Beginning Postmodernism: Forming the Theory

POSTMODERNISM

Coining the Term

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

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

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

Modernism (1860-1960)

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

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

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

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

Postmodernism (1980-2000)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[email protected]

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.

[email protected]

 

 

Podcast 44 Painting 10: Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol and “Decorative Art”

Andy Warhol played many roles in the art world of the sixties. Although he produced more films than paintings and sculptures, he re-defined “painting” and “sculpture,” bringing these traditional practices into the modern age. Using serigraphy as a metaphor for commercialism and consumerism, Warhol brought his advertising sensibilities to fine arts. Wooden boxes with purloined logos suggested that the art world was a market place for the high-end consumer. Casting aside hierarchy and judgment, the artist consumed the ubiquitous imagery of his time and put together an encyclopedia for his decade. Acting like a bricoleur, he gathered the pictures of mass media and re-produced and re-presented the already known and the already seen and forced the viewers to examine the overlooked and the banal of the culture.

 

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