When it comes to modern art, there are two distinct purveyors: those who enjoy its unorthodoxy, and those who absolutely abhor it. In the latter camp, it’s common to hear “meaningless” and “insulting” as descriptors; compared to other art forms, it’s the most polarizing and vandalized. So why is modern art hated with such intensity? And how does its rejection relate to that of modernist architecture? Before exploring the second question, I will echo Jacob Geller’s video essay “Who’s Afraid of Modern Art” in providing an answer to the first: fascism.
According to right-wing sources like InfoWars’ Paul Joseph Watson and PragerU, modern art deserves the violent responses it receives. Although the 19th-century impressionists supposedly retained some traces of quality, they profess that the standard dropped until art became nothing but a form of personal expression. To them, modern art replaces the profound, inspiring, and beautiful with the new, ugly, and amoral. What they may not realize is that this is the exact argumentation employed by the fascist movement of Adolf Hitler.
From the 15,000 pieces they seized in 1937, the Nazi party selected 640 to be displayed in a derisive exhibition titled Degenerate Art. From the works of Kirchner and Van Gogh to Picasso and Matisse, art displaying modernist aesthetics or critiquing Nazi norms of sexuality and family values was denigrated. The art was hung crookedly under slogans like “nature as seen by sick minds,” inviting patrons to gawk and sneer. Located beside marble galleries full of classical, sword-bearing statues, the exhibit pushed the Nazi’s paradigm of what constituted good art versus bad.
In this way, the Nazis fulfilled a key pursuit of fascism: making everything of a specific aesthetic through rigid, culturally-appropriate standards. As a nation’s mythology is built on its art, the subsequent art begins to feed into this narrative by continuously referencing this mythology. The result of this self-referential loop is a hierarchy that rejects anything new or divergent from the aesthetic. Thus, when art deviates from the established norms, it doesn’t feed into that nation’s mythology, eliciting criticism. This is because it doesn’t “contribute” to that society, but challenges it.
The rejection of modern art shares many similarities with the rejection of modernist architecture. With its geometric forms, ribbon windows, and open-air spaces, this type of architecture differs greatly from the styles that preceded it. The resulting animosity can be seen in articles like “Why Modernist Architecture Sucks… And What Should Replace It” by Adam Greenfield. Here, he writes: “Today’s architecture, dominated as it is by Modernism, is so consistently bad that we assume beautiful buildings which stir our souls and raise our spirits are products of the past; we believe we’re no longer capable of creating beauty.”
In Greenfield’s eyes, modernism is just an amalgamation of trendy, untested ideas destined for irrelevancy. Unlike traditional architecture, he argues, modernism does not build upon previous innovations and is instead meaningless and random. Contrary to this belief, modernist architecture didn’t just come out of nowhere. In the 1920s, it emerged in response to the time’s growing industrialization and infectious diseases. Using new materials and technologies, modernism prioritized functionality to meet the social needs that architecture at the time failed to do.
Take Alvar and Aino Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium in Finland, for example. Completed in 1933, the structure employs modernism to create an efficient tuberculosis treatment facility. Inside, cubic spaces reduce dust-filled crevices and open-plan rooms allow sunlight to kill more bacteria. Outside, balconies provide ample exposure to fresh air and paths lead patients down calming nature walks. With patients’ physical and mental wellbeing embedded into its very design, the architecture itself is part of the cure.
The Paimio Sanatorium offered something that traditional architecture couldn’t: simplicity, efficiency, and freshness. Inevitably, however, there will always be differences of opinion on any art form. When people express their dislike for Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic homes or Le Corbusier’s brutalist structures, for example, their opinions are valid. When impassioned critics disparage modernist architecture as “junk architecture” or express a desire to kill (jokingly or not) modernist architects, this is when we should stop and evaluate the validity of their criticism.
In his article, Adam Greenfield presents five reasons why traditional architecture should replace modernist architecture, yet three of these are essentially the same (2, 3, and 5) and the other two are easily debatable.
Points 2, 3, and 5 basically assert that because modernist buildings are all eventually demolished, they don’t last long, make efficient use of their materials, or hold their value in the long term. For modernist buildings to all be torn down, however, Greenfield’s argument relies on point 1, which is disproven by the mere existence of neo-modernism, and point 4, which is not necessarily true. Even in the study that Greenfield cites, there’s no proof of an “overwhelming” preference for the traditional over the modern. On the contrary, modernist residences continue to sell out in global cities today. If Greenfield’s points cannot withstand a quasi-thorough analysis, why include them at all?
Ultimately, the strength of most anti-modernist spiels like those of Adam Greenfield,InfoWars, and PragerU lies not in the rationality of their arguments, but in the emotive, righteous undertones of their rhetoric. “What kind of damage is all this doing to the fabric of Western Civilization?” cries one. “Let’s celebrate what we know is good, and ignore what we know is not,” intones the other. “We must push for a new system of production, one which ends the Modernist era of disposable buildings and ushers in a new era of quality, traditional architecture,” extolls the third.
In the same way that pre-established notions of art reflect pre-established norms within a society, counter-traditionalist art reflects qualities that a society may not yet hold. This could mean innovation, greater inclusivity, or even just new ideas. Thus, when individuals attack these new forms with vehement calls to safeguard “the greater good” and not ruin “the fabric of Western Civilization,” we should ask what they’re really trying to accomplish.