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.