Patrick McElnea: Confronting Collage


at the

Daniel Weinberg Gallery

Los Angeles, CA 90048

The Artist and Bricolage

The postmodern artist was often referred to as “belated,” meaning that s/he comes “after” modernism. In the post-avant-garde art world, nothing could be new and astonishing. Novelty would only be co-opted. Innovation would only be commodified. In this period of “waning,” as Frederick Jameson expressed it, the artist could only mourn the passing of the modern and pay homage by endlessly remaking and restating the art of one hundred years ago. But what is the post-postmodern artist to do, when the theoretical strategies of the postmodern artist have proved to be dessicated and pretentious? Don’t despair; the mash-up is here.

Patrick McElnea is a recent Yale graduate and a product of a culture of art makers relieved of the burden of being God-like creators. His small collages are more related to Bruce Connor’s film montages of found footage than to the modernist collage. The disparate images in Connor’s film were joined together by the music of Respighi. McElnea uses anti-aesthetics to mash his elements into a writhing picture plane, simulating togetherness but resisting cohesion. McElnea is a Twenty-First Century practitioner of random arbitrary bricolage. Like a magpie, he is attracted to the bright and shiny and pretty and picks up whatever strikes his fantasy. But to the found bits, he adds handmade insertions and crams elements together, guided only by formal principles of the decorative and the imperative of craft. The artist subverts the “all-overness” of modernism in his densely packed surfaces by first, shrinking the scale to that of the Medieval miniature, and second, by making the forms collide in a manic frenzy of horror vaccui. Nothing more important is being expressed here but play, one of the most profound concepts of postmodernism.

McElnea’s collages are attractive and retinally irritating, refusing beauty but insisting on visual sensuality. Defying Duchamp, his work agitates the retina, stimulates the brain via the eye, reversing the curse of “olfactory art.” His visual aesthetic seems to stem from Cindy Sherman’s grotesques of the late Eighties—the art of his childhood, which like a sly child, he has cut and pasted, with a mind trained by computers. The cool and dampened color schemes are of the same tenor, a mood of underlying dark, punctuated by neon brightness. These tiny little collages look as if they were vomited from a meal consisting of too much Pollock and Krasner. Throw in a few words and letters, à la alphabet soup, carve out a few shapes and stir well with the binder of expressionistic paint, possibly left over from George Grosz, jam it all together and, voilà, you have a post-postmodern mash up. Kurt Schwitters gone mad, a hundred years later. Not that I am a modernist, but I would like to see these layers of manic activity take over larger and larger surfaces–they are that good and that intriguing. Keep the scale small but let the size grow into a Pollock Mural. These outbursts of manic collage is an anal retentive art of hunting and hoarding, updating Carol Cara but eliminating the future, destroying the vortex but stopping time. An interesting new artist is here–watch him.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

The Insurgency of Independent Publishing


presented by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

to the

College Art Association, New York, New York

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A hundred and forty years ago, the art world in Paris faced a self-imposed crisis—or to be more precise—refused to face the crisis. Like most crises, this one had been brewing for years—symptoms had been noted—but had been misdiagnosed as problems to be solved. [1] At issue was the centuries-old system [2] of training artists—-judging and evaluating their efforts—exhibiting their art. [3] It was impossible to imagine that such a venerated process could possibly go wrong. After all, the quality of the French education was superb; the quality of the art from the Academy was unsurpassed. The French Academy was envied and emulated throughout the Western world. The academic system had produced eminent artists and the art was justly celebrated. [4]

Given all this quality work, it was hard to imagine how anyone could be dissatisfied with continuing excellence. [5] Even the most vocal critics demanded to be included. Even the most unlikely candidates were given a fair hearing. [6] The jury system gave all comers and opportunity to be accepted and to shine, achieve fame, acquire wealth. [7] What could possibly be wrong? [8]

To those outside the system of quality, [9] the Academy, its elaborate apparatus of rules built level by level over hundreds of years, for the sole purpose of preserving the classical ideal and the methodologies of the Renaissance, in order to maintain the power of those in charge—-to the outsiders—to those not in the in crowd, [10] the Academy was training students to uphold an outdated status quo, all in the service of a repressive government, intent on controlling the visual culture of France. These outsiders—-mostly a motley crew of indifferently trained painters—-confronted—not a jury of their peers—but a group of old men, who were hostile to interlopers. From the standpoint of the outsiders, [11] the judgment of the aging academicians, long past their prime, seemed implausible, inexplicable, implacable, improbable, unrelentingly ruthless and capricious.

The Academy and the exhibitions it controlled, the Salons, was, in fact, a bastion of unassailable power that ran a rigged game, [12] designed to generate losers, [13] not winners, created to guarantee, not quality, [14] as was claimed, but a great prize, [15] available only to a very small number of aspirants, who obediently [16] responded appropriately to all the prerequisites—-genuflection to authority, [17] acceptance of submission to tradition, [18] willingness to forego rebellion against the paternal figures.

By making the prizes so difficult to achieve, the number of winners so small, the Academy made the ultimate rewards—such as they were—-seem intensely desirable worthy of being won. [19] Many were called but only a few succeeded. Perversely, the young artists, instead of recognizing that the roulette wheel was tilted, that the system was structured for failure, [20] only increased their desire and intensified their efforts to succeed against the odds—not understanding that the ruthless winnowing indicated, not that their art was less worthy, but that the system [21] simply could not handle the growing number of supplicants.

For hundreds of years, the Salon system had built a mindset of acceptance of the rules of this game—a victim mentality that was as unassailable as the castle of the Academy itself. Some artists, it seems, did recognize that the Academy was in crisis—was ossified and inflexible—that the Salon was eating its young—and that the selection system was unfair. [22] These artists refused to play the game, refused to resign themselves to rejection by the Salon juries.

Instead they formed their own alternative [23] to the massive salon exhibitions and the willful and antiquated whims of the jurors. [24] These painters—acting as independent entrepreneurs—as enterprising business people—started their own self-generated alternative art exhibitions. Rather than challenging the paradigm of the Salon, they simply created another paradigm—exhibit your own art, in your own way, on your own terms.

We are speaking, of course, of the Impressionists. [25]

True, there had been earlier attempts by previous artists to free themselves of the constraints of the Salon—David, Courbet, Manet, [26] Whistler [27]—but the psychological grip of the Academic system was so powerful that, rather than being impressed by the efforts of those artists, the art audience was mostly bemused and puzzled. These independent exhibitions were significant cracks in the fortress wall, but the most famous alarm bell had to be what became the historically significant Salon des Refusés (1863), [28] ten years before the Impressionists’ first exhibition in 1874. [29]

The anger of rejected artists [30] against an unusually punitive jury signaled a genuine crisis: there were too many artists for too few places [31] to satisfy the demand for inclusion. [32] Indeed, one mollifying exhibition would not suffice to ease the growing tension between the guardians of the watchtower and the armies of talented young people [33] assembling at the portcullis—battering at the gates. [34]

It is important to pause and consider the courage of the Impressionists. They would be laughed at—they knew that—the establishment would feel threatened, if it noticed the artists at all, the critics who accepted the system would be unkind, and call them names, established artists invested in academia would reject them—the Impressionists knew all that—-and all of these indignities came to pass. [35] True, the Impressionists yearned [36] for validation and acceptance in the Salon but the painters headed for open territory, [37] the unguarded terrain of the independent exhibition, building upon the nascent artist-dealer system. [38] The Impressionists initiated today’s art world.

Although the myth of the Impressionists posits them as the shock troops of the avant-garde of the Third Republic, the painters were reacting to real financial needs. [39] The Salon system acted as a barrier to economic success. [40] The gatekeepers prevented an entire class of creative thinkers from earning an honest living at the trade [41] of their choice and the casualties were not just the renegade rebels. Academic artists suffered as well. [42] The system of enforced failure [43] guaranteed that they too must be sacrificed. They too must fail. Undoubtedly, the defenders of the Salon system had their explanations, their reasons for ensuring failure—-those who were rejected by the juries were simply bad artists who deserved to fail. Really? Paul Cézanne—a bad artist?

The upholders of the status quo [44] would argue that their system was responsible for artistic leaders, such as, Jean-Léon Gérôme. [45] But, in reality, the system had no room for new ideas, could not accommodate artistic innovation, and could not tolerate artistic freedom or new innovations. [46] If the Impressionists had not found their way around the artificial barriers and created new opportunities [47] for themselves, then it would not have been possible for artists in the twentieth century to exist—-even thrive—and find success—entirely outside [48] the Salon system. [49] Pablo Picasso could have been the failed son of an obscure Spanish artist.

Impossible you say? Everyone knows that talent will always be discovered; true art will shine through. Really? The eventual success of long dead avant-garde artists rested upon fragile foundations of arbitrary chance. Vincent van Gogh had a brother, Théo, was an art dealer who financed his difficult younger brother, and Théo’s widow was inclined to preserve the paintings of her unstable brother-in-law who had sold one painting in his lifetime. [50] Other people simply threw his art in the dustbin. [51]

To say that the Impressionists challenge [52] to the bulwark that was the Salon system made it possible for the art of some of the most valued artists of the modern avant-garde to be recognized [53] is to state the obvious but sometimes emphasizing the already known is necessary. Even in the year of our Lord 2011, or especially in our own time, it is necessary to recall the revolution of the Impressionists, for we are facing a similar crisis in art history. Like the crisis of the nineteenth century avant-garde, [54] our crisis is demographic also, an expansion of an aspiring educated middle class exemplified by an increasing number of freshly minted PhDs who are pumped out of graduate programs—but for what future? Reeling from yet another economic downturn, our own academia is downsizing, and to add to this perfect storm of too few jobs and too many job hunters, the entire publishing industry is shrinking. [55]

Are those who are outside the magic circle of the privileged and the published any less intelligent, any less gifted, any less capable, do they have less to offer the profession of art history? Surely the academic system of producing art historians works, doesn’t it? The academic stars are not lucky stars, well situated in the northeast corridor, enjoying unrecognized advantages in publication. [56] These (privileged) people are truly deserving of their success, no argument. Just as it would be wrong to insist that Bouguereau was technically deficient, or that Gérome lacked imagination, [57] there can be no argument that the academic stars have not earned their rewards, their books, their articles, and their reputation for excellence. Therefore, I am not concerned with them. I am concerned about everyone else—those art historians who are intelligent and capable, who have a lot to offer, but have no outlets for publication, that all-important stepping stone to a job, to tenure. [58]

The chances of getting published today are less that of wining on a slot machine in Vegas. [59] There are those who would argue that the current system of publication works perfectly well. [60] But we cannot argue today in good faith that our process of publishing is allowing talent to be developed for the same reason as those who in the nineteenth century could not—in good faith—maintain that the Salon system of exhibiting art was efficient. [61] Likewise, we cannot state that our system allows the cream to come to the top, that only the worthy are rewarded and that those who never rise deserved to fail. [62]

Just as it was illegitimate to make those claims in the nineteenth century, we cannot make them today, because we simply don’t know if we are correct. There is no way of knowing. There is no way of measuring the loss, the lack, the silence of new voices never heard, new words never written, new insights never illuminated, years of training never coming to fruition, scholarship wasted, careers never realized…all because there are not enough outlets for publication. Surely the loss of art historical talent must outweigh any gains. [63] Such a limited field for publication is not efficient. Any system that wastes its best and brightest, allows them to disappear, and fail to thrive, consigned to invisibility, is a system that values status quo over change, supports vested interests over innovation. [64]

Let us imagine—if the Impressionists had never tried—and remember that many of these artists died long before Impressionism was accepted. Imagine—if their courage had faltered—there would be no Claude Monet, no Pierre Renoir, no Mary Cassatt, no Vincent van Gogh, no Paul Gauguin, no Georges Seurat. These artists would have lived, painted futilely, and died in obscurity. [65] Instead the impressionists changed the avant-garde, from the presence of a few outliers to a genuine movement, inspiring large venues for Independent art shows, the Salon des Indépendants–jury-less, the Salon d’Automne–radical–jumpstarting a new way for artists to sell their art outside the Salon system. [66]

Challenge and change are equally difficult but out of crisis comes—-not opportunity—but the willed creation of opportunity. [67] Today the will exists, the technology is available, allowing art professionals, art historians, art critics, theorists to take their careers in their own hands—like the Impressionists—to make themselves heard and read and seen. [68] It is possible to open a new field [69] of cultural production, [70] to run a new game, played by new rules, to establish a new paradigm, to build an alternative system that allows the players to win. [71] And all that is necessary is to forego voluntary psychological handicaps, to give up a constricting mindset [72] and take advantage of the first real game change [73] in the art world since the establishment of the artist-dealer-gallery system for artists.

Revised and updated ending:

Today it is possible to open a closed field [74], the contained field of art historical publication, with independent petit revues or hybrid e-journals, that are open and inclusive, democratic, professional, and dedicated [75] to the intellectual growth and development of art historical colleagues [76] who have a great deal to say and no place to publish it. My website, Art History Unstuffed, and my recent book New Artwriting (2014), are examples of a professional taking charge of a career, publishing on her own terms and on her own timetable and in her own style. While others follow the rules of the Academy and frequent the Salons, it is possible to establish outposts on the frontiers beyond the borders and become part of the small group of forward observers.

You deserve to be heard.




[1] Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, p. 179

[2] Ross King, The Judgment of Paris. The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism, p.31.

[3] King, ibid, p. 32.

[4] Bourdieu, RA, p. 119.

[5] Bourdieu, ibid. p. 260-1.

[6] King, op. cit, p.82.

[7] Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, p. 241.

[8] Bourdieu, ibid. p. 251.

[9] Bourdieu, ibid, p. 83.

[10] Bourdieu, ibid. p. 83.

[11] Bourdieu, The Rules of Art, p. 225.

[12] Ibid., p.167.

[13] Ibid., p. 243.

[14] Ibid. p. 169.

[15] Ibid. p. 230.

[16] Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, p. 133.

[17] King, p. 67.

[18] Bourdieu, RA, p. 148

[19] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 164.

[20] Ibid. p. 164.

[21] Ibid, p. 251-2.

[22] King, p. 34

[23] King, p. 57.

[24] Ibid. p. 57.

[25] Ibid., p. 354

[26] Moscovici, Romanticism and Post-Romanticism, p. 65

[27] King, p. 72

[28] Philip G. Nord, Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century, p. 6 and 7.

[29] King, p. 357.

[30] Ibid., p. 171.

[31] King, p. 52 and 59

[32] Ibid., p. 337.

[33] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 60.

[34] Ibid., p. 231.

[35] Wynford Dewhurst, Impressionist Painting: Its Genesis and Development, p. 35-36.

[36] King, p. 197.

[37] Robert Herbert, “Impressionism, Originality, and Laissez-faire,” p. 25.

[38] King, p. 48

[39] Ibid. p. 26.

[40] Ibid, p. 27.

[41] Dewhurst, p. 33.

[42] Jon Whitely, in Transformations in Personhood After Theory. The Languages of History, Aesthetics, and Ethics, p. 37.

[43] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 79 and 83.

[44] Ibid., p. 252

[45] Bourdieu, RA, p. 157

[46] Ibid., p. 105.

[47] Nancy Austin, “Naming the Landscape,” in Transformations in Personhood After Theory. The Languages of History, Aesthetics, and Ethics, p. 51-55.

[48] Bourdieu, RA, p. 236

[49] ibid., p. 125

[50] See Kendell, Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

[51] Paul Barlow in Denis, Rafael Carsoso, Art and the Academy in the Nineteenth Century, 20-26

[52] Swinth, Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern America, p. 39.

[53] King, p. 371

[54] Bourdieu, RA, p. 122

[55] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 84

[56] Cown, In Praise of Commercial Culture, p. 112

[57] ibid., p. 127

[58] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 84

[59] King, p. 75

[60] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 41

[61] Bourdieu, RA, p. 132-133

[62] King, p. 201

[63] Schneider, Creating the Musée d’Orsay: The Politics of Culture in France, p. 45, 53, 63

[64] ibid., p. 75

[65] Ibid., p. 197

[66] Cowen, p. 112

[67] Bourdieu, RA, p. 215

[68] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 183

[69] Ibid., p. 95

[70] Cowen, p. 163

[71] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 58

[72] King, p. 372

[73] Bourdieu, RA, p. 249

[74] Ibid., p. 253

[75] Ibid., p. 267

[76] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 106



Bourdieu, Pierre, The Field of Cultural Production (New York: Columbia University Press) 1993

The Rules of Art. Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (Stanford: University of California Press) 1995

Chadwick, Whitney, Women, Art and Society (London: Thames and Hudson) 1990

Cown, Tyler, In Praise of Commercial Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 2000

Denis, Rafael Carsoso, Art and the Academy in the Nineteenth Century (Manchester University Press) 2000

Dewhurst, Wynford, Impressionist Painting: Its Genesis and Development (G. Newnes, Limited) 1904

Herbert, Robert, “Impressionism, Originality, and Laissez-faire,” from Critical Readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: An Anthology by Mark Tompkins Lewis (University of California Press) 2007

Kendell, Richard, et al. Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) 1998

King, Ross, The Judgment of Paris. The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism (New York: Walker and Company) 2006

McDonald, Christie and Gary Wihl, editors, Transformations in Personhood After Theory. The Languages of History, Aesthetics, and Ethics (Pennsylvania State University Press) 1994

Moscovici, Claudia, Romanticism and Post-Romanticism (Lexington Books) 2007

Nord, Philip G., Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century (Routledge) 2000

Schneider, Andrea Kupfer, Creating the Musée d’Orsay: The Politics of Culture in France (Pennsylvania State University Press) 1998

Swinth, Kristen, Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern America (University of North Carolina Press) 2007


Frederic Jameson and Postmodernity, Part Three


Postmodernism and Consumer Society (1983)

Part Three

As a literary scholar, Frederic Jameson was trained in the generation of “close reading” and has used literary analysis combined with a neo-Marxism of Karl Marx and the idea of the unconscious of Sigmund Freud to “read” culture through the lens of an economic analysis of the unconscious of society. The theoretical position/s of Jameson are typical of his era, which is Postmodernism, and are therefore hybrid. For him, Postmodernism is the result of a shift in economic conditions when in turn shaped the cultural cognitive. In “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” Jameson carefully explained the connection between Postmodernity and capitalism which functions on the basis of a society that must consume to support the mode of production. In writing of Postmodernism, Jameson said,

It is also, at least in my use, a periodizing concept whose function is to correlate the emergence of new formal features in culture with the emergence of a new type of social life and a new economic order-what is often euphemistically called modernization, postindustrial or consumer society, the society of the media or the spectacle, or multinational capitalism. This new moment of capitalism can be dated from the postwar boom in the United States in the late 1940s and early ’50s or, in France, from the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The 1960s are in many ways the key transitional period, a period in which the new international order (neocolonialism, the Green Revolution, computerization and electronic information) is at one and the same time set in place and is swept and shaken by its own internal contradictions and by external resistance. I want here to sketch a few of the ways in which the new postmodernism expresses the inner truth of that newly emergent social order of late capitalism, but will haul to limit the description to only two of its significant features, which I will call pastiche and schizophrenia: they will give us a chance to sense the specificity of the postmodernist experience of space and time respectively.

In tracking the marks of late capitalism upon the human consciousness, Jameson used the culture industry as a place where economics and culture and human thought clashed and combined. He considered cinema to be the primary Postmodern art, “the last machine,” as Holis Frampton called it, a product of the most sophisticated form of industrial production. As a cultural form, film is permeated by marketing and lives and dies on its particular modes of production and distribution and the carefully calculated effects upon the audiences. Cinema involves what the theorist called “cognitive mapping” or the psychology of the “political unconscious.” “ Cognitive Mapping,” with Jameson, who was always conceded with the connection between film and politics, is a metaphor for processes of the political unconscious. In the Preface to Jameson’s The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World Space (1992), Colin McCabe, who remarked that “cognitive mapping is the least articulated but also the most crucial of the Jameson categories,” explained the idea of “cognitive mapping as,

The term is taken from the geographer Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City (1960) and is used by him to describe the phenomenon by which people make sense of their urban surroundings. Effectively, it works as an intersection of the people to function in the urban spaces through which they move. For Jameson, cognitive mapping is a way of understanding how the individual’s representation of his or her social world can escape the traditional critique of representation because the mapping is intimately related to practice–to the individual’s successful negotiation of urban space. Cognitive mapping in this sense is the metaphor for the processes of the political unconscious.

Film is a what he called a “conspiratorial text” with unconscious and collective effects that are concealed by bureaucratic impersonality of production and profit. But what is concealed? The particular fantasy that is projected by films must be collective and reassuring in order to contribute to a social totality. What occurs in postmodern film is Walter Benjamin’s allegory as articulated in his 1925 book, The Origin of German Tragic Drama or Origin of the German Mourning-Play (Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels). The goal of Benjamin’s analysis of Baroque drama in Germany was to find a theory for the Baroque which had always been castigated as a “fall” from the purity of Classical drama. As opposed to clear symbolism, Baroque drama presented allegory or an overabundance of symbols assembled from the ruins of Classicism. In the same way, Postmodernism pillaged the resources of a ruined and exhausted Modernism. This lack of an authentic time or historical period, this untimelessness of Postmodern time is called schizophrenia. As Jameson explained that,

..schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence. The schizophrenic thus does not know personal identity in our sense, since our feeling of identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the “I” and the “me” over time. On the other hand, the schizophrenic will clearly have a far more intense experience of any given present of the world than we do, since our own present is always part of some larger set of projects which force us selectively to focus our perceptions.

Postmodern film and architecture was allegorized consumption of the past familiars that constructed an object-world composed of utopian wishes that allow the spectators to grasp their new (artificial and constructed) “being” in the world. Postmodern anxieties were soaked up at the movies and fantasy films became the solution that filled the cognitive and psychological vacuum. From what in this postmodern present were the audiences being distracted? Because traditional representation had become so tainted some form of representation had to be posited for the film audiences, raising the question of how would the present be represented? As an acknowledgement of the death of representation, the phenomenon of “Post” was a satisfactory solution to the problem, because allegory allowed random and isolated elements to function in fluid fashion and to form a schizoid constellation that was very Baroque, laden with plural and often entertaining feints towards “meaning.” In Postmodernism, new Post-generic films, therefore, were allegories of each other, abandoning the authenticity of the Modernist auteur.


The Westin Bonaventure, Los Angeles

Jameson considered that the Postmodern “time” was an extension of late modernism in which there has been a collapse of the distinction between the base and superstructure and film or cinema is representative of this third stage of capitalism, which is all-encompassing and global and inescapable. As he wrote in “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,”

What we must now affirm is that it is precisely this whole extraordinarily demoralising and depressing original new global space which is the “moment of truth” of postmodernism. What has been called the postmodernist “sublime” is only the moment in which this content has become most explicit, has moved the closest to the surface of consciousness as a coherent new type of space in its own right – even though a certain figural concealment or disguise is still at work here, most notably in the high-tech thematics in which the new spatial content is still dramatised and articulated. Yet the earlier features of the postmodern which were enumerated above can all now be seen as themselves partial (yet constitutive) aspects of the same general spatial object.

Film is both a mode of production and an art form, a form of creation and a commodity—the difference is impossible to distinguish and therefore the “movies” are linked to never-ending attempts on the part of the dominant class to reinforce ideologies that reified human beings. Film in the Postmodern era could never be modern or new; it can only be allegorical, endlessly attached to a past that never was. Postmodern allegory was an expression of the inability of the human object (o longer a subject) to locate him or herself in time. Jameson posited that one must locate oneself in a space that had not one point of focus but was plural and is dispersed without hierarchal arrangement, what he considered a loss of perspective or a sense of place. No where is this loss of perspective, this inability to “map” better manifested than in the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, a building that Jameson described in great and theoretical detail. Jameson “diagnosed” the Bonaventure, designed by John Portman in 1974 and completed in 1976, and while the building lacks the façade of quotations used by Charles Moore and Michael Graves, the hotel lent itself well to the concept of cognitive mapping.


The Bonaventure Interior

As anyone who lives in Los Angeles knows, the Bonaventure is located in one of the spaghetti bowls of intersecting freeways and surface streets, making arriving at the site quite a feat in itself. Jameson notes the three separate entrances to the building which is a visually confusing cluster of five mirrored cylinders with the component parts visible only from the air. (Interestingly, Jameson himself miscounted the number of towers, stating that there are four.) Jameson wrote of the confusion for visitors who arrive at the hotel:

The entryways of the Bonaventure are, as its were, lateral and rather backdoor affairs: the gardens in the back admit you to the sixth floor of the towers, and even there you must walk down one flight to find the elevator by which you gain access to the lobby. Meanwhile, what one is still tempted to think of as the front entry on Figueroa, admits you, baggage and all, onto the second-story shopping balcony, from which you must take an escalator down to the main registration desk.

As if the entries and their presumed goals were not confusing enough, Jameson discussed the elevators which are both inside and outside, reflecting, so to speak, the mirrored surfaces of the buildings which attract and repeal the natural/cultural cityscape surrounding the hotel–outside become splashed onto the surface. According to the analysis of Jameson, the Bonadventue is all outside, all exterior, tight towers, clinging together into a conjoined unit, but the interior is subordinated to the allegorical ensemble of abstract shiny shapes. There is on focal point, no central level, the visitor is condemned to a futile wandering in search of a registration desk or a room down a rabbit warren of dark halls or rendered a passive onlooker from a vantage point that achieves no perspective and no horizon line. Without the old fashioned hierarchies of Modernist architecture, Postmodern architecture is playful and dysfunctional in its deconstruction of itself, mirroring, in a pun like fashion, the no-place of Late Capitalism.


The Bonaventure Exterior

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Frederic Jameson and Postmodernity, Part One


Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1984)

Part One

In 1992, Charles Jencks summed up his definition of the Postmodern in ”The Post-Modern Agenda” by saying the over the past ten years the debate had centered on whether the changes should be called Neo or Post. However, Jencks continued, both movements shared the “notion that the modern world is coming to an end and that something new must replace it.” In this essay, Jencks summarized up the major theoretical positions to date about that “strange feeling of posteriority” or aftermath that had become pervasive during the previous decade of the 1980s. Jencks named Jean-François Lyotard and Andreas Huyssen, Linda Hutcheon, and Ihab Hassan as the leading writers on Postmodernism. For those writers, Postmodernism means the end of a “single world view” and the beginning of a “war on totality,” meaning a “resistance to single explanations, a respect for difference and a celebration of the regional, local and particular.”

In his naming of Postmodern writers, Charles Jencks wittingly or unwittingly pointed to the interdisciplinary aspects of Postmodern thought. Postmodernism brought together philosophy, literary theory, history, art criticism, sociology, anthropology–most of the humanities–in a generational effort to re-consider the Modern era now that it had passed. If it was the habit of those who fabricated the modern to be future oriented, it was the task of those who would write the post-modern or the after-modern, to be backwards looking in reconsidering the role of the past. Because Postmodernism accepted the past and was interested in history, it was not anti-Modern but accepted philosophical Modernism by transforming its larger framework into parts which “still keep their identity.” In addition, it should be noted that the “past” analyzed by these writers was a modernist past, and this fascination of Postmodernism with Modernism was akin to a snake swallowing it own tail.

Indeed, in reading the Postmodern authors, one hears echoes of Walter Benjamin’s idea of allegory, but more precisely, what Postmodern analysis did was to return to the Modern to re-read the supposedly “pure” texts from an “impure” or deconstructionists and critical perspective. It is easy to think of Postmodernism as opposite from Modernism but the philosophical efforts are much more than the other half of a dialectic: Postmodernism turns Modernism inside out and examines its seams to see how it was put together. One of the more original philosophers of the Postmodern, Frederic Jameson (1934-), was able to take advantage of the penchant for the past and the acceptance of popular culture to put the erudite ideas of Postmodernity into an easily digestible format–Hollywood movies–the cultural “unconscious,” if you will, of Western culture. It was Jameson, more than the other Postmodern theorists, who understood the “logical” connections between the omnipresence of popular culture, how this culture or what Theodor Adorno (1903-1965) would term the “culture industry” has shaped the Postmodern collective consciousness.


This consciousness, however, should not be considered to be owned by a personal self or unique subject. Just as earlier Postmodern theorists noted that language shapes not only the conscious mind but also the unconscious mind as well, Jameson came to a similar conclusion that minds are molded through the prevailing culture. Therefore, Jameson along with the Postmodern thinkers named by Jencks–a second generation, post-Derridian generation, if you will–considers the notion of the unique version of self and thus of a unique style to be an ideological expression of the dominant society unwilling to admit the extent to which the “selves” are oppressed. But as Jameson pointed out is is important to recognize and to analyze this “loss of self.” Keep in mind that this loss of self is theoretical and leads the way for a theoretical discussion of what it means to be “post” or “after.” As Jameson emphasized in his essay of 1984 “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” there is a sense of loss. He wrote of “Postmodernism,”

As the word itself suggest, this break is most often related to notions of the waning or extinction of the hundred-year-old movement (or to its ideological or aesthetic repudiation). Thus abstract expressionism in painting, existentialism in philosophy, the final forms of representation in the novel, the films of the great auteurs, or the modernist school of poetry (as institutionalized and canonized in the works of Wallace Stevens) all are now seen as the final, extraordinary flowering of a high-modernist impulse which is spent and exhausted with them..What has happened is that aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally..

In order to make the leap from the loss of self to the Postmodern “condition” in the arts it is necessary to look to another of Jameson’s books The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981) as a prelude to his book, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Captialism (1991). Jameson’s concept of Postmodernism is unusual in that he attempts to rescue the notion of the meta-narrative and to revive Marxism as a viable option for critical analysis in a time where it seemed that capitalism had “won.” But he also re-used Sigmund Freud and combined theories of the unconscious with theories of the economy from Karl Marx in a concept he called the “political unconscious,” a form of pensée sauvage. Jameson claimed that

Only Marxism offers a philosophically coherent and ideologically compelling resolution to the dilemma of historicism..Only Marxism can give us an adequate account of the essential mystery of the cultural past..From this perspective the convenient working distinction between cultural texts that are social and political and those that are not becomes something worse than an error: namely, a symptom and a reinforcement of the reification and privatization of contemporary life. Such a distinction reconfirms that structural, experiential, and conceptual gap between the public and the private, between the social and the psychological, or the political and the poetic, between history or society and the “individual,” which—the tendential law of social life under capitalism–maims our existence as individual subjects and paralyzes our thinking about time and change just as surely as it alienates us from out speech itself..The assertion of a political unconscious proposes that we undertake just such a final analysis and explore the multiple paths that lead to the unmasking of cultural artifacts as socially symbolic acts.

Jameson considered this primitive and uncontrolled “unconsciousness” to be a “conspiratorial text” and stressed the importance of political interpretation of cultural artifacts that must be unmasked. He was opposed to “historicism,” a form of re-writing history, which is a projection of the present as a contrast to the past which, in turn is couched as being both specific and radically different. According to Jameson, the ideology of historicism actually stands for the deeper truth that it seeks to deny and conceal and that deeper truth is a desire of the ruling class to uphold its domination, that turns the construction of “history” into a strategy of containment. By “containing” history, that is writing it selectively, contradictions are denied, such as the contradiction between democracy and denial of universal suffrage. The collective mind that has been fed and shaped by these ideologies must, therefore, be analyzed (in the Freudian manner) as a consciousness that has been formed through cultural repression. According to Frederic Jameson, the collapsed sense of temporality was schizophrenic and without teleology, or that straight progressing line of movement imagined by nineteenth century historians. Therefore, there can be no “history” and without history, there is no past and no present and no future, only fragments of already-worked representations of memories. The lack of a coherent history results in a artificial sense of a “constructed” (non)self.

The theoretical loss of self is political, leaving that, rather than possessing an authentic sense of history, the individual has no self-hood and is shaped by emanations from mass media. In re-reading Jameson exactly thirty years later, one can only reflect upon how prophetic he was–even before cable television, the rise of the internet, and the retreat of Americans into market niches designed to shelter their media constructed “selves.” Jameson took up the issues of the postmodern culture industry, which, thanks to television and radio and the proliferation of film–beyond anything Adorno had experienced–in a Postmodern era. He understood it to be–even more so–as part of Adorno’s totally “administered society,” functioning as part of a set of institutions, from movies in Hollywood to radio in New York to magazines and mass media–that organize obedience and control from the citizens. In his essay on “Late Capitalism,” Jameson outlined the impact of the shaped and fabricated “political unconscious.” Rather than examine the loss of the political self in an age of “greed” and runaway unregulated capitalism, Jameson focused on the impact of the loss of subject which led to a “loss of mastery” as played out in the visual arts and architecture where contemporary artists could not “master” the signs; they could only manipulate images to simulate mastery of signs.

The result of this loss of mastery is the (non) creation of a patische or an imitation of a peculiar or unique style and patische wears a stylistic mask that masquerades as a “movement” or a faux style. A work of patische is a speech in what Jameson called a “dead language,” a politically neutral practice of mimicry of an element from the past. Patische, in French, which means “stencil” or a kind of stamping or repetition of a copy is therefore is a blank parody and blank irony, with the term “blank” suggesting inauthentic or a disconnect with the “original” parody. In other words, the element that is being parodied in the present comes from the past and has no real resonance in contemporary society but is used because the parody is “recognized” but is actually empty of meaning. The essential message from Jameson is the failure of “art,” the failure of the “aesthetic,” the failure of the “new,” which is never new only the old recycled. Through works of art, Postmodernism acknowledged its imprisonment in the past.

Follow the discussion in Parts Two and Three.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Postmodernism and the Meaning of Art


Postmodernism promises endless creative play in contrast to Modernism, which, according to Roland Barthes (1916-1980), was a fraudulent attempt to find the universal in every solution. For Barthes, Structuralism, or the method of reading a text through the process of seeking its structure or boundaries, was an “activity,” and with this essential insight, he opened the way for the interactivity of Post-Structuralism. All meanings in literature are plural, and the ultimate (non)conclusion is (never)completed by the audience and/or the reader. The “work” is no longer a “work,” but is a “text.” The measure of a text’s success is not its finality but the amount of “production,” or activity, the text brings to the viewer. To read is to discover how the text was written; to view is to see how the painting was painted. One places oneself within the production (the process), not the product, and the audience is freed from presumptions of received or pre given meaning and can enter into the rite of creation itself.

In contrast to Modernism’s aristocratic/autocratic taste for authority, Postmodernism privileges change–better defined as choice–over necessity or singularity, and randomness over preconceived order. In contrast to the presumed “depths” of Modernism, in Postmodernism there is only surface. In contrast to the search for meaning that defined Modernist methodologies, in Postmodernism, there is nothing to be uncovered, no hidden world to discover, no seeking of purpose, just play, and the randomness of a work in process compared to the finished state of Modernist works. Postmodernism preferred metonymy above metaphor’s identification with one object or another. With the operation of metonymy, a play of associations and referrals and substitutions, each element can remain itself (as in allegory). Postmodern surface replaced Modernist depth, because the surface is where the activity of art making takes place between the artist and the spectator.

Postmodernism began to separate itself from Modernism about the same time Structuralism gave way to Poststructuralism in America, in the late sixties and the early seventies. Being preoccupied with the end of Abstract Expressionism and the beginning of Conceptual art, the art world of fine arts in America was introduced rather late to this significant philosophical shift. The break between the dominant tradition of Formalist purism and a hybrid stance that (re)examined the older philosophical systems was paralleled by activities in the art world and the philosophical world. The new generation of the art world that Joseph Kosuth (1945-) wrote about in his essay, “Art after Art Philosophy” (1969) was extricating itself from the hegemony of formalism and “taste,” exemplified by Clement Greenberg’s generation of art criticism. In America, it was the art critics and art historians who defined art or decided what could and would not be deemed “art and the generation that the Marxist art historian, Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996), belonged to, the fifties, was a time in which the art world was very concerned with questions of “Style” (1953) or pure appearance. As Schapiro wrote,

To the historian of art, style is an essential object of investigation. He studies its inner correspondences, its life-history, and the problems of its formation and change. He, too, uses style as a criterion of the date and place of origin of works, and as a means of tracing relationships between schools of art. But the style is, above all, a system of forms with a quality and a meaningful expression through which the personality of the artist and the broad outlook of a group are visible. It is also a vehicle of expression within the group, communicating and fixing certain values of religious, social, and moral life through the emotional suggestiveness of forms. It is, besides, a common ground against which innovations and the individuality of particular works maybe measured.

These two articles, “Art after Art Philosophy” and “Style,” were considered groundbreaking in their time and, written some twenty years apart, establish an important position for the next stage of the art world. Their divergent stance towards art is mirrored by the difference between early and late Barthes: one assumes a definition of “art” and the other critiques that assumption. Kosuth began his book by separating himself from Formalism:

It is necessary to separate aesthetics from art because aesthetics deals with opinions on perception of the world in general. In the past one of the two prongs of art’s function was its value as decoration. So any branch of philosophy which dealt with “beauty” and thus, taste, was inevitably duty bond to discuss art as well. Out of this “habit” grew the notion that there was a conceptual connection between art and aesthetics, which is not true. The idea drastically conflicted with artistic considerations before recent times, not only because the morphological characteristics of art perpetuated the continuity of this error, but also because the apparent other “functions” of art..used art to cover up art.

Schapiro’s essay, “Style,” was a summation of previous art historical attempts to distinguish art of one period from another, an exercise in connoisseurship inspired by Hegelian concepts of thesis and antithesis (compare and contrast) applied to a developmental model in which art evolved and devolved. The only difference between Schapiro and his contemporary, Clement Greenberg, was that Schapiro felt that style emerged from a historical context. For Kosuth, style was synonymous with taste with formalism and, like Marcel Duchamp, he sought to free art from materialism and to reinstate art as concept, free of physicality. But for Schapiro, art always has a purpose, if only to indicate a dominate mode of thinking of a particular society at a certain time. With this art historian who seemed to write with Heinrich Wölfflin’s “period eye” in mind, art is a manifestation of a culture, but he ended on a note of uncertainty—how to discuss art within culture from a Marxist perspective?

Writing just a few years later, in a series of monthly or bimonthly columns in Lettres Nouvelles between 1954 and 1955 culminating in the essay, “Myth Today,” Roland Barthes began to extricate himself from the strictures of Modernism. Barthes has a general audience and not being a traditional art historian he was free to embrace the vernacular as the site of his discussion of (popular) culture from a Marxist perspective. The collection of observations upon post-war politics in France was gathered together in one volume, Mythologies, which was translated in 1970 and produced in a new and unabridged edition in 2012. But Barthes also came to the point in his career where he realized that it was not the role of art to be in the service of society in the “reflective” fashion of vulgar or simple minded Marxism. He left “vulgar” Marxism behind, along with politically based art making, for what he called écriture blanche, or white writing. White writing, according to Barthes, was uninflected with politics (ideology), but, due to its lack of dependence upon codes and conventions,the neutrality of écriture blanche could intervene upon the reader’s expectations of received meanings.

If white writing is writing about writing, then the art world equivalent of white writing would be Minimal Art’s non-referential objects, uninflected by art world codes and gallery conventions. Barthes searched for a clean and clear language that could smash meaning: the “semioclasm,” perhaps best reached by the Minimalists insistence of a kind of “bracketed” form of perception of their “specific objects,” recommended by Edmund Husserl. Likewise, Joseph Kosuth spoke of a “blank” slate for art and returned to the Kantian notion of the a priori, noting that art was an analytic statement, containing its own definition. But Kosuth took Kant apart, discarding Greenberg’s use of Kantian notions of “art for art’s sake,” but returning to the philosopher’s first Critique on Pure Reason. In so doing, Kosuth placed art in a different place, in the site of language as a statement that contains its own definition. In following Marcel Duchamp, the artist moved away from object-based art that lent itself to a personal response based upon critical “taste.” In releasing art from “objecthood” and “taste,” Kosuth walked through the doors opened by Neo-Dada artists, Rauschenberg and Johns, and made the case that it is the art world that establishes “art.” Thinking along the same lines as Arthur Danto and George Dickey, Kosuth came to the conclusion that art was not a transcendent absolute. “Art” is an institutional entity.

Just as Kosuth fought against conventional definitions of art as a beautiful object, Roland Barthes, in his examination of literature, also was concerned with “style” as a middle ground for the prose writer who was trying to invoke something else, reaching beyond mere “realism.” The bête noir for Barthes was “realism,” a literary practice he saw as being composed of ideological codes that served to reinforce the very social system the writer was purporting to investigate. His struggle as a critic was to not only actively intervene as a critic and to expose the iconological underpinnings of literary practice, but he also struggled to re-imagine a new way to write. Barthes turned his back on “horizontal” writing, that is, writing that logically led to a conclusion and looked instead to a highly stylized écriture, writing with no purpose other than jouissance, for the writer and the reader. For Barthes, the structurality of Structuralism–the straight line from beginning to end–and its belief in style as depth was a form of ideology. He understood that realism was a form of style that reinforced the dominant belief systems, and the attempts on the part of Barthes to break the spell of good writing with neutral writing or self-conscious writing were also attempts to call attention to Formalism as an ideology of authority.

These decades between the 1950s and 1970s were the grounds for struggle upon which a series of transitional critics wrested Postmodernism out of Modernism. As will be discussed in future posts, it was Jacques Derrida who fired the final warning shot across the bow of Structuralism/Modernism in 1966 with his talk, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” which interrogated the structural theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Derrida warned,

The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere. The center is not the center. The concept of centered structure—although it represents coherence itself, the condition of the epistémé as philosophy or science—is contradictorily coherent. And, as always, coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire.

Intertextuality is linked to Deconstruction and the techniques of Deconstruction involve a kind of reading that fundamentally undermined unified or finalized meaning. Most famously practiced by Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction read text as pure productivity, a literary offering without essence or fixed meaning, an utterance that could not be unique only a re-writing of the already written. However, the text was also a singularity in that it is always repeatable and iterable–resayable. Freed from Modernist formalism, the postmodern text was seen as a “performance” by the writer, advertising the ability to collect, containing a record of other texts, or an act that re-en-acts. To “deconstruct” a text is to draw out its conflicting contained logics and to show that the text never means what it says or never says what it means. Borrowing from the Modernist practice of “close reading,” or analysis of a supposedly bounded “work of art,” Deconstruction inverted and reinterpreted close reading by making this form of exposition to a reading against the grain of the overt meanings and intentions of the text.

Laying the text bare to a new kind of Postmodernist scrutiny, Deconstruction is a form of activist reading, a search through the multiple texts, locating the “unconscious” of philosophy in signs and symptoms of the text’s repressed rhetorical and figural and metaphorical tradition that contain a surplus of meaning that spills over in its own excesses. Writing disseminates a surplus of meanings, like a sower tossing seeds into the air, allowing them to randomly fall and take root. Derrida claimed that language itself is always subject to dislocating forces at work which throw meaning in other directions. He followed Kant’s interrogation of the grounds of the possibility of meaning itself, and Deconstruction follows a mode of argument in which epistemological problems of knowledge, meaning, and representation are raised once again and redeployed to define Postmodernism. These questions–the grounds of knowledge, how meaning “works,” and how representation constructs the subject are the main issues of Postmodernism.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Postmodernism and Heteroglossia, Part Two



Hybridity and Pluralism

In her 1966 essay, “Word, Dialogue and Novel,” Julia Kristeva (1941-) privileged the term “Text,” insisting that the subject is composed of discourses, created by a signifying system. The “Text” is a dynamic activity, rather than an object, an intersection of textual surfaces, rather than a point where meaning is fixed. Like Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), Kristeva understood the politically subversive nature of celebrating intertextuality and realized that there was a deeply serious side to the challenge 0f the carnivalesque. Influenced by Kristeva, Roland Barthes (1915-1960) took up the idea that intertexuality was linked to a flouting of authority and referred to intertextuality as cryptographe (cryptogram) in which the reader is perversely split and re-split through codes, or when the text is composed of quotations that are not the actual quotes of other authors. These cryptograms are silenced quotations without quotation marks, using cultural codes which are references to recognized stereotypes, myths, received wisdom, shared assumptions, collective thinking and so on. Any authorial notion of mastery over a supposedly unique “work of art” is a fiction, convenient for those in authority, and, even the “I” or the voice of authority, the subject, is a mere social construction.

Given that reading and writing is the function of a network of citations, the rejection by Barthes of the “author” is also a rejection of author/ity and is therefore a political and revolutionary rejection of centralized control. With his theories of Deconstruction, the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) also rejected the notion of the independent author or unique authorship, understanding the “activity ” (to borrow a term from Barthes) of writing to be a kind of rewriting or an explicit interpretation of or commentary on the works of earlier writers. A reader cannot read without knowledge of a literary tradition of reading and writing, and a writer cannot write without access to his or her heritage. To write, to make art, any artist must use numerous quotations of already readable texts that can be quoted and quotable or readable. To be readable the writing must both draw from and attain the condition of iterability or the ability to be re-read, re-written or to be “grafted,” as Derrida would say, as re-expressions into other texts. As Barthes said, “..a text is an intertext,” an outcome that produced what he termed “a tissue” of quotations or citations. Kristeva, in her turn, defined a “text” as a “permutation of texts,” an intertextuality: “in the space of any given text, several utterances take from other texts, intersect and neutralize one another.”

However, in order to stress how different intertextuality is from previous methodologies of critical analysis, it is important to stress that although there always has to be a language existing before and after and around texts that allows the text to be uttered, but these multiple Intertexts are not sources of influence upon the writer. To posit an “influence” would be to assume a point of origin and to assume origin would be to assume some form of “originality.” But the entire point of Intertextuality is that there is no traceable source and that to attempt to track back upon an author’s path is to free fall into an abyss that has no end. Literature and visual art is nothing but a general field or open territory of anonymous formulae or literary conventions or visual codes whose origin cannot be located and which have already been written. All written and visual utterances and expressions must both import or utilize and, in the process, naturalize, or make familiar through repetition, the speech acts of others. The viewer must work within the resulting tensions among the numerous texts, seek collaborations among numerous artists, and undertake negotiations with the results. The idea is that the text is comparable to a dialogue between the reader and writer: words are neither neutral nor original but are already used and secondhand and saturated with other meanings, leftover and already contaminated and impregnated with their opposites. Meanings can be palimpsests, overlaying one another, transparent slices that one can see through, a past that is still present at odds with that which is on the surface.

Clearly, these Post-Structuralist interpretations of writing and reading and making art were closely related to the visual strategies that Postmodern artists and architects were beginning to employ as early as the 1960s and came into vogue during the 1980s. The literary critic, Jonathan Culler, called the formalist methodology “a bizarre fiction.” “At its most basic,” Culler said in The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, “..the lesson of contemporary European criticism is this: the New Criticism’s dream of a self-contained encounter between the innocent reader and autonomous text is a bizarre fiction.” To read, Culler explained, is to read in relation to other texts, and, indeed reading like looking can occur only in relation to preexisting codes that are products of these texts. As “objects of the culture,” the works are required to participate in a variety of systems and must emerge from these networks of meanings. As Derrida put it, the intertextual codes are déjà-la, or already there. The origins are lost, for codification cannot originate or be originated; any code is already encoded in a prior code and these contributions of previous texts to the code makes signification possible, and now signification is redefined as a stacking up as it were of these preexisting codes. Because they have already been appropriated, free floating quotations are already anonymous and always untraceable, being already read, already seen, and refer to the sum of accumulated collective knowledge that makes it possible for texts to have reiterable meaning.

Taking their cue from Bakhtin and inspired by the uprising of the spring of 1968, the French writers and philosophers were invested in taking an anti-authorian position in regards to traditional literary traditions, while the American artists were attempting to break away from their Modernist predecessors and the critical authority of cultural leaders. Clearly, double-coding, a term popularized by Charles Jencks, is a visual counterpart to Intertextuality, but much of architecture’s intertextuality is, in fact, not visible or immediately understandable to the casual visitor,and yet is nevertheless present. Unlike Intertextuality in literature which is deeply embedded within the surface text itself, intertextuality in the visual arts depended upon a near scholarly knowledge of the history of art and of critical theory. The late architect, Charles Moore (1925-1993), utilized an entire history of Western architectural vocabularies for his Piazza d’Italia (1978) in New Orleans. The satirical façade, like a stage set, is a jumble of misaligned parts, assembled from the ruins of history into a deconstruction of stylistic chronology. If multiple texts must exist in order to write, then multiple works of art must be known in order for the work to exist, either for the artist or for the viewer.

While both Barthes and Kristeva were concerned about establishing a new epistemology or foundation for literature and of the visual arts, the more familiar definition of Postmodernism was formed out of the world of architecture by the architectural critic, Charles Jencks, who, unlike his art historical counterparts, was faced with postmodern tendencies as early as the 1960s. For Jencks, Postmodernism evolved out of art and architecture of the sixties, once again, paralleling similar approaches in the world of philosophy–postmodernism was a mere rethinking of Modernism. Jenks would agree with Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1996) that Postmodernism is less of a break and more of a continuation of a particular kind of Modernism. In other words, it is important to understand that Modernism was a period of time and that during this period of time, certain art critics and certain art historians (authority figures) decided to speak only of some art and fell silent on other forms of art making. Postmodernism became a “return” as artists and architects returned to that which had been “repressed” in Modernism: the hybrid (the impure) and the vernacular (popular culture). The architect, Robert Venturi’s books, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Learning From Las Vegas, written during the sixties, were the equivalents of Andy Warhol’s Soup Cans of 1962 as manifestos that celebrated popular culture.

Jencks, like most of the theorists of the Postmodern, understood that one of the leading characteristics of Postmodernism is the global and international culture of expansionary capitalism that makes any dominate style impossible. Note that, in the visual arts, Postmodernism finally found fertile ground in American academics during the short-lived art boom of the 1980s. Postmodernism as a theory enabled the art world to encompass the capitalist expansion of the art world beyond the narrow borders of New York City. Jencks characterized Postmodern art to be eclectic, due to what he called an embarrass de richesses, or a surplus of unrestricted ability to browse among historical periods or the freedom to “choose and combine traditions selectively—an “election,” as he would have it. The result is “a striking synthesis of traditions,” a “smorgasbord,” “inventive combinations,” and a “confused parody” that come out of a culture of pluralism, which recognizes no dominant style or movement. Despite the fact that, in their day, the best works of Postmodernism are, according to Jencks, “doubly-coded and ironic” producing a “hybrid (non) style” that opposes “an exclusive dogma of taste,” Postmodern architecture quickly became dated and stranded on the sands of its own excess of choice.

A simple contrarian movement or reaction, Postmodernism attempted to move always towards greater pluralism in contrast to the narrow elitism of Modernism, but as evidenced by its own erudition, the movement never believed that gaps between high and low or between different communities could be bridged into one universal culture. It is doubtful that visitors to Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center (1989) in Columbus, Ohio grasped his verbal visual punning exercises with the Jeffersonian grid and an abandoned armory. Resisting this notion of “control” but relying upon complex theory, Postmodernism deployed juxtaposition of motives, as seen in the Wexner Center, acknowledging multiple legitimacies, from the history of Ohio to the theory of Deconstruction. The literary and philosophical counterpart of Jencks’s “double-coding” would be “intertextuality”. This “double-voiced discourse” constitutes the fundamental agenda of the post-modern movement. According to Jencks “Double a strategy of affirming and denying the existing power structures (by) inscribing differing tastes and opposite forms of discourse.” In other words heteroglossia; in other words, intertextuality; in other words, plurality and the play of many voices.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


Postmodernism and Heteroglossia, Part One



Texts and Textuality

The phenomenon that would be known by the 1980s as Postmodern theory or “theory” consisted of servings of a French Potée from the 1950s and 1960s, full of different ingredients, a stew of linguistic theory, psychology, anthropology, history, sociology, literary theory, feminist theory, that simmered and served up first Structuralism and then Post-Structuralism. Structuralism and Post-Structuralism are imprecise and inexact terms that roughly coincide with the equally imprecise divide between Modernism and Postmodernism. Although it is possible to roughly retrace the intellectual steps of all the French scholars who were together in Paris and knew each other, it is more difficult to sort out the ways and means in which their ideas were taken up, sliced and diced, renamed and redirected by the next generation of scholars. The journey of the concept of a term discussed by Marcel Mauss, mana, from the significance of the exchange of gifts in a culture to a “floating signifier” in the interpretations of Claude Lévi-Strauss denoting a surplus which is then transformed by Pierre Bourdieu into symbolic capital while Jacques Lacan would reimagine this sliding signifier as the machinations of language making itself while Roland Barthes found this kind of empty signifier in the myths of popular culture, all of which would inspire Slavoj Zizek to realize that politics was nothing more than a fabula of floating signifiers. It is no wonder that American critics would cut through all this interweavings of community influence, seeking a more simple and general definition of Postmodernism.

In American academic circles, the complex mixture of French (and German) ideas were boiled down or reduced to their essence. According to this coulis, Postmodernism acknowledged disillusionment with the supposed transcendent state of the revered art object. Modernism was frowned upon as an uneasy mixture of mystification of the art and the artist and a meta-position of objectivity from the critic/observer. Like “French theory,” Postmodern art was impure, less a method of making and more a mode of making through synthesis that was indulgent, excluding and denying nothing and was tolerant of everything. Unlike Modernism which maintained a cool position of elitism, Postmodern art was concerned with inclusive context, making the map or the overall picture the emblem of Postmodernism. There were territories beyond the surface of the artwork and outside of “art” that needed to be considered. Attempts at staking out boundaries are as futile as the limits are arbitrary and in order to expand the viewpoint it is necessary to have a flexible perspective. Any kind of system is but a superimposition upon vernacular and local formations.

According to Kim Levin in the 1980s article “Farewell to Modernism,” if the grid was the emblem of Modernism, then the grid had gone back to nature allowing the artist to roam free. In America, freedom was seen almost exclusively as the fight to break the grip of Modernism, as exemplified by abstract art, i.e. purity and Abstract Expressionism. In addition, the American version of Postmodernism was a neat modernist compare and contrast. If Modernist art was abstract, then Postmodern art returned to representation. If Modernism was about the future and the teleology of progress, then Postmodernism had to be about the past and began to devour the history of Modernism. Now freed or exempted from the confines of Modernism, artistic “wandering” resulted in an obsession with the past, as artists borrowed from high and popular art and copied and cross-referenced among images. Appropriation replaced (Modernist) creativity. While Modernism excluded this past from its consciousness, Postmodernism used the old as source for the “new,” recognizing the power of the past or what Karl Marx had called the “dead hand of history” or at least trying to use the “dead hand” to some advantage.

American artists of the Eighties, who began to appropriate Postmodern theory as the basis for their art, were playing at second-hand with decades-old ideas developed in the post-war period by a small group of Continental thinkers. These borrowed ideas were put in the service of a small group of New York art critics and art historians who were interested in establishing their own not-Modernist and not-Greenberg turf, and they established an intellectual hegemony over American-style Postmodernism in New York. Out of or derived from complicated ideas, they developed their own ideas, turning heteroglossia into something far more simple and manageable: “double coding,” a term popularized by architectural critic Charles Jencks. A subtle theory of the relationship between language and human consciousness became a use of motifs from history. Both Structuralism and Post-Structuralism were critiques of the human subject and of the sentimental notion that the subject is a free intellectual agent, eternal and unaffected by history or culture. Post-Structuralists wanted to deconstruct the human “reality,” which, after all, was only a convenient fiction, a product of cultural and changeable signifying activities. Even the unconscious mind, once thought to be unreachable was deemed constructed and culturally specific.

Structuralism and Post-Structuralism also critiqued the possibility of a fixed and frozen set of linguistic relations, even within a structure. Ferdinand de Saussure had emphasized the distinction between the signifier, or the “sound image,” and the signified, the concept and stated that their relationship was arbitrary. His analysis suggested that the structural relationship between sign and signifier was conventional, and that meaning is known through common usage rather than through pre-figured necessity. Instead, given the instability of signifiers, each signifier acquired semantic value due to its differential position within the structure of the language. In other words, signifiers have no meaning in and of themselves and “mean” or signify only in terms of their differences and distinctions. It was Saussure who literally illustrated this process of differentiation, drawing (a literal drawing) a current of (wiggling) signifiers flowing above a stream of the “signifieds” below. The slipping signifiers were repositioned by Jacques Lacan, who placed them in a dominant position, demoting the once determining signified by placing it below the signifier. This flipping of the position of the linguistic algorithm is also the flip from Structuralism to Post-Structuralism, where the signified is demoted and the signifier is dominant: floating signifiers that defied the signified.

The instability of the structure of the linguistic system designed by Saussure was quickly exploited. Just six years after Saussure’s death, in The Dialogical Imagination (1919), Mikhail Bakhtin put forward a theory of everyday language called “dialogism.” Living and working in the Soviet Union, Bakhtin subtly opposed the prevailing powers under the guise of analyzing Western literature. Understandably, he would consider language as ideological. Without being precisely political, Bakhtin opposed two modes of literature, the monologic and the dialogic. Monologic language was the language of authority, speaking in tones of “truth” with the expectation of being believed. For example, a scientist writes and publishes monologically and reflects the accepted and expected modes of discourse and assumes that the received practices will not be challenged. On the other side of the monological coin is poetry, the highest of high art, uttered by a poet under the illusion that she is writing in a standard literary format which is supposed as “pure” as the words of the scientist are “transparent.” In addition, this ideological homogenizing language holds language together in a centripetal or oppositional force.

Bakhtin, as might be expected, had little use for the illusions of high art and saw fiction as a dialogic mode. The scientist and the poet speak above or transcendently (or so they believe) but the fiction writer must address a specific reader and audience. Bakhtin preferred the low art of make believe because it reflected the ordinary language of everyday people. In fact, Bakhtin pointed out that monologic speech was impossible, and its concept of a unity or plenitude is actually an illusion, covering up the actuality of excess or lack of fixed meaning. People use specific modes of discourse in order to communicate with each other. Language is inherently dialogic: a speaker must make himself understood to the listener and the interchange between the two participants means that language must always be dialogic. However, there are difficulties if the speaker and the listener are from different paradigms. And this is where ideology comes into play. On one hand, the speaker must achieve competence in communicating, and on the other hand, the listener must have the same or similar competence. But since meaning is not fixed, words only appear to have pre-existing meanings–meanings that are “already ready”–in one social paradigm, that, when it is received in another social paradigm, are often alien to the speaker’s intentions.

The discourses are appropriated in order to make one’s intentions clear, however, there will be interference from two sources: the social slippage between speaker and listener and the linguistic slippage in the language itself. Bakhtin understood all legitimation to be relative and that the “crisis” of legitimation is nothing less than the destruction of traditional notions of “society” and the “social subject.” Uninvolved in any nostalgia for the concept of the “original subject” or individual and unique human being, he used a Medieval concept of carivari or the “carnivalesque” as his critical strategy. With his concept of the “dialogic” in which writers and/or speakers create or intensify “hetroglossia,” Bakhtin seems to have understood the idea of “intertextuality” before this way of reading became well-established. There is a “social heteroglossia,” or a kind of natural language or way of communicating in which words do not exist only in formalized dictionaries but are created in and out of people’s inventive and ever flexible mouths. Bakhtin emphasized the carnival or the power of laughter to destroy pre-established hierarchies, not just of language but also of discourses themselves. Laughter, for Bakhtin, was the most radical form of language. It is the carnival of language that makes dialogue possible in its quest to undermine power.

The carnival is a theater of the absurd which reveals the constructed nature of social restrictions. Produced through the activities of the carnival, scornful and subversive laughter serves no higher cause and supports no existing social structures, and operates on the unofficial margins of popular or lower class life, and unfolds in unofficial and unsanctioned practices, and thus cannot be codified or controlled or raised to a higher and fixed level. Bhaktin’s critique of literature through the carnival reveals that all relations are social and human relations arbitrary; and that, despite the iron grip of totalitarianism, alternative political structures are possible. The carnival in history has been allowed by authorities, parceling out moments of freedom and sanctioning a momentary lapse of what is considered the “norm.” These momentary reversals of power and prestige produce a sense of spectacle that is not only seen or exhibited but can also be lived and experienced as “revival and renewal” through the flipping of received wisdom and through showing the verso of power. Mocking the ruling powers, the carnival speaks in parody with a double-voiced and double-coded language that challenges the single-voiced utterances or approved speech and discourses from the higher authorities. Today, we can witness and enjoy parody thorough the “spectacle” of mass media, whether one is viewing Saturday Night Live or reading the blogs of outsiders who become the contemporary player in a carnivalesque undreamed of but predicted by Bhaktin. On late night talk shows, such as the Jon Stewart Show, nothing is sacred–no person, idea or government— and all is fair game, because it is open season on pretentions of wisdom or sagacity. The carnival has come to town.


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Postmodernism and the Loss of Mastery


Feminism, Post-Colonialism, and the Loss of Mastery Over the World Picture

In 1986 Postmodern painter Mark Tansey (1949-) produced a large orangish monochrome painting of a long white fallen column. Broken in three places and lying next to a flight of stairs, the pillar vaguely resembles the Vendôme Column toppled by Gustave Courbet and his Communard comrades. The figure that was once on the top could be read as Napoléon in classical dress but over all the fallen totem allegorically reads as the fall of Western civilization and given that the column is phallic, that collapse seems specifically male. In the distance, a razed city spreads out and in the foreground the maternal is on full display: a woman and her children play among the ruins. Tansey, a well-read son of art historians, titled the painting, Triumph Over Mastery.

Modernism thrived upon the grand récits, or master narratives of modernity, which were narratives of mastery, each one a telos of conquest and fundamental solidarity. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) expressed this confidence in “The Age of the World Picture,” a lecture given in 1938 under the title of “The Establishing by Metaphysics of the Modern World Picture.” For Heidegger, Being was “what is given to thinking to think.” As a teacher, Heidegger encouraged his readers and his audience in forceful language to think and to follow though through an evolutionary process of thinking. Humans relate to being through language, which is “the House of Being.” Following the metaphysical tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche, Heidegger placed the self-conscious human subject as dominating through evaluation and judging the world. The modern world describes the world as a picture and conjures up the transformation of the world as a representation. The “world picture” is “taken in such a way that it first is in being and only is in being to the extent that it is set up by man, who represents and sets forth.”

It is the essence of the modern age is that the world becomes a picture. Everything exists only through representation and the world exists only in and through the subject. This narrative is the conquest of the world as picture, which is a structured image, the creature of production. Modernism is characterized by two events, the transformation of the world as a picture and the person as a subject. However, the “world picture” is a delusion and humans who seek to dominate the world can never know themselves or encounters himself and remains alienated from Being. As Heidegger wrote,

Where the world becomes picture, what is, in its entirety, is juxtaposed as that for which man is prepared and which, correspondingly, he therefore intends to bring before himself and have before himself, and consequently intends in a decisive sense to set in place before himself. Hence world picture, when understood essentially, does not mean a picture of the world but the world conceived and grasped as picture. What is, in its entirety, is now taken in such a way that it first is in being and only is in being to the extent that it is set up by man, who represents and sets forth.” Wherever we have the world picture, an essential decision takes place regarding what is, in its entirety. The Being of whatever is, is sought and found in the representedness of the latter.

It is human beings who create the world picture and place themselves “in the picture” they create for themselves.“The being of beings is sought and found in the representedness of beings,” Heidegger said. In contrast to the Greek world view or the Medieval world view, the modern world view or world picture puts humans in the center. As he continued,“Now for the first time is there anything like a position of man at all.”Because we have made the picture, we can place ourselves, position ourselves in the picture, where we wish. This ability to conflate Being with thinking and thus the will to power to create the world picture and to be in the picture–this is power indeed. To be able to create “the world as a picture” is mastery. Associated with Nazi thought (the epitome of mastery) and tainted forever by his association with Nazi ideology and damned by his treatment of his Jewish colleagues, Heidegger is a nearly irredeemable philosopher. As the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in 1998 in “A Master from Germany,” “Heidegger’s books will be read for centuries to come, but the smell of smoke from the crematories — the ”grave in the air” — will linger on their pages.”

Given that Heidegger was very important to the Postmodern thinkers in France, his continued presence in philosophy presents a problem. In his forward to the important 2009 book by Emmanuel Faye, Heidegger. The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy, Tom Rockmore pointed out that the French scholars turned to Heidegger as an alternative to Jean-Paul Sartre and in the process successfully put his Nazi convictions aside and focused on a very narrow body of his writings. Rockmore stated that Faye’s book, originally published in France, was the first of force the intellectual community to deal with the extent to which, as Faye put it, “Heidegger devoted himself to putting philosophy at the service of legitimizing and diffusing the very bases of Nazism and Hitlerism.” Faye recovered neglected works by Heidegger, characterizing these writings as “..every bit as racist and virulently National Socialist as those of the official “philosophers” of Nazism..they surpass the others by the virulence of their Hitlerism, which no other “philosopher” of the regime has equaled.” To this day, the debate over what to do with Heidegger continues. The past has a way of surfacing at inconvenient times but Heidegger managed to live out the rest of his life relatively unscathed (unlike the Jewish scholars he allowed to be expelled from the university) and the expatriate Yale scholar Paul de Man (1919-1983) was not exposed as a writer for the Nazi cause until four years after his death.

One of the problems of Postmodernism, diehard Modernists claim, is its relativism. If one follows the tenets of intertextuality, “the death of the author” then the writer must be divorced from his or her work and thereby has no moral responsibility for the contents. Heidegger was merely reflecting his own time; de Man was merely surviving during the occupation of Belgium. If it is impossible to “master” language, then this distancing from morality or ethics is an Adamic Fall from Grace. Therefore Postmodernism mourns this loss of mastery and reflects back on its reign with nostalgia. The “mastery” alluded to in Tansey’s painting and in the numerous writings on the fall of Modernism breaks, as did the column of Tansey, at numerous fracture points. The “fall” of the column of mastery was linked to the disillusionment over the failure of the humanist promise of the Enlightenment as exemplified by the stain of Nazism in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

The drive towards the desired “end” regardless of the means during the Second World War fractured the moral core of the West. On one hand, the ethnics of ending a destructive war and putting an end to dangerous enemies was not in doubt but the way in which that end came about, whether the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden or the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, provoked a moral quandary. In addition, over time, there was a slow realization that the “greatest generation,” whether in America or France or England, had fought a war for democracy and equality but were not willing to countenance racial or gender equality after the war in their own nation. Nor were any of these Euro-American powers willing to forego their respective empires without a struggle.

By the 1960s, there was the loss of control over the master narrative, the story that explained the world, which will be discussed in another post. Once the metanarrative could no longer be mastered, Postmodernism lost authority, and as the result of a multiplicity of cultural events, the Civil Rights Movement, the protests against the Viet Nam War, the Stonewall uprising, the Women’s Movement, to name a few, there was a decline in the belief system that “liberty and justice” was for “all.” In Europe, the Empire was coming home, forcing European nations to deal with the consequences of their “civilizing” projects and the transnational hybridity that provoked a diaspora and the post-colonial condition. Once the singular voice of the master narrative or the will to power of the dominant group is fractured from the univocal to the polyvocal, the Other began to emerge as an actor. In his seminal essay on women as the “Other,” Craig Owens (1950-1990) quoted Paul Ricour (1913-2005), who wrote in 1962 that “When we discover that there are several cultures instead of just one and consequently at the time when we acknowledge the end of a sort of cultural monopoly, be it illusionary or real, we are threatened with the destruction of our own discovery. Suddenly it becomes possible that there are just others, that we ourselves are an “other”among others.”

Ricour’s “we” was presumably in 1962 white males. In returning briefly to Heidegger’s world picture, one can assume that women were not part of the picture, because as has so often been pointed out by philosophers, women were outside of representation. Rooted in nature or in the pre-linguistic semiotic, women were pictured only in terms of the male symbolic. Michèle Montrelay’s 1978 essay, “Inquiry into Femininity” (Recherches sur la Féminité) coined the term “the ruin of representation. In many ways this essay should be considered a deconstruction of Freudian/Lacanian theory as it related to representation or the entry of the child into the symbolic. She exposed a contradiction lying at the heart of the theory in her recounting of the Oedipal complex. The inescapable fate of Oedipus lay in his inappropriate desire for his mother and the repression of this desire for the mother is the mechanism that brings about the entry into language: the symbolic. Representation, the symbolic substitution, is a creature not only of desire but also of the fear of castration, but as Montrelay pointed out, women have no stake in this game. Being the object of desire, they do not desire and do not have to be repressed; having no penis they do not have to fear castration and hence are not psychically wounded.

The sexuality of women remains, as Montrelay pointed out, “outside” of repression and “the stake of castration is displaced,” meaning that feminine sexuality is “outside of the economy of representation.” “Locating herself as maternal body (as well as phallus),” Montrelay wrote, “..woman cannot repress, ‘lose’ so to speak, the original stake of representation. As in the Greek tragedy, she finds herself threatened by ruin. However, in the principle of such a threat, different processes are at work. For Oedipus, the restitution of the stake occurred by chance or from the Gods. This restitution occurred despite an interdiction. For woman, on the contrary, nothing is forbidden. There are no enunciations, no laws that prohibit the recuperation of the stake. This is because for woman, the real that imposes itself and takes the place of repression and desire, is the real of the body proper.” Therefore the woman, described as the “Dark Continent,” have no stake in the game of representation and her presence serves to break down discourse and ruin representation.

One of the social breakdowns of Postmodernism is the realization that the Other has never had a stake in the game or a place in the world picture and those who are not include or who are excluded will not have the “mastery” of the tools of the master. The response of Postmodern theory to the recognition of the Other was one of passive aggression: to turn Otherness into theory to further silence the others under the discourse of the master who retained the power to represent, all the while critiquing representation. The late Craig Owens in The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism noted that “The absence of discussions of sexual difference in writings about postmodernism, as well as the fact that few women have engaged in the modernism postmodernism debate, suggest that postmodernism may be another masculine invention engineered to exclude women.” Owens was writing in the wake of the realization that, contrary to Heidegger, language has no power to shape the world and the consciousness has no power to shape the subject. But he was also writing, in 1983, in the midst of a social revolution that had resulted in the rise of the Other, including women and gays and lesbians, who were very much involved in the protest against the government’s neglect of the epidemic of AIDS, voices that would have been silenced.

As a gay man interested in the Other, Owens was not alone. Along with many feminist writers, he was joined in his critique of the patriarchy which was extended to the exclusion and othering of people of color. A year after the publication of his essay which noted that the Postmodern male artists–think Julian Schanbel, were reduced to simulating “mastery,” a New York exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art unwittingly presented another example of a nostalgic longing for a Eurocentric mastery long extinct, “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.” Curated by an aging William Rubin (1927-2006) and the rising star Kirk Varnedoe (1946-2003), the show was blasted by one of the dissident generation of critics, Thomas McEvilley (1939-2013), in “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief.” He attacked the entire premise of the show which was that Western artists used art from “primitive” cultures to nourish itself, acting from a position of imperialism and exploitation. But the Museum of Modern Art undercut the power of the other and the extent to which the response of the Western artists was disruptive by making the strange familiar, thus mischaracterizing the violence of the “primitive,” decontextualized into vitrines and masking the exploitation of European colonialism. As McEvilley wrote referring to

“the exorcising of the primitive works themselves, which isolated from one another in the virtrines and under the great lights, seem tame and harmless. The blood is wiped off them. The darkness of the unconscious has fled. Their power which is threatening and untamed when it is present, is far way…if the primate works are not seen in their full primitiveness, then any primitive feeling in Modernist allusions to them is bleached out also..the show is about classical Modernism.”

Although today, it is easy to criticize McEvilley for writing in such Eurocentric language, he was quite correct in pointing out that the attempt to “master” the “primitive” was based on a discourse of dominance under the auspices of “affinity” which kept “information at a minimum,” relieving the non-Western objects of their own empowering context, thus bringing each object under Western control. As he wrote, “The sacrifice of the wholeness of things to the cult of pure form is a dangerous habit of our culture..The need to coopt difference into one’s own dream of order, in which one reigns supreme, is a tragic failing. Only fear of the Other forces one to deny its Otherness..I am motivated by the feeling that something important is at issue here, something deeply, even tragically wrong..In depressing starkness, “Primitivism” lays bare the way our cultural institutions relate to foreign cultures, revealing it it as an ethnocentric subjectivity inflated to coopt such cultures and their objects to itself.”

Published in Artforum magazine in the fall of 1984, this article engendered a series of angry replies from Rubin and Varnedoe and became a clarion call for a new generation of art critics and art historians who would fall into the category of Postmodernism, if only because McEvilley had rejected connoisseurship as the basis for an art exhibition. Whether or not the dominant male painters, who staged a vigorous comeback after a decade of feminist art, understood that their (male) social mastery was lost, they were aware that the only way to lay claim to the exhausted tradition of Western painting was to either parody the history of Modernism, like Mark Tansey, or manifest what Craig Owens called “symptoms.” As he stated,

Symptoms of our recent loss of mastery are everywhere apparent in cultural activity today–nowhere more so than in the visual arts..contemporary artists are able to simulate mastery, to manipulate its signs;since in the modern period mastery was invariably associated with human labor, aesthetic production has degenerated today into a massive deployment of the signs of artistic labor–violent, “impassioned” brushwork, for example. Such simulacra of mastery testify, however only to its loss; in fact, contemporary artists seem engaged in a collective act of disavowal–and disavowal always pertains to a loss..of virility, masculinity, potency.

To women and people of color, still kept outside of the art world during the 1980s, it seemed that merely simulating mastery was sufficient to maintain mastery. It would take another generation and another century to find out the consequences of not giving half the sky a stake in the game of culture.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Postmodernism and Intertextuality



Bakhtin and Kristeva

Working within the confines of the Soviet Union, a place where words, thoughts and deeds were monitored, the literary theorist Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975) examined, in an intellectually safe way, how language cannot be controlled by a central authority. Because he had fought in the White Russian army against the Bolsheviks, Bakhtin was undoubtedly already a person of interest to Stalin, and his prominence at the center of the “Bakhtin” Circle in Vitebsk in the early 1920s would have raised his profile even further. Interestingly, he and the painter Marc Chagall were in that city, the town of Chagall’s birth, at the same time; and Vitebsk, now in Belarus, was a center of avant-garde excitement. Due to his adherence to Christianity, Bakhtin was arrested by the Soviets in 1929 and sent to Siberia. His sentence was shorted to six years, possibly because he had written a well-received book, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, that same year. Bakhtin, who had a degenerative bone disease and would live in bad health for the rest of his life, doggedly continued his rethinking of Russian Formalism. His best known ideas which concerned the novel, a relatively new art form, and its manifestations of dialogue, heteroglossia and the carnivalesque, filtered into European literary theory initially through Julia Kristeva (1941-) in Paris.

Bakhtin’s work on the novel began in the 1920s and continued to be developed until his death in 1975, but it is best to begin with his idea of the “chronotrope” or the combination of space and time. The literary “genre” will be a reflection of the way in which a particular culture, whether Greek or Roman or Renaissance, organizes a narrative, which is also the way in which humans conceptually navigate time and space. Each culture conceives of time as it relates to space in a different fashion and the chronotrope manifests itself in literature. Bakhtin explained the relationship between a cultures’s sense of time and understanding of space and the ways in which the collective narratives were structured in his work, “Forms of Time and the Chronotrope in the Novel: An Essay on Historical Poetics” (1937-8/1973). As Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, in Mikhail Bakhtin pointed out, the re-presentation of a particular chronotrope is characteristic of a particular age and a single work can contain overlapping or coexisting chronotropes that were inherited or borrowed from other times. Bakhtin explained,

“Within the limits of a single work and within the total output of a single author we may notice a number of different chronotropes and complex interactions among them, specific to the given work or author; its is common, moreover, for one of these chonotropes to envelop or dominate others.”

In tracing the evolution of language or the attitude towards language, Bakhtin contrasted the Greek world view of circular time as evidenced in “adventure time,” played out in epics or in tragedy to the realization in the Roman era that language was relative, situational, time-based and not universal or timeless. In response to the modern understanding of malleable language, Bakhtin introduced the idea of “heteroglossia.” Typical of the theoretical approaches of his time which used binaries, Bakhtin set monologic against dialogic, or paired the monoglot and the heteroglot, as explained in his other essays on his theory of the novel, “Discourse in the Novel,” “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” and “Epic and Novel: On a Methodology for the Study of the Novel.”

All of these essays explored Bakhtin’s contention that language responds to changing world views–the nature of space time, the chronotrope. Bakhtin focused on the novel, because this new type of literature was written in the immediate present tense and was therefore a barometer of social conditions and changes. Most importantly, the novel has inherited hundreds of years of Western literature, from romance to biography, and therefore combines different chronotropes, allowing the novel and its characters to speak dialogically or in many voices. Unlike the language employed for scientific works, for academic explanations, for government information and so on, which claim a universal and transparent mode of expression, the novel make no such truth claims and has the freedom to subvert the supposed neutrality of language. Bakhtin, from the very beginning, was interested in genres and the ways in which a society “tells time.” In addition Bakhtin was concerned with social class and the ways in which authors borrow quotations (a manner of speaking) from different locations, from the street or the drawing room, that allow the writers to mimic various voices; heteroglossia.

For Bakhtin and his Circle, the key term was “utterance,” meaning that language is a human activity and is located within a specific social chronotrope. As Bakhtin and his colleague, Valentin N. Volosinov, wrote in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, “A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another. If one end of the bridge depends on me, then the other depends on my addressee. A word is territory shared by both addresser and addressee, by the speaker and his interlocutor.” However, for the French who took up the ideas of Bakhtin, “Intertextuality,” a term coined by the Bulgarian theorist Julia Kristeva (1941-) became the translation of his concepts. These imported ideas on language were developed in contrast the formal structures of Ferdinand de Saussure and for the Parisian intellectuals who were also looking for alternatives to formalism and structuralism, Bakhtin’s literary theories fell upon fertile soil. As an Eastern European, Kristeva had access to the writings of Bakhtin and his Circle and, when she came to Paris in 1966, she brought the linguistic critique of Bakhtin with her.

However in mingling with the Parisian intellectual milieu, Kristeva made important changes to Bakhtin’s interpretations of plural voices in literature and came to her own definition of “intertextuality.” As is obvious from the account of Bakhtin’s essays above, he and his Circle were still clinging to the notion of representation in that the heteroglossia of a novel was illustrative of the various chronotropes evidenced in the utterances of the characters. Over time, Kristeva further destabilized the notion of the “self,” psychologicalizing language under the influence of Jacques Lacan and eliminated Bakhtin’s personalization of the author due to Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction. Thanks to the sponsorship of Roland Barthes (1916-1980) who invited her to present the writings of Bakhtin to his seminar, Kristeva became a prominent figure in French philosophical thought. Her presentation was subsequently published in Critique as “Bakhtine, le mot, le dialogue, et le roman” (“Word, Dialogue and Language”) in 1966. However, Kristeva was a student and it was Barthes who spread her ideas through his own articles which began to reexamine the relationship between author and reader and among texts themselves.

The concept of Intertextuality that Kristeva put forward was based in Bakhtin’s notion of the dialogic novel–multiple voices in narrative context, “heteroglossia,” and “dialogism,” meaning that all dialogue is inherently dialogic or intertextual. In order to “utter” the speaker must know the language and must have cultural competence in that language. While dialogism is true of “everyday” speech, literary writing had acquired a “special” status with the presumption of the author as the supreme creator. The omnipotent author, or more precisely the theoretical device that confines a book to a single voice, constitutes a monologue, stripping language of the other’s intentions. The result is a suppression of the natural and existing dialogue resulting in a binary opposition: exposition and analysis: the exposition of the author and the analysis of the theoretician. The reader is eliminated from the equation. The various chronotropes are suppressed in favor of a fiction of plentitude and precision that effectively stops any further or alternative analysis. Authority is upheld but at a cost. One can understand the theory of intertexuality is a return of the repressed, that which haunts the text: the multiple and excluded voices which were actually created by the writer but written out by a formal analysis of the work’s structure.

When she gave her paper, Kristeva incorporated Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World, which expounded on the carnivalesque or the incorporation of the unauthorized and informal language of popular culture and the “lower” classes. The carnival was a medieval custom that allowed a periodic release of the antic and the forbidden into official culture. It was on those occasions that the real culture of real people, unfiltered by abstractions and embedded in actual experience, was released. These subterranean levels of commentary lodged within legitimated forms of discourse include parody, the grotesque, earthy and of the body. As Bakhtin wrote,

“To degrade also means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy, and birth. Degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one…. Grotesque realism knows no other level; it is the fruitful earth and the womb. It is always conceiving”

In contrast to the bête noir of Barthes, the “realistic” novel, which Bakhtin stated was “monologic,” the dialogic novel put forward by Bakhtin emphasizes the carnival, the power of parodic language and the discovery of the plural which destroys hierarchal difference and levels the text. Kristeva, in her turn, argued that every text is under the jurisdiction or rule of other discourses in that each text is “created” by other texts. A text is differential and historical, a play of divergent times or temporalities or Bakhtin’s “chronotopes,” and contains traces and tracings of otherness and of other genres. Texts are made out of cultural or ideological norms and conventions of the genre that are recognized by the activated reader/viewer who is familiar with the styles and idioms in the language and with the clichés and formulas. As Kristeva wrote in her 1966 essay,

Bakhtin postulates the necessity for what he calls a translinguistic science, which, developed on the basis of langauge’s dialogism, would enable us to understand intertextual relationships; relationships that the nineteenth century labelled ‘social value”or literature’s moral “message..” Dialogue and ambivalence are borne out as the only approach that permits the writer to enter history be espousing a ambivalent ethics: negation as affirmation. Dialogue and ambivalence lead me to conclude that, within the interior space of the text as well as within the space of texts, poetic language is a “double.”

Given that the process of intertextual references is governed by the rules of discursive formation, the structure of the literary system need not depend upon the author’s intentions, and there are no moments of authority, no points of origin, only the purposes of reading. The auteur is a construction based upon a series of texts that retrospectively creates the author/auteur, rather than being a writer as the one who created the texts. The identification of the intertext is an act of interpretation on the part of the reader. Because the writer may or may not be aware of all the “voices” deployed, the author’s intention is not at issue. The writer is a reader of a text before s/he creates texts and the work of art is shot through with references, quotations, and influences and because what is produced is a cross-fertilization of a book, it is these networks that are of interest. The undermining of the authority of the writer undermines the enclosure of the book, problemizing both entities. Intertextuality is a subversive activity.

Kristeva links intertextuality to transgression: “We should particularly emphasize this specificity of dialogue as transgression giving itself a law so as radically and categorically to distinguish it from the pseudo-transgression evident in a certain modern “erotic ” and parodic literature..” In contrast the assumption that there is an official mode of discourse, all such “laws” constitute a kind of textual ideology, so that language is not timeless or universal but subject to cultural code and these codes are site and time specific. The conscious use or awareness of the intertext is a conscious manipulation of what Barthes called the “circular memory of reading,” which could refer to the use of italics and commas to indicate sources. However, this kind of restrictive reading is a mere catalogue of “influences” or “sources” and other assertions of the “presence” of the “author,” which restrict the reader’s free intertextual reading of the text. In contrast to the formal analysis, Kristeva called active and intertextual reading an “aggressive participation.”

In her later work, The Revolution of Poetic Language (1974/1984), Kristeva took the idea of the carnival and recast it as the semiotic in which the maternal or “feminine fluidity” or that which is yet unfixed would be a transgressive invasion or inscription (inter-writing) into intertextuality. In other words, the feminine becomes a kind of under-text, which is pre-symbolic or semiotic but also makes the symbolic possible. Therefore, a “fluid reading” would both accept and look for examples of other texts that have somehow entered into the primary text, always supposed to be “pure.” But no text is pure or whole or centered. Every text is an intertext, composed of multiple texts. It is easy to assume that all Kristeva means is that one text may quote another text, but this is not what she is saying. Kristeva was always interested in the Other, particularly the primal Other, the female which has been suppressed by the Law (of the Father) and haunts the (male) official text and subverts the singular (patriarchal) authoritarian voice. Both Bakhtin and Kristeva were very interested in subversion of the social order as manifested in literature as a form of literary social activism, not so much on the part of the writer him or herself but on the part of the reader who was re-directed, away from unity and towards polysemy.

Sometimes the importance of a concept such as intertextuality is what subsequent readers, writers, and creators make of the initial concept and how the theory becomes a trope. In a generalized way,the point of intertextuality became that in order for a writer to writer and/or for a reader to read, for an artist to make art, for a spectator to see the object, many references already ready need to be put into play. Structuralism always insisted that meaning is dependent upon a network of relations, what Ludwig Wittgenstein referred to “family resemblances,” and Kristeva was following the logical consequences of the significance of the “network.” However, it is important to understand that there is a difference between intertextuality as subversion of class and authority and intertextuality as a mode of reading. One type of analysis has political implications and the other is a mode of understanding literature without subverting authority.

“Quotations” or heteroglossia need to be understood as the acknowledgement of the importance of polyvalence or the network of language that creates any cultural object. Of course, no cultural object can ever be created out of a space of purified ontology or untouched origins and to be created and, in order to be understood, all objects are dependent upon other objects. That being said, Kristeva is not making the same argument that Harold Bloom made, that art comes out of art. She is saying that art depends upon a network of semiotic relationships that allow the object to function meaningfully in the culture. “Quotations” are not direct re-statings of another author: quotations and references and borrowings are the many ways in which the culture expresses itself across time.

The quotations that comprise the inter-text are forgotten fragments, half-realized displacements that distort and redefine the “primary utterance,” presumed to be the “original” and “creative” voice of the author, and relocates that utterance within another linguistic and cultural context. The use of quotation generates tensions within the reader and analyst pulled between the belief system that valorizes the auteur as the originator and the awareness of the dissemination of meaning and how meaning is made. The quotation or heteroglossia demands a non-linear or fluid reading or an awareness of multiplicity. Holding on to the now-discredited concept of “Originality” may not be the best way to read the work, because the assumption of originality or of the artist-as-origin limits the reading and denies the richness of the text/s. For example, in film noir movies made in Hollywood in the 1940s, one reads through the films and confronts the heteroglossia of the mystery novel, the detective novel, the cultural concern about the Depression, the male fear of the female, the male-made narrative that controls the account, silencing of the subversive voices of the woman, the criminal and even the Law itself. By wrenching oneself out of this trap of the narrator’s voice, the reader can activate the multiple voices and texts, from pulp fiction to Hemmingway.

Any work of art must contain traces of imitation, appropriation, quotation and reference that can mobilize the reader’s creative performance or a performity by the reader. Following Bakhtin’s logic, the history of genres as a sequence is undone–we are familiar with the original “road movie” and know that this journey comes from an antique source, The Odyssey. Therefore, the single unified voice of the narrator unravels and meaning and significance must be constructed out of known genres and borrowed voices, and all authors rewrite the works of predecessors–old voices become new voices. When literature is analyzed from a Postmodern perspective, a text becomes allegory or an assemblage of past genres. Action on the part of the reader preempts the authoritarian idea of the expert and subversive language substitutes itself for subject or the author’s singular voice. The text or artwork is not longer a sacred object but a space of language at work. The artwork is now a fabric composed of multiple codes, suggesting a new activity for the reader/analyst who finds an intertext. The new activity of the intertext is not author-dominated and places the emphasis on the reader or viewer. The text cannot exist as a hermetic or self-sufficient whole and does not function in a closed system. The reader’s experience may lead to new interpretations, for texts enter via the author and via the reader and have the effect of undermining authoritarian reading in the singular.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Modernism and Postmodernism: Allegory as Theory


The comparison of these two time periods was an inevitable result of the desire of Postmodern theorists to critique Modernist theory. But comparison was an early impulse trapped in the very polarities of Modernism that Postmodernism rejected. Nevertheless, establishing pairs of opposites allowed Postmodern thought to distinguish itself from its the ancestor before the new generation could go forward on its own terms. Regardless of the simplistic Oedipal origins, Ihab Hassen’s 1987 essay “Towards a Concept of Postmodernism” provided a neat model of comparison that was highly influential:


Romanticism/Symbolism Form (conjunctive, closed)/ Purpose/ Design/ Hierarchy Mastery/Logos Art Object/Finished Work/ Distance/ Creation/Totalization/ Synthesis Presence/ Centering Genre/Boundary/ Semantics/ Paradigm/ Hypotaxis/ Metaphor/ Selection Root/Depth/ Interpretation/Reading/ Signified/ Lisible (Readerly)/ Narrative/Grande Histoire/Master Code /Symptom/ Type/ Genital-Phallic Paranoia/ Origin/Cause God the Father Metaphysics/ Determinancy/ Transcendence


Pataphysics/Dadaism/ Antiform (disjunctive, open) Play/ Chance/ Anarchy Exhaustion/Silence Process/Performance/Happening Participation Decreation/Deconstruction/ Antithesis Absence/ Dispersal/ Text/Intertext Rhetoric Syntagm Parataxis /Metonymy/ Combination/ Rhizome/Surface/ Against Interpretation/Misreading Signifier/ Scriptible (Writerly)/ Anti-narrative/Petite Histoire/ Idiolect/Desire /Mutant Polymorphous/Androgynous/Schizophrenia/ Difference-Differance/Trace/ The Holy Ghost Irony/ Indeterminancy/ Immanence

The destruction of Modernism was a slow moving chain reaction, like the 1987 video, The Way Things Go by Peter Fischli and David Weiss–element was pushed and toppled into another element which fell into the the third piece until a major explosion took place at 3.32pm in St Louis, Missouri, on 15 July 1972 when a sprawling housing complex named Pruitt Igoe was dynamited. Destroyed by its inhabitants who pulverized it from within before it was exploded from without, the highly decorated, prize winning celebration of Modernism utopianism imploded under the weight of Modernist entropy. The occasion, an ordinary one in the larger scheme of things was elevated into a historic landmark by Charles Jencks in his 1977 book The Language of Postmodern Architecture and set to music in the brilliant documentary Koyaanisqatsi (1975-1982).


The Demolition of the Pruitt Igoe Complex 1972

One could quibble that the example chosen by Jencks was a convenient but arbitrary one, but history has a grim way of making a prophet even of a mere historian. The architect of Pruitt Igoe was none other than Minoru Yamasaki (1912-1986), who was also the architect for the Twin Towers. When the World Trade Center towers were destroyed on September 11th 2001, it was widely announced that Postmodernism was over. So a somewhat obscure Asian American architect had the honor of being the omega and the omega of Modernism and Postmodernism.

Las Vegas as a Sign System

Wherever Postmodernism ended, it began where all things begin, in Las Vegas. It is perhaps no accident that iconoclasts Tom Wolfe (1930-) and Robert Venturi (1925-) both had Yale connections: Wolfe as a graduate and Venturi as a member of the architecture faculty. Wolfe made his literary mark wrote two seminal essays that defined the growing “counter-culture:” “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy- Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” the famous 1963 article on the Kar Kulture of Los Angeles and “Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t Hear You! Too Noisy) Las Vegas!!!!” of 1964, both for Esquire magazine. As a contemporary of the Pop artists, Wolfe was not only rattling the cages of the ossified Modernist establishment, he was also pointing the way a new appreciation of one of the major taboos of Modernism, the vernacular. Indeed one could argue that Las Vegas, with its ambivalent status as a proper “city,” is a work of folk art, an unconscious counterpart to the less-is-more austerity of Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969). In 1968 the Strip with its riot of lights and pleasure became the destination for Robert Venturi and his new wife and fellow architect, Denise Scott Brown (1931-), their colleague Steven Izenour (1940-2001), with Yale students in two to see Wolfe’s “incredible electric sign gauntlet” for themselves.

In seeking an architectural site where contemporary “life” was organically creating architecture, the architects rejected other “new cities,” such as Los Angeles in favor of Las Vegas, which was “more concentrated and easier to study.” In the late sixties, the famed Strip, lined with casinos and hotels displaying brightly lit signs, was less a place where people lived and more an isolated site servicing improbable fantasies. Four years later, the trio published Learning from Las Vegas and by championing the vital and the vernacular, the book upended the purity of Modernist theory. In advocating for the intersection of art and life, Robert Venturi could be thought of as the architectural equivalent of Robert Rauschenberg as he and his partners called attention to the vernacular landscape and insisted upon the importance of the surrounding environment to architecture. The preference for the ordinary and this attention to the unartistic world surrounding the building stood in stark contrast to the stance of Modernist architecture, also called The International Style, which had come to a sterile and corporate dead end. Not only did Venturi and Scott Brown not turn their backs on architectural history, they used the past to explain and validate their analysis of Vegas. The parking lot the the A & P grocery store is compared to the parterre of the gardens of Versailles: this is contemporary space where the architecture is taken over by the signs that are the façade of the buildings.

The architects have the Baroque tradition in architecture in mind: the long vistas of power are now long vistas of Route 66 which promise pleasure. Las Vegas is the new Rome, centrally planned and precisely laid out for a specific purpose. Like a Roman military camp, Las Vegas is laid out in an orderly grid which keeps in check the blazing lights constantly jumping and jiving to their own internal rhythms. What Venturi and Scott Brown pointed out that Las Vegas is more symbolism than architecture, meaning that meaning had become detached from the form and its function. The result was a landscape of free-floating signifiers. As they write, “Regardless of the front, the back of the building is styleless, because the whole is turned toward the front and no one sees the back..the artistic influence has spread and Las Vegas motels have signs like no others..” The visual contrast between the Weissenhof housing estate built by canonical Modernist architects in Stuttgart in 1927, and the brightly lit and colored pleasure palaces of Las Vegas is striking. The white box absolutism of Walter Gropius and his colleagues favored the general over the specific and the absolute over the particular. Las Vegas is all incoherence and is fixated on detail of the signage. “Detail”, that is, a reference, which would locate the work and place it beyond the realm of transcendence, was to be banished.

As the late Naomi Schor pointed out in her 1987 book, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, the “detail” had long been relegated to the feminine as being opposed to the General or the Universal. The Detail was the unassailable Other and had to be banished. Detail like decoration is unnecessary within the totality. At the beginning of the 20th century, Viennese architect and theorist Aldof Loos declaring “ornament” to be “crime” in architecture. The stripping of “white architecture”, as architecture critic Mark Wigley termed it in his 1995 book White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, coincides with the development of abstract art. Abstract art, stripped of representation, needed to ally itself with humanism, spiritualization, and self-actualization—all while excluding the other half of the human race: women. Wigley goes on to point out that Modernist architecture, in its turn, was only fashion, the “structure” of its “erections” betrayed by the white (dress) covering. It would take twenty years for a new generation of architects to develop a Postmodern approach to architecture.

Taking a cue from Las Vegas, Postmodern buildings emphasized detail and façade and referential signage over purity. Architects followed the “linguistic turn” of literary theory and were aware of the latest in philosophical trends. One of the most interesting theories that was manifested in art and architecture was that of allegory. Because Postmodernism always attends to history, unlike Modernism, which broke firmly with the past, Postmodernism looks back and accumulates the fragments of the past and recombines the shards, rebuilding out of ruins. Each element re-found by the architect retained its historical meaning even though the element was re-placed in a postmodern structure. A building by Michael Graves or Charles Moore would be a postmodern ode to history, bringing together architectural styles without regard to consistency of period or meaning. The result was not a revival, nor was it eclecticism, nor was this strategy a mere homage to the ghosts of architecture past. Architecture of the Postmodern persuasion was an allegory that constituted a reading of a building which now functioned as a text.


Allegory as Text

The theories that would support Postmodern art preceded the art and were then applied to the works of art in a mix and match fashion. Unlike Modernist theory, Postmodernist theory came from numerous sources, from linguistics to post-Marxism to the critique of Enlightenment philosophy. Because all of the texts upon which Postmodernism would be based were either in French or German, the translators and explicators became significant players in disseminating the unfamiliar theories to the academic and artistic audiences. Borrowing heavily from Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama, which in 1980 was still unfamiliar to American readers, the late art historian Craig Owens (1950-1980) wrote “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism.” The significance of this two part article is its early publication date, meaning that Owens introduced many readers to one of the important aspects of Postmodern theory. Owens begins by locating allegory in its site of origin, which is literature. As the prefiguration for the New Testament, the Old Testament, allegory was the origin of critique because of its role as commentary. Owens explained,

Allegorical imagery is appropriated imagery; the allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them.He lays claim to the culturally significant, poses as its interpreter. And in his hands the image becomes something other (allos =other + agoreuei =to speak). He does not restore an original meaning that may have been lost or obscured; allegory is not hermeneutics. Rather,he adds another meaning to the image. If he adds, however,he does so only to replace: the allegorical meaning supplants an antecedent one; it is a supplement. This is why allegory is condemned, but it is also the source of its theoretical significance

Because Owens was writing his essay before art became “Postmodern,” his choices of art and artists to explain allegory are forced. When he stated that “Allegory concerns itself,then,with the projection-either spatial or temporal or both-of structure as sequence; the result,however,is not dynamic, but It is thus the of for it static, ritualistic,repetitive. epitome counter-narrative, arrests narrative in place, substituting a principle of syntagmatic disjunction for one of diegetic combination. In this way allegory superinduces a vertical or paradigmatic reading of correspondences upon a horizontal or syntagmatic chain of events,”it is hard to understand how Minimal artists Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt–as we analyze them today–could possible have any relationship to allegory. Owens continued by linked appropriation and hybridity to allegory: “Appropriation,site specificity, impermanence,accumulation, discursivity, hybridization these diverse strategies characterize much of the art of the present and distinguish it from its modernist predecessors.” Owens identifies allegory with a kind of writing in the visual arts. Piazza d’Italia by Charles Moore (1925-1993) was completed in 1978 and provides an excellent example of allegory. First, it is a witty reference to Robert Venturi’s comparison of Las Vegas to the piazzas of Rome and second, it is an ode to Las Vegas in its fictionality and in its assertion of the façade, which, indecently, is lit like a sign on the Strip. The Piazza is an assemblage of architectural elements and is a dizzy discourse on the history of the built environment. Therefore, “reading” the Piazza involves Robert Venturi, the Las Vegas strip, and a heavy dose of architectural historian Vincent Scully. In a nod to New Orleans, the façade rises like a fake Hollywood set from its shallow bed of water, the worst enemy of the low lying city.

In explaining how allegory is writing which is a text that must be read, Owens wrote,

If allegory is identified as a supplement, then it is also aligned with writing, insofar as writing is conceived as supplementary to speech.It is of course within the same philosophic tradition which subordinates writing to speech that allegory is subordinated to the symbol. It might demonstrated, perspective, that the suppression of allegory is identical with the suppression of writing. For allegory, whether visual or verbal,is essentially a form of script-this is the basis for Walter Benjamin’s treatment of it in The Origin of German Tragic Drama: “At one stroke the profound vision of allegory transforms things and works into stirring writing.”

In the second part of his essay Owens discussed the art of Édouard Manet as a form of allegory. In his early career Manet made a number of what Michel Foucault would term “museum paintings,” or art that referred to other works of art. As hybrids these early paintings appropriated motifs from other famous works of art which could be recognized, even in their buried state, by viewers familiar with art history. In acting as though he was leafing through the pages of an art history text, Manet performed as a bricoleur that cultural producer highlighted by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009). Writing in The Savage Mind in 1966, Lévi-Strauss stated,

There still exists among ourselves an activity which on the technical plane gives us quite a good understanding of what a science we prefer to call ‘prior’ rather than ‘primitive’, could have been on the plane of speculation. This is what is commonly called ‘bricolage’ in French. In its old sense the verb ‘bricoler’ applied to ball games and billiards, to hunting, shooting and riding. It was however always used with reference to some extraneous movement: a ball rebounding, a dog straying or a horse swerving from its direct course to avoid an obstacle. And in our own time the ‘bricoleur’ is still someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman. The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal. Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual ‘bricolage’ – which explains the relation which can be perceived between the two.

A comment that Lévi-Strauss made was particularly interesting for Postmodern theory: “It might be said that the engineer questions the universe, while the ‘bricoleur’ addresses himself to a collection of oddments left over from human endeavours, that is, only a sub-set of the culture.”In other words, the bricoleur works with”sub-sets” and does not, like the engineer, “question the universe.” Rather than attempt to remake subject matter for painting, Manet played with sub-sets of the already existing elements of culture. Compared to the awkward contemporary examples put forward by Craig Owens in 1980, the paintings of Mark Tansey who was actively involved in creating works of art that one had to “read thorough” to decode are a far superior example of allegory. Like Manet who dueled with the classical Renaissance tradition, Tansey rifled through the history of Modernist painting and piled on references to both Modernist and Postmodernist theories. Painting backwards by lifting paint off the canvas, illustrating in the discarded style of Norman Rockwell, Tansey paid homage to Lévi-Strauss in his 1987 painting, The Bricoleur’s Daughter, in which a young girl stands on a step stool and rifles through a set of cabinets. The cabinets, which are both above and below the counter are stuffed with art supplies and items gone astray from Dutch still life paintings, are a reference to the origin of museums as wunderkammer or cabinets of curiosity. The role of the allegorist is that of a gatherer who piles on references through a collection of emblems found in the ruins of a past culture.

Allegory is always specific to the needs of a culture, meaning that there are periods when the intelligentsia drives “impure” forms of expression,such as allegory, from its boundaries. The intent of Walter Benjamin was to revive the reputation of Baroque allegory. Although he did not state his intention as directly, Robert Venturi’s frequent appeal to Baroque architecture in Learning from Las Vegas suggests a swerve away from the classicism of Modernism. And, in his turn, Craig Owens noted that Modernist literary theory had also rejected allegory. Allegory then is a commentary on a recent past and it is also a rejection of its predecessors, suggesting that allegory should be viewed as symptom of a cultural need to “take stock,” like The Bricoleur’s Daughter of the leftovers of the past.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]