The Augean Stables of Modern Time

In cooperation with Eugenia Pronyakina

An essay on the essential possibility of new art and its characteristics

The exhaustion of postmodernism is not a completely new topic. Men, society, and their interrelations have changed. And though the changes might not be universal or universally acknowledged, still, they create the request for a new art, a new philosophy, a new aesthetical and ethical reality; a request that postmodernism can’t fulfill anymore. And though some philosophers rush to claim there will be no other “new art”, in spite of the art circles exploiting (with greater or lesser success) the principles of postmodernism, this new art is already here. It is hard to discover, since postmodernism (that never had its own or unique style) used all possible styles, forms or combinations and turned the cultural landscape into a junkyard. And it seems appropriate to study the origins in order to find, discover, and sort out new art amid this mess.

Modernism (Lat. Modernus) – movement in thought and arts that aimed to break with the preceding historical creative experience, to search for the new non-traditional fundamentals of art; it can be characterized with constant reinvention of artistic forms and conventionality (schematization, abstraction) of style. The modernist paradigm was among the leading ones in Western culture during the first half of the XXth century.

Many researchers believe postmodernism to have appeared as a reaction to modernism (as an allergic reaction, we’d like to add). Modernism aspired to free men from the hells and heavens of religiousness, from the fear of the former and the hope for the latter. But having sworn off heaven, modernism was driven to search for a new source obtained the function of a demiurge, the right to create his/her own universes instead of just imitating reality. And while a painter didn’t need anything but canvas for that, on the scale of society and politics the demiurges of modernism required ordinary people as their tools and means. Ordinary people were now bound to fit into and serve the demiurges’ perfect schemes.

All the “great” ideologies of the 20th century stemmed from modernism. The paradox: modernism worshipped the individual but somehow forgot the human, and step by step degenerated into soldiery. To a large extent, it was the modernist philosophy that created the conditions for the “ideal” social systems of Stalin and Hitler’s to appear. It also led to the two world wars.

No surprise that after these two “unsuccessful attempts to commit suicide”, as Kurt Vonnegut called them, society tried to reject this world view and its values.

“…mother say do go in That direction and please
do the greatest deed of all time and say i say
mother but it’s already been done and she say
well what else is there for you to do and i say
i dont know mother, but i’m not going in That
direction – i’m going in that direction and she
say ok but where will you be and i say i dont
know mother but i’m not tom joad and she say
all right then i am not your mother…”
Bob Dylan, Tarantula

The destruction force of the two world wars caused such a strong shock, that the post-war society sought, above all, to refuse modernism ideological myths and its rhetoric, pathetic, pathos. Titan-individual, demiurge-individual, heroism and sacrifices for a better tomorrow now seemed imposed ideas that couldn’t and hadn’t led to anything but war. But though the necessity to disengage from the myths of the époque gone by was obvious, there was no clear vision of direction or means of development. Trouble and anxiety replaced the withered idea of a better future.

In that context, irony and self-irony were nearly the sole refuge as they help to refrain from pathos when it comes to fears and neurotic reactions. This is like letting out a hysterical laughter after a strong stress has released its grip.

On the other hand, post-war society hastened to assign the equally-demiurge function to each and every individual and to declare pluralism the main virtue. Everybody is equal, everybody has creative ability, and everybody is free to create his/her own universe. Every result of creative act is interesting and can be called art, if only the creator is ready to consider and call it so.

Thus, irony and pluralism became the main features of this new mentality. However, with irony as the main – and more and more often, the only – artistic method, creating anything new became simply impossible. Irony is by nature deconstruction, and deconstruction can only be used on something already existing. This doomed artists to do nothing more than compile all the previously existing styles and forms and endlessly replicate those compilations.

As for pluralism, leveling down all the results of creative activity lead to devaluation and soon to dissipation of the notion of school as an incessant chain of succession that is key to art development.

«Starting with the noble proposition that all of the multiple perspectives are to be treated fairly and impartially (“pluralism and rich diversity”), postmodernism slides, in its extreme forms, into the insidious notion that no perspective whatsoever is better than another, a confusion that results in complete paralysis of will, thought, and action. Madness it is indeed: it claims no view is better than another, except its own view, which is superior in a world where nothing is supposed to be superior at all. And worse: if no view is better than another, then the Nazis and the KKK are on the same moral footing as, say, art critics».
Ken Wilber, «One taste»

Thus, postmodernism led itself into a deadlock. As long as it was about the deconstruction of the modernism myths, postmodernism was alive and kicking, however, as soon as the deconstruction phase came to an end, postmodernism was simply unable to create anything new, or, at the very least, meaningful and independent. As irony degraded into endless and annoying sarcasm, the joke quickly became stale; and the wonderful humanist pluralism eroded the notion of art in general.

It seems now is the time to again define the borders of art, and to discover its future development course. For this purpose we should understand whether it is possible to ponder on meanings and to have a serious discussion without running to the extremes of modernist pathos on one hand and postmodernist sarcasm on the other.

«Art is a recoilless weapon, and its development is determined not by the individuality of the artist, but by the dynamics and the logic of the material itself, by the previous fate of the means that each time demand (or suggest) a qualitatively new aesthetic solution. Possessing its own genealogy, dynamics, logic, and future, art is not synonymous with, but at best parallel to history; and the manner by which it exists is by continually creating a new aesthetic reality. That is why it is often found “ahead of progress”, ahead of history, whose main instrument is … precisely the cliché».
Joseph Brodsky, Nobel Lecture

Postmodernism opposed pathos with irony, but simply by providing an antithesis. The real, essential opposition to pathos is sincerity. Somehow postmodernism evaded it, either by not having considered it interesting and bright enough or just by leveling it with pathos. Despite this fact there were visionaries, artists, poets, etc., who did consider sincerity the main terms and conditions of art even when using stylistic methods of postmodernism. Such examples can be found both in Western and in Russian art.

Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, could seem quite close to postmodernism in terms of style, but above all he was flat-out sincere and never avoided any “serious conversation”. All the grotesque viewpoints he created easily in his novels, his irony and mosaic-like narration worked for one and only intention, to give a voice to his clear ethical position.

In Russia, or more correctly, in the Russian-language culture, the brightest examples were probably Joseph Brodsky and Sergey Dovlatov. In fact, the latter directly said that honesty was the basis for his artistic method.

This approach set the vector for further motion in art. It is a mature, open and sincere conversation, where form is only necessary to express an idea with the utmost precision; and it is going to take over postmodernism’s endless games.

At the same time, new art cannot be stylistically uniform, as it is a direct worldview manifestation of a particular artist with particular chosen means of art. In this case, the only thing that counts is the artist’s adherence to his own philosophy.

«Which leaves the transpersonal worldspaces with their contents, themes, and perceptions. All of these realms are, indeed, transpersonal, which simply means those realities that include, but go beyond, the personal and the individual—wider currents that sweep across the skin-encapsulated ego and touch other beings, touch the cosmos, touch spirit, touch patterns and places kept secret to those who hug the surfaces and surround themselves with themselves».
Ken Wilber, «One taste»

To facilitate the discussion of new art, it is necessary to name it. Since its main trait, as we already mentioned, is sincerity, we decided to call it sincerism. Sincerism sounds better than post-postmodernism.

Despite the fact that sincerism preserves its cultural roots, its main source is neither found in culture per se, nor in artistic commentary, nor even in the artist’s personality with its neuroses, fears and hopes. The source is a transpersonal experience that the author seeks to express. It is evident that an artist cannot exist out of a cultural context. But this context gives him the means of communication to express the experience rather that the experience itself. As Joseph Brodsky puts it, the artist perceives himself as his native “language’s means”.

Sincerism doesn’t discard the experience of its predecessors. On the contrary, it inherits the humanist impulse of early postmodernism and combines it with the modernist aspiration to common good. A humanistic world view and a clear ethical position are inherent to sincerism. But when modernism imposed its ideals on everyone around, the sincerist applies his ideals to himself, first of all. Aspiring to common good is appropriate to the extent – and only to that extent – that a person considers appropriate and is ready to take part in. The individual defines his position relying on the awareness that he /she is not separate from society, but without allowing society to become a violent dictator. Thus, the sincerist is a mature, independent and responsible person (as contrasted to a postmodernist brought up by a nursing society and unable to outgrow the neuroses of puberty).

Accordingly, the sincerist artist views his/her audience as a community of mature people that do not need meaning interpretation or clues from specially trained curators. Both artist and audience are independent. To express an experience the author picks up no other language, methods and means but those that do it the best possible way. And this is typical for sincerist art: for each new art work (read, for each new content) the one and only form is found.

Style uniformity is impossible in sincerism. Every artist tackles a new problem, and this demands new tools: it is impossible to render an individual experience via generalized means. The vital difference between a sincerist and a postmodernist is the way they use form. While the latter plays with it for the play’s sake without really trying to give it a meaning, the former does it to create his/her own alphabet. Strange as it might seem, this is the major merit of postmodernism: it made it possible to go beyond the framework of genre and gave artists a seemingly bottomless toolbox which freed them to extents modernists could only dream about. This merit will become more evident with time and when new art reveals itself in full fledge.

However, even now, there are clear and obvious features that help to distinguish sincerism as an independent phenomenon:

1. While there is no stylistic uniformity, it is the sincerity and immediacy of experience delivered by the author to his audience that becomes the major criterion that helps to define sincerist art. Quite obviously, meaning is necessary condition for sincerity to manifest. It is impossible to express an experience otherwise.
2. Form is subordinate to the content (meaning). Form is only interesting as a medium of expressing a message. At that, form is just as complicated – or just as simple – as it is needed to render the content perfectly; there are no superfluities obstructing perception. In present-day realia the true avant-garde is not in the innovation itself, nor in the use of new forms. It is in the depth of sincerity. That is why replicating or imitating sincerism art work becomes pointless and, moreover, impossible.
3. The artist is proficient in the use of form, technique and device, this distinguishes art from creative activity in general. Thanks to postmodernism, creativity became open to everybody, and that is wonderful. But art should be told apart and another criterion of sincerist art is mastery.
4. Every art work is self-sufficient, complete and doesn’t require additional explanations or mediation. Inasmuch as sincerism brings meaning back to art, its communicative function, the dialog between author and audience, comes back as well.
5. And as we already mentioned above, humanism and clear ethical position are pre-requisites for the sincerist artist. This may be the most important criterion, as it captures the essence of this new philosophy.

These criteria are sufficient to tell apart those modern artists who outstand postmodernism. For example, Vera Polozkova (poet), Johnathan Safran Foer (writer), Roman Liberov (director), these artists have the courage to change the cultural landscape instead of trying to fit in. They are not the outsiders who missed the boat. They carry on the tradition of their predecessors, among whom the above mentioned Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Brodsky and Sergei Dovlatov. And the list can be continued with Arseniy and Andrey Tarkovsky, Mikhail Rudakov, Mark Rothko, John Steinbeck and many others, both in Russia and world-wide. Their influence gets stronger with time.


As it already happened before, another declared end-of-the-art simply means that one art form is dead and, more importantly, so is the philosophy which created that form. A new world view brings new art, and we are lucky to clearly witness its dawn.