The invisible modern

T.J. Clark’s essay ‘Lowry’s Other England’ in 

is fascinating. He asks why modernism in art turned so decisively away from representing modern life. “There must have been something in the 20th century shape of things that meant that looking for modernity’s location, or its typical subjects, was in itself to misrecognise the way we live now.  … Why was there no ‘painting of modern life’ – or none that Degas and Baudelaire would have recognised? Because modernity no longer presented itself as a distinctive territory, a recognisable new form of space.” He goes on to argue that people who painted or created art came to lead a life physically entirely separate from the masses, Lowry being an exception because of his day job as a rent collector. The classes separated – “The ‘modern’ became a system of separateness – accompanied of course by a more and more coercive machinery of being together-in-what-you-buy.” And then increasingly modern life went indoors, has become personalised, focused on the TV and digital gadgets, and is now increasingly intangible too. Documenting modern life passed entirely from painting to photography.

[amazon_image id=”1849761221″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life[/amazon_image]

As a distinguished art professor, Clark doesn’t say that a taste for ‘modern’ art is very much acquired as part of a class-stratified upbringing and education, and the working classes (I generalise hugely) tend to like painters looked down on by the art establishment eg Jack Vettriano. And that part of the reason painters like Lowry have been controversial among the experts is not because they’re not good but because they’re popular.

Liking the unlikeable, on the other hand, is a badge of social status. The social elements make the art market absolutely fascinating, yet the most thoughtful economic analyses have come from Marxists (and a long time ago at that) such as Walter Benjamin in

and Theodore Adorno in
. Conventional modern economics seems mainly interested in whether or not buying paintings is a ‘rational’ investment.

[amazon_image id=”0141036192″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Penguin Great Ideas)[/amazon_image]

And of course, as per recent posts, paintings are supremely positional goods.