Those who know about computers claim that, at their most basic level, they are like light switches. They understand only two things, "on" and "off." Of course, as Carl Sagan might have put it, there are "billions and billions" of these little switches. And despite what philosophers espousing shades of grey and every other colour in the rainbow might claim, all of life is predicated on the same principal of opposites--zero or one, on or off, yes or no, right or wrong, rich or poor, dead or alive. How then do we manage to account for the proverbial "grey areas?" They happen because, with the possible exception of death, none of these positive-negative states are ever permanent. In fact, as someone once noted, the only thing permanent is impermanence--change. Change can be so gradual as to be completely unnoticed and so rapid as to be unfathomable. And so, there is a constant tug-of-war between the two extremes in all aspects of life. In fact, change might well be the simplest, but most profound definition of life itself. Life endures only because constant change provides a "happy medium."
As a long-time teacher of art appreciation, I can say by far the most difficult period about which to teach is the Modern Art of the twentieth century. Sometimes we call it Modernism; but in fact, this is only half the equation. Modernism is the "on" of the electrical current analogy. For lack of a better, more lucid term, the "off" we can simply call "Anti-modernism." Once one begins to think in these terms, Modern Art begins to make more sense. Think of it as a tug-of-war, and all the "isms" of Modern Art quickly fall into place on one side or other of a line. However, one must be careful not to concentrate on the line but on the forces constantly at work on either side of it. The line itself is lukewarm, mediocre, bland, safe, comfortable, grey, and dull. Only the complacent long for it. That which drives art, just as with electricity, are those positive or negative forces on either side--Modernism versus Anti-modernism.
Growing out of the art turmoil of the last half of the nineteenth century, the Modernist forces within Modern Art seemed hell-bent on a straight line toward abstraction and non-representationalism. The only question was how fast the train would travel and how big the crash would be when it finally slammed headlong into its destination. But it was not a straight stretch at all. History threw in some curves, most notably two world wars and the incredible social upheavals that followed them. In the first decades of the twentieth century as content in art began to break down with Cubism and Dadaism, for instance, the war spawned French Surrealism and German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) which reacted by jerking Modernism back toward the centre line. In this country, a whole lexicon of "neos," from Neo-Baroque to Neo-Romantic movements did the same thing. Another war was the catalyst for Modernism to regain the upper hand. Following it, the New York School erupted. A decade later, the Anti-modernist forces of post-war figural painting and Pop Art gained strength.
It's tempting to think of our present, Post-modern era as a kind of uneasy truce reminiscent of the cold war era in geopolitics. Although Post-Modernism is arguably twenty to thirty years old, we still stand too close to get a clear picture. Have these two opposite forces in art merely worn themselves out, or have they come to see the folly of their endless conflict? Obviously neither side "won." And if the extremes are both beaten down, does this mean we are now condemned to middle-of-the-road mediocrity--art that merely recalls their battle rather than continuing to fight it? Good question.