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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Edmund Husserl and Philosophy

EDMUND HUSSERL (1859 – 1938)

It is the dead date of Edmund Husserl that is of great interest. The fact that the philosopher died in the year 1938 speaks volumes of, not just his fate, but the history of the reception of his work. Like the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, Husserl was a Jewish scholar in Hitler’s Germany and was all but doomed. Unlike the theoreticians at the Institute for Social Research, Husserl apparently made no attempt to leave his homeland. The fact that Husserl and his wife, the daughter of a renowned Jewish scholar, had converted to Christianity mattered little to the Nazis who were obsessed with “blood.” Exclusionary laws passed between 1933 and 1937 pushed Jews out of public life and Husserl was pushed out of his home university at Freiberg by the very man he had mentored, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s complicity with the Nazi regime was but part of a general eagerness on the part of German intellectuals to make a “Faustian bargain,” as it were with Der Führer. As Robert P. Ericksen wrote in Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany,

the Nazi regime actually found enthusiastic support in German universities during the transition of 1933, from students and faculty alike, and Nazis were effective in weeding out Jews and left-wing critics, thoroughly and without mercy. For the rest of the Nazi period, the atmosphere at German universities seems to have been one of enthusiastic support for the new regime and its politics, rather than resistance or criticism.

For what appear to be historical reasons—the interruption of the free flow of philosophical ideas and writing from Germany during the ten year period of the Third Reich—there was a delay in the reception of the philosophy of Husserl. But one must consider also the fact that the thought of Husserl evolved: from a focus on mathematics to logic to psychology, until after decades of deep and complex meditations on the ontology and then on the epistemology of things, he settled on phenomenology as a means to explicate the foundation of reality. Husserl considered his approach to phenomenon as being akin to the transcendentalism of Kant, with whom he found an affinity, and, in his desire to transcend to a universality for a firmly grounded philosophy, he was also akin to Georg Hegel in his absolutism. Husserl’s longing to construct a philosophy of universality began in earnest after the Great War, a war that killed one son and wounded another. He translated his sentiments into a scientific approach to the problem of who we encounter or perceive objects. By rejecting situational interpretations, Husserl attempted to eliminate relativity. The Nazis also despised relativity, but they interpreted the philosopher as being inclusive, which is somewhat different from universal. In the end it was an epistemological system of the universal that was facing a racist ideology of purity and superiority, and, given that his earlier work was tainted with anti-war sentiments, Husserl was simply could not win such a contest.

As Dermont Moran relates in Edmund Husserl: Founder of Phenomenology, although Husserl was forbidden to publish in Germany, the elderly scholar continued an active lecture schedule and he continued to write until he fell ill and died. His former colleagues at his university refrained from attending his funeral, but those who admired his work, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, gathered together his unpublished manuscripts, which were salvaged for publication throughout the 1950s. Thus Husserl’s oeuvre gradually became available in English in time to filter into American universities so that by the 1960s, graduate students, even those in the arts, could be come conversant with that aspect of his very varied writings with which the philosopher became most identified: phenomenology. And, in turn, phenomenology provided the language for the artists and critics associated with the Minimalist art movement, who were seeking to provide a philosophical framework for reductive shapes which aspired for “objecthood.” Although there is much in Husserl’s thought that seems to relate to the New York art world, from the materialistic formalism of Clement Greenberg and his followers to the very antithesis of Greenbergian formalism, Minimal Art, it is well to remember that Husserl was not translated into English until the 1960s and 1970s and any art world knowledge of his work would have been second hand.

Husserl’s long search for an unshakable ground for philosophy came to fruition in 1907—the year of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage—when he gave a series of lectures which were developed later as The Idea of Phenomenology. True to his methodical nature, he was more of a note maker than a manuscript writer, Husserl’s follow up books, Ideen I and Ideen II, evolved slowly during and after the Great War. Although there were treasure troves of unpublished work, these are the seminal works for phenomenology. For Fernand de Saussure and for Ludwig Wittgenstein, the proper study of philosophy was language or Logos, which is fully expressed in speech. However, for Husserl the proper domain of philosophy was a special kind of seeing, called phenomenology or that which is based upon discernible phenomena. Given that this is a philosopher who was trained in mathematics and logic and who swerved towards a neo-Kantian perspective, it is clear that Husserl would examine the relationship between the human subject and the world of material culture or objects in the world.

Phenomenology begins of course, with the dialectical logic of Georg Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit and ends with Husserl who, many will argue, is the end point of Western philosophy. Given that Husserl regarded philosophy as a universal science and sought to uncover an absolute foundation of knowledge, phenomenology is the totality of human objectivity that creates a “transcendental subjectivity” or a universal ego. It is the human mind who not only recognizes the Other—objects, other people—but which also structures these experiences. This is where Husserl is in agreement with Kant but Husserl, the mathematician, the logician, must cordon off these experiences in such as a way to purify them so that these phenomena can truly be known.

A “phenomenon” is an entity as it appears to the unconscious. All being is being for consciousness. In other words, objects exist independently of consciousness. Kant insisted that, even if this were so, these objects were inaccessible except through mediation; but Husserl asserted that it was possible to recover lost origin by disclosing the (Kantian) constructive activity of consciousness. Although neither Friedrich Nietzsche nor Wittgenstein were interested in recovering lost origins, Husserl’s quest is for clarity and “complete clearness” in philosophy. He believed that phenomenology was a special kind of seeing that could be cultivated through an operation called “bracketing.” Bracketing in math is simply a way of setting off or aside a grouping of numbers with parentheses or square, curly or angled brackets. Bracketing is separating a set of numbers in order to act upon them in a certain manner. And thus is a phenomena can be set aside or apart or “bracketed” from its cultural surroundings, it can be “seen” in a more rigorous or universal or essential fashion. This “reduction” of surrounding noise is referred to by Husserl as an “eidetic” reduction that is capable of transcending the relativity of that which lies outside the brackets.

Possibly because of his disillusionment towards the War or more possibly due to his foundation in logic, Husserl was suspicious of early Twentieth Century pragmatism and its relativity. Worse than the turn towards relativity, Kantian “disinterest” had become fatally entangled with “naturalism” which extended knowledge of nature to the psychic processes as thought they, too, were natural objects. In other words, the natural attitude or reaction of humans was to impose their personal (relative) understandings or interpretations upon a circumstance or thing. These mis-directions that had been allowed in philosophy had caused a crisis that Husserl saw as solvable by a return to the ideal of rational certainty, pioneered by the Greeks. Like those philosophers of the nineteenth century, Husserl admired the Greeks and considered them the first Moderns because the Greeks, in contrast to the other cultures of their era, were able to disentangle themselves from the “mythico-religious” and to attend to the theoretical or philosophical aspects of life. To be sure that one would achieve clarity and rationality, one must take what Husserl called the Natural Standpoint or the phenomenological stance. What we experience from this stance is the “fact-world.” But we are then instructed to doubt this fact world, that is, we are asked to suspend “belief” and make more pure “judgments” about this world.

We bracket the object in this fact-world in that we take the object “out of action”, we “disconnect” ourselves from our “interest” in or knowledge of this object, and thus we detach ourselves from the object. From this attitude of Husserlian disinterestedness, we now possess a “unique form of consciousness.” We now see differently and what we see are the “essences” of things. Husserl calls the result of this “transcendentally reduced experience” to be the self-appearance, the self-exhibiting, the self-giveness of objects themselves. We are and have become directly aware of objects, not just their appearances but their thing-ness, their very existence. In other words, we have bracketed out that which is extrinsic to the object and become fully into its presence and reflect upon the way in which the object is present for the consciousness. Husserl was not so much concerned with the meaning of the objects as with their existence as evidence. Husserl considered himself as an “archaeologist” like Freud, but he did not excavate for meaning but for an origin–what the object is in existence: the being of the object. Rather than a unity, according to Husserl, consciousness then is a flow of realizations in experience of the object that allow the object to come into being for the subject.

Within this flow through a process of “unfolding” of layers or strata of consciousness, what is sought is the ‘foundedness” of the object . The result of the stance of phenomenology would be a “rigorous disengagement” and ”systemic neutrality” towards phenomenon. Ultimately, Husserl’s influence expanded and the method of bracketing would hopefully achieve the certainty and clarity in philosophy that he desired. The philosopher was part of a larger group of philosophers concerned with the mechanisms of consciousness—not psychology—from Bergson to Merleau-Ponty. Thanks to their continued interest in his work, Husserl’s Ideas: General Introduction in Pure Phenomenology was eventually published in English in 1931 but the only work he considered as complete at his death, Die Krisis der eruopäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenoligie, delivered as lectures in 1935 and 1936, would not be published until 1954. Although, with hindsight, we can see Husserl as part of a larger phenomenon played out in the arts as the “new objectivity,” Husserl’s philosophy was, like the art of the Thirties, caught up in the rising tide of the next war. Like many creators of his generation, Husserl would have to wait for a new generation, emerging after the Second World War, to appreciate his ideas. Until then, the world would be propelled into catastrophe by belief systems and ideology that shaped a destructive force in Nazi Germany, which resulted in one of the greatest brain drains in modern times as scholars fled to America.

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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Conceptual Art and Philosophy, Part One

THE PHILOSOPHY OF MINIMAL ART

PART ONE

To discuss the relationships of artists to any particular philosopher or to discuss the relationship of any work of art to philosophy is to enter upon dangerous ground. First, artists are not philosophers. They may study philosophy or they may have taken courses on philosophy in college, but artists are not trained as philosophers. Such training takes years and must extend to graduate school and beyond. Any knowledge an artist would have of philosophy would have to be casual, piecemeal, and unsystematic. Second, artists are not illustrators; they are artists. No artist would reduce his or her art to an “illustration” of a philosophical precept. That said, serious artists discussed difficult philosophers seriously when explaining their art. So what the the art audience to make of the philosophical claims of art based upon concepts? As Sol Le Witt wrote in Paragraphs on Conceptual Art (1967),

Conceptual art doesn’t really have much to do with mathematics, philosophy or any other mental discipline. The mathematics used by most artists is simple arithmetic or simple number systems. The philosophy of the work is implicit in the work and is not an illustration of any system of philosophy.

When it comes to Minimal Art what is “implicit” or obvious is that the artists were basing their works on a system. Minimalism was concerned with systems with components arranged or conducted according to a system. The choice of system is personal for the artist and this choice sets limits to system. Minimalist Art is characterized by a basic composition that used over and over, featuring materials that are factual and empirical and concrete. Because the artist determines the system, the end state of the installation is known prior to completion. Once again, Sol Le Witt explained how the system worked,

I will refer to the kind of art in which I am involved as conceptual art. In conceptual art the idea of concept is the most important aspect of the work.1 When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. This kind of art is not theoretical or illustrative of theories; it is intuitive, it is involved with all types of mental processes and it is purposeless. It is usually free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman. It is the objective of the artist who is concerned with conceptual art to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator, and therefore usually he would want it to become emotionally dry.

Without claiming that the artist in question has deployed any “system” in particular, Minimalist painting also uses a priori or pre-existing systems or concepts. The system is a (thought) process, which occurs off canvas and develops an economy of form or of procedure. The paintings of Brice Marden are a case in point. His early works were simple fields of color, divided into two or three colors and his later works were curvilinear calligraphic tracings over the canvas. This writing or doodling was contained within the shape of the support. In his early works, Marden avoided figure-ground contrast, meaning that the entire painting becomes a unit.

As a concept, Minimalist painting is Oedipal in that it, like the three dimensional objects, is an oppositional gesture against Abstract Expressionism. Minimal art, including painting, is non-expressionist and is guided by a pre-existing conceptual order that rules the outcome with a relentless clarity. Lacking any reference to the outside world, the work of art is defined by artistic order, determined by a priori decisions, which are the antithesis of artistic thinking. In explaining The Serial Attitude (1967), Mel Bochner wrote,

In linguistic analysis, language is often considered as a system of elements without as- signed meanings (“uninterpreted systems”). Such systems are completely permutational, having grammatical but not semantic rules. Since there can be no system without rules of arrange- ment, this amounts to the handling of language as a set of probabilities. Many interesting observations have been made about uninterpreted systems which are directly applicable to the investigation of any array of elements obeying fixed rules of combination. Studies of isomor- phic (correspondence) relationships are especially interesting. Practically all systems can be rendered isomorphic with a system containing only one serial relation.

Minimalism is making a statement that art is intrusive in that art is Other than the ordinary object and comes into the world without useful purpose and unnatural in that art is not necessarily an extension of the human being or of individual subjectivity. Like Minimalist installations, Minimalist painting is phenemonological in that the entire being of an object is based upon appearance which is the limits of knowledge. In fact Bochner quoted Ludwig Wittgenstein in his essay: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

Art, for the Minimalists, is based on application of rigorous governing logic but what is the connection between systems, logic and phenomenology? That would be Edumnd Husserl, the philosopher whose work is often termed the “first philosophy.” His 1901 book The Logical Investigations posited a “truth” of mathematics or simple arithmetic (the sort the Minimalists favored) that could not be impacted or changed by conditions on the ground (empirical evidence) or human psychology (feelings and subjectivity).

In Idea I (Ideas on a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy, 1913) Husserl dealt with human consciousness on its most basic terms. Any mind (consciousness) must have an object to focus upon in order for it—the individual—to have an awareness of things. In other words, the philosopher was concerned with the consciousness of the object and not necessarily upon the object itself. The important point here is that, although it is the focus or focal point, the object itself is secondary to the ignition of consciousness (awareness). What is significant is the act of intention or intentionality. It is this intention which is directed towards an object that allows objective meaning.

The kind of consciousness must be concentrated and must achieve a state of epoché, meaning a suspension or bracketing of any external meanings or considerations or knowledge of the existing form. The result is pure consciousness as the result of phenomenological reduction. For Husserl, the “truth” of the object must be intuitive or necessary. He distinguished between empirical intuition and the intuition of essences. In other words, one must not confuse the representation of a thing with its essence or, to put it another way, one must not confuse psychology with intuition which shows that which is necessary and essential.

Minimalism, whether three-dimensional or two dimensional, presents objects that insist on being independent things in their own right. The objects are governed by empirical and pre-existing systems that allow a kind of “bracketing” on the part of the viewer who is thwarted from seeing Minimal Art as “art.” As with Robert Ryman’s white paintings, these systems are regular, thorough, and might seem repetitive, even though the process pursued by the artist must be methodical, consistent, and progressive in the sense that no system is ever complete.

Minimal Art is often described as the beginning of the “anti-aesthetic,” or the end of the eighteenth century definition of art. Aesthetics, in its simplest form, is the grounds of condition of the existence of art. But in the eighteenth century, “art” was linked to “beauty” which, in turn, emanated from the Greek ideal. No where are these implicit and unquestioned assumptions expressed more fully than in Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795). In Letter XX, Schiller wrote to his patron, Friedrich Christian:

Thus, to pass from sensation to thought, the soul traverses a medium position, in which sensibility and reason are at the same time active, and thus they mutually destroy their determinant power, and by their antagonism produce a negation. This medium situation in which the soul is neither physically nor morally constrained, and yet is in both ways active, merits essentially the name of a free situation; and if we call the state of sensuous determination physical, and the state of rational determination logical or moral, that state of real and active determination should be called the æsthetic.

Like Husserl, Schiller was writing during a period of great social conflict. But the two writers came to different conclusions. Schiller saw aesthetics as being a middle ground where beauty could be a refuge from the dialectics and opposing influences that were tearing his world apart. Husserl, horrified by the irrationality of the Great War spent the rest of his career attempting to cancel out subjectivity. As Gianfranco Soldati explained in Husserl: a Short Intellectual Biography,

Husserl had learned the lesson and from that moment on he started to inquire into the reasons that could have led a society scientifically and technologically so advanced into irrationality and moral disaster…he suggested that philosophers have underestimated the importance of the critical role their discipline has to play with respect to modern science and society…It is in this context that Husserl introduced the famous, albeit equivocal notion of the Lebenswelt, the life-world, a notion that plays a crucial role in Crisis (of the European Sciences) (which)…led Husserl to recognise that a full understanding of human consciousness and of its products could not be attained without considering the role society as a whole, with its history and culture, played with respect to it. A phenomenological analysis of the life-world, of the world as it appears to us in our daily experience, ought to endow us with the critical means to evaluate the human, existential and moral import of scientific theories along with any other cultural product in its historical evolution…

This description of the final years of a great (and disillusioned) philosopher who died in 1938 is particularly interesting in light of the assertion of artist Joseph Kosuth that Conceptual Art, or as he called it “CA,” was the product of the Viet Nam War. Part Two of this discussion on Conceptual Art and Philosophy will discuss the Wittgenstein Connection.

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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Conceptual Art

ART AS IDEA—IDEA AS ART

At mid-century, the question of what is art? was raised again for the first time since Emmanuel Kant wrote the Critique of Judgment in 1781. Starting in the mid-fifties, Neo-Dada art and Minimal Art challenged the presumed Modernist definition of “art,” as channeled through Clement Greenberg’s theories. Neo-Dada artists did not create, instead they borrowed and appropriated already available imagery. Pop artists mocked the pretensions of “high” art with their mimicry of “low” art. Minimal artists did not make works of art, they arranged encounters for the audience. If there was no difference between art and life, if there was no difference between the object and the spectator, if there was no such thing as independent art, if there was no sacred art space, then what was art? and why was this object designated as “Art?”

By the end of the Sixties, the art world was splintered and fragmented between the lingering effects of Modernism and the continuing tributes to Abstract Expressionism and new challenges to the hegemony of European high Modernism and to the aging Greenberg himself. Anti-modernist Pop Art and Minimalist Art and Fluxus and pro-modernist Post-Painterly Abstraction existed side by side, but in 1970, Conceptual Art emerged out of Duchampian-based interrogations of Modernism. As a movement that generated works of art, Conceptual Art might have been less important for its disdain of objects than for the fact that it presided over the final act of Modernism.

In 1964, it was a suite of Brillo boxes re-fashioned by Andy Warhol that stopped critic Arthur Danto in his tracks at the Stable Gallery. Clearly, a new theory of aesthetics—a new definition of “art”—had to be conceived. In his 1964 essay on The Artworld, Danto pondered this state of affairs:

What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo Box is a certain theory of art. It is the theory that takes it up into the world of art, and keeps it from collapsing into the real object which it is (in a sense of is other than that of artistic identification). Of course, without the theory, one is unlikely to see it as art…

Independently, philosopher George Dickie began to refashion aesthetic theory and in 1974 something new emerged: the Institutional Theory of Art, which states that “art” is legitimated by institutional processes. Art does not exist on aesthetic grounds and has no inherent or intrinsic properties. Art is an object “annointed” by the art world. The new functional analysis of the suitability of a candidate for the designation as “art” takes place within the institutional frame and destroys any possibility of the nominalism established by Greenberg.

Questioned by the intellectuals and attacked by artists, formalism collapsed. By 1968, Conceptual artist, Joseph Kosuth completed the destruction of Modernism by revealing that the “quality” upon which high art was based was nothing more than “taste,” and the taste of Clement Greenberg himself—one man with a good eye for art. “Above all,” he wrote, “Clement Greenberg is the critic of taste. Behind every one of his decisions is an aesthetic judgment, with those judgments reflecting his taste.” In addition, Kosuth pointed out, the “condition” or definition of art rested upon “morphological” grounds—physical attractiveness. In contrast to the formalists who did not question the received concept of art, the role of the artist was to question the very notion that art had to be an object.

Although Kosuth would be connected to Conceptual Art, his essay is a definitive re-positioning of art. Based upon Marcel Duchamp’s criticisms of “retinal art,” Kosuth’s essay, “Art After Philosophy,” 1969, was a definitive art critical end to Greenberg’s Modernism. Kosuth suggested that an act of art was an act of language.

Works of art are analytic propositions. That is, if viewed within their context ± as art ± they provide no information whatsoever about any matter of fact. A work of art is atautology in that it is a presentation of the artist¶s intention, that is, he is saying that that particular work of art is art, which means, is a definition of art.

TRANSITION TO POSTMODERNISM

The late 1960s and the early 1970s is a time marked by an artistic withdrawal from the established art rules and by a distaste for making saleable objects. Conceptual Art was the first important gesture against the highly profitable art market, attracting artists who refused to make things anymore and/or who had a more intellectual bent. Sol LeWitt was an important transitional figure between Minimal and Conceptual art, and many Minimal artists drifted towards Conceptual art. According to LeWitt’s well-known dictum, “The idea is the machine which makes the art.” The term “conceptual” Itself had been around since the early 1960s, meaning art, which was not sufficiently expressive or personal. The German art movement, Fluxus, was considered “conceptual,” but Sol LeWitt’s 1967, essay, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” gave the term its first theoretical exegesis. By 1969 the term referred to the works of Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner. Thanks to the first exclusively Conceptual exhibition, January 5 – 31, 1969, arranged by Seth Siegelaub, their dealer, Conceptual Art announced itself. The object had been eliminated in favor of the idea.

Art became Philosophy. Art was now understood to be an idea that could be expressed in language and did not need to become an object. The Art-Language group in London published “Art and Language Point of View” in Art-Language magazine in 1967, stressing the fundamental role of language in the development of art. This group consisted of Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin, Howard Hurrel who worked with Ian Burn and Mel Ramsden. Conceptual artist from London to Tokyo to New York began to foreground the mental processes of the artist and to present, not works of art, but ideas about art in the form of declarations, statements and documentations of artist’s activities. As Raoul Noortmann wrote in 2012,

It can be argued that Art & Language is the most interesting expression of the resistance of conceptual artists against an alleged oppressive discourse in this decade. Their journal stood as an independent force within the artworld of this decade.

Written material, such as artist’s books and dealers’ catalogs, were presented as evidence of the mental activities of the Conceptual artists. Following the lead of the Minimal artists, these Conceptual artists took an active part in art writing. The writing of Conceptual Art was not intended to be either a work of art or of art criticism but an artist’s idea, which takes the place of a now-unnecessary art object. In contrast to Minimal art which had emphasized the perceptual experience of an object, Conceptual art re-located art in the mind of the artist and in the mind of the spectator. Supported by the austere philosophy of British analytical philosophy, particularly that of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Conceptual Art represented a total withdrawal from object-ness into a discourse about the philosophical nature of art. As Kosuth wrote in “Art After Art Philosophy,”

It comes as no surprise that the art with the least fixed morphology is the example fromwhich we decipher the nature of the general term art. For where there is a contextexisting separately of its morphology and consisting of its function one is more likely tofind results less conforming and predictable. It is in modern art’s possession of a language with the shortest history that the plausibility of the abandonment of that language becomes most possible. It is understandable then that the art that came outof Western painting and sculpture is the most energetic, questioning (of its nature), andthe least assuming of all the general art concerns. In the final analysis, however, all of the arts have but (in Wittgenstein’s terms) a family resemblance.

Post Minimal Art or Conceptual Art changed the notion of abstraction in that the art no longer refers to reduction of form only but to Abstraction as an idea for it’s own sake. 1966- 70 was a watershed year in American art, as options derived from Minimalism, from the elimination of the object—Conceptual Art—to an expressionist revival of painterly issues as seen in Process Art which is a break with Minimalism. Process Art restored the non or anti-object resulting in “the de-materialization of art,” as Lucy Lippard said. Both Conceptual Art and Process Art reject the physicality and the literalness of Minimalism. Conceptual Art completely eliminates the object in favor of texts and language. Kosuth produced a series of Photostat texts-as-art, “Art as Idea,” consisting of definitions of, for example, “red” or “water” or “art” as propositions.

Influenced by the analytic philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Kosuth saw art as a proposition, that is, a statement of reality put forward to be analytically understood. A proposition “creates” the event or the object and comes out of an a priori concept. “Art” is a proposition that must precede any “art object.” If that is the case, that art is, a priori, a proposition, then there is no need to produce the object. All one needs is a text that defines “red,” and there is no need for a red painting. The viewer is intellectually activated far more than s/he was with Minimalism.

As Sol Le Witt expressed it, “Ideas alone can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.” When one reads one of Weiner’s enigmatic phrases, such as “…the joining of France and Germany by a rope…” written on a gallery wall, one is forced to “think” or “conceive” of what this “joining” would look like. When Robert Barry announces that he is presenting a photograph of a mile high column of air, one must attempt to envision such a column in the mind. The stress on art and language meant that art and language are interchangeable concepts.

Although any account of Conceptual Art must discuss Marcel Duchamp as a precursor, Duchamp was essentially an artist of the object. Duchamp’s main contribution to the end of the Modernist definition of art was to expand meaning beyond the object. “Meaning” in art was no longer inherent in the object or as an art meaning. Duchamp’s work suggested that meaning is multivalent, that meaning exists as a surplus, spilling over the supposed bounds of the object. In contrast, Conceptual Art was not concerned with meaning per se. Meaning is an externality that is of little interest. What concerned the Conceptual artist of the seventies was the tautology that is art. If Art is a Linguistic System and if Art is Information, then Art is Language.

Conceptual Art opened the door for artists who were writers, such as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Kruger and Holzer installed a form of communication or speech-making in galleries and museums, directly addressing the audience who “reads” directives and exhortations. “Your body is a battleground,” as Kruger asserted, was not an analytical Wittgensteinian proposition, but a political statement. Kruger was a designer who stamped out slogans. Holzer wanted to write simple sentences. Had these artists begun their careers twenty years earlier, they would have been expected to paint, but after Conceptual Art, the two women had the art world’s “permission” to turn words into objects.

As Holzer stated in her Truisms, A SENSE OF TIMING IS THE MARK OF GENIUS.

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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.

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

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Podcast 47: Postmodern Painting—The Return of the Repressed

POSTMODERN PAINTING AS BRICOLAGE

Postmodern painting can be characterized as a reaction against the “rule” of Modernist painting. Using the art of David Salle, Julian Schanbel, Carol Maria Mariani, MarkTansey and Eric Fischl, this podcast discusses the deliberate lack of originality in Postmodern art. Whether the artists were addressing the “language of painting,” (Salle) or nostalgically revisiting Expressionism (Schanbel) or refitting the past through “dead languages,” (Mariani and Tansey) or indulging in the “forbiddens” of personal biography and buried secrets, (Fischl) the resurgence of Postmodern painting was indeed the Return of the Repressed.

 

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