger could kill. Penicillin (along with the other mid-century medical revolutions) took this sense of immediate, impending and inescapable mortality out of the day-to day consciousness of the artist. It is there in Rothko, in Joyce, in early Wittgenstein. But that little anti-bacterial changed everything. Postmodernism is the result of doubt without the consciousness of death. One of the reasons it replaced the ethical with the ludic, one of the reasons it seems so very hollow. At its crudest:
Doubt + imminent and immanent mortality = modernism
Doubt + ‘health’ = postmodernism
What do you think?