Fluxus as Experience

ART AS EVENT

Compared to the brief flash of the Happenings in New York City, in Europe, Performance Art was a far more important part of the post war experience for artists in Germany and France. Many of the European artists re-connected with the old Dada spirit, going back to art as it existed before the First World War to retrieve avant-garde art in order to play out the final fate of the pre-war art movements. For German artists, it was necessary to go back in time to the decade before Nazi art had polluted all art forms, except for “Degenerate Art” or Modernist Art. For the French artists, the period between the wars was a conservative one, ultimately leading to New York taking the lead. So there is no place to go but backwards in order to move forward. Dada had been a performance based art movement, derailed by New Objectivity and Surrealism and it was with performance that the Europeans could combine their own heritage with the kinetic art of the painter Jackson Pollock.

If the origins of Dada were “disgust” as Tristan Tzara put it, the origins of Fluxus were American. The founder of Fluxus was George Macinuas, a Lithuanian expatriate, an entrepreneur and art dealer who coined the term “fluxus.” Maciunas, who was working as a designer-architect with the American Air Force, discovered the word “flux” as the result of a random search thorough the dictionary, much like Tristan Tzara found the term “dada” in the Larousse dictionary in 1916. The movement was born in Wiesbaden, West Germany in September 1962 at the “Fluxus Internationale Festspiel Neuester Musik,” the first public appearance of the word, “Fluxus.” Although many of the Fluxus artists are still alive and active, the international art movement, Fluxus, dates from approximately 1949 to 1979, and the glory days of Fluxus were between 1962 and 64. When Maciunas, who published the works of Fluxus artists and produced their concerts and exhibitions, died in 1978, it was said, “fluxus has fluxed.”

Just as its prototype Dada was shaped by the First World War, Fluxus was profoundly impacted by the philosophical change in Euro-American culture following the Second World War. The Post-War world was a brave new world recovering for a Holocaust and facing immanent annihilation from the newly invented atomic bomb. Existentialism, a philosophy developed by Jean-Paul Sartre, insisted upon a nihlism—total despair in a world now without meaning or purpose. With all institutions of church and state discredited, the human being could exist only through act or “acting out” a life. The pure act was the only means of self-affirmation and of self-confirmation of individual existence. Existentialist philosophy had influenced the writings of Harold Rosenberg, the famous New York art critic, who used Existentialism to explain “American Action Painting.”

Beyond philosophy, other changes, more material and social, shaped Fluxus. Mass media was becoming a genuine force in society, spreading knowledge of art movements from one continent to another; and economic changes made it possible for artists to travel and maintain close contact with each other. As a result, Fluxus was an international and racially diverse movement, made up of men and women, European, Asian and American. Fluxus members included the Danish musician and artist Erich Andersen, the Korean video artist, Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins, Robert Watts, Alison Knowles, La Monte Young, Jackson Marlow, Philip Corner, and Benjamin Patterson, an African American artist who was a student of John Cage, Daniel Spoerri, Terry Riley, Ben Vautier, the Fluxus power couple, Toshi Iohiyangagi and Yoko Ono, the performance and word event artist and musician, George Brecht, master of the pure word event, painters Georges Mathieu and Lucio Fontanta, Robert Filliou, Addi Kopcke, and Emmett Williams, author of My Life in Flux–and Vice Versa, 1992.

Former enemies, German, Japanese, and American artists, became friends and collaborators. Women artists, Shigeko Kubota and Yoko Ono, were able to create and work as equals in an art world that excluded women from other movements, because Fluxus was outside the mainstream art world and outside of the white cube. In such a movement, a Japanese woman who was an American expatriate, Yoko Ono, could find acceptance and a venue for her conceptual art works and performances. An African-American musician, Emmett Williams, could escape American racism in Fluxus. Fluxus was not placed in museums, was thought to be not object based and, therefore, not collectable, and for many decades was ignored by the art world and its critics.

The post-war mood produced a dialectic of creation and destruction, seen in the performances of Gutai in Japan, and a preoccupation with the temporal dimension of art–the act, the performance. The act or the performance existed only in the moments of time when it was enacted and then it ceased to exist. The emphasis was upon the process of artistic innovation and creation during the performance. Unlike the lone “performance” of Jackson Pollock “dancing” around the canvas, Fluxus allowed and even demanded that the audience participate in the act. Performance Art existed, however briefly, in contrast to the supposed timelessness of solid or material art works, such as paintings or sculptures. Planned but not repeatable, Performance art vanished completely at its conclusion, could only be preserved in documents and in artifacts.

Performance art could not be “art,” according to Modernist critics because it was not permanent and could not be judged in terms of its formal properties. Any arguments against performance art would be intensified in relation to Minimal Art. Installation art, like performance art, was audience-dependent and temporal or temporary. In a word both movement were “theatrical” or acts of theater. Therefore, Fluxus was a profound challenge to Modernism. In contrast to Modernism’s emphasis on the lone creative artist, Fluxus artists worked together and in reference to one another’s work. In contrast to Modernism’s insistence on purity, Fluxus art was hybrid, a combination of objects, images, sounds, music, theater, and audience participation. Neo-Dada in America was already working with the confluence of art and life and, indeed, John Cage merged easily from Neo-Dada to Fluxus. No clear line separates the art of Fluxus from life’s ordinary actions.

The Fluxus Weltanschauung was shaped by the concerns of John Cage who was interested in redefining “sound” as “music,” Merce Cunningham, who was interested in redefining “movement” as “dance,” and of Marcel Duchamp, the discoverer of the “found object,” or oject trouvé, who was still alive and well as an underground artist in New York City. Cage and Duchamp felt that the effects of personality and taste should be removed from art, which should also be purged of aesthetics. Fluxus exhibitions were about the commonalities of everyday life and of ordinary everyday activities. Slices of life were transported onto a stage where the ordinary was made to look extraordinary. For Fluxus artists, the very environment was art: life flows into art, art flows into life.

Blurring of the boundary between art and life, Ben Vautier, a French performance artist, brushed his teeth on the street, as a Fluxus Happening for the Parisian passers by. Daniel Spoerri, another French artist, displayed the remains of his meals, fixed to a tray, and hung from a wall like a painting. Fluxus, like Dada is also anti-art, meaning that the artists eschewed aesthetics, that is they rejected (like Duchamp) attractive and beautiful art. Fluxus pushed art out of museums and galleries and into the streets. George Maciunas understood Fluxus in social terms and as a stance against wasting materials and human energy. Like Joseph Beuys, who advocated people as “social sculpture” in Germany, Maciunas thought of all people as artists. In his 1963 Manifesto for Fluxus, Maciunas wrote (by hand):

“Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, “intellectual,” professional & commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art—PURGE THE WORLD OF EUROPANISM!” (sic)

Inspired by the early anti traditionalist works by John Cage, such as 4’33”, a performance, which used silence or ambient noise as music, the Fluxus artists proceeded boldly without traditional musical or conservatory skills into a new definition of music. In order to pay homage to John Cage’s Chance methods of production and the indeterminate results that followed, Fluxus musicians and artists produced “Event Scores,” often of a single word, such as George Brecht’s “EXIT.” “Composition 1960 #10 to Bob Morris” by La Monte Young read: “Draw a straight line and follow it,” and was realized by the late Korean artist, Nam June Paik, in his performance “Zen for Head,” “Destruction in Art,” 1968 symposium and performance by Charlotte Moorman and Paik at the Judson Memorial Church, New York City, in which Moorman repeated Paik’s Word Event by destroying a violin. Because of John Cage’s work on the Prepared Piano, 1941, the piano was the preferred instrument of Fluxus.

The title of Hannah Higgins’2002 book, Fluxus Experience is an apt one, for Fluxus is an experience, difficult to interpret. The historian is very much limited to a description of a fluid and fluctuating event that almost certainly escaped any intentions the instigator may have had. Key to erasing the old-fashioned separation between art (incarcerated in museums) and life (existing everywhere else) was audience participation in the Fluxus experiences. On no account was any spectator allowed to simply spectate. Yoko Ono asked the people who attended her 1965 performance, Cut Piece, to cut off her clothes while she sat still until everyone had had their turn in the acts of “cutting.” According to Fluxus member, Ken Friedman, “The radical contribution Fluxus made (to art) was to suggest that there is no boundary to be erased.”

When the Fluxus artists made objects, they were not called “art” but “Fluxkits.” These Fluxkits were a cross between Duchamp’s Boîte en Valise (1935-40) and a children’s game. One was encouraged to handle, touch, pull, poke, and explore, sometimes at one’s own peril. Annemarie Chandler and Norie Neumark’s 2005 book, At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet, compare Fluxus acts and kits to play or what the authors call “infinite play.” According to the authors, the Fluxus kits were like informal games that are continuous, without beginning, middle or end; play that is “expansive” and as “open ended” as Fluxus discourse that “stresses relations rather than a linear production and discrete pieces of information.” Although there are no particular rules to these forms of free play or activities without purpose, the Fluxus artists had very particular reasons for making these “kits.”

In 2011 the Fluxus artist, Alison Knowles explained that the Fluxkits and mechanized objects were part of an effort to combat “the work of art” hung on a wall with a multimedia and multi-art, as it were, combination of creative encounters. These Fluxkits were extensions of art books which within Fluxus became cans, like containing objects which, unlike unique sculptures, for example, can be replaced. One of the best known Fluxkits was the Finger Box by Ay-O, a wooden box with a set of instructions on the front: “Put your finger in the hole.” The player would insert finger…at his or her own peril. Of course, as soon as Fluxus became encoded into official art history, these playful, toy-like objects became “works of art” and the viewers were discouraged to keep their distance. Sadly, playtime was over.

The humor and the wit of the well-crafted objects in well-constructed boxes are a visual signal that Fluxus was an anti-art movement that sought to make “art” more inclusive. In contrast to Dada, whose surviving members denounced Fluxus, Fluxus did not emerge from the Second World War with the intent of rejecting the entire premise of Western civilization. As the activities of Joseph Beuys would demonstrate, Fluxus was a social and often a political activity the aim of which was to change the world for the better. In 2010, Dorothée Brill argued in Shock and the Senseless in Dada and Fluxus that the difference between neutral and passive position of Abstract Expressionism and Fluxus was the political activism of the decade of the sixties. There are powerful examples of Fluxus as social critique such as Yoko Ono who worked with John Lennon to end the war in Vietnam but ultimately Fluxus was mild-mannered and benign. As one of the pioneers of Fluxus Dick Higgins wrote in his 1979 A Child’s History of Fluxus,

…Fluxus has a life of its own, apart from the old people in it. It is simple things, taking things for themselves and not just as part of bigger things. It is something that many of us must do, at least part of the time. So Fluxus is inside you, is part of how you are. It isn’t just a bunch of things and dramas but is part of how you live. It is beyond words.

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Gutai in Japan

GUTAI 1950-1960

PERFORMANCE ART IN JAPAN

Gutai Art does not alter the material. Gutai Art imparts life to the material. Gutai Art does not distort the material. In Gutai Art, the human spirit and the material shake hands with each other, but keep their distance. The material never compromises itself with the spirit; the spirit never dominates the material. When the material remains intact and exposes its characteristics, it starts telling a story, and even cries out. To make the fullest use of the material is to make use of the spirit. By enhancing the spirit, the material is brought to the height of the spirit.

After the Second World War, Japan, as a defeated culture, could not go backward to its own past and had to go forward into its uncertain future. For the first time in history in August of 1945, atomic bombs had been dropped, unleashing an inconceivable horror upon targets that were largely civilian and were completely untouched by Allied bombing. Because of their pristine condition, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were carefully selected so that the effects of atomic bombing could be fully viewed. The pika don, or blast of light, killed at least two hundred thousand human beings in the two cities, either outright or over time from radiation poisoning and cancers related to the effects of the bomb. Defeat, the Japanese people had been taught was so shameful it could not be bourn. Some individuals escaped disgrace through ritual suicide but the vast majority of the Japanese lived on to experience the Post-War period.

The nation had not just lost a war; it had lost control over its territory and of its culture. The Americans occupied Japan with General Douglas MacArthur becoming a military “Shogun,” presiding over a Westernization of the nation. Artists were faced with stark choices: Westernize and enter an international art world and risk losing an entire history or remain true to indigenous culture, hold firm to tradition, but risk becoming marginalized. Japanese art makers had been conversant with Western art from the turn of the century, but the artists, like most artists in totalitarian societies, were urged to be nationalistic and make “Japanese art.”

Author Bert Winther-Tamaki pointed out that, in isolation, these artists became well known in Japan, but, after the war, they found themselves out of step with international art. In his book, Art in the Encounter of Nations, Japanese and America Artists in the Post War Years, he describes the “Imaizumi storm,” begun when Imaizumi Atsuo returned from the Salon de Mai exhibition in Paris where he saw Japanese art hanging alongside European art. Imaizumi reported the deplorable results to the Japanese in 1952. Winther-Tamaki quoted artist, Kurabara Sumio as saying, “Japanese art faced American art for the first time.”

The Japanese were occupied for seven years, years in which there was a genuine back and forth between the cultures—returning military personnel brought Japanese culture to America and after the War, the artists were suddenly inundated with art from alien cultures, both American and European. The exhibition catalogue, Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky, quotes artist Ushio Shinohara as saying, “…the colorful wrappers of candy handed out by the American GIs were like a magic carpet to another world, the only color of his childhood.” In the early 1950s, against all art world expectations, a Japanese artist, Kenzo Okada (Okada Kenzo), working in the Abstract Expressionist style, achieve some acclaim in Europe. But trying to catch up would not help Japanese artists achieve international status.

Just as the American artists struggled against their European precursors, Japanese artists had to find their own interpretations of modernist art. They looked to the most prominent post-war style, the new American extension of Modernism called Abstract Expressionism. In the end, it was not so much the idea of Abstract Expressionism as painting that was impactful but the concept of Art as Act or Abstract Expressionism as Performance that proved compelling to the avant-garde artists. Information about Jackson Pollock’s kinetic method of painting—walking around a canvas on the floor, flinging paint through the air, pausing to observe the effect, and moving to the next gesture. The idea of Art as Act came to American-occupied Japan from French artist, Georges Mathieu, who, in 1957, dressed in a traditional Japanese kimono and demonstrated “action painting” at the Daimaru Department Store. A newly formed group of Japanese avant-garde artists, already interested in public art works, was ready for the new and radical idea of performance.

The Japanese Group, Gutai Art Association Gutai Bijutsu Kyōkai literally, “Concrete Art Association,” was founded in 1954 by the painter, Yoshihara Jiro (Jiro Yoshihara), who had lived through the Second World War and the atomic bomb. In its 1955 manifesto, the group stated that “Gutai” means “Spirit” (seishin) plus material (busshitsu) or “Matter.” All things of this world are composed of matter and all things of this world have a unique inner spirit. It is the task of the Japanese artist to find and free this spirit from the material. The idea of the artist as an actor was not unknown in Japan. Sumi ink painting had traditionally been an act of expression and liberation on the part the artist. Yoshihara remained committed to painting through the process of Japanese style calligraphy and Japanese painting became performative, improvisational, and process-orientated.

In 1955, the group of twenty artists held a thirteen day, twenty-four hours a day open-air exhibition in a pine forest in Osaka. The legendary “Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Summer Sun” exposed paintings and sculptures to the weather. This combination of the use of nature in relation to painting and sculpture and installation was a fusion of Eastern and Western traditions. In the end some forty-nine artists joined Gutai.

After the war, the traditional artistic language of Japan was liberated from Japanese history and updated to respond to Western Modernism. The question was: how to be Japanese and how to join the international art scene at the same time? Yoshihara who had lived with a ban on abstract Western art, urged his followers to “create what has never existed before.” Liberated from a militaristic regime, he thought of art as an act of freedom. The Other painters included Shozo Shimamoto who made holes in his paintings and reenacted his painting/performances for Life Magazine in 1956 and performed “The First Gutai on Stage Art Show” in 1957.

Shimamoto did not know of Lucio Fontana’s slashing of his canvases with a knife instead of a paintbrush, but the Japanese artist’s works were gestures or records of an encounter between his body and a work of art. Okamoto Taro said, “Gutai art puts the greatest importance on all daring steps which lead to an undiscovered world.” For the leader, Yoshihara, “It is obvious to us that purely formalistic art has lost its charm.”

Kazuo Shiraga had originally belonged to the Zero Society (Zero-kai), which believed that every work of art came from nothing, a sort of ground zero ontology. Indeed, reading between the lines of Japanese post-war art, one comes across the feeling of starting over from scratch—a metaphor for the cities blasted into oblivion. Shiraga was trained in an art school, but in 1954, the artist began painting with his feet by working with mud using his entire body.

Reacting to the cultural void of the MacArthur Occupation of Japan, Saburo Murakami hurled himself through a series of paper screens at the “First Gutai Art Exhibition,” Tokyo, October 1955. Akira Kanayama created paintings objectively with mechanical intervention with a remote controlled toy car that carried paint to canvas. There were few women who participated as artists in either Fluxus or Gutai but among the best-known Gutai works was the electric dress by Atsuko Tanaka of 1956 that conflated the traditional Japanese kimono and industrial technology.

In his book, Radical and Realists in the Japanese Non-Verbal Arts: The Avant-Garde Rejection of Modernism, 2006, by Thomas R. H. Havens discussed how Gutai was not celebrated in its own time and was given its due only after the death of Yoshihara’s death in 1972. Havens stated that the movement was given a major retrospective at the Venice Biennale in 1993. Being included in Western post-War art history was quite a feat for any art movement not located in New York City. Not until the 1980s, did art history begin to catch up with significant movements in Europe and Asia. Because both movements stressed performance and the temporary experimental aspects of art making and art viewing over the production of collectable objects, both Fluxus and Gutai were neglected by art historians. Art Historians of the post-war period were trained to discuss objects, not experiences, and often gave the performance art movements, at most, a passing mention.

Fluxus was better known from the objects left over from the Events or actions. The most famous Fluxus artists, Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik, transcended their Fluxus origins, with Beuys becoming a famous political activist and Paik becoming one of the founding members of the emergence of the video movement in the Sixties. Like the Fluxus artists, Gutai artists were not well known and are still obscure even today. American art historians routinely ignored European and Asian art of the post-war era, assuming that the hegemony of American art was supreme. Gutai was almost unknown to Americans until the 1995 exhibition Scream Against the Sky. However, both movements were important: they were part of the growing number of art movements that challenged the basic ideas and ideals of Modernism. Fluxus and Gutai challenged the primacy of the object and the permanence of art and, therefore, of the importance of the aesthetics of form.

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

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Post-War Culture in America

FROM MODERNISM TO POST-MODERNISM

POST-WAR ART IN AMERICA

After the Second World War, the art world was characterized by “triumphalism” in New York and a feeling of having won, not just a military war but also a cultural war. The French and their School of Paris had been routed. Also defeated was American Scene painting and its nativist illustrations of a naïve nation. Now, the triumphant society would be represented by works of art that expressed America metaphorically, through sheer size or potent symbols. American art, like American culture, was a global phenomenon with New York at its core. There were “secondary” and usually ignored centers in the Midwest (Chicago) and on the West Coast (Los Angeles and San Francisco), but New York seized the lead, consolidating major art critics, major artists, major art dealers, and major art nstitutions, from museums to art departments, and, perhaps most important of all—important art collectors. Until the 1970s, this scene was the site of rival movements, co-existing and reacting dialectically—Abstract Expressionism, Neo-Dada, Pop Art, Fluxus, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, Photo-Realism, Op Art, and so on, until the great seventies dissolve into incoherent Pluralism. It can be said that, after Abstract Expressionism, most of these movements defined and positioned themselves against the aging artists of the New York School and their continuation of the European tradition.

This cacophony of movements was presided over by art critics and art historians who wrote for a small number of magazines that fulfilled the function of legitimation and validation of artists, their art reputations and careers. As a financial town, New York provided the support system willing to invest in contemporary art, but only the art went through the system of approval from what Arthur Danto called “the art world.” Danto and the aesthetician, George Dickie, conceived of the “institutional theory of art,” meaning that “art” was designated, not on an aesthetic basis, but upon the basis of institutional acceptance. From Neo-Dada onwards, the traditional definition of art was in a state of crisis, brought on by the acceptance of Marcel Duchamp’s alternative concepts of art.

Instead of an attractive object, characterized by “taste,” a work of art was a concept. Instead of an artist who worked with hands and heart, the creator was a conceptualist who conceived of art as language. Far more challenging than Duchamp’s insistence that art should be put “in the service of the mind,” was the logical consequences of Dada’s new artistic freedom. If art was a thought manifested by an arbitrarily found object, then any item from the world outside of the confines of fine art could be termed “art.” Once “art” announced itself with its significant presence, its beauty, its grandeur, its profound intentions, by the Sixties, Danto pondered the difference between a “real” Brillo box and a Brillo box by Andy Warhol.

What is the difference between a mural sized field of glorious color titled Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950), a painting hanging on the wall, where it belongs, and Monogram (1955) a stuffed goat with a tire girdling its middle, standing proudly on a canvas, laid down like a “field” on the floor? The gap between the two is the distance between generations, the gulf between America before and after World War II. What happened during the fifties and the sixties to produce such a schism between the nobility of “Man, heroic and sublime” and the ignobility of an abandoned goat, straddling a painted arena, where the heroic artist once did battle with the forces of art and tradition?

The Fifties seemed to be Clement Greenberg’s nightmare of popular culture come true, with the invasion of kitsch—Rauschenberg’s goat and stuffed chickens in the museum just one room away from the abstract purity of Newman’s absolute spiritual state. Life had invaded art in a most unexpected way. Newman’s piece is all about the human spirit at its most glorified, idealized, spiritualized form. Rauschenberg’s work is about life, the quotidian, the overlooked, the ignored. But life in all its inglorious aspects, Rauschenberg is asserting, is worthy of our attention. The distance between Newman and Rauschenberg is the long delayed consideration of Duchamp’s challenge to high art and all its serious pretensions. Instead of the involvement of gesture, we have the detachment of gesture. Instead of the triumph of art, we have the success of art’s acceptance of anything and everything as art.

The ground was fertile for the ideas of Duchamp by the 1950s because of the need to debunk Abstract Expressionism and because of the commercial success of American art. The burgeoning demand allowed the artists scope and freedom to defy rather than to extend and re-define tradition. The success of American art was inseparable from the tragedy of Jackson Pollock. Pollock took a deep breath about 1947 and managed to hold it and his life together for about three years. During this dry spell, Pollock produced some of the most sublime images of the century, and then willfully, capriciously, childishly, he exhaled. His life’s breath drifted out and his art drifted away, and one August night in 1956, Pollock drove his car into a tree, killing himself and a passenger. Great story. American art now had its martyr. The New York School now had its Grand Récit, complete with the tragic arc. Greenberg would recall Pollock’s “run” of about ten years, leaving behind a cult of personality and a Studio full of relics and a keeper of the flame, “the art widow,” Lee Krasner.

In order for the art world to move on, this hagiography had to be combatted. Piece by piece the vaunted characteristics of Abstract Expressionism would be attacked and discredited and discarded, and by the Eighties, the movement was consigned to a Modernist history. Ironically, the “triumph” of the New York School was immediately followed by the challenge of Neo-Dada. Neo-Dada eschewed originality for appropriation, bringing the jewel in the crown of modernism—creativity—to an end. It is here that Modernism ends and Postmodern begins. The art world’s continuing challenges to Modernism and its defenders, Clement Greenberg and his followers, would be expanded to that of a critique of Enlightenment and all that it had wrought. That critique was Postmodernism. Postmodernism was a re-examination of Modernism and was based in philosophy and literary theory, rather than in the visual arts or aesthetics. Therefore, postmodernism could not generate a style or a movement.

As a philosophical critique, postmodernism or post-structuralism was a European phenomenon, dating from the decade of the mid to late Fifties to Sixties. Fueled by the collapse of the Left, following “May, 1968” in France, postmodernism was a re-reading of Enlightenment philosophy, a philosophy that had proved inadequate to the challenges of the Twentieth Century. In Germany, postmodernism was really a form of post-Marxism, again, generated by the inadequacy of traditional Marxism to social and cultural changes, especially mass media. As an exercise of re-examination, postmodernism took the stance of “belatedness,” everything had already been done, all had been said, and the kind of historical progress promised by the Enlightenment was unlikely to occur.

For years, most Americans in the art world paid little attention to postmodern theories, whether out of philosophy or literary theory. The reason for this neglect are various and include American self-satisfaction with the leadership position in visual culture, the slowness of translation, and the entrenchment of traditional art historical methods. When Americans became aware of the significance of postmodern thinking in the 1980s, most of the important works had either been written or were well underway. Suddenly belated, American art could only try to respond and to catch up to European thinking. The visual arts shifted into “theory” and language and philosophy, as artists began to critique Modernist art and to reject or re-examine its precepts.

With the occasional exception excluding women and people of color, the post-war art world was an all male, all white enclave. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Women’s Movement of the 1970s challenged the art world and revealed the racism and the sexism that favored the production of white men. After the Stonewall Uprising in 1968 and especially after AIDS, the gay and lesbian community also demanded more visibility. Coincidentally or not, postmodernism became prominent in America during the Reagan presidency, which was characterized by attempts to roll back the gains of women and people of color and by neglect of the AIDS epidemic. Because postmodernism re-reads traditions of the past, it is an inherently conservative study, re-examining the work of white males, mostly dead. That said, “theory,” especially post-Marxist theory provided women, gays and lesbians, and people of color a theoretical basis to challenge the more reactive elements of postmodern theory.

For the visual arts the consequences were profound: there was freedom and anarchy and lack of a center. Without an avant-garde, postmodern artists seemed doomed to reactiveness to the past. But folded into the postmodern period, were Late Enlightenment adaptations of social theories, co-existing with postmodern assertions that revolution was now impossible. The so-called “minorities” had the tools to resist the hegemony of the status quo. The question that begs to be asked is, if late modernism and postmodernism co-mingle, when did postmodernism begin or when did modernism end? The answer depends upon where you are, which culture you come from—the Sixties in Europe, the Eighties in America—in terms of response to Enlightenment philosophy. But if one uses another criteria, “the postmodern condition,” then the shift is more cultural, rooted in mass media, and therefore global. This “condition” that is Postmodernism is a post-war response to the loss of mastery and the disillusionment in a disenchanted world.

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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