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Multiple Trajectories of the Modern

Monica Juneja

By Partha Mitter
Reaktion Books, London, 2007, pp. 272, £ 22.50


The associations which some years back invariably linked the idea of modernism to Baudelaire’s flâneur or Picasso’s demoiselles have today begun to fade, confronted as they are by critical interventions from across the globe challenging the certitudes of universalizing narratives. Accounts of non-European experiments with modernist idioms strive to create a space for artistic practices incompatible with the teleologies of dominant accounts of modernism, and in the process undermine its spatial model of metropolitan centres and their peripheries. A linear narrative advancing from abstract expressionism to cubism and conceptual art is now being increasingly supplanted by writings that set out to chart the multiple trajectories of the modern, highlighting their differences and discrepancies or ‘disalignments’1 from the western mainstream. Partha Mitter situates his new book within this historiographic current, one that proposes ways of ‘empowering non-Western modernisms’ by recuperating the agency of their practitioners. At the same time the path he chalks out to approach his subject promises a refreshing change from existing post-orientalist histories. Sensitivity to difference has often meant valorizing it to the extent of implicitly reinscribing cultures within nationalist frames, even while purposefully seeking to secure the fences against forms of indigenist revivals. In other words the project of interrogating hegemony and earmarking discrepancies continues to be caught in an uneasy relationship between the nation and such global entanglements which transcend the colony-colonizer divide or that between the postcolony and the First World. Mitter instead addresses squarely the issue of complex interactions between global and regional art practices, which he sets out to unravel in a field crossed by many axes that complicate and unsettle the colonizer/colonized binary.   Mitter’s study of Indian artists’ engagement with a global avant-garde is premised on a conception of modernism as a multifaceted movement. While one strain of the ‘modern’ formed the cultural baggage of colonialism, modernist moods also evolved in conjunction with divergent cultural currents that emerged in many locations across the globe, and often connected and engaged with each other to produce distinct interpretations of the modern, which it would be oversimplistic to collectively label as derivative or explain through the tired art historical category of ‘influence’. At a historical moment when the humanist canon was being exported from Europe to the colonies as part of a bourgeois ideology and colonial pedagogy, within Europe the foundations of this canon were being undermined by avant-garde movements ...

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