Postmodernism and the Meaning of Art

RE-DEFINING ART AS TEXT in the POSTMODERN ERA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Roland Barthes: Writing Degree Zero

ROLAND BARTHES (1914 – 1980)

PART ONE

Writing Degree Zero (1953)

One of the most interesting facts of the life of Roland Barthes was that he was struck by a laundry van and, after lingering for a month, died of his injuries. “The Painter of Modern Life,” Constantin Guys had also been struck down in a similar fashion: almost a century earlier, he was run over by a cab and his legs were crushed. Guys died more slowly and succumbed ten years later. If being run down by a laundry truck when walking home from lunch with the future President of France, seems an odd way to die, Barthes had always walked an uneven path. He was unfortunate enough to come of age at a time where homosexuality was not a public matter and he spent his life in the closet, living with his only parent, his mother, his entire life. As he got older and became less attractive to the young men he desired, he declined to impose himself upon them. Barthes, who preferred a quiet life in the home he shared with his mother, was so fond of his colleague and intellectual confident, Julia Kristeva, he wished he was a heterosexual.

Although to outsiders, especially dazzled Americans, he seemed to be the chain smoking quintessential French intellectual, he was something of an autodidact whose education was never completed. Barthes had taught himself the prevailing French ideas floating through the post-war decades, but remained mostly an essay writer until his new tendencies were publicly criticized by a Sorbonne professor, Raymond Picard. As one of his biographers Jonathan Culler related, from 1965 on Barthes became the intellectual representative of criticism after Existentialism. However, exalted his public persona, Barthes was both in the center and in the margins and, indeed, Michel Foucault was somewhat disdainful of the self-education of Barthes. Barthes finally achieved a place in the scholarly community he at once chided and aspired to when he was elected to a chair in Sémiologie Littéraire at the Collège de France.

Post-war Paris was in a state of intellectual flux. The scholarly community had been united by two elements during the Occupation: hatred for the Nazis and adherence to Marxism. When the war ended, Existentialism emerged as the prevailing philosophy, but Marxism as a philosophy seemed to be discredited by the brutal Stalinism of the Soviet Union. It was the events of 1968 that finally ended the faith in a practical Marxist theory of class revolution and, in the ruins of the “days of May,” Existentialism seemed too focused on the individualistic “act” of a single person, Marxism seemed too political and too tainted with failure, leaving Structuralism as the comfortably apolitical philosophy of the day.

68paris1[1]-1

Paris “Days of May” 1968

Based on the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, Structuralism was established by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his 1955 book Tristes Tropiques, which was followed up by Structuralist Anthropology in 1958. The work of Lévi-Strauss moved away from linguistic signs to social signs, from behavior and costumes, rituals and customs. The work of the Structuralist was to reveal the underlying structure of cultural signifiers which were arranged along binaries. Reflecting the structure of the human mind, paired opposites such as the raw and the cooked should be read as part of a larger sign system and gains meaning within a network of other signs. The raw and the cooked, the inedible and the editable, for example, are part of a larger concept of nature and culture.

It is important to understand that by the time Structuralism was introduced to America, it was already “over” in Paris, challenged by newer versions of Structuralism from those who also repudiated Structuralism, such as Foucault and those who undermined it, such as Jacques Derrida. From the late sixties to the mid eighties, works by French and German writers arrived, via translations, in an unsystematic manner and with alien labels, such as “Post-Structuralism.” In the blank space following the exhaustion of New Criticism and the aging of the Anglo-American tradition, French theory fell on fertile ground and was consumed by eager Americans, few of whom were familiar with the very real differences among the scholars in the very competitive universities and colleges of Paris. Instead, the “French” was all lumped together and were not understood as having distinctive intellectual lineages and very distinctive bodies of work. Compared to the scientific work of Lévi-Strauss, to the historical scope and extended projects of Foucault, to the twisted syntax and ever-evolving re-writings by Lacan, to the dense and circular layered writing of Derrida, the books and essays by Roland Barthes are brief, concise, eclectic and, in the case of Camera Lucida, an extended mourning for his mother, very personal. Not a trained philosopher, as were many of his colleagues, Barthes is best understood as a literary critic who used Structuralism as an analytic tool to better foreground “writing” over “literature” and to understand the system of social signs of ordinary life.

However, Barthes came to Structuralism late in his career. The first twenty years of his development was essentially a learning curve, including numerous essays that led to significant books, one of them being his first extended foray into literary criticism in 1953 when he published Le degré zéro de l’écriture. Early in his career, like all young intellectuals, Barthes digested Existentialism and was very inspired by What is Literature? (1947) by Jean-Paul Sartre. “The empire of signs is prose, poetry is on the side of painting, sculpture and music,” Sartre wrote and the reader of the works of Barthes immediately recognizes a famous phrase that would later become the title of a book by Barthes. “Poets are men who refuse to utilize language..he has chosen the poetic attitude which considers words as things and not as signs.” In both accepting this book by Sartre and in slipping away from Existentialism, Writing Degree Zero is very much a transitional book. A reaction against Existentialism, it combines Marxism in its critique of bourgeois literature and moves beyond a class critique to a critique of what Barthes called “Literature,” seeking a new non ideological way of writing. The roots of the short book go back to the late 1940s and is one of the most obvious of his excursions into semiotics.

In her introduction to Writing Degree Zero, when it was translated into English in 1967, Susan Sontag noted that American writers would have difficulty in understanding the book. Part of what disturbed her in the late sixties–the unfamiliarity with French literary criticism–has since passed and the book does not seem difficult at all, but the entire foundation of the book, an analysis of a tradition of literature that is specifically French, remains alien to many Americans. As Sontag pointed out, not only do American have an Anglo-Ameircan literary heritage but the canonical authors are quite different. When Barthes wrote of “Literature,” without explanation, he was referring to the French tradition of classical and official literature that dated back to the 17th century. Because Literature was designed to provide knowledge, information, and received wisdom, it was considered, not a mode of writing but a “natural” and inevitable form of communication. Due to its effectiveness, Literature remained supreme, even after the French Revolution. Early 19th century writers adopted the official language of power and what had once belonged to the ancien regime was appropriated by the “triumphant” middle class.

As an example of the authority of this form of language, Barthes made note of a form of grammar that does not exist in the English language: the “preterite,” or a verb that “implicitly belongs with a causal chain..set of related and oriented actions.” “The Marchioness went out at five o’clock,” was a famous phrase used by Paul Valéry as a convention used for novels and Barthes notes that the same conventions are used for the recitations of history. Barthes stated that “Behind the preterite there always lurks a demiurge, a God or a reciter..the preterite is the expression of an order.” For the contemporary writer, the preterite is a phasing of authority and can be thought of as director’s establishing shot or the screenwriter’s ellipse–a way of moving the narrative from here to there. The order could hold as long as the class system remained intact and the bases of power seemed secure but after the Revolution of 1848, the social organization broke down due to historical forces, from industrialization and the urbanization of society. With the fracturing of the old society, the language of old France, Literature, lost its authority and writers had to find a new way of writing.

According to Barthes, “Literature” is a modern creation, part of a larger system of ownership and property resulting from capitalism and as such, this cultural concept constituted a new or modern form of writing that was “owned” by the “author” and “owned” by the publisher. By the 19th century, in its new version,“literature” was bought and sold and was no longer communal property as were the epic poems of an oral tradition named “Homer.” Bourgeois literature was an art form in the Kantian sense, in that it had no “useful” purpose. Therefore that which was bourgeois writing was distinguished from forms of writing that were considered versions of the “truth,” such as religion. Marxist theorist György Lukács (1885-1971) asserted that Realist writing of the 19th century was based upon seeing, meaning that the writer was merely describing what was seen or witnessed, no matter how painful. The mediation or the apparently neutral description was in fact a political act in that Realism made the power of the middle class seem to be inevitable. Notice that the supposedly distanced and omnipotent position of the narrator mimics the conventions of Literature. It is no accident that the Realist or Naturalistic novels of George Sand and Honoré Balzac and Gustave Flaubert emerged during a period of rising capitalism, the steady of empowerment of the bourgeoisie and the demise of the proletariat.

In Le Degrè zéro l’écriture, 1953, Barthes understood language to be a historical phenomenon and style as an individual feature. Barthes noted that descriptive or naturalistic writing was not innocent and was bound up in its own historical period. The avant-garde, situated in the Generation of 1848, broke with the horizontally and continuity of realism and liberated words from other words. From the 1850s on, the writer is “without Literature” which is in a “tragic predicament,” and the question becomes what is the mark of “good writing” now that Literature had lost its place? Barthes recounted that the late 19th century writers foregrounded “labor” as a value and stressed their bourgeois origins as workers. The new elevation of the “craft” of writing to an independent aesthetic began with Flaubert and modern authors strove to generate “good writing,” or the ability to use words well. The problem for writing became one of extracting oneself from the precincts of power and to find a way for writing to function as writing within a system of language.

Barthes was suspicious of “realism” in theory and in texts and considered realism not a form of seeing or describing that what existed, but as being based upon a set of practices and signification. The texts of the Realists were founded on a set of conventions that limited the text and, in naturalizing society, became a mediator between the bourgeoisie and the working class. For Barthes, the key moment in his analysis of the history of French literature, was the disjuncture between bourgeois realism and avant-garde realism. For the world of visual art, Literature, which was so transparent it appeared to have no style, would have its counterpart in academic art of the mid to late 19th century. Paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme or Ernst Meissionier were the bourgeois form of Realism as Literature. In contrast, examples of the avant-garde Realism would be the labored working class craft exhibited so proudly by Gustave Courbet or the visible marks of production kept on view by Édouard Manet in their paintings. Understanding the French Classical tradition of Literature which was supposedly invisible to itself but was actually a evidence of power and order allows the art historian to comprehend the cultural anger that met the avant-garde artists who called attention to the “un-naturalism” of “naturalism.”

It would be an exaggeration to see Barthes as a Structuralist in 1953 but he was certainly aware of Saussure and Marx, both of who had built binary models. For Saussure there was langue and parole, or the system of language and the way in which language is used in everyday life. Seeing a conflict with Saussure’s binary system–between the will and the system–Barthes sought a middle term: écriture. Écriture is not translatable into English and is now left in the original French, but in Writing Degree Zero the term is translated as “writing,” a rather colorless term. For Barthes, there is language, the system and style, which is both historical and personal or as he put it “biological.” If the language is social then the style is personal. But in between language and style is writing. As Barthes wrote,

A language and a style are blind forces; a mode of writing (écriture) is an act of historical solidarity. A language and a style are objects; a mode of writing (écriture) is a function; it is the relationship between creation and society, the literary language transformed by its social finality, form considered as a human intention and thus linked to the great crises of History.

For Barthes écriture had a specific relationship of form to content, embodied in the conventions of writing and operating within ethical and political values as a social fact. Always concerned with writing (écriture) as a moral act as a social fact, Barthes set up a ternary schema–a tripod model that would become his trademark–langue, style, écriture, which intimates or gestures at something beyond–a critique. “Writing,” Barthes asserted, “is always rooted in something beyond language, but develops like a seed, not like a line, it manifests an essence and holds the threat of a secret, it is an anti communication, it is intimidating.” Writing Degree Zero breaks down into three major sections with his discussion of the transition from Literature to avant-garde writing in the middle, as the meat in the sandwich, as it were. Having established écriture as a third element, wedged between language and style, Barthes then ended his slim volume of meditation on the French tradition of writing with another middle term: zero degree writing.

Concerned with getting literature out of trap of bourgeois realism, Barthes had little patience with the “craft of writing (which) does not disturb any order.” He includes in those non-disturbers writers, who think they are disrupting the system or can “exorcise this sacred writing by dislocating it,” the still ascendent Surrealists, such as André Breton. Even the attempts of Stéphane Mallarmé to renounce language were equivocal. The solution Barthes put forward was “a colorless writing, freed from all bondage to a pre-ordined state of language.” His new breaking of the binaries centered upon placing “a neutral term or zero element.” The zero element is an aspect of grammar, a term in the middle of the singular-plural binary. As Barthes explained, “..writing at the zero degree is basically in the indicative mode, or if you like, a modal..a journalist’s writing.”

Barthes was interested in the neutral or what Sartre called, the “white writing” of Albert Camus, purged of the characteristic mark of “literature” (mannerism or style), “achieves a style of absence, which is almost an idea absence of style; writing is then reduced to a sort of negative mood in which the social or mythical characters of a language are abolished in favor of a neutral and inert state of form..neutral writing in fact rediscovers the primary condition of classical art: instrumentality. But this time, form as an instrument is no longer at the service of a triumphant ideology; it is the mode of a new situation of the writer, a way of certain silence has of existing; it deliberately foregoes any elegance or ornament, for these two dimensions would reintroduce Time into writing..” Unlike Marxist literature which is a language of “value-judgments” or “professional language signifying ‘presence,” writing should be linked to the project of revolution by renegotiating its relationship to history.

Barthes comes from the exhausted traditions of Marxism and Existentialism and extends their shared values of a moral writing by an engaged intellectual and looks for an ethical dimension in literature. “White writing” negates the false transparency of the algebraic system of the cause-and-effect writing of Literature, in which one element “naturally” follows another in a “logical” fashion. For Barthes the critic’s job is to construct intelligibility for his/her own time and to develop conceptual frameworks for analysis. In this critical and analytical fashion, the critic exposed the habitual ways of making the world intelligible and worked to modify these meanings that seem “natural.” For Barthes, all writing contains social signs, indicating a social mode of writing. No prose is transparent; the author’s language is inherited, while his/her own style is personal, but writing can be “white” or “zero degree.”

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

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

[email protected]