Postmodernism and the Meaning of Art

RE-DEFINING ART AS TEXT in the POSTMODERN ERA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Roland Barthes: “The Pleasure of the Text”

ROLAND BARTHES (1915-1980)

PART FIVE

The Pleasure of the Text (1973)

In his 1997 history of Structuralism, History of Structuralism: Volume One: The Rising Sign, 1945-1966, François Dosse described Roland Barthes in a number of ways–“the Mother Figure of Structuralism,” “one of structuralism’s best barometers,” “a weather vane for structuralism,” “a mythic figure of structuralism.” Most importantly and all in his opening paragraph on Barthes, Dosse described Barthes in terms of “his flexibility with regard to theories” quick to embrace them, Barthes was just as quick to disengage from them.” As Dosse summed up, in his early career, Barthes was writing in the midst of a post-war crisis in literature which had produced no notable writer since Marcel Proust. He wanted to get beyond this impasse of alienated writing, from political writing to academic writing to the direction suggested by Stéphane Mallarmé–the silence of writing that is the break from the expected or that which was required by the establishment, a state termed “white writing.”

According to Barthes, after 1848 and the breakdown of the social order into fragmented classes, serious writing began to reflect upon writing as writing and to write was to contend–self-consciously or self-reflexively with literature itself. This new approach to language as writing or literature about literature can be traced from Gustave Flaubert to Mallarmé to Proust to the Surrealists to writers of the era of Barthes whom he championed, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Albert Camus. At this last stage,the end of the fifties, according to Barthes, writing arrives at its end-point or what he called zero degree writing or “écriture blanche.” The “white” or neutral writer refuses commitment to either style of ideology and struggles against conventional literature, which Barthes called lisable or “readerly, in favor of writing that is scriptible or writerly, which questioned writing and literary conventions. As a critic who was “nauseated” by the old order, Barthes was particularly attentive to the new writes who, as artists, where also searching for a nouveau récit–a new way of writing–an new narration.

Barthes found an artist whose writings deserved his support, Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008) whose first two novels The Erasers (1953) and The Voyeur (1955) had not exactly attracted critical acclaim. But when Barthes supported his third book, Jealousy (1957), the career of Robbe-Grillet was established, thanks to the reception of a voice very respected in literary circles. For Barthes, the novel was “objective” or a turn towards the object, but for Robbe-Grillet, the term became to rigid. That said, in 1956, he wrote an essay “For the New Novel” (which later named an entire literary movement) that stated,

Instead of this universe of “signification” (psychological, social, functional), we must try, then, to construct a world both more solid and more immediate. Let it be first of all by their presence that objects and gestures establish themselves, and let this presence continue to prevail over whatever explanation or theory that may try to enclose them in a system of references, whether emotional, sociological, freudian or metaphysical. In this future universe of the novel, gestures and objects will be there before being something..

In 1961, Robbe-Grillet–who got top billing–wrote one of the most innovative scripts for one of the most beautiful and innovative films of the late 20th century L’Année Dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad). Directed by Alain Renais with costumes by Coco Chanel and cinematography by Sacha Vierny, the film became a celebrated part of the French Wave of experimental films. The droning opening monologue was a description of the ornate architecture of a Versailles-like mansion, a lexicon of words that gave the visualized objects “presence.” Although he was slightly older than the New Novelist or the New Wave filmmakers, Barthes, as a literary critic, was part of this struggle against the art-for-art’s sake hermeticism. Barthes preferred awareness of time and place from writers and a rejection of the notion of universality.

Film_478_LastYearMarienbad_original

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Indeed, like all post-war theoreticians, Barthes was a product of Marxist ideas, common among European intellectuals. The political and Marxist ideas of Brecht were incorporated into structuralism by Barthes who insisted upon the importance of discovering and characterizing structures–not to find “meaning”–but to understand how structures function and how meanings are engendered by a logic of symbols or to be more precise the logical order of their “arrangement” in a structure. In contrast to traditional Marxists, Barthes did not find oppression in social relations but in the order of signs or in the framework of language itself. The order of meanings in a lisable text forces the reader to participate in violence in that to name a meaning is an act of political and ideological force. This forcible naming or interpretation subjugates and subordinates other interpretations and other meanings and other voices. Social oppression was embedded in language and acted out in the level of language, which was why Barthes chose popular as his focus in his 1953 book, Mythologies.

Language, as Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) insisted, structures the unconscious. Although he attended the seminars of the psychologist, Bathes, however, never seemed to have been particularly interested in the gendered nature of language. As a student of Lacan, Barthes would have recognized the primal act of splitting the subject as psychologically oppressive and that this act would ally the subject with language—a primal oppression. He also understand that language, arranged in terms of opposites with one term subjugation the other, was essentially oppressive. In other words, there is no avoiding the connection between language and power, but Lacan’s approach to language was, like that of Ferdinand de Saussure, more abstract than social. But Barthes, under the influence of Julia Kristeva (1941-), came to understand that abstraction was a gesture of universality and that a way out of “transcendence” was to take note of the materiality of language.

Barthes responded to this literary spectacle of will to power by circumventing the power reader expectations and complicity through a realization that there discernible limits to this readable text and its predictable referential codes. The readerly text presented a repetition of familiar codes that, in their reliability, induced nausea and made the reader sick from experiencing the same narrative. To overcome nausea, the reader must learn how to re-write and learn of the plurality behind the codes which actually contain multiple meanings. From being a passive consumer, the active reader is able to shift to the performative mode and reading becomes a performance. When the reader performs writing, the issue of “authorship” is blurred and the “Text” is presented through a process of writing and making meaning. With the shift from what Barthes called the “Work” to the new performance, the “Text,” language becomes an open-ended structure, exerting its own linguistic force and the text becomes productive. When Barthes began to understand that by working agains the codes of social power and in finding the hidden plurality in language, he slipped from the strictures of Structuralism into its next stage, often called Post-Structuralism. “Working” on the language or turning language into performance forced a contrast between an authoritative reading and the new undecidability, which overflowed the boundaries of communication.

This move to textuality meant that barriers between texts were broken down through the linguistic system of references, meaning that there can be no text, or no textuality, without intertextuality or a movement among texts. The text, with Barthes, must be read not as a form of representation but as a sequence of allusions. Once the active reader learns how to move beyond the forced meanings and the expected narrative and into the realm of language itself, the reader experiences pleasure. Under the impact of Lacan, by the late 1960s, Barthes moved to the body as the place of evaluation. In Writing Degree Zero, Barthes had insisted that the body was the site of style, but with his 1973 book, The Pleasure of the Text, he moved beyond the personal or the personae of the artist/author to the text itself. It could be a criticism to say that the conventional or ‘readerly” text is always bound up with the pleasure of the reader and the pleasure of the text is the pleasure of passive consumption of the conventional. This kind of reading of this kind of writing is part of the consumer culture.

In comparison, reading the “writerly” text produces another kind of pleasure and Barthes opened the book with a distinction between “pleasure” and “bliss.” “The text you write must prove to me that it desire me. This proof exists: it is writing. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language..” Only certain kinds of books can produce or induce bliss. To describe this “bliss,” the pleasure of the text that is jouissance, an intense, violent form of pleasure, an interruption of the consciousness, Barthes goes back to one of his essays in Mythologies, the strip tease. He wrote, “Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes?” The effects of this kind of writing of the text is comparable to erotic pleasure, for during the process–whether that of reading/writing or sexual excitation–our sense as unified subjects is suspended. Therefore, as Barthes, explained,

Thus what I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface: I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again..Whence two systems of reading: one goes straight to the articulations of the anecdote, it considers the extent of the text, it ignores the play of language..the other reading skips nothing; it weights, it sticks to the text, it reads, so to speak, with application and transport, grasps at every point in the text the asyndeton which cuts the various languages–and not the anecdote..

Because pleasure resists appropriation by those in power, pleasure has traditionally been suppressed and repressed by philosophy and ideology, but the right to pleasure is reaffirmed in literature to counter political (ideological) readings. Barthes makes a distinction between plaisir and jouissance when he wrote,“The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas–for my body does not have the same ideas I do.” The text de plaisir is the classical readable or lisable text, while the texte de jouissance resists language and becomes a threat. This latter, or avant-garde text works on two surfaces or plays between the two edges, which are the conformist narrative and the subversive écriture. The space between the expected and the subversive is a gap between the two and this gap, as Barthes pointed out, is erotic. Barthes considered the text to be “a fetish object and this fetish desires me..but in the text, in a way, I desire the author: I need his figure..”

Three years ago, Barthes “killed” the author, or to be more precise, he extended the possibilities of the text, but in his new erotic analysis of the text, he brought the author back. But now, what was the fate of the reader? With the body as a site of transgression, experiencing socially deviant bliss or transgression, Barthes shifted to discussing literature as desire. Under the influence of Lacan and Kristeva, Jouissance became a key concept for Barthes in his discussion of the play-text. Jouissance means “to die,” an orgasm, a death, a moment of self-oblivion at the height of sexual pleasure and thus, the texte de jouissance takes erotic pleasure in the death of the subject. “No significance (no bliss) can occur, I am convinced, in a mass culture (to be distinguished, like fire from water, form the culture of the masses), for the model of this culture is petit bourgeois..The asocial character if bliss: it is the abrupt loss of sociality, and yet there follows no recurrence to the subject (subjectivity), the person, solitude: everything is lost, integrally. Extremity of the clandestine, darkness of the motion picture theater.”

Active reading and re-writing dissects author or the cult of the writer and repeated or iterative canonical codes that dominate society. Writing becomes not theory but an actual practice or praxis and names codes and stereotypes, calling them out, in order to cut them down. The task of the critic is to call attention to pre-existing institutional languages as objects to be transformed. One of the main points Barthes made in previous writings was that the fabrication of meaning is more important than meaning. For years, Barthes had opposed two terms, the “subjective” or the Romanticism of writing and the author to “objective” or the materiality of language itself, but in The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes replaced the impossible notion of “neutral writing” or “zero degree” writing a “third term,” the notion of writing as play. The process of circulation through a play of codes defeats the structuralist goal of exhausting the meaning of the text. The circulation is activated by codes and is not another structure but new perspectives opened up in the text by the blessed-out reader.

It is at this point, that, having brought back the author through the force of desire, Barthes could now deal with the reader. Because Barthes doubted that there could be an aesthetic of mere pleasure, Le plaisir du texte promotes an aesthetic of a play-text through jouissance, the key concept of the play-text. Jouissance indicates “to die” in an orgasm, a moment of self-oblivion at the height of sexual pleasure. The texte de jouissance takes erotic pleasure in the death of the subject. Not only is the reader dead of pleasure, the texte also “kills” its topic, and the language is left in pieces and the culture, as a result, is also fragmented. As Barthes wrote, “Pleasure in pieces; language in pieces; culture in pieces.” Nothing can be reconstructed or recovered; the subject is obliterated and the writer is erased; all possible meanings are destroyed. Plaisir is a general term for reading pleasures generated by the excesses of the text. Barthes’s account of reading is materialistic in that he replaced mind with body and its materiality of signifiers and its source of pleasures. What comes from the body is deeper, truer, and more natural. “What I hid by my language, my body writes.” “There is a chance of avant-garde whenever it is the body and not ideology that writes.”

For Barthes, the enemy was always the establishment, always the ideology of the culture that was his target. However, in The Pleasure of the Text, he understood that ideology was the shadow of the text. “There are those,” he wrote, “who want a text (an art, a painting) without a shadow, without the ‘dominant ideology,’ but this is to want a text without fecundity, without productivity, a sterile text..the text needs its shadow: this shadow is a bit of ideology, a bit of representation, a bit of subject: ghosts, pockets, traces, necessary clouds: subversion must produce its own chiaroscuro.” Barthes abandoned the utopia of “white writing” for the atopia of the text of pleasure. This atopia allows the text to be outside of ideology and yet is activated by ideology its shadow. Another term for ideology would be history itself, the history from which writing can never escape. The writing of Barthes for the past twenty years had always struggled between opposing two terms, in this case, utopia and atopia, and, as always, he turned to the third term “shadow” to fill the gap–the favorite space of Barthes. It is the penchant for the in between that allowed Barthes to find a third term to place between “writing” and “style” and that term would be “voice,” the physical note which ends The Pleasure of the Text. “Writing aloud,” he wrote, (is) “the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat..the anonymous body of the actor in my ear: it granulates, it crackles, it caresses, it grates, it cuts, it comes: that is bliss.

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

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

[email protected]