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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Erwin Panofsky and Iconography, Part Three

ERWIN PANOFSKY AND ICONOGRAPHY

Part Three: Icon, Iconography and Iconology

As has often been pointed out, the exodus of Jewish scholars from Germany was one of the greatest brain drains of talent of the 20th or any other century. “Hitler shakes the trees, and I pick up the apples.” This famous quote is attributed to Walter Cook who founded the Fine Arts Department of New York University ( now the Institute of Fine Arts, also known as “The Institute) and moved his scholars to a brownstone next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to Harry Bober in “The Gothic Tower and the Stork Club,” Panofsky was “one of the more resplendent golden apples, joining the department in 1931. The ideas of Erwin Panofsky and how they were employed or not have depended upon trends in art history. When Panofsky became part of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University (called “The Institute” by those in the know) in 1933, his iconographical system found a permanent home . The discipline of art history in America was greatly enriched by his intellectual and philosophical approach and put what was still a relatively new field of study in his new country on a sounder footing.

Because many of its scholars were Jewish, art history was hunted from Europe by the Nazis. They fled to America, bringing with them concepts based upon European philosophy that were ill-understood by their new students. Traditionally, the American version of his signature idea: iconography, was greatly simplified into a clunky game of matching symbols (icon) to symbolism (iconography), while neglecting the cultural basis for the meanings (iconology). That said, when Panofsky arrived at Princeton with his Kantian-inspired system, he met with opposition from another branch of Kantian thought–formalist art history and yet another bastion of artistic thought, Marxism. For art historians, Marxist thought or the assertion of Karl Marx that the economy was the “secret engine” of society, was a fruitful way of examining a work of art, for a Marxist analysis would remove the “veil” of the “natural” and reveal the economic basis of the work itself. Formalist art historians, however, preferred to look directly at the work itself and not at the society that produced it. Rather than thinking of these two methods as complementing each other or as adding to a fuller picture of the art, the discipline tended to place Formalism and Marxism as polar (and political) opposites.

When Panofsky arrived in America, the formalism of Heinrich Wölfflin’s approach to “style” and the materialism of Marxism had become the leading modes of art historical and art critical thinking. The Marxist approach, exemplified by the writings of Meyer Schapiro (1914-1996), was on full view in Schapiro’s famous battle with Alfred Barr (1902-1981), the director of MoMA. Barr’s famous 1936 “Chart” of avant-garde movements in his catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art removed art from any historical or cultural context and presented the movements as independent of social forces. In comparison to Barr’s art-for-art’s sake approach, Schapiro was a life-long Marxist who had more in common with Walter Benjamin than with the more orthodox Marxist art historian, Arnold Hauser. Before and after the Second World War, Formalism and Marxism, softened semantically to the “social” approach to art history, were the dominant modes of art history methodology, but, due to its political connections, Marxism waned and Panofsky’s iconography moved to the fore. But when Marxism made a comeback during the sixties and seventies, the symbolic meaning of art receded until the late 1980s and early 1990s with the books of Michael Podro’s The Critical Historians of Art and his student, Michael Ann Holly’s Panofsky’ and the Foundations of Art History. Panofsky’s methods were seen as part of The New Art History or a more modern way of looking at art in historical context, one of Panofsky’s basic tenets.

As Holly’s book outlines, Panofsky’s intellectual antecedents were complex. As an art historian, he felt that his primary task was to make sure that his studies of works of art rested on a firm foundation or to establish an epistemology of art history. In his opinion, the Formalist methodology of Heinrich Wölfflin was founded on a particular judgment or a personal interpretation of the stylistic elements of any given work of art, and that, therefore, the observations of Wölfflin or any other formalist art historian did not have the necessary epistemological depth. What Panosksy wanted to do was to provide art history with a Kantian a priori, to fix art historical methods in the realms of a universal or necessary judgment. It would take Panofsky two decades to work out his approach and he would deploy his intellectual heritage from pre-war Germany to do so.

For the early art historians, the most important fields of study, indeed the founding fields of the discipline, were the art of Antique, Medieval and Renaissance periods. It is this sweep of Western civilization, told as a series of recurrences of the classical culture and as the struggle to find and retain the powers of reason. Panofsky was the student of Aby Warburg who was fascinated with the recurrence of persistent motifs in art and literature, stretching from ancient times to the Renaissance. Panofsky’s early writings reflect Warburg’s interest in the motifs of Renaissance art, but, as Michael Podro pointed out, Warburg combined Georg Hegel’s dialectic of conflict: thesis and anti-thesis with Sigmund Freud’s belief that society was forced to repress primal instincts and desires of human beings in order to govern its members. Warburg noted the tensions (dialectic) in Renaissance art, the tensions of psychological repressions, and the struggle of the artists and writers to overcome the “superstitions” of the medieval Church.

Panofsky gently swerved away from his mentor’s Freudian or psychological method and turned to the more secure neo-Kantian approach of philosopher Ernst Cassirer and that of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. As Michael Podro pointed out,

What then could provide an absolute viewpoint form which we might elucidate a painting or a building? Panofsky takes as a model for the kind of interpretation he wants the Kantian conception of what makes a judgment scientific. What makes a judgment about the world a scientific judgment, as opposed to a merely personal report, is its causal character, and this causal character or structure is not, in Kant’s view, derived empirically but is injected into experience by the mind…What was important for Panofsky was that it was assumed to be a concept we did not derive from experience but one which we brought to experience in order to give it its intelligibility.

The central problem that faces any historian is that of anachronism—-of looking at history from the standpoint of the present and for Panofsky the way to solve this inherent difficulty was to remain firmly fixed in the culture of the work of art itself, not the culture of the present time. The problem of anachronism was also the problem of Formalism, i.e. that observation had to have a causal component beyond the thing observed and reported upon. It was not until 1939 that Panofsky published a series of articles/lectures that certainly stemmed from his work as a professor at the Institute, Studies in Iconology. To study “iconology” is to study the meaning of a work of art: the meaning that was embedded in the culture, the meaning that was in the mind of the artist, consciously or not as a kind of “collective unconscious.” In the introduction of this book, the art historian establishes his methodology: what he was opposed to and how he resolved the problems of meaning and interpretation of works of art. Panofsky began his Studies with this statement:

Iconography is that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form. Let us, then, try to define the distinction between subject matter or meaning on the one hand and form on the other…The meaning thus discovered may be called intrinsic meaning or content; it is essential where the two other kinds of meaning, the primary or natural and the secondary or conventional, are phenomenal. It may defined as a unifying principle which underlies and explains both the visible event and its intelligible significance, and which determines even the form in which the visible event takes shape. This intrinsic meaning or content is, of course, as much above the sphere of conscious volitions as the expressional meaning is beneath this sphere.

Panofksy established a layered or step-by-step method that was slow and deliberate, requiring an extensive education on not just the work of art but also of its culture of origin. The tripartite iconographical method of layered meanings or strata, has its basis not just in the Warburgian notion of motif but also in the ideas of Saussure. If, for the linguist Saussure, words were signs that were signifiers for the thing signified, than for Panofsky, the work of art could be understood as a visual language in terms of the sign, signifier and the signified or icon, iconography, and iconology. Panofsky continued his opposition to formalism by stating that the “pre-iconographical description” was a “pseudo-formal analysis,” but that this first take was a “practical experience” that was “controlled” by the history of style. Moving up from the bottom to the next layer or level of meaning, Panofsky introduced the “secondary” or “iconographical analysis” that required “knowledge of literary sources that concerned historical themes or concepts.” It is with the last or highest level of interpretation that Panofsky acknowledged Ernst Cassirer: iconology is the “intrinsic meaning,” that is, the “iconological interpretation” is the history of “cultural symptoms” or the “essential tendencies of the human mind.”

Although subsequently in American art history, Panofsky’s Hegelian methods have often stalled at the iconographical level with few art historians being willing to look for the “symbolic forms” or “symptoms” in works of art. Part of the reason for the impoverished use of Panofsky is the inevitable loss of intellectual background when the art historian emigrated to America, and another reason for the loss of the philosophical background was the division of universities and colleges into distinct departments, dividing disciplines, like history, art history and philosophy, which were in actuality part of one another into artificially separated entities. As Holly pointed out,

Art historians not acquainted with the background of many of Panofsky’s ideas frequently see in his later work merely a practical program for the deciphering of specific and not-so-hidden symbols in visual images. Iconology, despite Panofsky’s emphasis on semantics, is still understood as only a slightly more refined and sophisticated version of iconography.

Just as the three layers of meaning combine Saussure and Cassirer, Panofsky’s famous concept of “disguised symbolism,” developed in his 1953 essay Early Netherlandish Painting, reveals his neo-Kantian insistence on finding the epistemology for a work of art and in establishing the epistemology for art history. Art is embedded in a épistémè that is clearly visible in Netherlandish painting of Jan van Eyck, but in Panofsky’s account of late Medieval art in Northern Europe, we find echoes of Warburg. Here is an artist, van Eyck, who is part of a “superstitious” spiritual culture but who is also living in a new world of reason and science. “A way had to be found to reconcile the new naturalism with a thousand years of Christian tradition,” Panofsky wrote and noted that “The more the painters rejoiced in the discovery and reproduction of the visible world, the more intensely did they feeel the need to saturate all its elements with meaning.” To miss this mind set, this struggle between faith and science is to miss, not just Panofsky’s epistemology of art history but also to miss the meaning of the work of art itself.

The first post in the series discussed Panofsky’s intellectual background with the second post explaining the idea of symbolic form.

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

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

[email protected]

Podcast Episode 28: Gustave Courbet, Part One

THE RURAL REALISM OF GUSTAVE COURBET

Part One

As a self-proclaimed “Realist” in a highly charged political atmosphere, Gustave Courbet challenged the conventions of the French Salon system. For ten years, Courbet had waited his chance to break through in the Parisian Salons but his provincial outsider status made him an “outsider” artist. However, the Revolution of 1848 gave the artist an opportunity and his subject matter changed to life in the small towns of France. During the 1850s, Courbet confronted the indignant bourgeoisie audience of Paris with the realities of small town French life on large scale canvases. These huge paintings elevated peasant life to the status of history paintings and the lower classes to the level of heroes. This podcast follows the construction of the career of Gustave Courbet during the critical decade of the 1850s.

Also listen to “Gustave Courtbet, Part Two”

and “Sincerity and Artifice in French Realism”

and “European Realism, Part One” and “European Realism, Part Two”

Read “Gustave Courbet”

 

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

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 Episode 8: Formalism and Romanticism

ROMANTICISM AND CHANGING METHODOLOGIES

IN ART HISTORY

What is the impact of methodologies of art history upon the recounting of the history of art? A methodology is a way of telling or constructing the past. This act of re-construction is, in fact, as Hayden White expressed, “a tropic of discourse.” However, a trope can be so completely absorbed into the accepted discourse of received wisdom that it become invisible. When the actual documented history of art is filtered through the invisible trope, this lived history is reshaped according—not to events or to objects—but to the trope itself. In the 1980s, the familiar methodology of formalism, which had presented a very particular account of Romanticism, was challenged by a new method, one which stressed the social and historical context for artistic production.

This podcast delineates the connections between the art historical methodology of Formalism, as developed by Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1947), and the concept of Romanticism. Romanticism was the movement in which the concepts of painting changed from “academic” to “modern.” Until New Art History reintroduced the importance of context, the approach of “art history without names” reigned supreme. How did the uneasy mix of history and methodology change the history of art? What recent corrections were made to retell the history of art history?

Also listen to: “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part One” and “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part One,” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part Two”

Also read: “French Romanticism: The Historical Context” and “The French Academy: Painting” and “French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist” and “French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde”

 

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