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.

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Robert Frank and “The Americans,” Part Two

WHAT ROBERT FRANK SAW

Following in the footsteps of Walker Evans who, in the late 1930’s had produced The American Photographs, Robert Frank found the humble and forgotten America. But where Evans, the sophisticated and urbane New Englander, had located American Quaint and Picturesque, aestheticizing even dire poverty with his rectilinear formalism, Frank found a new America of post-war prosperity, poverty, power and alienation. He found an America socially divided and stratified into a caste system. He found an American hooked on cheap, easy entertainment, on fast foods and cheap thrills. And this was an America, because it was just coming into being, was in process of being invented, that had never been photographed.

“I was absolutely free,” Frank said later, “just to turn left or turn right without knowing what I would find.” But one traveled at one’s own peril in the land of the free. He was arrested in Arkansas, Frank was jailed for hours, simply because he was a “foreigner.” At a time when the South was on the defensive, Frank took his life in his hand, perhaps unknowingly at first, when he photographed African-Americans as the second-class citizens they were. In Mississippi, his life was threatened. We can only wonder how the xenophobia and racism registered on a Holocaust survivor and a Jew, who probably had no idea that being Jewish in the South was only a bit less dangerous than being Black. He later related,

What a lonely time it can be in America, what a tough country it is…I saw for the first time the way blacks were treated. It was surprising to me. But it didn’t make me hate America. It made me understand how people can be.

While the old generation was angered at the obvious political content of the book, the new generation saw in Frank’s work a new direction for the photography of “realism.” Photojournalism was in decline, slated to fall to television news, and the days of the big picture magazines, Life and Look were numbered. Frank had no use for photojournalism’s phony realism, which organized images into a neat narration; life was rarely neat. According to the recent catalogue, Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” by Sarah Greenough, the American critics were not impressed: “A slashing and bitter attack on some U.S. institutions”—“A Degradation of a Nation!”—“a sad poem for sick people.”

Frank’s approach to his subjects was ambiguous. He was neither intimate nor empathic with his subjects, like Dorothea Lange, nor was he distanced, like an anthropologist, like Walker Evans. Frank was both present and absent. He seemed to glide through an environment, discretely, without interacting. Famously he used a small hand-held 35 mm camera, and used it like a notebook, quickly taking sketches or the overlooked and the unnoticed. Out of what must have been a vast warehouse of impressions, Frank seems to have found a series of “found” fragments that must have coalesced into a complete impression of the margins of America.

The fifties was a very dark period in America. Although disguised by the new television situation and domestic comedies, and smothered by a blanket of compensatory materialism, there was the dark threat of a new and lingering total war, the Cold War. There were many thoughtful Americans who looked beyond the affluence and were concerned that the population was being distracted from serious changes with serious consequences. With the Cold War always hovering in the background, Frank’s American flags (he photographed several) were not revered or even iconic.

The very first photograph in the book was the bottom piece of a flag, stretched across a brick wall blocking the windows, obscuring the people inside the building—a fragment of a flag and the theme for the book. The dead center of this photograph is the brick wall between the two windows. The viewer is blocked at every turn. The photograph of a trolley in New Orleans shows the same open/closed, grid composition that neatly and powerfully showed whites in the front and blacks in the back of the bus. And here is where we might begin to understand the true content of Frank’s work: this photograph is not about its mild-mannered title, Trolley—New Orleans, but segregation in defiance of a Supreme Court Order.

In photograph after photograph, the same ambiguity ruled. Frank never said, he simply showed, held up a mirror to Americans. The camera’s focus was clear, the composition was centered and gridded but the content, the topic, the very raison d’être of the image was in doubt. It was the jukebox, the drive-in movie, discovered or captured, “found” by Frank’s 35 mm camera on the run, created new pop icons before Americans were aware of their new gods. Frank, impressed by the grainy film of Italian avant-garde cinema, filmed on the cheap by the Neo-Realist directors, shot his images with available light, black and white film with a 35mm camera.

Frank was a member of a small group of contrarians who disapproved of America’s materialism, the Beatniks. The introduction to The Americans was written by the Beat novelist, Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road (1957). The dissidents were sensitive to the dark side of America in the first decade of the Cold War. According to Krouac, Frank “sucked a sad poem out of America.” The black and white images symbolized despair and hope, but the old guard saw only sarcasm and satire. Who, after all, would photograph a tattered American flag? Who would photograph a juke box? Who would photograph a rodeo? The subjects captured by Frank were new and common at the same time, popular culture, and vernacular scenes. Jonathan Day, in Robert Frank’s “The Americans:” The Art of Documentary, quoted Frank, writing to his parents, “America is an interesting country but there is a lot here that I do not like and I would never accept. I am trying to show this in my photos.”

The small camera with its wide-angle lenses caught America off guard, candidly, capturing the ambiguity and the quirky off centeredness of “real” unarranged life. The images were unfamiliar, the people were unknown, the brutally candid and coldly impersonal stance was unsettling to the readers who were asked to put aside familiar aesthetic readings for this new definition of photography.Frank also created a new vocabulary for the photographers who followed him; as for Frank himself, he photographed only rarely after that. There was nothing more left to say.

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

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

info@arthistoryunstuffed.com

The Historical Context of Postmodernism, Part Two

POSTMODERNISM: THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Part Two

Defining Postmodernism is a difficult process. Even though it is now fashionable to declare Postmodernism as “dead” or “over,” one should proceed with caution before burying the body. Unlike Modernism, which emerged from the Enlightenment hundreds of years ago, Postmodern ideas are essentially a mid century phenomenon, meaning that the entire body of knowledge is only sixty odd years old. We do not yet have the kind of historical perspective on Postmodernism that allows a single compact definition. Postmodernism was not just an academic event, the purview of ivory tower academics, it was also a cultural event that expanded beyond its European origins to the new global society.

The intellectuals, for all their removed condition, predicted with astonishing perception the impact of Postmodernism upon society. It should be emphasized that one of the first and most significant elucidators of Postmodernism, Jean-François Lyotard wrote his diagnosis in response to technological changes and how the computerized societies of the twentieth century have impacted the legitimation of knowledge. The Report was commissioned in the late 1970s by the Conseil des Universités of the Quebec government in order to assess the confluence of computer technology, science and knowledge—how in this new age was knowledge be formed? Lyotard’s answers would be not only precise but prophetic.

As Lyotard stated,

I will use the term modem to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the her- meneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.

He continued,

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodem as incredulity toward meranarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in rum presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the mctanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds; most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it.

Although Lyotard correctly pointed to the end of the “metanarrative,” or the one overarching tale that explains everything, this metanarrative had spawned metanarratives for each intellectual, social, political and cultural field. The metanarrative implies as “master narrative,” or an idea that masters both nature and culture. One of the first tasks of Postmodern thinkers was to interrogate and dismantle the metanarrataive of the Enlightenment. In philosophy, this reexamination consisted of re-reading and re-writing the entire philosophical project of the eighteenth century. In art, the metanarrative was called “Modernism” and referred to a particular aspect of art, called avant-garde, that stemmed from the painting of Édouard Manet and the urban culture in Paris.

This metanarrative, like all metanarratives, was only as strong as what it excluded and what forms of art making were pushed aside to make room for a seamless story. As previous posts pointed out, the metanarrative of Modernism began to break down in the mid 1950s as new ideas about what art could be began to be exhibited. Neo-Dada and Pop Art and Minimal Art and Conceptual Art and Feminist Art and Pluralism all contained elements or aspects of Postmodernism and contributed to the demise of Modernism.

The art world did not systematically begin to examine Postmodern theory until the 1980s when it became obvious that the succession of movements and “isms” had ceased. Clearly, the idea that art evolves in one singular straight line was no longer tenable. Once authority had been questioned and it was evident that there was no single ruling intellectual or artistic force, Modernism was replaced by Postmodernism. It is important to understand that the art world comprehension of Postmodernism was somewhat limited and crude. Postmodernism was understood as an old-fashioned dialectic (one of the models questioned by Postmodern thinkers) as an oppositional force to Modernism.

Modernism was based upon a set of social, political and philosophical assumptions which were embedded in the Enlightenment. These assumptions were essentially optimistic: human beings would improve as they elevated themselves politically and economically through social equality. People, ordinary people, could come together and govern themselves for their mutual benefit. As history moved forward, now that they were in charge of their own destinies, people would also progress morally and ethically.

History proved this optimistic hypothesis to be wrong. Far from improving humanity, modern technology merely allowed people to kill each other more efficiently. After the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the mood after (or “post”) the war was pessimistic. It was clear that a line had been crossed and that an era had come to an end. Humanity had revealed itself to be fatally flawed and trust in the good will of people had been lost. Although the sense of failure and disillusionment had yet to be named, Modernism had come to an end in the rubble and terror “after Auschwitz.”

The optimistic and progressive metanarrative of Modernism hid another assumption: that everyone agreed that the social and political principles of the Enlightenment were superior to all other philosophical systems. The Enlightenment was Eurocentric, secular, and, in favoring “progress,” left tradition behind, but not all societies agreed with this forward thrust into the “modern.” The Second World War shattered the illusion that there could be one objective truth, the truth of the science and philosophy of the Enlightenment. The only truth was that there was no truth.

Germany refused the onrush to the modern and substituted social hysteria and cultural subjectivity for scientific thinking. The Myth of the Third Reich was an alternative “truth”–the Nazi narrative of the way the world should be. Japan also rejected the Eurocentric extension of power into Asia and substituted its own cultural imperatives for the Enlightenment principles of progress. Twenty years after the Second World War, the nations of the Middle East also rejected modernity and its insistence on gender and class equality and enlightened secularism. In other words, the metanarrative of the Enlightenment which purported to be based on the objective and provable truth of science would be met with a refusal to accept that imposed imperative. In the post-war period, it became clear that subjectivity or local narratives had dislodged the certainty of the eighteenth century and “post” modern doubt was dominant.

The Enlightenment itself was a belief system—it substituted a belief in religion with a belief in human reason. Faced with the extremes of historical conditions, the powers of the human intellect had broken down, revealing the dark side of the mind as the European culture descended into an irrational madness. It is important to note that Postmodernism was a European invention and not an American one because it was Europe that experienced the worst effects of the Second World War. Instead of creating a continent of free people, the War had cut Europe in half, condemning the eastern nations to lives of autocratic arbitrary rule.

In the free zone, the Cold War stifled real political and social progress. In the west, the forces of the status quo had a firm hold but there were those who hoped for change. By the 1960s, idealism evaporated after the uneasy Spring of student uprisings and the reassertion of dogmatic authority, and the European intellectuals simply lost their belief in the revolutionary process that should had led to greater emancipation. Once the grand idée was dead, unity was impossible and philosophers sheltered themselves into small conclaves of thought. This disunity signified and end of “meaning” as a singular belief system. The permanent modernist revolution gave way to a Postmodern critique of the Enlightenment as if to find out how the culture could have gone so far astray from its initial promise.

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

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

info@arthistoryunstuffed.com

The Historical Context of Postmodernism, Part One

POSTMODERNISM: THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Part One

Writing in the second volume of his important book, A Study of History, Arnold Toynbee attempted to describe the moment/s in which the “Modern” ended and the “Post-Modern” began. He asserted, although Europeans and “North Americans” were unaware of what was happening, that the Modern Age was winding down in “the aftermath of the General War of 1792-1815.” Toynbee was referring to the period between the French Revolution and the final fall of Napoléon. It was during these decades that the Age of Reason was refuted by the Age of Terror, total war, and democracy and equality were delayed by a ruthless dictator bent on ruling Europe. These years of irrational and regressive political actions were also precisely the years that, in art history, marked the end of Neo-Classicalism and the establishment of Romanticism. Toynbee wrote that “…the Modern Age of Western History had been wound up only to inaugurate a Post-Modern Age pregnant with tragic experiences.” In referring to the well-to-do economic beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution and the political winners of the the Enlightenment, he continued, “They were imagining that, for their benefit a sane, safe, satisfactory Modern Life had miraculously come to stay in a suddenly inaugurated timeless present.” Toynbee wrote that the privileged of this Modern society were somehow able to overlook the continued inequalities. The historian described a kind of willful blindness to the fact that, in a modern age, monarchies and colonialism and imperialism simply could not continue and “must be borne away, sooner or later, by Time’s ‘ever-rolling stream.'” The Late Modern Age (1675-1875), according to Toynbee, “is one of the great Ages of Faith—Faith in Progress and in Human Perfectibility…A Faith that has lived three hundred years dies hard…” the historian asserted, adding that this Faith took “a knock-out blow in A.D. 1914.” His tone and style of writing is decidedly old fashioned, an attempt to look into the soul of twenty three civilizations to understand their rise and fall. One of the last of the historians who were were ambitious enough to delve into a broad sweep of historical forces, Toynbee’s approach favored the spiritual or moral (or psychological) forces of history. For example, he indicted the moral failure of American democracy and the European refusal to deal fairly with the proletariat or the poor and lower classes. Toynbee’s twelve volume history was published between 1934 and 1961 and was abridged in the early 1950s into two volumes. However, by the time of the completion of the long publication process, his style of history had gone out of vogue and attacks on his approach damaged his reputation. And yet, Toynbee presented a cogent and insightful analysis of how the Age of Faith gave way to the Post-Modern time of disillusion. By the end of the Second World War the damage to the Faith in Reason was irreparable. It was only after the final war was over and the Western world contemplated the smoldering ruins that the extent of the loss in Faith became clear. Modernism or the Modern Age was historically linked to the Enlightenment and its doctrines of human perfection through the forces of reason, its hopes of political equality and its drive towards Progress. Reason replaced Faith and Culture replaced Nature. The Modern period was marked by a new desire to cultivate and master Nature and this sense that nature could be controlled came to characterize Modernism. In the early decades, technology seemed to be a miracle which transformed an entire continent from an agrarian one into a site of industry and manufacture. It would take over one hundred years for the price of the Industrial Revolution and the relentless impetus of technology to be fully realized—the pollution of the water and air, the toll on human beings, and the spoliation of nature itself. The idea that rational thinking would lead to inhumane rationalism did not occur to the Enlightenment philosophers whose task was not to foretell futures but to replace God with philosophy. But the German (Nazi) use of logic, reason and rational thinking had lethal consequences. Given the appropriate technology, the human being could take the place of God with the powers of life and death—even to the extent of attempted extermination of an entire people. Philosophers have traced the logical consequences of scientific farming, selective breeding of animals, urban planning, and the hierarchical ordering of people according to skin color, to the ultimate act of rationalization, the Holocaust. After the Second World War, the Frankfurt School, an important precursor to Post-Modernist theory, would claim that the Enlightenment brought only darkness. “How was it possible to write poetry “after Auschwitz?” asked Theodor Adorno of artists. It seems to be the task of the Postmodern generation to ponder the problem of the monstrous potential of limitless inhumanity in an age of absolute disillusionment and cynicism. Postmodernism arrived as a mind set at the same time the international culture awaited another millennium. The war ended with the losers–Germany and Japan–becoming the economic victors and the military winners–England and France–losing status and empires and self-respect. Once again, exhausted, decimated and destroyed, Italy was lost in the shuffle. America and Russia took on the respective roles of Good and Evil as Western and Eastern Europe faced each other in a long ideological war of threat and counter-threat, a chess game of never-enacted virtual reality, a simulacrum of ultimate annihilation by apocalyptic weapons, build, cherished but never launched. The Cold War, ending only with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, was played out between neo-imperialist Euro-American powers in theaters of color–Algeria, Korea, Viet Nam, exotic locales where nasty little wars could be carried out without inconveniencing the Superpowers at home.

The French Connection

What is remarkable about the post-war period is the extent to which American and European powers continued the same policies of empire and imperialism and inequality without regard to ethics of morality—after Toynbee had spent decades describing these very conditions as the reasons why cultures failed. If the Modern Age failed and gave way to the Post-Modern with the beginning of the First World War, then, by the end of the conflict filled century a consciousness arose of something that could be called in a self-conscious way “Postmodernism,” of the state of being in the Post-Modern Age. The awareness of the cultural condition of “Postmodernism” could be separated from “Postmodernity,” which is a more specific concept. Postmodernity is a social and cultural state characterized by globalization and computer-based technology. That said, it is convenient to point out that Postmodernism, as a time period, played out in two different arenas, Europe and America. For America, 1968 was a year of assassinations—Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King—and all the cultural leaders of change were wiped away. For America, the sixties were over and were followed by an age of self-indulgence and disco. For Europe, that year was one of revolutions and uprisings, none more notorious than that in Paris, the events called “May ’68.” In his recent book The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (2010), Richard Wolin described the rise and fall of the Marxist student and worker attempt to change France during a hot spring month. The time of revolution, long predicted by Marxist theory, had finally come—the masses had risen up, but, like most modern revolutions, this one lacked leaders and a coherent agenda. While everyone gave up, went home and accepted the reimposition of the status quo, the long term impact of “May ’68” played itself out among the scholars and intellectuals. As Wolin expressed it, “By the time the dust had cleared, many of France’s leading intellectuals—Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, the Tel Quel group—had been swept up in this giddy left-wing political vortex.” According to Wolin, the revolution that wasn’t

…had a strangely beneficial on French intellectuals, curing this mandarin caste of its residual elitism and thereby helping to promote a new, more modest, and democratic cultural sensibility, for in the aftermath of the aftermath of the May revolt, when Maoism had reached its zenith, French intellectuals learned to follow as well as to lead. Much of this development was captured by Foucault’s felicitous coinage: the specific intellectual had supplanted the universal intellectual. In a further nuance of twist, the democratic intellectual would replace the vanguard intellectual…

Founded in 1960, Tel Quel, both a publication and a group of leading intellectuals, including, Jean-louis Baudry, Pierre Boulez, Claude Cabantous, Hubert Damisch, Marc Devade, Jean-Joseph Goux, Denis Hollier, Julie Kristeva, Marcelin Pleynet, Jean Ricardou, Jacquelin Risset, Denis Roche, Pierre Rottenberg, Jean-Louis Schefer, Phillipe Sollers, Paule Thévenin, Jean Thibaudou, submitted a statement in the summer of 1968. They issued the following statement, We believe it necessary to call to mind the following points:

  1. we are not “philosophers,” “savants,” or “writers” according to the representative definitions admitted by a society whose material functioning and consequent theory of knowledge we attack;
  2. this theory of language, subjugated by the metaphysical category of expressivity, seems to us to constitute one of the ideological keys to the current situation, in that disastrous complicities between the worst reactionary conservatism and baseless revolutionism are able to “spontaneously” reveal themselves here;
  3. we believe that the signifying activity of a given historical phase constitutes a decisive determinant of the transformative possibilities of that phase. The subordination of this specific level, the abandonment and the negation of its effects on consciousness and change, always coincides with an overdetermined regression by the state of things en acte, reinforcing themselves by means of local contestation;
  4. it thus seems indispensable to us to affirm that the recognition of a theoretical break and of the ensemble of irreducible differences in action — in praxis — that we support is of a kind to carry the social revolution to its real accomplishment in the order of its languages;
  5. consequently, the construction of a theory drawn from the textual practice that we must develop seems to us susceptible of avoiding the repetitive impasses of “engagé” discourse — the very model of a teleological-transcendental humanist and psychologist mystification, accomplice of the definitive obscurantism of the bourgeois state;
  6. in keeping with its complex mode of production of Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time, this construction should be part of and be brought to bear on the critical integration of the most elaborated practices (philosophy, linguistics, semiology, psychoanalysis, “literature,” history of science);
  7. any ideological undertaking that doesn’t present itself today in an advanced theoretical form, and that contents itself with regrouping under eclectic or sentimental denominations individual activities that are barely political, appears to us to be counter-revolutionary insofar as it objectively fails to recognize the class struggle as something to pursue and reactivate.

Although the scholarly trend towards the intellectual postmodern project was well underway before Summer 1968, the stance of Tel Quel mirrored the changing social structure of French society. Founded in response to the Algerian war by a young men under the age of thirty, Tel Quel evolved from an apolitical literary review to an enterprise parallel to the seizure of art writing by the artists in New York, part of what was called in Paris, the “war of the reviews.” In contrast to the New York artists who merely wanted to explain their own art, the Tel Quel writers were deliberately avant-garde or what is called the engaged or activist intellectual—the public intellectual who deliberately courted controversy. This is a cultural role that simply did not and does not exist in America. The review was named Tel Quel after a 1943 book of poetry by Paul Valéry whose lectures at the Collège de France impacted Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Paul de Man, and other French intellectuals who changed the face of “theory.” This literary review sought to separate “literature” from its isolated position of being a “fine art” or a creative enterprise and to join literature to a social activity. As Daniell Marx-Scouras pointed out in her book, Cultural Politics of Tel Quel. Literature and the Left in the Wake of Engagement (1996), “This new interest in semiotics and psychoanalysis led to a reevaluation of language, which was no longer viewed as a mere instrument or decoration but rather as a sign and a truth.” She continued, “…the preoccupation with language during the late 1950s and early 1960s was, in effect, a political gesture.” Marx-Scouras quoted Roland Barthes, a frequent contributor to Tel Quel as saying, “The origin of semiology was political to me.”

The Postmodern philosophers in Paris began the process of interrogating the canonical writings of the Enlightenment, from Rousseau to Freud. Jacques Lacan’s project of rewriting and rethinking the project of Sigmund Freud from a linguistic point of view. Indeed, the Postmodern reexamination of Modern philosophy was an interesting intersection of literary theory and philosophical thinking in which philosophy was considered as language. This linguistic turn appeared early, before “May ’68” with the formation of theories of “intertextuality” from Julia Kristeva and the first flurries of “deconstruction” from Jacques Derrida which appeared in Tel Quel.

In History of Poetics and Intertextuality (2008) Marko Juvan described the emergence of a phenomenon called “Theory” which rejected the notion of an aesthetic sphere for literature. He stated, Theory pushed aside Existentialism, Neo-Marxism and Structuralism. As Jovan stated,

Theory experienced a fashionable flowering among American scholars and then everywhere that globalization penetrated with its cultural industry and intellectual market on one hand, and local resistance against it on the other. In France, Theory originally took shape as a radically critical, often explicitly politicized, transdisciplinary, eclectic and daringly speculative discourse that problematized prevailing ideas, stereotypes, assumptions, and values on which traditional learning and common sense rested…Theory pretentiously offered new and would-be universal explanations of the subject and its location by weaving together concepts from linguistics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, history, mathematics, analytical philosophy, heideggerianism and Phenomenology.

In the year 1966, Deconstruction was “announced,” not in Paris, but in Baltimore, with a presentation by Jacques Derrida at a conference on Structuralism at Johns Hopkins. In “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences,” in which he critiqued the structuralist philosophy of Claude Lévi-Strauss. By the end of the 1960s, Structuralism, a literary theory that used a “close reading” to analyze texts, was upended and Modernism in the arts had run their course. In the beginning of the 1970s, what would be called “Postmodern” ideas began to wend their way across the Atlantic.

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

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Comparing Modernism and Postmodernism

CHARACTERISTICS

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.

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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