From “Either/Or” to “Both/And”

In Europe Postmodernism was a serious expression of the agony that follows the loss of hope, but in America, Postmodernism was understood in a far more shallow fashion, as a rejection of the Modernist avant-garde art. The Modernist artist had been experimental, on the cutting edge, forward, even future oriented.  Always a step ahead of the art audience, the avant-garde artist was part of an elite group which had a vision of new art. In order to go forward, the artist had to reject the past; in order to be new, the old had to be banished. The rather dogmatic and uncompromising stance was fueled by the belief that the artist was a god-like creator of new forms. This genius made art out of self-referentiality, out of his/her own subjective personality. Despised by the uncomprehending public, the heroic artist stood alone, morally pure in the assertion of absolute originality.

The Postmodern artist rejected the notion of the eternal “new,” called “the tradition of the new” by Harold Rosenberg.  Living in an image world which flattened out all art forms into a non-hierarchical equality, the Postmodern artist did not bother to create new art. Indeed, the Postmodern artist knew too much; creativity was impossible.  This new artist borrowed, quoted, playing the role of bricouleur or scavenger, rejecting wholeness and order for hybridity and chaos. Postmodern play overtook Modernist order, and perfection, purity, and clarity became pluralism.

If Modernism is reductive, striving towards abstraction and purity, then Postmodernism is complex, composed of multiple elements, none of which is new or unique. Therefore the analytic mood of Modernism which is disposed to critique gives way to a synthetic approach with is non-hierarchical and accepting of all aspects of art, from high to low. The modernist work of art is a “work,” bounded and centered, unified by a singular meaning—an art meaning.  The Postmodern work is not a “work” but a “text,” a product of intertextuality, the promiscuous and excessive references to something surplus, gesturing beyond a text that depends upon a network of relationships. With Postmodernism, art becomes bricolage.

The result of hybridity and intertextuality is that the Postmodern text is never and cannot be independent or autonomous. While the Modern work of art is a universe, complete unto itself, the Postmodern object is always relative and contingent, where the artist is never the subject, only the agent pursuing an activity. Thus there is always an implied narrative to Postmodernism, which is historicist, referring to and borrowing from the past, piling on elements to create a allegory. Because it is an already-written pastiche, allegory is the Postmodern art form par excellence.

Postmodern art is an art of content. While Modernist art stressed form and the formal elements on the surface, Postmodernism inverts the role of “surface.” “Surface” for Modernist art is of supreme importance, it is the site where the battle for artistic autonomy and freedom was played out in the name of the right to paint in a personal and individual fashion. For Modernist philosophy, however, surface is the mere beginning and it was assumed that a Modernist work of art concealed a deep and hidden meaning, discernible and discoverable by “close reading.” For Postmodernism, the surface is all there is.  Once Postmodernism refused the myth of origin, then there is no depth. If there is no origin, there is only surface, an endless plain of texts, all available for use by the Postmodern bricoleur.

Modernism assumed a kind of ultimately knowable totality of knowledge and truth. Any contradictions would eventually be resolved by more knowledge, because the intellectual’s position was outside the discourse.  If one could get outside the discursive formation, then one could judge and critique its content. But for Postmodernism, there is no  transcendent position “outside the text.” Far from being omnipotent, the Postmodern thinker is enmeshed in a tangle of texts from which there is no escape. Self-knowledge or self-critique is impossible for there is no getting beyond the confines of language.

For Postmodernism, everything is already written and art is seen as language or information.  Without a unified meaning confined within the work itself, incredulity reigns because all signs are double coded. Signifiers are gathered, not for the sake of affinity, but to stress difference.  These signifiers are free-floating and attach themselves to any object arbitrarily. Despite the surplus of unmoored meaning, ironically, what is left of the ruins of Modernism is a strange kind of “wordlessness,” or the inability to say anything more or new or meaningful. Inner necessity is replaced with cynicism and pragmatism.  Then end result is a loss of the sacred and an all-prevailing nihilism.

In the end, if Postmodernism is boundless and without depth, composed of nothing more than an endless supply of intertexual references, then Postmodernism is completely de-centered. The result is that the reader/viewer cannot locate him/herself: where are we? when are we? Past and present collide, resulting in a cultural  schizophrenia. Technological advances co-exist with outmoded traditions and conservative attitudes. Rather than being absorbed in its own self-sufficiency, art theatrically performs the dramas of other ages, evoking art forms of times past. For the art world, there is a kind of slippage where attitude and art collide and create a formlessness from which on coherence can emerge. But incoherence was the logical/illogical fate of the Postmodern.

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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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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