Beginning Postmodernism: Forming the Theory

POSTMODERNISM

Coining the Term

“Postmodernism” was a term coined by Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) early in the century to refer to the last quarter of the 19th century, a time where capitalism and imperialism and Western civilization in general began to decline. For Toynbee, this new period, beginning in 1875 actually coincided with the modernist avant-garde in the art world of Paris. However, Toynbee examining a larger swarth of history and noted the rise of “mass:” mass culture, mass education and mass culture. When he died in 1975, the “post-modern” was already ninety years old but the intellectual world was just beginning to incorporate the concept. At first, in the art world, the term simply meant, “after” Modernism; but by the mid 1970s, Postmodernism came to refer more and more to a theoretical stance, rather than to a temporal event. If Toynbee’s concept of the masses could be applied to the art world it could be seen in the rise of the larger culture of women and people of color and other other artistic impulses to challenge the white male elite who painted large abstract paintings. The masses had come to break down the Modernist hegemony and to scatterer the “rules of art” into the fractured world of pluralism.

The collapse of the dominance of Modernism was a signal that a new questioning was occurring—a questioning of the entire basis of Western philosophy and its products. That new skepticism was called Postmodernism. By 1970 “modern art” had become a period style, a historical entity. The style of Modernism had evolved into a vocabulary of ornament and had developed into a grammar of available forms. Modernism was used as an international art language, which both dispersed its vocabulary but also thinned out its avant-garde origins. This concept of a single “style” or the morality of abstract art as being hegemonic broke down, and painting and sculpture, the best carriers for abstraction, declined as dominant art forms. Self-confined to the museum and gallery, modernist art was vulnerable to being challenged by artistic expressions that were not restricted to artistic traditions. The entry of the “theatrical” with installation art and the flight of environmental art from the “white cube” made the Kantian contemplation of the serenely independent art object impossible.

As art moved out of the museums and into the actual environment and new technologies took center stage, the entire epistemology of Modernist art began to disappear. As the younger generation of artists rejected the old tenets of the meaning and purpose of art, Modernism could no longer hold its own against the expansion of means of art making. Although there are multiple moments in time where one might see a Postmodern direction, this breakdown of Modernism and the rise of Pluralism probably preceded Postmodernism in the s consciousness of the art public. Postmodernism was a time and a period: after Modernism, but over time the differences between the two movements are becoming clearer. Despite Toynbee, the Postmodern in the world of the arts was a short shiver, a shaking off of Modernism for a pseudo style which rapidly aged and dated. While Modernism had a sound philosophical foundation, in the arts it was expressed largely through art criticism, from Stéphane Mallarmé to Clement Greenberg. In contrast Postmodernism was a pluralistic mélange of theoretical position or reinterpretations and re-readings of Modernist theories.

Modernism (1860-1960)

Modernism, as a movement, was opposed to popular or bourgeois taste and espoused the avant-garde stance of the alienated artist. Modernism, as a means of analyzing art, assumes a cultural equality of diverse art, critiqued through a formalist methodology which levels out difference. The work of art is a self-referential object in a self-critical relationship with itself and with its medium. The medium is the crucial determinant in the pursuit of identity, as the problem of art was perceived by Clement Greenberg was to eliminate surplus, such as “realism” or cultural or life-reference, which interferes with that which is qualitatively significant in art. Art must self-identify as a physical object and must suppress metaphor or symbolism–art could not “represent” anything but art. Therefore Modernism rejected what Clement Greenberg called “literary forcing” or a dependence upon the narrative.

The Modernist theories of Clement Greenberg were based upon Enlightenment models: Hegelian and Marxian and Kantian. Because these models were formal and answerable to large forces, such as “history,” art had to be isolated in order to respond appropriately to the critic’s grand narrative. The result is an internal contradiction: either art is relevant because it is an expression of an Enlightenment version of the human spirit or individuality or art is transcendent and is uninvolved with “the world” in which case, how can art be meaningful? As Marx pointed out, everything is pregnant with its own contradiction, and Postmodern artists reacted against transcendence and immanence. Pop artists were, like the Impressionists who worked a hundred years earlier, only reacting to the time honored advice: to be of your own time. By the 1960s, the Modernist imperative of pure art, transcending the ordinariness of banal reality had broken down to the point where aestheticians Arthur Danto and George Dickey had to cobble together a framework for judgment called “the institutional theory of art.”

Pre-Postmodern artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns began to borrow and appropriate to re-do that which had been done before, but from the perspective of distance and detachment. Eliminating Kantian universality of the disinterested judgment of art, the relativistic and pragmatic “institutional theory” had to be asserted in order to create the legitimacy of “copying” a Brillo box by Warhol and the fact that a difference had te be made between representation and resemblance. The idea of “artistic creativity” became re-defined as artists and art historians rediscovered Marcel Duchamp who seemed to answer the need to refute Modernism. Duchamp applied a Kantian disinterest to his art making practice and carried out detachment to the logical extreme of “indifference.” What happened to Modernism was that the critique which was at its heart twisted around and turned upon itself, emptying out its humanistic stance and replacing art with language. Perhaps due to the impact of Marcel Duchamp, postmodern art became more conceptual, exposing the hidden heart of of Modernism: representation. The Modernist artist “represented” humanity by “representing” individuality,” but the postmodern artist, thinking of Duchamp began making art that did not “represent” but was “about” an idea.

After the death of Duchamp, by the rebellious period of the seventies, Modernism became a partisan position, identified with American boosterism, Clement Greenberg, Eurocentrism, androcentrism, and an elitist mission to preserve high art. Modernism also became entangled with the politics of the times, echoing the imperialist attitude for American art and the heroic character of American art, which at the same time attempted to justify its exclusion of women and people of color. Modernism also became caught up in the rising tide of the highly profitable art market in New York which was able to co-opt avant-garde art and to transform a high style into a salable commonplace. Abstract art became vernacularized and with an affluent society invested in an increasingly consumer-based culture, the public lost the need for an “absolute” meaning for art. “Modern art” became another period style that was characterized by a perceptual, sensuous surface that was polyphonic and all over. The assumed self-integrity of the artist collapsed along with the conceit the significance of unity and centrality of consciousness.

Postmodernism (1980-2000)

Modernism’s “will to style” and its hierarchical way of thinking about art was rejected by the concepts of Postmodernism. Postmodernism questioned how value in art is determined and answered that value was a social construct and could never be independent. Human consciousness had always been psychically entangled with fine art, but postmodern philosophers dismantled the notion of the independent subject. Unity of consciousness was impossible to achieve, not necessarily desirable, and there was no final resolution of parts. It was previously assumed that “art” worked and existed in a dialectical situation with art being defined by what is “not art,” but Postmodernism accepts the notion of irresolution and incompleteness by recognizing the interdependent linguistic and conceptual overlap between “high art” and “low art.” Postmodern art appropriated plurality through the realm of quotation in the new historicism of Postmodernism which gives access to all styles, all of which are of equal validity. The only question is—not what it “means”—but how it’s all put together.

In this new age of Indifference, Pop Art was characterized by its supposed Cool, its apparent lack of passion and its reluctance to criticize the society that gave the artists visual inspiration. When Abstract Expressionism became too heavy a moral burden, when galleries began to see how profitable art could be, when artists became dazzled by the star system, Modernism was over and the disillusionment of something called Late Modernism or Postmodernism took the place of the innocence of pure art. The commercialization of art and artists and the commodification of the avant-garde could be foretold by a careful reading of Baudelaire who could have predicted art functioning as fad, fashion, and consumer good. As Foucauldrian socialist Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, an artistic strategy of legitimization, par excellence, was the “return to origins” or to the purity of the first rebellion. This “return” to an art for the people seen so strongly in the art of the Sixties and Seventies, was a form of longing for the comforts of a past that never existed but this nostalgia was one of the hallmarks of Postmodernism’s desire to look back and not forward.

In rejecting the futuristic position of the avant-garde, Postmodernism re-placed itself into the stream of history and in acknowledging the past, art underwent a sea change. One of the major distinctions between Modernism and Postmodernism is based upon the concept of a truth or of a transcendence. Modernism sought to transcend time and place. Modernism desired to be universal by passing over the particular and the local and the peculiar in favor of the absolute. Modernism, in its quest for transcendence will always attempt to remain pure, bounded, contained, seeking closure, to seal itself off from the world in order to rise above it. Modernism was created after the fact by theories, or “truisms,” that were merely ways of looking at and speaking about works of art, all devised and developed self-reflexively during the Modernist period. From the position of post-post-modernity, it seems clear that Postmodernism was a correction to Modernism, a difference obtained by asserting its polar opposite.

Postmodernism is a mega term, suggesting two possibilities. One is that “we” have evolved out of Modernism in that we have moved beyond Modernism and into another era, as not yet understood. The second prospect is that “we” have evolved out of Modernism through a new purification: we perceived the error of our ways. While once a work of art was perceived as an object separated from its context and from its signifying functions, Postmodernism, on the other hand, rejects the point of view that art stands alone. There is no escaping the literary dimension of all works of art, which are necessarily poetic, referential and metaphorical. Content, not form, becomes crucial and content is always historically mediated, created through and defined by history. Found styles, left over from history, are left intact so as to be recognizable but are sufficiently manipulated to suggest a novel aesthetic attitude. Postmodern painter and bricoleur David Salle exerted no effort to assimilate the parts into a formal unity of meaning.

In contrast to the Modernist effort to stabilize and sterilize through a limited vocabulary, Postmodernism combined art and theater in a frank theatricality that beckons to the now activated art audience who recognizes the references and joins in a game of play, sorting through the assemblage of historical quotations. The idea of “style” itself is bankrupt and the work of art is an assemblage, such that of Charles Ray, that refuses unity. Postmodernism, while unsure of its impact or to put it another way is reluctant to announce its self-importance, is concerned with how art communicates. For Rebecca Horn art is language and the relationship of the signifier to the signified depends upon the reaction of the spectator, making the work of art non-hermetic and readable. The result is a doubling of signifiers, a shorthand crowding of givens that are never explained only felt, that empties out art content. The givens of immediate perception have no ability to generate symbolic meaning. When the rhinoceros horns, “detached” from the animal’s theoretical body and crafted by Horn gradually move towards each other, when the tips “kiss” with electric eroticism, the Kiss of the Rhinoceros in 1989 is just a kiss.

Coming after high-flying Modernism, the Postmodern situation is one of belatedness, similar to the placement of Mannerism, coming after the High Renaissance. All one can do is to comment upon the precursor. Preferring intellectual scorn, postmodernism is ironic rather than openly rebellious. Postmodernist critiques of modern philosophy will note that Enlightenment concepts, such as Structuralism, depend upon figurative models of depth and division. Karl Marx built a model of society resting upon a base, which supported the superstructure, Sigmund Freud built a model of a divided but enclosed mind, segmented into sections and built upon two levels: the conscious and the unconscious, Ferdinand de Saussure built a model of language based upon boundary and enclosure, Claude Lévi-Strauss built a model based upon depth or seeking meaning below the surface of a narrative.

These Modernist philosophical architectonic models would later be critiqued as being figural and constructive metaphors, embedded in Enlightenment discourse, existing in an unquestioned condition. The architectonic tropes of the conceptual models were circular arguments that ignored the history of their own making but were reflections of Enlightenment thinking that sought answers and certainty, based upon the powers of the rational human mind and its powers. The guarantee of the efficacy of these models was the authenticity of presence which in turn was based upon desire–desire to resolve, desire to make sense of the world–that drives the structure of the model. Postmodernism would smash the carefully constructed models by reviewing philosophical writing as writing, as writing, as a form of literature. The theorists would deliberately read against the grain, feeling blindly for the elements that couldn’t quite be suppressed through rational and logical thinking. In a visual answer, postmodern art understood modernist art as a dictionary of dislocated languages to be deconstructed.

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

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

[email protected]

Ending Modernism: Introduction to Postmodern Theory

POSTMODERN THEORY

Introduction: Modernism and Post-Modernism

Deeply marked by the idealism of the Second World War, Americans woke slowly to the changed landscape where idealism was impossible. The era of endless fear and war without end had dawned. The only way it could be borne was that this war be fought somewhere else. The importance of importing Euro-American nationalistic antagonisms to the Asian and African continents cannot be overestimated, for the Cold War provided a theatrical drama for political posturing while the audiences could recover at their leisure from the wounds they had inflicted upon themselves. For Americans, these little disfiguring wars were played out on television, but for those who actually participated, the pain and death were quite real. Colonialism continued, empires lived on, relics of a bygone time. On one hand, the former colonialists could relish, with a certain sly malice, the post-colonial difficulties of heretofore stable governments–India and many African states–after colonial masters exited. But, on the other hand Euro-American economic interests could and had to be protected in the name of freedom and democracy in nations fortunately enough to be favored in terms of valuable natural resources.

After the misadventure of Viet Nam, America would not intervene unless the territory had something to offer. Otherwise the “Free World” would look the other way from genocide and massacres and famine and internecine wars. The rise of what Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex” drew the Soviet Union into an economic race of guns and butter that the communist nation could not win. By 1989, the Cold War was over and the “Evil Empire” collapsed, the Berlin Wall fell and Eastern Europe fractured into ethnicities that attempted to exterminate each other in the wake of the Fall. Left behind were the weapons of the Cold War: countless nuclear weapons capable of Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD that spelled the end of rational modernism and the dissolution of the promise of the Enlightenment. It is interesting to note that the seemingly endless stand-off between good (capitalism) and evil (communism), strangely based in economic systems, masked with pseudo morality the larger moral failings of the Second World War.

Postmodernism is often considered to be a time of lost idealism, lost faith, and, most of all Loss of Mastery. This “post” period also coincides with the end of the old military industrial technology and the beginning of a cheap and seemingly unstoppable information technology. At best the new computer-based technology makes information available everywhere and makes present and future Iron Curtains useless in the long run, suggesting a future of human self-determination. At worst, the same technology promises to enlarge the gap between the rich and the poor, between developed and developing nations, between those who can afford the precious commodity of information and those who cannot. Information technology privileges the cultures that own and control it and that can thus spread it globally, at the expense of local ethnicities and identities. Information technology also privileges the mind and the talents of the intellect, suggesting that age-old requirements of race and gender will become irrelevant and that globalization will also mean human pluralism. The interesting question is how those in power will manipulate a volatile and unprecedented event–the Internet–to remain in power..and they will, setting the stage of another conflict between individual self-assertion and uncontrollable government control.

Within this historical context, Post-Modernism seemed to punctuate the end of yet another long century that was on the brink of the Information Age. Postmodernism was thought of as the contemplation of the end of the Industrial Era in economics, the end of Enlightenment in philosophy, the end of world empires in politics. From the perspective of a historian of art, these ends of centuries are often characterized by periods of sheer academicism and artistic ennui and a critical waiting for some kind of aesthetic Messiah, like Jacques Louis David or Vincent van Gogh. Post-Modernism, then, could have also been the End of Modernism, awaiting what’s next. Like the Post-Modernists, French aristocrats, indulged themselves in idle amusements at the end of another century, lived unwittingly just prior to an event, a state of mind, a way of life, that would be called the Modern or the Enlightenment. It is apt that it was the French Revolution which ended their century and their way of life began the Modern era, because this Revolution, like Modernism, sought to end all history, to erase the past, to efface all tradition, all heritage, and all values. As Ihab Hassen wrote in “Towards a Concept of Postmodernism” in 1987, “The word postmodernism sounds not only awkward, uncouth; it evokes what it wishes to surpass or suppress, modernism itself. The term thus contains its enemy within..”

Now that we are well into the 21st century, it is possible to view Postmodernism as a brief period, lasting about twenty years that is now best known as a changing of the guard in the visual arts. For the generation of Jackson Pollock, the canvas was an existential arena of self-creation and self-expression, a place where art–act–and the artist could become one in a transcendent moment of being and creation. For Pollock’s generation, the key words would be authenticity and personality. The work of art was unique because the personality and the touch of the artist was unique, his or her signature that authenticated the work itself. This high-minded hope, later called the “pathetic fallacy” (the notion that one can read the emotions of another emphatically through art is a fallacy), was swamped by the onslaught of pre-given, pre-digested, pre-created, and pre-conditioned media images. In his 1986 essay “Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism’s Other,” the postmodern theorist Andreas Hysseun stressed the importance of separating modernist art from “low culture:”

Modernist literature since Flaubert is a persistent exploration of and encounter with language. Modernist painting since Manet is an equally persistent elaboration of the medium itself: the flatness of the canvas, the structuring of notation, paint and brushwork, the problem of the frame. The major premise of the modernist art work is the rejection of all classical systems of representation, the effacement of “content,” the erasure of subjectivity and authorial voice, the repudiation of likeness and verisimilitude, the exorcism of any demand for realism of whatever kind. Only by fortifying its boundaries, by maintaining its purity and autonomy, and by avoiding any contamination with mass culture and with the signifying systems of everyday life can the art work maintain its adversary stance: adversary to the bourgeois culture of everyday life as well as adversary to mass culture and entertainment which are seen as the primary forms of bourgeois cultural articulation.

The fall of Modernist singularity and the rise of a self-referential culture starts with the coming of age of the Baby Boomers in the sixties. The star of Pop Art, Andy Warhol did not bother to create himself through the existential process of art making, instead he presented/displayed himself as an “art star,” as a cultural icon, as a media darling. Warhol, once the most successful commercial artists in America, understood the power of advertising and the significance of the image very well. He understood that art was a commodity to be bought and sold and that the commodity would be read as ‘art” if it was made by an “artist”. With some difficulty, Warhol remade himself in the image of his own time, created the aura of “artist” by fitting himself into the prevailing art movement, Pop Art. He crafted an image of the eccentric and colorful artist, a celebrity among celebrities. Warhol is an artist equally, if not more important, than Pollock, for like Pollock, he and his art came to exemplify his time. As Huyssen argued in “Mapping the Postmodern,”

..the revolt of the against that version of modernism which had been domesticated in the 1960s was never a rejection of modernism per se, but rather a revolt against that version of modernism which had been domesticated in the 1950s, become part of the liberal-conservative consensus of the times, and which had been been turned into a propaganda weapon in the cultural-political arsenal of Cold War anti-communism. The modernism against which artists rebelled was no longer opposed a dominant class and its world view, not has it maintained its programmatic purity from contamination by the culture industry. In other words, the revolt, the revolt sprang precisely from the success of modernism, from the fact that in the united States, as in West Germany and France, for that matter, modernism had been perverted into a form of affirmative culture.

Pollock may be the American artist who “broke through” the European hegemony of the arts, but he was also the last of his kind, an artist of the old school, concerned with craft, creation, process, and expression in the naïve belief that genuine creativity was possible. If Pollock was the Last Modernist, then Warhol is one of the first Postmodernists, for he frankly abandoned the pretense of originality and made a career out of appropriating the ready-made images already available commercial culture. The importance of Warhol lies, not in the fact that he introduced objects/signs from everyday life or popular culture into the art world, but that he did so in such a way as to both replicate the technology of multiplicity and to reproduce art “like a machine.” Warhol immersed himself in the media world and at the same time provided cogent if elusive commentary on his environment. His encyclopedic art seemed to assert that ee are all canned and packaged; and our role models and idols are all also canned and packaged.

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Andy Warhol Shopping

Representation, after Warhol, could only mean re-presenation: to show again that which has already been manufactured according to pre-given specifications. And this re-presentation, therefore, can never be original. Re-presentation, because of the every-where-ness of media technology can only be an artistic re-action, never an existential act, only an artistic critique, never an artistic creation. That was the condition of the artist in a postmodern technological society in which images are provided for consumers. From the postmodern perspective, the artist can no longer create images, the artist can only respond–belatedly–or philosophize or ponder what it means to live in an image world. This realization that “originality” was but a myth is the foundation of Postmodernism. Postmodernism was built upon the un-building of the innocence of Modernism, and, like the art of Warhol, was entirely reflective of the disillusionment of the Sixties and Seventies in the face of revelations of racism and sexism in America and the involvement of the Land of the Free in a war that proved to be largely political—Vietnam—and the fall of Presidents into disgrace and national shame.

In the visual and performing arts, Modernism was also a Revolution, a new beginning and a new awareness of being in a new place that ironically always had to be re-placed by yet another new, another now, until regeneration could no longer take place and exhaustion–Post-Modernism–reigned. If the decade of the Sixties can be seen in retrospect as the dawn of the breakdown of the hegemony of Modernism, and the decade of the Seventies as the puritanical revolt against physical attraction in art, then the decade of the Eighties seemed to be at the end of all things. Painting was declared dead and was condemned to endlessly copy or comment upon itself. Sculpture had expanded beyond itself and had left the gallery only to return as installation. Photography became the leading Postmodern art form because of its inquisitive ability to both question and expose the limits and transgressions of Representation. The aspirations of Modernism, its high moral tone, its very spirituality was confined to art-dealer nostalgia and put to shame by Postmodern irony.

Art–now a commodity to be bought and sold like a stock or a bond–was reduced to desperate discourse, parading bravado shorn of originality. Art copied. Art replicated. Art looted–pillaged–plundered history, like a frantic army, devouring its own past in its ignorance of the future, scorching its own earth. Above all else, art, haunted by the economic boom and the economic bust, was relegated to the status of decoration in the name of tasteful investment that killed the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1988. The death of Basquiat was a marker that suggested that the art world was no longer based upon its supposed “human values” but had, instead, entered into a global market where commodities circulated endlessly in an impersonal system of exchange. By the end of the eighties, Postmodernism was a global and Western phenomena: the European version of Postmodernism and the American version of Postmodernism had become absorbed into a larger culture, driven by the forces of capitalism. Cultural distinctions, like the use of elephant dung by the British artist, Chris Offili, could easily be taken over and become part of the mainstream and marketed to collectors as the latest “Sensation” in global art.

Although Postmodernism was a product of the times, the movement, when viewed in the simple terms of art world credos, was another look at the blind spots of Modernism. One of those lacunae was the art of Marcel Duchamp whose art co-existed with Modernist art and yet was its silent underground. More than a Dadaist “anti-art,” the postmodern portents of Duchamp were an anti-reading of Modernism. Known to day as the “Father of Postmodernism,” Duchamp undermined the foundations of Modernism: eliminating the independent and inventive artist who “made” unique “objects,” and subverted the doxa of “original” art made by a sanctified “creator.” His ideas were not understood in their own time and were mi-translated in the Postmodern period, but he predicted the unraveling of a system of art based upon the impossible and imaginary edifice of art elevated above the real world, floating pure and free of the market and financial interest. Whether one argues that Duchamp “fathered” postmodernism because he laid the groundwork for the revolt against Modernism or because his once-alien ideas fell on ground fertilized by Fluxus and other post-war impulses, it can be said today that Duchamp’s greatest success was in drawing the line between representation and concept. The arts of the Postmodern and the 21st century would fall on the side of the concept.

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

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

[email protected]

 

Asian American Art: Maya Lin, Part Two

MAYA LIN (1959-)

PART TWO: THE VIET NAM MEMORIAL

The Reception of the Wall

“Diane Carlson Evans, who served as a nurse, described the grotesque reception that she received upon returning home: “The attitude of the public was beyond belief. The protesters, rioters, draft dodgers met us at the airport and spit on us, threw eggs at us. Friends, co-workers—even some families—did not want to talk about the war with us. . . . I was bitter, disillusioned and felt like 22 going on 80.” from The Power of a Name by Allen Greenberg

After losing a war, a nation must first mourn and then heal. This powerful truth was understood by a young woman in her early twenties, an Asian-American who had never been to war, Maya Lin. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is sometimes called “America’s Wailing Wall.” A rare event in the art world, the “Wall” marks a paradigm shift for public sculpture and for public art. Before Maya Lin, war was commemorated with pride and flourishes which celebrated heroism; After Maya Lin war and other tragedies were to be contemplated and grieved.

Americans have always won their wars, from the Revolution in 1781 to the Second World War, and then came the inconclusive Korean War and the humiliating defeat of the Viet Nam War. One of the sub-texts of the wars of the second half of the twentieth century is that Americans, after bringing the Japanese to their collective knees, were outfought by Asians in a war of choice. In the early 1980s, it was not yet well understood that proxy wars, in this case between America and the Soviet Union and Red China, were not wars winnable in the conventional sense but guerrilla wars could never be won. Even while the Soviets struggled in their own chosen quagmire, Afghanistan, even as the Israelis attempted to control the Arab population, the efficacy of insurgency was unclear. A new age was dawning, described by some as the “decline” of the West and by others as a new political coalition of women and people of color was just beginning to evidence the results of twenty years of affirmative action. But with the victories of the Second World War still strong in living memory and the Civil Rights era in retreat, the (white male) American public was not ready for the the winner of the competition for the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to be an Asian-American woman, Maya Lin.

Perhaps if a white male had done the controversial design, there still would have been consternation, if only because the Memorial was an unfamiliar form: abstract and black. Perhaps no matter who designed the Memorial, there would have been questions because the war had been so unpopular and so recent, a scar on the American psyche. In 1981, the year of the competition, feelings were still raw and awarding the commission to a young Asian woman was virtually unthinkable. War aside, it would be useful to look back to this sheer novelty of a person from the margins who had habitually been barred from the profession and from public commissions actually winning a blind competition. A woman and an Asian had beaten some of the most famous architects of the time. A young Asian was a woman who had never fought a war had won a competition to build a memorial for white American soldiers who had did fighting Asians. The fact that Lin, a quiet intellectual, was not concerned with the War, but with death and the act of mourning, was not understood, neither by the veterans nor by the public.

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Maya Lin (1959-)

As Marita Sturken pointed out the real question is one of how historical is written. As she wrote in 1991,

Cultural memory represents the many shifting histories and shared memo- ries that exist between a sanctioned narrative of history and personal memory. The formation of a singular, sanctioned history of the Vietnam War has not yet taken place, in part because of the disruption of the standard narratives of Amer- ican imperialism, technology, and masculinity that the war’s loss represented.’ The history of the Vietnam War is still in the process of being composed from many conflicting histories, yet there are particular elements within these often opposing narratives that remain uncontested-the irony of the war, the pain and subsequent marginalization of the Vietnam veteran, and the divisive effect the war had on American society.

History, or cultural memory, is a narrative we tell to ourselves. What is not said is as important as what is said. History, as a construction, is written by victors who have the power to compose or to represent, and silences those in the margins. The Viet Nam War was already etched in the consciousness of the public as less than a dozen searing images by Nick Ut an Eddie Adams and Malcolm Browne. This was a war of sacrifice of brave young men (and women) who died in a war that, even before it was over, was labeled as a “bad war” by a growing majority of Americans. The problem faced by Maya Lin was a rare one: how does a culture remember a lost war? The nearest precedent was the American Civil War (the origin of Memorial Day) and how the former slave states rewrote their defeat into a “glorious cause” that would one day be won and “the South” would “rise again.”

The Vietnam veterans sponsoring the Memorial competition gave the entrants only a few stipulations: the work had to be “reflective” and “contemplative” (not bombastic), unpolitical and had to harmonize with the surroundings, the flat stretch of the Mall. Maya Lin’s design elegantly avoided the obvious confrontation with the War itself and focused instead on the human cost: the dead who would never come home are simply named on the Wall. Death is difficult to face. In recounting her thought process, Maya Lin stated,

My design for a World War III memorial was a tomblike underground structure that I deliberately made to be a very futile and frustrating experience. I remember the professor of the class coming up to me afterward, saying quite angrily, “If I had a brother who died in that war, I would never want to visit this memorial.” I was somewhat puzzled that he didn’t quite understand that World War III would be of such devastation that none of us would be around to visit any memorial, and that my design was instead a pre-war commentary. In asking myself what a memorial to a third world war would be, I came up with a political statement that was meant as a deterrent.

Thinking of a split geode remembered from her childhood, Lin in effect, cut into the ground, carved out the side of an imaginary tomb. By pointing to the psychic wound of the (male) nation in a time where racist and sexist insults were far more permissible than today, the young woman was verbally assaulted. But the powerful art community and most of the Veterans stuck by her selection and by the choice of the jury. Lin defended herself and her concept with courage and dignity, but the clamor against the Wall’s shocking design—“a gash” in the earth–and dark color—“black, the universal color of shame”–forced the government to demand a resolution to the argument between representational and abstract sculpture. After an African-American general pointed out that “black” was not the color of disgrace, the complaint lost credibility, and a compromise over the Memorial was reached.

The Wall seems so perfect and so inevitable today that it is hard to imagine any other design fulfilling the criteria of the commission so perfectly–and that is possibly why Lin was continuously supported: she solved an unsolvable conundrum. That said, the (premature) public clamor had to be appeased with a traditional gesture towards the existing horizon of expectations. A well meaning gesture of patriotism, an American flag flying from a tall pole, actually obscured and dwarfed the underground Wall and had to be moved from the front to the side of the Memorial. A white male sculptor named Frederick Hartt, who had also never been to war, was asked to craft a representational group of three soldiers—one of each, a white, a black, a Hispanic– to be cast in heroic bronze. At eight feet tall, the statue were also taller than the Wall and was finally put at the entry point, where the visitors came into the site. Here was where the public paused to find the name of their loved one in the book called the “Directory of Names.” The changes to the surrounding site allowed the Memorial itself as designed by Lin to remain unchanged. But the actual making of the Wall continued to be politicized. The granite, for example could not be taken from Canada, a nation that had given sanctuary to draft evaders, but had to be obtained from India.

After the initial compromises to the site had been reached, Lin herself had to fight rear guard actions against the architectural firm that would become the firm of record. The Cooper-Leckey Partnership wanted the Memorial to be white and thick. There was also some sentiment to put the names in alphabetical order, meaning that it would be impossible to figure out which “John Smith” was your son. Maya Lin’s idea of a chronological listing was retained, as was her idea of a thin granite black granite slab engraved with 58,286 names. The visitor can use the Directory at the entry to the Wall to find which section of the wall the specific name is located, carved out in chronological order. It was very important for Lin that each name have its own special place in time. Once the name is located, the ritual of mourning continues. Then one can go to the section and Park personnel will “rub” the name (a piece of tracing paper is placed on the name and is rubbed over with a graphic pencil) for the visitor and give it to the grieving relative.

“I want to make a place, not an object,” Lin stated. Despite the anger that greeted the design of the Wall, the Memorial itself was an immediate success with the public. Maya Lin had one goal: “to make people cry,” and the people who saw the Wall cried from the day it opened to the public in 1982. President Reagan, who disapproved of the Memorial, did not attend the opening ceremonies or the parade the Veterans gave for themselves to take the place of all the victory parades that did not happen for them. The parade and the reaction of the public to this moving memorial can be seen in Freida Monk’s documentary, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision and this film makes it clear that once the public saw the Wall it understood the Wall. Writing years after the documentary that actually helped her understand what she had been through, Lin remembered,

I felt that as a culture we were extremely youth-oriented and not willing or able to accept death or dying as a part of life. The rites of mourning, which in more primitive and older cultures were very much a part of life, have been suppressed in our modern times. In the design of the memorial, a fundamental goal was to be honest about death, since we must accept that loss in order to begin to overcome it. The pain of the loss will always be there, it will always hurt, but we must acknowledge the death in order to move on.

People suddenly had a place to mourn the dead sacrificed in a war that, even by the late sixties, seemed wasteful and futile. Today, Viet Nam is one of American’s major trading partners and it has become increasingly difficult to explain why young men and women must die in political wars. But the dead died in good faith and they must be and deserve to be mourned. Lin makes the point that if you cannot mourn, you cannot heal and go forward. The Wall changed the way architects and artists regarded memorial sculpture, understanding the lesson that a young woman had taught them—that trauma and grief cannot be illustrated. Only abstract forms allow the visitors to express their own private feelings.

Maya Lin’s Wall is a remarkable achievement not just because it provided an occasion for a national carthesis, but because it is one of the rare occasions when an artist’s concept was unchanged from inception to execution. The Viet Nam Memorial proved to be a paradigm shift for memorial architecture, impacting funerary design to present day, from the Oklahoma City National Memorial to the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. After September 11th, Americans looked immediately to Maya Lin to build a suitable memorial to the national trauma. Lin demurred and served as a juror for the design instead. Today the Wall is the most visited site in the world. People have left so many pieces of memorabilia at the Wall as offerings to the dead and to their country that a museum space at the Smithsonian is devoted to these objects. Although the vitriol against Lin, as an Asian and as a woman, has long since died down, and although she has become a national icon, there are still those who are not afraid to express racism and sexism and a lack of understanding of what America is, a nation of immigrants, when discussing the Memorial.

“I have visited the Viet Nam memorial and have mixed emotions about it. I would never have built a memorial like that. I don’t like the idea it was not designed by an American,” said Thomas Moorer, Commander and Chief of the Pacific Fleet and former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam War. Perhaps the words of her teacher, art historian, Vincent Scully at Yale, would be more fitting, “Imagine the courage it took. The fiber. The word for Maya Lin is courage. And effrontery.” But it is Maya Lin herself who should have the last word, “An artist struggles to retain the integrity of the work so that it remains a strong clear vision.”

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Asian-American Art: Maya Lin, Part One

MAYA LIN (1959-)

PART ONE: THE VIET NAM MEMORIAL

The Historical Context

Any artist of color, any artist who is a woman or who is gay must overcome unspoken but powerful barriers to their entry into the art world. Call it the glass ceiling, call it discrimination, women and artists of color have historically faced a wall of resistance to their art and to their points of view. A minority within a minority, Asian artists had a particularly difficult time finding a place in the American art world. Unlike African American artists and Hispanic artists and gay artists and women artists, Asian artist had no social movement specific to them to help propel them into the mainstream. However, in the early 21st century, their position has changed. Mainly due to the growth of a global art market, times have changed for Asian artists–not necessarily only in America but for the global art scene. Artists, such as Cai Guo Qiang who left mainland China to move to New York, have become some of the most important artists working today. Cai is joined by the Chinese dissident artist, Ai Wei Wei, on the growing list of prominent Asian artists who have emerged into prominence in the past twenty years.

These famous males had some notable female precursors: Yoko Ono, Yayoi Kusama and one of the most famous and beloved artists in America an Asian woman, named Maya Lin. People from all over the world admire her work but few know her name—Maya Lin—and her story is remarkable. Maya Lin was the creator of the revered Viet Nam Veterans Memorial, now the most visited site of mourning in the world. When she designed the “Wall,” as the Memorial is called, Maya Lin was a senior at Yale University in her early twenties and her youth and gender make her achievements as an artist all the more remarkable.

Every now and then an artist emerges who changes the paradigm of art making. In other words, after this artist, art will never be the same. The artists who shifted the paradigm of 20th century art include Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock, artists who changed the way art was made and defined. Sadly there are no women on this list—until Maya Lin. Today we speak, because of her impact upon public art, of “BML” and “AML”—Before Maya Lin and After Maya Lin. After the Viet Nam Memorial was unveiled, artists who made public art, especially those charged with the problem of creating a “memorial” in the 20th century, had to reckon with Maya Lin’s achievement. With that one statement, a black “wall” embedded in the earth of the Mall in Washington D. C., Lin changed the visual vocabulary of public sculpture.

VietnamMemorial

Maya Lin’s Competition Drawing of the Wall

Indeed, when the Twin Towers were destroyed, the eyes of the country turned to Maya Lin to help America construct a fitting memorial, one as eloquent as her Wall. She refused but agreed to serve on the jury for a series of entries from artists and architects, all of whom were impacted by her work. The winner of the competition were architect and Israeli citizen Michael Arad and landscape designer Peter Walker and Reflecting Absence combined Lin’s characteristic use of shiny black materials awash with water and marked by names. In a remarkable article, The Breaking of Michael Arad, outlining the tremendous difficulty surrounding the World Trade Center Memorial, Joe Hagan followed the clash of multiple egos of multiple architects and multiple politicians which resulted in significant alterations of Arad’s original design and hard feelings all around.

“AML” or since Maya Lin, the public is very attuned to the importance of public memorials and, in all fairness to Arad, the stakes, thirty years later, were very high. But his struggle to build his design, his compromises and the not-very-satisfactory result is typical of the outcome of any struggle between and artist and the public. It is worth comparing Arad’s run-of-the-mill design to the work of Maya Lin because, although she was more than ten years younger then he, a female and an Asian, somehow, she managed to pull off the impossible–her original design was built, virtually unaltered from the charcoal drawings to the day of the dedication. The distinctiveness of her visionary design, a unified concept melding material and meaning, drew a line in the sand: this is what mourning means.

Maya Lin, at age 22, inscribed a profound and indelible mark on American art. Born in Ohio of a middle class family of university intellectuals, Lin’s father was on the faculty at the University of Ohio, teaching ceramics, and her mother was a literature professor. Her brother, Tan, is a poet. The Both her parents were immigrants, fleeing from the Communist takeover of China. Lin’s paternal grandparents had been educated in America, at the University of Pennsylvania and returned to China where they became well-known designers. Her grandfather was involved with the design of the flag for the United Nations and for post-Communist China. Despite his parent’s success, Lin’s father left China in 1948, two years after the Communist take over, and arrived in America on a scholarship to the University of Michigan.

Maya Lin’s mother had an even more interesting story. Her father had been a doctor who lost his medical practice and died in 1975. Seeking an education in America, she was smuggled out of Shanghai in a junk (small ship) with $10, a letter of acceptance to Smith College sewn into her clothes. After a six-month voyage, she arrived at Smith in October. When she was a grad student there, she met Henry Lin at the University of Michigan. As is often true with many diaspora families, the separation was permanent and the parents and children never saw each other again. Growing up in ordinary Ohio in the sixties, Maya Lin knew nothing of her family’s history and little of the controversial war her country was waging. Years later, when the controversy over the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial was raging over the fact of her race and gender, there was no public mention that Lin’s parents were anti-communists, who were almost surely sympathetic with the anti-communist aims of the War.

The Viet Nam was a controversial war in America that split the nation along generational and ideological lines. An older and conservative group, the “greatest generation” of World War II, approved of America’s intervention into Viet Nam and of the government’s mission to free a small Asian nation, few had heard of, from Communism. The younger generation, particularly the privileged young white men who were to fight this war, did not believe the war was either necessary or just. Why intervene in a local civil war between North and South Viet Nam? Why lose years of their young lives, or their very lives, in the service of a political idea called the “Domino Theory.” The young people disagreed with the thinking that if one Asian nation fell to communism, then other countries would fall as well, including Japan. The disagreements became public protest against the War which dragged on twenty years.

War protests were huge and became louder and more insistent as casualties grew while the war proved to be unwinnable. The result was a demoralized army high on drugs in Viet Nam and a polarized population at war with itself at home. Viet Nam veterans came home and had to contend with the anger of Americans who were against the War. Looking back on this sad era, most Americans today would agree that these veterans were treated shamefully. When Congress refused to continue funding the conflict and America pulled the last of its embassy staff out of Saigon, the Viet Nam War finally ended in 1975. The end of the war was nothing less than a defeat of a huge conventional army by a small guerilla army that was willing to fight for generations, if necessary, for their right for self-determination. America, used to winning wars, was shamed and traumatized by defeat at the hands of a small and inconsequential nation.For years, the males of America suffered from the stigma of the “Viet Nam Syndrome.” It took another war the Gulf War of 1990 end this pain. As President George H. W. Bush said, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!”

The story of Maya Lin’s struggle to retain the aesthetic of her artwork is told by Marita Sturken in her 1991 article, “The Wall, the Screen, and the Image. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial.” Maya Lin knew nothing of this wound in the American (male) psyche as she was growing up. In fact, Lin, living in a very white area of the country, did not know she was “Asian,” until she was in college and spent part of her junior year abroad in Denmark. During the Second World War, the entire nation of Denmark was a hero for gathering up its small Jewish population and ferrying it away from the Nazis to safekeeping in Sweden. But the Danes were not used to people of color. They thought she was an Eskimo and would not sit next to the tanned young woman on the bus. But her time in Denmark would be impactful: Lin visited a huge cemetery in Copenhagen, where the famous author of children’s books, Hans Christian Anderson, is buried. She was impressed at the way in which the Danes used the cemetery as a public park and began to think about public spaces, how the public used them, and what these sites meant to people.

By the time Lin was in college, the Viet Nam War was a distant memory for some and an ongoing pain for many. While she was at Yale, a Viet Nam veteran went to see a movie, The Deer Hunter (1979), which depicted the veterans who came home as traumatized and lost, victims of a political statement masquerading as a “war.” Although this War had cost an entire generation of young men the “careless youth” they felt entitled to, this “war” was also undeclared and remained, until the end of its days, a “police action,” without the dignity of a “real” war. As he relates in the 1996 documentary by Freida Lee Monk, Maya Lin; A Strong Clear Vision, Jan Scruggs left the movie theater, “determined,” as he said, to erect a monument to the Viet Nam veterans who had fought and died and had “lost” a tragic war. The path of the young college student and the veteran would soon cross. After forming a group of veterans in favor of building a Memorial and after getting the approval to have it built on the Mall, and after raising private money to cover the expenses, Jan Scruggs and his colleagues decided to hold a “blind competition” for the commission to design the Memorial.

A blind competition is rare, especially in the world of architecture and public art. The public is so sensitive about what is put into their space that most governments are careful to employ only those artists whose work is familiar, so they–those who commission the work–will know what to expect. In addition there are public hearings that precede and follow any public works. But perhaps because the Veterans were amateurs at this game of public monuments, they were open-minded and decided to ask anyone and everyone (an open competition) to compete and their names would not be known (blind competition), giving everyone a chance to win. The Viet Nam War was a recent war, still surrounded by the stigma of defeat, but perhaps because this war was still an unsettled cultural problem, this was a war that needed closure.

The notice of the blind competition reached Maya Lin and her fellow students in a senior seminar at Yale. They were studying funerary architecture, that is architecture that memorializes the dead, and the idea of designing a memorial for the veterans of the Viet Nam war seemed an appropriate senior project. The key term for the Memorial was “memorial,” not monument. A monument is for victory—Viet Nam was not a victory so any work that commemorated the event had to be a memorial is for the dead. The students were aware of the great Thiepval Memorial of the Missing (1932) designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Lutyens took the idea of the triumphal arch and inverted the notion of victory into one of suffering and mourning and as one peers through the arch, it metamorphosizes from triumph to tragedy for, in the distance, one sees endless rows of crosses for the dead on the battlefield of the Somme.

The idea of rows of crosses (some marked with a star of David) is sadly familiar, at Arlington, at Normandy, and each cross usually is inscribed with the name. At Theipval, the interior of the brick arch is inscribed with 72,194 names on the 64 piers for the building. The custom of marking down the names of the fallen could be seen at Yale where, for example, one can pass through an arched corridor which serves as Yale’s Civil War Memorial (1915) and on its walls are inscribed the names of those who were killed. At Theipval, a much much larger arch, the names can be found in the Memorial Reference which lists the names of the dead and missing in alphabetical order. The requirements or the brief for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial were simple: all that was required was to list the names.

Familiar with funerary architecture as the result of her course, Maya Lin would find the Thiepval Memorial an important precedent. As she related in the Monk documentary, each student in her seminar and even their professor submitted an entry and waited for the results. It is interesting to consider the fact that Americans’ expectations of public sculpture about war were fixed by their past successes in the military which had been celebrated through figurative sculptures. Even in the states of the former Confederacy which was defeated, the leaders were depicted was victors. Unlike the British and the French experience of the Great War, the United States had little experience with losing en entire generation of young men, an experience that was unspeakable. As a result, the American public was not familiar with the Thiepval Memorial which was both symbolic and conceptual rather than being realistic. This lack of familiarity of art as a concept or of a memorial as an idea would be crucial to the reception of the Viet Nam Memorial.

Adjacent to a long reflecting pool, the Lincoln Memorial is a temple containing a representational statue of a somber Abraham Lincoln. At the other end, the obelisk of the Washington Monument rises in the air. One is narrative and one is conceptual and both are white and pure. In addition, traditionally war images have been heroic, large, above ground, contain realistic figures of soldiers, and are white in color or are cast in bronze. But how does one mourn a war that ended badly? The lingering image of the Viet Nam War is a mad scramble into an impatient helicopter. For Maya Lin, who was too young to have memories of the debates about the war, the real question was—-how does one mourn a loss—not of a war but of a person? Her memorial would be an anti-monument, a black granite V-shaped wedge inserted into the ground of the Mall, cutting into that long stretch of grass between the (white) Lincoln Memorial and the (white) (and phallic) Washington Monument. The carefully chosen jury selected the work of this (then nameless) young college student as a “work of genius.” For one of the first times in public art, a totally abstract shape was selected as a winning design.

The Memorial was simple: it was just a black wall inscribed with names, perfectly fulfilling the requirements of the design. There was nothing political about her design, which was covered with the names of each of the fallen, listed in order of when they died, carved into the dark, polished mirrored surface. The announcement and the revelation of the winning design caused controversy and uproar. To a public, unaccustomed to abstract art, the Wall seemed “too Eastern” or “too Asian” in its aesthetic. To a public, accustomed to male artists, the Wall, with its thin granite slabs, seemed too delicate, anorexic and “feminine.” As opposed to phallic male monuments, rising high and proud, the V-shaped wall, which did not disturb the tranquility of the Mall, seemed hidden, tucked inside, like a vulva. Maya Lin had designed a modern day Book of the Dead. The black granite slabs opened at an apex, like the pages of a book: the story of the Viet Nam War written with the names of those who gave their lives for a lost cause.

The next post will describe and discuss The Wall itself.

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Podcast 70: Defining Postmodern Painting

The Definition of Postmodernism

Postmodernism was an international phenomenon, neither style nor movement, but a state of mind. An inversion of Modernism, Postmodernism was a philosophical discourse applied to painting which reconsidered the “languages” of Modernity and revived the dead styles of the past. With Postmodernism, the is dead and the past is pillaged and painting becomes allegory.

 

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Important Announcement

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by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

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This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Erwin Panofsky and Art History, Part Two

ERWIN PANOFSKY (1892-1968)

Part Two: The System of Meaning: Art History as Symbolic Form

Like the anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Erwin Panofsky considered social acts to be not natural but linguistic forms, which are cultural, and thus subject to human interpretation. As a social act, any work of art is a cultural artifact, and, as such, must function as a means of communication with its public and act as an object of visual language. This language speaks, as it were, through symbolic codes or a system of writing through pictures, called “iconography.” “Iconography,” Panofsky stated, “is that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form.” But the road to iconography was a long one, a journey through turn of the century attempts to put philosophy on the same certain basis as science.

Panofsky, as a student of Aby Warburg, was also the heir to late nineteenth-early twentieth century thinking that attempted to combine idealism and scientific thinking into a new absolute philosophy. In fact, Ernst Cassirer, one of the mentors for Panofsky, had begun his career in the philosophy of science. The copious writings of Panofsky can be situated squarely in this philosophical tradition and his philosophical take on art history was part of his effort to make of art history a solid “humanistic discipline” that was grounded in a solid epistemology. The art historian, as noted in the first part of the posts on Panofsky, staked out territory that separated his approach to art history from that of Heinrich Wölfflin, who stressed period styles, and from what art historian Christopher S. Wood in his preface to Panofksy’s 1927 Perspective as Symbolic Form, called the “homemade concept” crafted by Alois Rigel: Kunstwollen, or artistic will or volition.

Indeed in his famous 1940 essay, “Art History as a Humanistic Discipline,” Panofsky began by comparing the humanist to the scientist, but the comparison was challenged when it had to be acknowledge that unlike the scientist who confronted a static mindless object, the art historian worked with a work of art, a product of Kunstwollen. As Panofsky asked, “How, then, is it possible to built up art history as a respectable scholarly discipline, if its very objects come into being by an irrational and subjective process?” According to Wood, Panofsky attempted to salvage Riegl and to re-locate artistic creativity in Ernst Cassirer’s neo-Kantian idea of “symbolic form.” As Panofsky stated in “On the Relationship of Art History and Art Theory: Towards the Possibility of a Fundamental System of Concepts for a Science of Art” (1925),

The ultimate task of a science of art, namely, the determination of Kunstwollen, can only be achieved in the interaction of the historical and theoretical modes of observation.

Previous art historians had followed either Kantian or Hegelian abstract structures and explained art in terms of formal categories. Alois Riegl, for example, worked in Hegelian dialectics by analyzing art within binary categories of internal-external, haptic-optic, and coordination-subordination, which he considered to be the deep structures of the work. Riegl considered the engine of this system to be Kunstwollen, which is a bracketing device that allows the study of art to be a study in form. Panofsky attempted to address the neglect of the meaning of art objects, by stating in his 1920 essay, “The Concept of Artistic Volition,” that, “Artistic products,” “are not statements by subjects, but formulations of material, not events, but results.”

To develop his concept of iconography, Panofsky drew together a number of philosophical ideas, replacing the notion of Kunstwollen with Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms and used neo-Kantianism to analyze art through a priori categories. Ernst Cassirer’s symbolic forms are deeply spiritual, but their embedded meaning is attached to a concrete and material sign. Panofsky moved from the level of form to the level of structure by understanding that artistic perception was a special case of cognition. His most famous case study is his study of perception when he examined Renaissance perspective as symbolic form. Perspective as Symbolic Form, his most explicit revelation of the impact of Cassirer and neo-Kantian thought was a very impactful essay buttressed with extensive and erudite footnotes was a legend for those not fluent in high German until it was translated into English in 1991.

For Panofsky, perspective is an example of a “will to form” that was an unnatural invention of a particular period of time, the Renaissance. The symbolic form functioned at the structural level and the Renaissance version of perspective is comprehensible only for the modern sense of organized and structured space. Panofsky asserted that perspective is a form of thought and that thought is culturally bound to a place and time, a position of relativism that rested uncomfortably with the desired transcendence of symbolic form. The essay suggests that perspective is part of a change in world view, the shift in point of view from the infinity of religion where Earth is the center of the universe to a heliocentric world based on science. According to Panofsky, referring to perspective,

This formula also suggests that as soon as perspective ceased to be a technical and mathematical problem, it was bound to become al all that much more of an artistic problem. For perspective is by nature a two-edged sword: it creates room for bodies to expand plastically and move gesturally, and yet at the same time it enables light to spread out in space and in a painterly way to dissolve the bodies.

Experience or Welt is associated with Space as Experience and this experience is expressed in a linear fashion as a pictorial device in painting. For example, modern Western art based itself upon science, emulating the mindset of newly discovered humanistic values in the Fifteenth Century. Developed by architects to both measure and to map virtual space, “perspective” was an artistic language that was a sensuous and an intellectual (aesthetic) manifestation of a culture and its needs. Thus, following the thinking of his colleague, Ernst Cassirer who considered art to be a symbolic form, and perspective, for Panofsky, becomes symbolic form.

In 1951, Panofsky expanded upon this notion of symbolic form as a way of thinking that permeated an entire culture in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, which precisely compared the way in which cathedrals were conceived and the way in which ecclesiastical literature was organized. Pierre Bourdieu, the French theorist, profoundly influenced by Panofsky’s idea of symbolic form, wrote in 1967 “Postface to Erwin Panofsky Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, of the Gothic imagination as a specific form of thought that produced buildings whose designs concretized and expressed the form of thought symbolically. Bourdieu used his own term, “habitus,” or an affinity among supposed different objects, to explain the existence of a mindset “..though which the creator partakes of his community and time, and that guides and directs, unbeknownst to him, his apparently most creative acts.”

As a form that symbolized a society’s desire to master territory and to understand space, perspective is a formal system that exhibits a system of relationships or formal principles that underlie the mental structures of the Renaissance. A Marxist, therefore, would have insisted that perspective reflected the new world of commerce that required mathematical measurement of all things. But there is another way of interpreting perspective as a symbolic manifestation of cultural cognitive structures. These structures produce a certain way of seeing the world that depends upon deeper formal codes of knowledge. Perspective painting originates in the human intellect as an artificial convention of seeing. This Renaissance way of seeing is a canon of representation that is also the history of how a culture thinks and sees. Panofsky takes up a task elided by Saussure, the problem of the diachronic aspect of language as a particular culture that expressed itself in a certain fashion through art forms at particular times.

Although perspective was uniquely a Renaissance invention of necessity, five hundred years later, we are still convinced that we “see” in perspective and we still draw “realistically” in perspective, still using the devices invented by Brunelleschi and Alberti. But Panofsky undermines the apparent “naturalness” of perspective. The Renaissance invented an equilibrium between the subject and the object and linear perspective is simply a necessary abstraction for practical empiricism and solves the problem of how to reproduce three dimensions on a two dimensional plane. The abstraction of the system is manifested through the artificial construction that keeps the object within certain spatial limits. The system depends upon a single, stable, and immobilized eye and does not recognize infinity. The space is mathematical and produces an adequate reproduction of an optical image. Representation takes place within a closed interior space or a hollow body or box that increased in its scope with the invention of the vanishing point that expresses infinite space (without depicting infinity). Perspective is the mathematical realization of an image of space.

Symbolic forms may manifest themselves as the deep structure of works of art, as habits of cognition. Panofsky discussed perspective as “symbolic form” in that perspective is not natural but artificial and needs to be understood within a cultural system that is an expression of an era.The new symbolic form comes about as the result of a Hegelian agonistic resolution of conflicts. Historical change is a series of syntheses, but for Panofsky, art will move in a schema of advances and reversals, rather than thesis and antithesis. In other words, art will recoil and reverse direction and abandon previous achievements. Today, the work of Panofsky is still prevalent in art history but is usually employed clumsily and superficially, with most adherents to his methods limiting themselves to a simplistic reading of symbols without understanding the complex network of relations that allow the symbols to function and ignoring the cultural context that engendered these symbols. Nevertheless, art history can claim the distinction of being the first humanistic discipline that responded to the linguistic claims of structuralism.

Symbolic forms are the deep structures of thought, functioning as an épistémè. But works of art manifest aspects of for example how people in Medieval times, such as Panofsky’s 1934 essay on the Arnolofini Wedding as an example of “disguised symbolism,” and the art historian needed a method to interpret the (superficial) visual codes. Panofsky, impacted by the semiotic work of Charles Sanders Peirce, organized visual language into 1. The pre-iconographical analysis, or what he terms “practical experience,” which is the primary, natural or factual expression which, when seen, must be subjected to 2. An iconographical analysis, or “knowledge of literary sources,” which decodes the image into conventional meaning. But this conventional meaning is part of a vaster system, a world of symbolic values that must be investigated through 3. an iconological analysis, a “synthetic intuition,” which is a study of the culture that produced the initial sign. Unlike iconography, which requires the viewer to know literary sources, themes and concepts and the history of visual types, iconology requires to the spectator to be conversant with the history of cultural symptoms that are essential tendencies of the human mind–the prevailing Weltanschauung. As Panofsky stated,

…as our practical experience had to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, objects and events were expressed by forms (history of style); and as our knowledge of literary sources had to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, specific themes and concepts were expressed by objects and events (history of types); just so, or even more so, has our synthetic intuition to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, the general and essential tendencies of the human mind were expressed by specific themes and concepts. This means what may be called a history of cultural symptoms–or symbols in Ernst Cassirer’s sense…

Iconography is not merely a decoding of symbols, not only an identification of icons; iconography reveals the basic attitudes of a nation, of a period, of a class or of a religion. The icon developed by the society is qualified by the artist’s personality but the symbolic values expressed must ultimately be manifestations of an underlying principle or structure. Iconography as a method of interpretation is an act of synthesis, in the Kantian sense, a putting together of identification or analysis that leads to interpretation. The recognition of the icon presupposes familiarity with the themes and concepts of the culture and its historical conditions. This synthesis takes place at the iconological level or third level where the cultural symbols are also the intuitions of the human mind.

To state Panofsky’s approach to art in Kantian terms, he has put forward a new theoretical manifesto. There are a priori categories that are independent of experience and are purely intellectual and are transcendental. Time and Space are antithetical and must be balanced into a unity that is art. This unity (symbolic form) or sinn is the intrinsic meaning of the art of a period and this unity spans the usual distinction between form and content. Painting in perspective, in other words, is a desire to order the world in a certain way. Between form and content is a middle ground: symbolic form, a concept derived from Ernst Cassirer, which is the sole object of Panofsky’s study.

The first part of the series discusses European philosophical ideas while third and final post on Erwin Panofsky will describe his system of iconography.

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

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

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Podcast 69: Georgia O’Keeffe and The Bomb

Georgia O’Keeffe, Part Four

During the 1940s, Georgia O’Keeffe split her time between Taos and New York and while in the Southwest she was present at some remarkable little discussed events. Her home away from home, Ghost Ranch was the site where dinosaurs have been unearthed for over a century. The Ghost Ranch was a vacation refuge for the atomic scientists from nearby Los Alamos. Although it is rarely mentioned in texts on O’Keeffe, she was present at the dawn of the atomic age—the explosion of the first bomb called “Trinity.”

 

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

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

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Podcast 68: Georgia O’Keeffe—The Context of Bones

Georgia O’Keeffe, Part Three

Liberated from the steel canyons of the skyscraper-lined avenues of New York City, Georgia O’Keeffe found “her country” in New Mexico. Here the painter found new vistas—the extraordinary landscapes of the Southwest—and unique motifs—the bleached bones of cattle and sheep. This podcast discusses the unexpected link between O’Keeffe and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, as evidenced by her iconic paintings of the American West.

 

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

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

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Photographing the Eighties

GERMAN PHOTOGRAPHERS AND THE GERMANS

New Topographics refers to more than a visual tradition in photography. New Topographics examines a mindset that is distinctly Western: marking, mapping, conquest, enclosure, and control. Land and territory has always been surveyed and catalogued in order to own and possess it. From the eighteenth century, people have been categorized and later photographed for the same purposes: put under surveillance, framed by the camera and captured for the purposes of classification. The first victims of this clinical gaze, as Michel Foucault expressed it, were the insane and those who had no power in the society. The first use of the “mug shot” took place after the uprising of the Commune in Paris in 1871, when the Communards were identified from the group photographs taken during their brief moment of glory. They were rounded up and executed.

The use of photography as a tool of surveillance had different implications and consequences,depending upon the time and place. In the early twentieth century, the obsessive interest in photographing people was driven by the desire to sort out and understand the teeming masses in urban settings and to catalogue the rural populations before they disappeared into modernization. Photography became a tool of industrial classification and identification that in Germany recorded the abrupt shift to a mechanized society. Photographers such as Albert Renger-Patsch carefully documented the new machine age and August Sander began an encyclopedic enterprise, a monumental project of photographing all the types of Germans in the 1920s.

The documentary projects of these photographers was interrupted by the Nazis and by the Second World War and it was to this “objectivity” of the past that post-war photographers in Germany returned. New Topographics photographers, Bernd and Hilla Becher, teachers at the Dusseldorf Academy, took up the task of their German predecessor, August Sander, who was still working on his project of depicting Germans when Hitler was elected to office. Once Hitler failed to find the blue-eyed, blond-haired “Aryans” in Sander’s vast catalogue, the dictator put an end to the artist’s project. In their “Topologies” projects, the Bechers took up the idea of documenting “types” but looked for types of industrial enterprises and their buildings: water towers, blast furnaces, storage silos, cooling towers and so on.

These old structures have an aging sculptural beauty, a rectilinear geometry characteristic of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The environmental contexts are often bleached out and the buildings stand alone, usually photographed from the same point of view and from the same distance. The simple and elegant black and white prints are displayed in grids which create a visual rhythm and an instant repetition which makes the viewer reconsider these old structures which are suddenly beautiful. Indeed the bare beauty of these structures, so similar and so different, is an ethical one and the “precision”of the Bechers’ dedication to finding and photographing these (somewhat nostalgic) buildings is considered by some to be a moral act of truth to counter the poison of the Nazi past.

These teachers in Dusseldorf and inspired many of their students to follow in their footsteps, including Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth, and later Andreas Gursky (called collectively “Sruthsky”) photographed places and people (usually) in color. For Thomas Ruff, born post-war, the photographing of people did not have the political charge it did for his parents’ generation and he began to shoot his friends in the traditional “mug shot” style. Wearing ordinary everyday clothing, the subjects gazed impassively into the lens of Ruff’s camera. These full frontal faces are in strong colors, color that becomes more impactful when the photographs are greatly enlarged and dominate the viewer.

However, it must be pointed out that photographing people in Germany cannot avoid being an act in the shadow of the Nazi past. In a 2011 interview with Janet Malcolm in The New Yorker, Struth revealed that the Holocaust had a major impact on his work. His mother was with the Hitler Youth and his father fought with the Wehrmacht but they seemed reluctant to come to terms with the cause they had served. “If you want to know what formed me, this is the big thing: the culture of guilt that I was born into and that surrounded me in my childhood.” According the Malcolm, Sturth understand his work to be a kind of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“coming to terms with the past”).

Like Ruff, Struth photographed people, but he did so in two ways. First, he photographed families with the same impassivity employed by Ruff. The family, (mostly heterosexual) is photographed in its natural habitat, a living room or a kitchen or a back yard, and the husband, wife, children, sometimes grandparents, stare intently into the camera. For the most part, like the friends and associates of Ruff, these are middle class families, casually displaying a fair degree of affluence. That said, Struth does not repeat the typologies of his artistic mentors, nor does he attempt to classify or document. Like Ruff, Struth redefined photographic portraiture, removing it from the traditional realm of self-fashioning and situating it in the category of documentation.

However, Struth became famous and immediately accepted, not because of his cityscapes or his family portraits but because of his enormously popular photographs of people in museums. Struth traveled to the major museums, most of them in Europe, and watched the pilgrims pausing reverently before the major works of art, usually paintings. He managed to capture the interactions between the people in the museum and the people in the paintings, often finding astonishing parallels between poses and postures and even clothing of the tourists and the painted characters.

In contrast, Gursky and Höfer are not interested in people. Andreas Gursky, like Candida Höfer, photographs places and structures and like Höfer, if people are involved, they are subsumed into the formal digital manipulations of the photographer. It is typical of these German photographers that their work is frontal, the people stare at the viewer, the buildings confront the spectators. There is a coolness and detachment in these works; photography without the heat and commentary of many of the American photographers. According to Höfer, who moves back and forth between digital and analog photography,

I photograph in public and semi-public spaces that date from various epochs. These are spaces available to everyone. They are places where you can meet and communicate, where you can share or receive knowledge, where you can relax and recover.

Both Gursky and Höfer photograph in brilliant color and the influence of the Bechers can be seen in the underlying grid structure seen in their large prints. Neither Gursky nor Höfer deal with people. Höfer photographs things or to be more precise, the interiors of buildings and their collections of objects, bereft of people. Gursky photographs places, from a silvery stretch of the Rhine River banded in pristine green strips to a panoramic view of Giza to the Tokyo stock exchange. Gursky’s photograph, Rhein II, of the River sold in 2011 for $4.3 million, one of the highest prices for a photograph ever recorded.

For these post-war German photographers, a place or a person is a collection of conceptual squares that severely and strictly organize their images with have a heightened formality, perfect shapes, unreal colors, pristine lighting. The use of digital manipulation is particularly noteworthy in the work of Gursky who has taken photography into another realm of creativity. The use of the photographic unit as the basis for painterly intensification allows Gursky to place his huge prints in between billboards and landscape paintings, begging the question: what is a photographer in the twenty-first century—an artist who appropriates photographic means to create something else or a photographer who turns a photograph into a concept or a meditation upon the meaning of photography? The question is an open one.

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

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

[email protected]

Photographing the Seventies: Rephotographing

PHOTOGRAPHY AS CONCEPT

The leading edges of Postmodernism were architecture and photography and film, all of which moved away from Modernism in the sixties. By the eighties, the shifts seen in these mediums would be characterized as “Postmodernism.” For a variety of complex reasons, the arts in general agreed that one era had ended and that the direction into the future was unclear. Postmodernism can be thought of as a pause to reflect upon the roots of Modernism. Therefore, the decades of the seventies and eighties were decades of art about art. These photographs required a new mode of viewing, not of appreciation for beauty or even of interest, but a way of seeing from the past as commentary.

Photography in the seventies was about photography, or to be more precise about mass media and the “image world.” Because photography was less tied to the art markets and were thrust more into the reality of the everyday, the photographers were more nimble and could move more quickly with the times. Clearly photography was impacted not only by political movements and the movies but also by Conceptual Art in fine arts. By conceptual photography, one means, to put it simply, photography about photography. Conceptual photography cannot be understood unless the viewer knows the point of reference.

By the seventies, the fact that photography became conceptual as is evidenced by the return to the original grounds of American landscape photography: nineteenth century America before it was modernized. These photographers focused, for the most part, on the West, the trope for “America” and the exploration and conquest of the “wilderness” that had to be “tamed” and “won.” It is important to place these photographic projects in a larger intellectual context of cultural critique. During the seventies and eighties the received narratives were being interrogated and American “history” was in the process of being rewritten.

For American photographers the reference point for a re-examination of the making of America would be the supposedly “innocent” survey projects that resulted in the landscape paintings and photographs of the vast vistas of the Land of the Free. The question is—what has happened to the wilderness, to the scenery, to the open spaces? The questions were what is landscape in a post-industrial society? what is landscape in a post-atomic society? With a spirit of detachment and investigation, photographers set out on new surveys, tracing the footsteps of famous photographers into the New West, or sometimes going into dangerous territories that had been “sacrificed” to the Cold War.

By the mid-seventies, these photographic explorations were well underway. In front of the cameras was an altered landscape and behind the camera was a long history of using landscape to craft an identity for the new nation. The photographers referenced their precursors, Thomas Cole, George Innes, Timothy O’Sullivan, Thomas Moran. These artists were also relying on the viewer’s knowledge of the famous photographs of earlier photographers who photographed beautiful scenery beautifully: Ansel Adams and Edmund Weston. The New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape exhibition of 1975 at the George Eastman House showed the new photographers of the new “man-altered landscape,” such as Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz. This show officially launched the new and critical reinvestigation of an old tradition.

Adams and Baltz presented small black and white images that were as beautiful and as crisp as those of Ansel Adams. However, these images completely lack the rhetoric and the idealism of Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico (1941). Adams showed, not the purple mountains majesty, but the mundane barren suburbs of Denver. Baltz showed, not the pristine wilderness of Utah but the destructive building of Park City for a ski resort. Without rhetoric these photographs can be seen as protests against the mass media production of anachronistic images of sublime landscapes of places that no longer exist. Although these images of the sublime can be found in advertising and films, the reality is quite different.

The small black and white photographs of Blatz and Adams chart the growth of suburban tracts in the once pristine West. “I hope that these photographs are sterile, that there’s no emotional content,” Lewis Baltz said. But it is hard to look at his row of pictures of Park City, Utah where the land is abused and raped, its resources exploited in the service of a ski resort for the very rich. This disconcerting lack of center of interest is echoed in the work of Robert Adams, which is also a non-“landscape” landscape, that is, un/pictures/que, raising the question of why was this ordinary place photographed at all? As John Szarkowski, stated, “Adam’s pictures are so civilized, temperate, and exact, eschewing hyperbole, theatrical gestures, moral postures, andespressivo effects generally, that some viewers might find them dull.”

Impacted by the new environmental movement, American Topographics was one of the major photographic attitudes of 1970s, concentrating on measurement of change with an eye to conservation and ecology. Turning away from “America the Beautiful” and reviewing the altered environment with a self-conscious and sophisticated point of view, “Topographics” also implies a newly dead and deadpan look at the world. This new survey is one of the destruction brought about by the arrogance of the Enlightenment and science–a Postmodern “Course of the Empire,” a re-visioning of Thomas Cole two centuries later.

In America, photographers also looked at the impact of the Industrial Revolution upon the environment. the rethinking and re-en-visioning of the land continued with the work of the “Rephotographic Survey Project,” initiated by Ellen Manchester, Mark Klett, and Jo Anne Verberg in the summer of 1977. This fascinating project was one of several re-photographic projects, which produced new photographs of old scenes made famous by nineteenth century photographers, such as Timothy O’Sullivan. Each photograph by a Re-Photographer was made from the exact camera and lens positions, replicating time of day and point of view of, for example, William Henry Jackson. The Re-Photographs show the impact of time and civilization upon what was once untouched wilderness.

Like the New Topographics approach, the RPS was an attempt to both mark the passage of time and to measure and record the effects of the human being upon the landscape. But beyond the obvious changes, such as telephone lines or new trees, for these photographs of the 1970s echo the grim disillusionment of the period, following the assassinations of the Kennedys and King and the disruptions of the Viet Nam war. The 1970s is a period of withdrawal and disbelief, partly due to the cultural realization that “reality” lies and that photographic media is a propaganda medium. Photography begins to employ the “photograph” ironically and painfully, dismantling its links to fine art and beauty and to idealism and hope. To follow in the footsteps of the early landscape photographers is to follow in the footsteps of American cultural imperialism, to no longer be innocent.

The “landscape” is now suburbia, photographed laconically, in color, by William Eggelston or with an etched acidity in black and white by Lewis Baltz. They follow in the footsteps of Arbus, as well, taking up her quest for the odd and the strange in the midst the normal and everyday, simply by framing and photographing this newly-made world of prefabricated landscape. Adams and Baltz focused on suburban settlements isolated in wide territories and Peter Goin, Richard Misrach and John Pfahl photographed nuclear test sites in the West, still radioactive. These are the Sacrifice Zones.

It is amazing but true, more atomic and hydrogen bombs have been dropped on American and territories than anywhere else. Perhaps because politicians on the east coast did not understand the scenery of the west, these territories were thought to be wastelands of little use. For decades, Nevada was bombed constantly and there are vast stretches in the west that are uninhabitable and will be dangerous for hundreds of years to come. The images of these blasted lands, scored and scarred by weapons, are a shocking counterpart to the west found by Andrew Russell. Here is a strange and almost unreal beauty and teach the viewer to look again and to see this blasted landscape as having its own unexpected sublimity–the terror of John Pfahl’s nuclear plants shining in the rising sun, pumping out suspicious steam, the horror of Peter Goin’s nuclear testing grounds of polluted soil, the shame of Richard Misrach’s killing fields of dead livestock, put to death by nuclear poisons.

Once we raise the issue of what is considered worthy of being photographed and why, the viewer then realizes to what extent the photographers of the New Topographics Movement challenged assumptions about “landscape” and “scenery.” The young photographers looked backward and examined the results of “progress” without the idealism and myth making of their predecessors. They were analytic and critical, re-seeing and re-looking at the American landscape of their own time.

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

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

[email protected]