Beginning Postmodernism: Forming the Theory

POSTMODERNISM

Coining the Term

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

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

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

Modernism (1860-1960)

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

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

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

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

Postmodernism (1980-2000)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Postmodern Painters

The Postmodern Condition and the International Art Market

Neo-Expressionism was an international style and Postmodern painting was big money. Big painting had returned and the buyers had the big money to pay for it. Art collecting in the 1980s was nothing less than a feeding frenzy on long desired objects—paintings—easily acquired, easily placed (in elegant living rooms), easily stored (in collector warehouses) and easily disposed of (as in dumping a stock). Collectors were nouveau riche, coming into auction houses from the booming stock market. These Nouveaus had plenty of money and wanted to demonstrate their “culture” by accumulating works of “art.” They purchased art as they purchased stocks and the inflated value of art rose like a rocket. Buyers wanted something to buy that was big and visible and impressive—-Conceptual Art would not do, but Neo-Expressionist art would serve to show off their ostentatious wealth and new culture. Unfortunately for many of the artists who made it big very quickly, their stars crashed and burned in the late eighties with the stock market crash at the end of the Reagan era. Some artists survived the economic downturn of the late Eighties, but the buyers never regained their faith in art as a stock that one could invest in.

Postmodern art appropriates plurality through the realm of quotation in the new condition favorable to historicism, which gives access to all styles, all of which are of equal validity. Postmodern artists brought back a variety of dead styles to make a point that the glory days of Modernist originality and creativity were gone and could only be vaguely remembered by turning the pages of art history texts. According to Postmodern thinking it was impossible to go back to the days when art was renewing itself through avant-garde movements. Art was now “dead” and could only function as a ghost or a copy or simulacra of itself by collecting pastiches and constructing parodies of the past. The Postmodern situation is one of belatedness, similar to the placement of Mannerism, coming after the High Renaissance, too late to enjoy the glory. Postmodernism was ironic and was uncertain as to its effects, which were, historically, quite brief and superficial. “Found Styles” from history are taken up by Postmodern painters and left intact so as to be recognizable but are sufficiently manipulated to suggest a novel aesthetic attitude that suggested something new if not “neo.”

Neo-Expresssionism was a term that was both hotly contented and empty. For those who disliked this pseudo-movement, its return to representation was an anathema. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh regarded figuration as a return to right wing politics and Thomas Lawson and other writers saw these works as pastiches of the past or simulacra without authenticity or aesthetic importance. That said, different nations “returned” to painting in various ways for various reasons. In America or in New York, “expressionism” meant “Abstract Expressionism” and, therefore, “neo” meant figurative not abstract “expressionism.” In Germany, “expressionism,” meant Die Brücke or Der Blaue Reiter, which were providentially placed before the Great War and thus beyond the Nazi period. Therefore, it would be too confining to place all of the painters of the Eighties in the (American-named) category of “Neo-Expressionism.” Quite a few artists were playing—and “play” was a key Postmodern term—play with what was called the “language of art,” or the history of artistic styles.

In Italy, for example, there was no tradition of Expressionism and the Italian return to painting took the route of Neo-neo-Classicism. Carlo Maria Mariana, an Italian artist, followed Kiefer’s lead in reviving a dead style. In his case, Mariana revived Neo-Classicism, which was based upon an Italian national style, based upon the Greek culture of ancient times. “Classicism” or the Roman approach to Greek art was then taken up by the French and English after the discovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the mid-eighteenth century. The paintings by Mariana are slickly rendered in the dead style of David and Ingres from the early nineteenth century and have the air of slight decadence that marked the last phase of Neo-Classicism as evidenced in the work of Girodet. The content favored by Mariani is art historical, that is, he “repaints” older paintings or references Modernists artists, such as Duchamp, quotations easily recognizable by those who are educated in the history of art.

The problem that faced German artists after the war was to recreate something called “German” art. In order to do be a German artist, Anselm Kiefer, and the other German artists, returned to the last style in existence in Germany before Hitler came into power, Expressionism. German Expressionism was expressive and full of feelings and, above all, spiritual. There had been a disruption in art in Germany, during the Nazi period when avant-garde had been forbidden, putting Expressionism onto the list of “Degenerate Art.” Kiefer brought back the concepts of the original Expressionism but could not return to the source. Expressionism was a style that stood for feeling, but no longer was a brush stroke the equivalent of a feeling. Feeling and expression could only be conveyed to the viewer through codes and symbols. Kiefer combined the scale of Abstract Expressionism’s mural and field paintings with a post-war nihilistic spirituality. Kiefer became famous or infamous for evoking memories of the Holocaust, by producing huge paintings that seemed to have Jewish themes. Understood in America as “big paintings,” his paintings, large multi-media projects, to be understood, had to be decoded by a viewer well-versed in Hebrew learning and in German history.

In America, artists took note of what was going on in Europe during the late Seventies and early Eighties and returned to painting, following trends set by Gerhard Richter. Although these Americans, mostly working in SoHo in New York City, were also called “Neo-Expressionists,” the phrase was a catch-all. Neo-Expressionism in New York would be very different from the same brand name in Europe. In America, male artists took advantage of the Feminist breakthroughs in the arts: the insistence upon biography, the personal, the expressive, figuration and representation, as well as narration and psychological content and used these breakthroughs to become instant successes. But New York had become a more diverse society since the New York School and the art world had begun to grudgingly admit to the presence of women.

One of the best examples of a male artist who was trained during the early years of feminism was Eric Fischl. Trained at Cal Arts, the home of the Feminist Art Workshop, Fischl began as a sculptor and started painting only when he went back home to New York to begin his art career. Fischl’s paintings transgress Greenberg’s recipe for formalism by being representational and by delving into unexplored corners of the sexual psychology of the adolescent white male and his fantasies. The paintings were figurative and narrative and full of Freudian symbols and personal content. A decade earlier, Feminist artists had been criticized for their biographical and psychological subject matter, but representation and figuration had become accepted and Fischl’s stories of adolescent male sexual awakenings made him rich and famous.

Another graduate of a Los Angeles art school who returned to New York, Mark Tansey brought back the “history painting” of the nineteenth century by (re)painting the history of modernism in the style of the 1950s artist, Norman Rockwell. Tansey, a student of art history, “plays” with the audience by bringing back salon style history paintings that were full of erudite references to historical events in art history and postmodern theory. Like the earlier paintings of the previous century, the works of Mark Tansey require a livery or a catalogue guide to the embedded erudite meanings. The inside insider’s joke of Tansey’s method of painting was the fact that he used, borrowed, and appropriated the instantly recognizable illustrative style of Norman Rockwell, a merchant of “kitsch.” According to the thinking of the arch defender of Modernism, Clement Greenberg, Rockwell would be the polar opposite of Pollock, the hero of the avant-garde. Rockwell was the hero of the regular people who loved his weekly covers on The Saturday Evening Post. Using a monochrome palette and painting in reverse, that is taking pigment away or off the canvas, Tansey took his viewer back in time to great events in the history of Modernism. He combined a famous photograph of the first airplane flight by Orville and Wilber Wright with Cubism, by making the airplane a Cubist collage and the inventors of the “first flight” were Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Like much of Postmodernism, his paintings were accessible only to an elite few who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of art and of the contemporary culture.

The Postmodern tendency towards bricolage can result in a deliberate aesthetic disunity can be seen in the art of David Salle who assembles a painted object composed of various visual languages. Salle combined languages from high art, low art and decorative art into an over-all style of layered art forms. Postmodern art is understood to be “art as language,” conditioned, mediated, and coded. In contrast to the Modernist effort to stabilize and sterilize art through a limited vocabulary, David Salle’s paintings can be compared to an archaeological site to be excavated. His borrowed images are found in variety of cultural digs or sites and are superimposed, one over the other, in strata that the viewer sees through. Each layer is recognizable and readable but none of the layers interact with each other. Each stratum exists in its own right and any attempt to knit the strata together into a narrative or into a meaning that can be unified is thwarted. Salle presents the viewer with an array of dead languages, a dis-array of found styles that have multiple meanings, all of whom are equal.

in the work of Julian Schnable, the artist assembles surfaces without relying upon traditional art materials. He mocks and makes fun of Modernism’s worship of “surface’ or facture and marks his huge canvases adorned or decorated with black velvet and broken crockery and animal horns and fur. The idea of style itself is bankrupt, and the work of art is an assemblage that refuses unity. Both Salle and Schnable produce a reiteration of the vocabulary and ideas of Modernism but do so from a position of making painting about painting, art about the history of art. Postmodern art is always referential, always referring to other or to past traditions, long dead, but possessing a lingering potency. 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.

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

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

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Podcast: Postmodernism and the Other

Postmodernism, Multiculturalism and Globalism

Postmodern art is the first art to be—not global—but international. But the concept of a global or transnational art was proceeded by an acknowledgement of The Other through Multiculturalism. This podcast examines the ideas of colonialism, imperialism and post-colonial theory as manifested through art of the Postmodern period.

 

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

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

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

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

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

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

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

this link: Art History Timeline

Podcast 46 Painting 12: The Impact of Art by Women

New Voices in Painting

Although the sixties is usually thought of as the decade of Civil Rights, the final expression of equality was the Women’s Movement of the seventies. The art world, which had attempted to ignore the prevailing political events was suddenly confronted with a large and unhappy constituency, artists who had been excluded from the art world on the basis of gender and color. Feminist art and art by women and the art of people of color challenged the exclusionary territory of painting, which had been an “all boys’ club” for decades. The result of the influx of new ideas and new points of view would be more open field for new possibilities in painting.

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

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

Remember to download the iBooks app to your iPad or iPhone

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

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

this link: Art History Timeline