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11.00  The Case of the Missing "ism"? Modernism and Heritage: A Reflection

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9:00, Sunday 5 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

While “heritage and modernity” has deservedly received considerable critical attention, we have been struck by the fact that this has not been the case with regards to Modernism. Considering the vast influence the various strands of Modernism have had on cultural productions and intellectual life across the globe (architecture, visual arts, literature, music, theatre, philosophy, and so on) this is perhaps surprising. The reflection consists of two parts:

1) A schematic characterization of Modernism (by necessity, dangerously reductive) as it has influenced the visual arts and architecture in the twentieth century, paying particular attention to those aspects of Modernism that have “turned up” in heritage discourse and practice. Exceptionalism/singularity (individual productions that defy tradition), form over function or form following function, signature styles (think of Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Renzo Piano, and Frank Gehry), internationalism, abstraction and forms that supposedly require no context for their meaning/aesthetic impact, elitism, and connoisseurship. 

2) The way “authorized heritage” has absorbed the ideas, language, and practices of Modernism in both the East and the West and some of the implications. The clearest example of this absorption is the World Heritage Convention: it is dense with the language of Modernism—“outstanding,” “masterpiece of human genius,” “unique,” “exceptional.” 

Why is this important? In a time when the term “critical” is being applied with such vigour to heritage studies, it seems odd that the influence of Modernism has been mute in such analyses. Our reflection does not address this apparent absence in any substantial way but it does, hopefully, mark out some of the contours of the issue. 

In doing so we begin to address the power of the rhetoric of Modernism in the process of “reflection,” a world without exceptional monuments of the past; “selection,” the systematic processes of authorized heritage conservation discourse and practice; and “deflection,” the inherent tendencies to marginalize material culture that fails the “test” of being “unique,” “outstanding,” “exceptional,” and “singular.”

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