Frederic Jameson and Postmodernity, Part Three


Postmodernism and Consumer Society (1983)

Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Westin Bonaventure, Los Angeles

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

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

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


The Bonaventure Interior

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

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

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


The Bonaventure Exterior

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Modernism and Postmodernism: Allegory as Theory


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


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


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

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


The Demolition of the Pruitt Igoe Complex 1972

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

Las Vegas as a Sign System

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

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

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

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

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


Allegory as Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Postmodernism and the Past


Nostalgia and Retro Art

Postmodernism is a time period, beginning at a number of points, depending upon which criteria one is using. Noting the post-Duchampian works of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, one could select 1955 as a starting point or at least a gateway year. This date would suit if one were arguing that Postmodernism is a reaction against Modernism for that is the year that the traditional concept of the avant-garde began to wane. The new artists rejected the “purity” of abstraction and the assumption of “originality” for a re-presentation of that which was already said, already available in society. One could also argue that the Neo-Dada artists’ use of popular culture was also anti-Modernist. “Postmodernity” referred to a cultural mindset that indicated a global society, the “flat earth” where all things are both equal and possible. Postmodernity is a culture of despair and cynicism where political movements are used to maintain power and social activism is a mere recreational activity.

From a historical, rather than an art world, point of view, Modernism came to an end with the post-war disillusionment at the spectacle of the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the demonstration of inhumanity that defined the idealistic notion of “progress.” All hope of social reform was doomed with the world wide demonstrations of 1968: students in Paris and Mexico City and Chicago—all put down with police brutality sanctioned by a state determined to maintain the status quo. The Enlightenment was over. The result of this cultural disillusionment was decades of political unrest and uncertainty, expressed through a return to the past.

For many conservatives and traditionalists in the west, “the past” is a mythic country where rules were rules and boundaries were sacrosanct. The fact that this imagined history never existed does nothing to disturb its allure. Political and social conservatism emerged in Europe and America at precisely the same time as Postmodernism became the new trend in the art world—the 1980s. Postmodernism may have looked new because it was different, but it was an essentially conservative (non)movement in that it rejected “progress” as impossible. Postmodernism looked to an equally mythic past in art, a past composed of Old Masters, from Marcel Duchamp to Norman Rockwell, to whom the artists genuflected.

Compared to Modernism which always looked forward to the future while stubbornly clinging to the status quo, Postmodernism resisted the revolutions of the sixties through nostalgically revisiting the past. One of the more interesting studies of Postmodernism and the past was written in 1984 by Frederic Jameson. “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” is a summary of ideas about the Postmodern period that had been floating around for years, put forward succiently by Jameson. He noted the “waning” of Modernism and the avant-garde master works that were the result of a certain kind of ego: “the so-called centered subject.” Jameson explained, “The end of the bourgeois ego, or monad, no doubt brings with it the end of the psychopathologies of that ego — what I have been calling the waning of affect.”

With the order of the canon repudiated, the chaos of what Jameson called the “empirical, chaotic, and heterogeneous”—art forms, high and low, popular and commercial—without hierarchy. As Jameson wrote, “…aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally…” The lack of order and hierarchy during “Late Capitalism” extended to a “flattening” effect in which the border between the real and the simulacra was erased because once capitalism turns everything into a commodity, everything is equalized. The “flattening effect” is extended to emotions which can no longer be real and can only be simulated. Within the realm of capitalism, images make money or not and it makes no difference to the system whether the “art” commodity comes from Rachmoninoff or the Rolling Stones. The sub-text of Jameson’s work is one of regret at the passing of Modernism and a veiled condemnation of the Postmodern. The essay is elegiac, shot through with a sense of loss and longing for a legendary past.

Beyond the “waning” of the Modern and the “flattening” effect” of Postmodernism, Jameson used the concept of schizophrenia, borrowed from Jacques Lacan to explain the loss of meaning or “a breakdown in the signifying chain.” “Meaning effect,” as Jameson put it occurred with the movement from signifiers to the signified but once the connection between these links is broken, the signifiers begin, as Lacan put it, to “float,” a condition called schizophrenia. Without the anchoring of the chain of meaning, the ego cannot form and Jameson asserts that the Postmodern ego is ego-less or unformed and rootless in the face of a barrage of commercial and commodified images. As Jameson said, “…the cultural products of the postmodern era are utterly devoid of feeling, but rather that such feelings — which it may be better and more accurate, following J.-F. Lyotard, to call “intensities” — are now free-floating and impersonal.”

Left without a distinct or unifying “movement,” either in music or literature or the visual arts, Postmodernism was a non-style that occupied a period of about twenty years until 2001. Postmodernism had a number of identifiable characteristics, some of which were noted by Jameson: pastiche and parody. Postmodern art appropriated plurality through the realm of quotation in the new situation of historicism which gives access to all styles, all of which are of equal validity. The Postmodern situation is one of belatedness, similar to the condition of Mannerism coming after the High Renaissance. The Mannerist artists and architects pillaged the vocabulary of their predecessors, often employing elements out of context or exaggerating classicism to the point of parody or mockery.

Jameson explained the condition of the Postmodern as “Modernist styles thereby become postmodernist codes.” Jameson insisted that the “great collective project” (of Modernism) was over and that the language of Modernism was no longer “available.” Without a direct referent, parody is impossible and a “strange new thing pastiche slowly comes to take its place. Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language.” To put it another way, styles became commodified and lost their place in history and therefore their grip on reality. Jameson borrowed “…Plato’s conception of the “simulacrum,” the identical copy for which no original has ever existed. Appropriately enough, the culture of the simulacrum comes to life in a society where exchange value has been Generalized to the point at which the very memory of use value is effaced, a society of which Guy Debord has observed, in an extraordinary phrase, that in it “the image has become the final form of commodity reification.'”

As profound social and political changes disrupted Europe and America, the Postmodern decades were cut loose from history. A new generation of revolutionaries rejected the world of their parents and demanded a new order. The social movements of the sixties were in many ways classic revolutionary maneuvers which demand the older generation fulfill their promises: liberty and equality for all. Both generations felt betrayed and the result was what Margaret Mead called “the generation gap.” Faced with this frightening chasm, the reflexive position was that of nostalgia. As Jameson said, “Nostalgia films restructure the whole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past…the nostalgia film was never a matter of some old-fashioned “representation” of historical content, but instead approached the “past” through stylistic connotation, conveying “pastness” by the glossy qualities of the image, and “1930s-ness” or “1950s-ness” by the attributes of fashion…”

Frederic Jameson, termed these films “nostalgia films” created out of collages of drifting memories of past times and of past films pasted together into a pastiche. Depending heavily upon the adult audience’s cultural memory of Hollywood, movies such as Star Wars, Grease, Chinatown, and Body Heat became the leading examples of a trend of cinematic intertexuality that would become the foundation of later works, such as L. A. Confidential. These films of the seventies did not recreate the past, nor do they recreate the “look” of the films of the forties or fifties. They are not “historical” films. Chinatown and Body Heat were mash-ups of actual history and fragments of earlier films that the audience could recognize.

It is this ability to identity through a cultural memory that made those “nostalgia” film work for the audience. American Graffiti and Star Wars were pastiches in that the films bundled together shared collective memories of teen films of the fifties and American Bandstand and Saturday afternoon matinees of science fiction serials and Cold War paranoia movies. Found styles are left intact enough so as to be recognizable but are sufficiently manipulated to suggest a pseudo new aesthetic. There is no effort to assimilate the parts into a formal unity. Star Wars combined fairy tales, myths, cowboy movies, actual footage from the Second World War in a cacophony of references strung along the trail of what is a hero’s journey retold as a road story.

The late Craig Owens appropriated Walter Benjamin’s discussion of allegory from his The Orign of German Tragic Drama, relegating Benjamin to a footnote. “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism” was written in two parts and published in October. Owens understood allegory as a sort of reference to the past or a direct quotation from history and he suggested that the so-called “museum paintings” of Édouard Manet were examples of allegory. But bringing forward Manet, a prophet of Modernism, tended to confuse the issue and thirty years it is clear that Postmodernism in the art world was poorly understood in 1980. The concept of allegory—an impure excessive symbol—is better suited to Postmodern architecture, photography and film than to Realist art in the nineteenth century.

Walter Benjamin wrote of an obscure art form: the German tragic drama, a Baroque intervention into the Classical. The Baroque had long been explained as a falling off of the Classical or as a fall from grace, and Benjamin wrote powerfully of the building of the Baroque allegory out of the ruins of the classical. “That which lies here in ruins, the highly significant fragment, the remnant, is, in fact, the fines material in baroque creation. For it is common practice in the literature of the baroque to pile upo fragments ceaselessly without any strict idea of a goal…The legacy of antiquity constitutes, item of item, the elements from which the new whole is mixed. Or rather: is constructed. For the perfect vision of this new phenomenon was the ruin.”

Postmodern art speaks in dead languages found in the ruins of Modernism. These “dead” languages still exist but are no longer in active use and yet these codes can still be disinterred and activated by the artist. Well into the twenty first century, we can now see clearly that the public is completely comfortable with the allegorical fusion of past and present and the dystopic future that is the anticipated apocalypse. The “new” ways of making art are sampling and mashups and outright stealing, because, if all things are equal than nothing has any monetary value. What Frederic Jameson could not have predicted in 1984 is the appearance of commodities, such as Facebook, that defy monetization, and the simulacra of money, such as derivatives, that can be gambled and real money is actually lost. The current condition demonstrates the prime characteristic of the Postmodern: irony.

Reprinted by Heathwood Press

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Comparing Modernism and Postmodernism


From “Either/Or” to “Both/And”

In Europe Postmodernism was a serious expression of the agony that follows the loss of hope, but in America, Postmodernism was understood in a far more shallow fashion, as a rejection of the Modernist avant-garde art. The Modernist artist had been experimental, on the cutting edge, forward, even future oriented. Always a step ahead of the art audience, the avant-garde artist was part of an elite group which had a vision of new art. In order to go forward, the artist had to reject the past; in order to be new, the old had to be banished. The rather dogmatic and uncompromising stance was fueled by the belief that the artist was a god-like creator of new forms. This genius made art out of self-referentiality, out of his/her own subjective personality. Despised by the uncomprehending public, the heroic artist stood alone, morally pure in the assertion of absolute originality.

The Postmodern artist rejected the notion of the eternal “new,” called “the tradition of the new” by Harold Rosenberg. Living in an image world which flattened out all art forms into a non-hierarchical equality, the Postmodern artist did not bother to create new art. Indeed, the Postmodern artist knew too much; creativity was impossible. This new artist borrowed, quoted, playing the role of bricouleur or scavenger, rejecting wholeness and order for hybridity and chaos. Postmodern play overtook Modernist order, and perfection, purity, and clarity became pluralism.

If Modernism is reductive, striving towards abstraction and purity, then Postmodernism is complex, composed of multiple elements, none of which is new or unique. Therefore the analytic mood of Modernism which is disposed to critique gives way to a synthetic approach with is non-hierarchical and accepting of all aspects of art, from high to low. The modernist work of art is a “work,” bounded and centered, unified by a singular meaning—an art meaning. The Postmodern work is not a “work” but a “text,” a product of intertextuality, the promiscuous and excessive references to something surplus, gesturing beyond a text that depends upon a network of relationships. With Postmodernism, art becomes bricolage.

The result of hybridity and intertextuality is that the Postmodern text is never and cannot be independent or autonomous. While the Modern work of art is a universe, complete unto itself, the Postmodern object is always relative and contingent, where the artist is never the subject, only the agent pursuing an activity. Thus there is always an implied narrative to Postmodernism, which is historicist, referring to and borrowing from the past, piling on elements to create a allegory. Because it is an already-written pastiche, allegory is the Postmodern art form par excellence.

Postmodern art is an art of content. While Modernist art stressed form and the formal elements on the surface, Postmodernism inverts the role of “surface.” “Surface” for Modernist art is of supreme importance, it is the site where the battle for artistic autonomy and freedom was played out in the name of the right to paint in a personal and individual fashion. For Modernist philosophy, however, surface is the mere beginning and it was assumed that a Modernist work of art concealed a deep and hidden meaning, discernible and discoverable by “close reading.” For Postmodernism, the surface is all there is. Once Postmodernism refused the myth of origin, then there is no depth. If there is no origin, there is only surface, an endless plain of texts, all available for use by the Postmodern bricoleur.

Modernism assumed a kind of ultimately knowable totality of knowledge and truth. Any contradictions would eventually be resolved by more knowledge, because the intellectual’s position was outside the discourse. If one could get outside the discursive formation, then one could judge and critique its content. But for Postmodernism, there is no transcendent position “outside the text.” Far from being omnipotent, the Postmodern thinker is enmeshed in a tangle of texts from which there is no escape. Self-knowledge or self-critique is impossible for there is no getting beyond the confines of language.

For Postmodernism, everything is already written and art is seen as language or information. Without a unified meaning confined within the work itself, incredulity reigns because all signs are double coded. Signifiers are gathered, not for the sake of affinity, but to stress difference. These signifiers are free-floating and attach themselves to any object arbitrarily. Despite the surplus of unmoored meaning, ironically, what is left of the ruins of Modernism is a strange kind of “wordlessness,” or the inability to say anything more or new or meaningful. Inner necessity is replaced with cynicism and pragmatism. Then end result is a loss of the sacred and an all-prevailing nihilism.

In the end, if Postmodernism is boundless and without depth, composed of nothing more than an endless supply of intertexual references, then Postmodernism is completely de-centered. The result is that the reader/viewer cannot locate him/herself: where are we? when are we? Past and present collide, resulting in a cultural schizophrenia. Technological advances co-exist with outmoded traditions and conservative attitudes. Rather than being absorbed in its own self-sufficiency, art theatrically performs the dramas of other ages, evoking art forms of times past. For the art world, there is a kind of slippage where attitude and art collide and create a formlessness from which on coherence can emerge. But incoherence was the logical/illogical fate of the Postmodern.

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Robert Rauschenberg and “The Flatbed Picture Plane”


Robert Rauschenberg had served in the Navy, as a nurse, during the Second World War, and, like many men of his generation, went to college on the G.I Bill. After studying in Paris and New York, he found himself at the famous Black Mountain College (1933-1957) in Asheville, North Carolina. The small secluded College boasted of an extraordinary faculty of famous artists, such as Jacob Lawrence, Elaine and Willelm deKooning, John Cage, and the refugee artists, Annieand Josef Albers from the Bauhaus. Albers despised Rauschenberg and would never talk about him in later years, but he taught the artist about the importance of materials. When he was a teacher in the Foundation year at the Bauhaus, Albers trained his students to create “combinations,” that is, works of art that were collages and assemblages, made of anything or combined from everything. Any kind of material could be used. Rauschenberg would later call his hybrid works “combines” in homage to his bad tempered teacher.

In 1951 Rauschenberg had gained enough self confidence to write excitedly to the New York art dealer, Betty Parsons, of a new body of work, the White Paintings. As Brandon Wayne Joseph recounted in Random Order, the young artist insisted that the paintings were so “exceptional” that they constituted “a state of emergency.” The artist also began to participate in performance art, working with John Cage, who, in turn, was inspired by one of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. The way the shadows played on and changed the white surface reminded Cage of his interest in silence, a fascination that had been growing since the late 1940s. According to Cage, “The white paintings were airports for lights, shadows and particles.” Thus the white paintings are “performed” by the ambient environment and the presence of the viewer. Having explored the ideas of Zen, the concept of chance as acted out in the recently published English version of I Ching, a valuable association with Marcel Duchamp, Cage was prepared to understand the spiritual implications of the “silence” of Rauchenberg’s work. In the essay “Purposeful Purposelessness Meets Found Order,” the confrontation resulted in what Art Institute of Chicago’s music scholar, Peter Gena, described as

..the most famous event in the history of Black Mountain College. In 1952, John Cage organized what was later acknowledged as the first “happening.” Titled Theater Piece No 1, the mixed-media event was conceived one day after lunch and was presented, without rehearsals, scripts, or costumes, on the same evening in the dining hall. Cage constructed the 45-minute spectacle for selected colleagues who were each assigned two random segments of time in which to perform activities of their choice. Simultaneously, Charles Olsen and M. C. Richards read their poetry, Cunningham danced (followed around by a dog), David Tudor played Cage’s music on the piano, Rauschenberg hung some of his white paintings from the rafters and played wax cylinders on an old Edison horn recorder, and Cage lectured on Meister Eckhart and Zen.

Cage and Rauschenberg continued their collaborations in New York. Like their associate and Cage’s partner, Merce Cunningham, these Neo-Dada artists re-defined traditional art forms. Rauschenberg redefined “print” when he glued pieces of typewriter paper into a twenty foot long scroll and guided Cage when he drove his Model A Ford over the line of pages. The front tire was “inked” with black house paint poured in front of the tire and thus, when Cage, now the “printer” and the “press,” drove in a straight line, the tire left a “print” of the car’s “journey” along the scroll. Automobile Tire Print (1953) was made on a weekend on Fulton Street, which was deserted on those days. According to Rauschenberg, “it rained” and the glue did not hold, so he had to “salvage” the pages and piece them back together into what he thinks of as a Tibetan “prayer flag.”

By the time he had returned to New York City, Rauschenberg was forced to face the failure of his marriage and divorced his wife. His next partner was an artist he met at Black Mountain, Cy Twombly. Although Twombly later married an heiress to an Italian fortune, his heart was broken when Rauschenberg met a newcomer to New York, Jasper Johns. Johns and Rauschenberg quickly became a couple, impacting each other’s art. Both artists began to make works that were hybrid in quality—neither paintings nor sculptures but both. While at Black Mountain, Rauschenberg made several series of White, Black, and Red paintings. Charlene (1954), a huge collaged painting, is one of the last red paintings, combining an umbrella, found prints of famous works of art, comic strips, and other collaged objects. Charlene was poised between painting, collage and an Albers “combination.” Another object that dated back to Black Mountain was Bed (1955) made when Rauschenberg was so broke he could not afford canvas. Looking like a murder scene, Bed was literally a sheet, covered with a quilt, with a pillow at the top. The artist then splattered paint, like Jackson Pollock, on the bed and hung the “painting” on the wall, making it into a work of art.

The sardonic slap at Abstract Expressionism was a “gesture” on the part of a brash artist who was clearly challenging his elders. Although Rauschenberg claimed to mean no disrespect, his Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) was but one of a line of provocative works which made fun of the Modernist claim of authenticity and originality. Rauschenberg “erased” the cult of the artist in his months long erasure project and demonstrated that any gesture could be copied in Factum I and Factum II (1957). As a further refusal of originality and inner experiences, Rauschenberg, possibly under the influence of Marcel Duchamp, picked up an important but neglected tradition, Dada. The Modernist tradition of painting could not fruitfully incorporate Dada into its meta-narrative of evolution, and Rauschenberg, as a member of the Neo-Dada underground, began living off the land of discards.

As a resident of the Lower East Side, Rauschenberg collected the city’s detritus and used it to create large combines, some of which could hang on the wall, some of which were intended as floor pieces, while others were confined in boxes. As the artist reported later, “I actually had a kind of house rule. If I walked completely around the block and didn’t find enough to work with, I could take one other block and walk around it in any direction–but that was it.” Probably due to his upbringing on a farm in Port Arthur, Texas, the artist was particularly fond of animals stuffed by a taxidermist. As a high school student, he was so sensitive to the fate of animals, he refused to dissect a frog in biology class. Indeed, Rauschenberg’s combines often incorporated animals, and the most famous being Monogram, a large floor combine, featuring an Afghan goat, far from home, perched on a failed canvas. The goat has a car tire around his middle, and, like many of Rauschenberg’s works of the Fifties, is painted (on its broken nose) in a mock Abstract Expressionist style of drip painting. The goat stands on a large collaged painting, which, recycled by the artist, now became a mocking “field,” complete with a tennis ball.

Man with White Shoes, Odalisk, and Interview, all of the early fifties, were assemblages that were free-standing and were based on Cornell-like tall boxes, acting as containers of random objects and as carriers of found images. In one of the finest essays on Rauschenberg’s art, in Other Criteria, art historian Leo Steinberg referred to the artist’s “flatbed picture plane,” meaning that he simply placed images on a flat surface as one would tack notices on a bulletin board. However gritty and random these images appeared, Rauschenberg’s combines could be “read” by the attentive viewer. Many of his appropriated pictures were reproductions of famous works of art, others were from degraded popular culture, suggesting an art world dialectic between creativity and appropriation. Although many of these combines concealed codes with queer content, art historians were silent about the gay subject matter of both Johns and Rauschenberg until recently.

Canyon (1959) tells a story of gay love: the Greek myth of Zeus and Ganymede, a young boy loved by the god who, disguised as an eagle, kidnapped the child. Perched on a ledge at the bottom of the painting is a stuffed eagle. Above the eagle is a photograph of Rauschenberg’s son as an infant, reaching up to the sky. Hanging from the bottom of the canvas is a pillow, divided in half with a rope, giving the pillow the look of human buttocks. Looking back on the definitive phase of Rauschenberg’s career, artist and critic, Brian O’Doherty, wrote of the artist’s “vernacular glance.”

“The vernacular glance doesn’t recognize categories of the beautiful and ugly. It just deals with what’s there. Easily surfeited, cynical about big occasions, the vernacular glance develops a taste for anything, often notices or creates the momentarily humorous, but doesn’t follow it up…Nor does it pause to remark on unusual juxtapositions, because the unusual is what it is geared to recognize, without thinking about it. It dispenses with hierarchies of importance, since they are constantly changing to where you are and what you need.”

Although O’Doherty described the “vernacular” as a means to topple Modernist hierarchies of “high” and “low,” the notion of “glance” implies a new way of seeing—a quick scanning that seized upon random elements. In looking at these works of the Fifties from the standpoint of the twenty-first century, Rauschenberg’s combines seem to predict the type of looking disciplined by the internet: a skimming of the screen, searching for key words. Rauschenberg’s combines, regardless of concealed content or not, were harbingers of things to come: hybrid, impure, painting-sculpture-objects-installation art based upon commercial and low art imagery found in one of the grittiest neighborhoods in New York. With hindsight, it is clear that Rauschenberg was making a stronger break with Modernism than his anti-art gestures would suggest. He deviated from the cherished ideology of Modernism, that the avant-garde is based in the kind of originality that was incomprehensible to the bourgeoisie.

Composed of fragments of low culture and reproductions of high culture, the artist’s collaged paintings were predictors of Postmodern strategies of appropriation and quotation. Rauschenberg’s works were perfectly legible and familiar because their bones are borrowed. With their constellations of ephemera, his works echo the “allegories” of Walter Benjamin and foretell the encyclopedic approach of Andy Warhol. There was nothing High Art about Rauschenberg’s work and when Leo Castelli exhibited Rauschenberg’s combines in 1958, the art world was aghast. Sadly, his debut at one of the great galleries of Pop Art would be the beginning of the end of his relationship with Jasper Johns. Castelli, who seemed to prefer the works of Johns over that of the older and more experienced artist, gave him the first show of his new gallery. The order of “preference” was too much for Rauschenberg and the two great artists soon went their separate ways. In his later years, Robert Rauschenberg spoke one or twice of the “affection” the two artists had for each other, but Johns, to this date, has remained discrete.

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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