#12: On Postmodernism

A friend sent me a link to a New York Times article about Hilton Kramer, who died recently at age 84. As the NY Times states:

“Mr. Kramer made it his mission to uphold the high standards of Modernism. In often withering prose, he made life miserable for curators and museum directors who, in his opinion, let down the side by exhibiting trendy or fashionably political art.

The Whitney Museum of American Art, in particular, felt the full force of his scorn every time it raised the curtain on a new biennial, whose roster generally favored installation, video and performance art, usually with a political message and an emphasis on gender and ethnic identity.

Mr. Kramer would have none of it. “The Whitney curatorial staff has amply demonstrated its weakness for funky, kinky, kitschy claptrap in recent years,” he wrote in a review of the 1975 Biennial, “and there is the inevitable abundance of this rubbish in the current show.”

Two years later, he threw his hands up in despair. The biennials, he wrote, “seem to be governed by a positive hostility toward — a really visceral distaste for — anything that might conceivably engage the eye in a significant or pleasurable visual experience.”

Mr. Kramer was impassioned in his praise when art met his high expectations. “He was a high Modernist, but he embraced a rather diverse lot that ran the gamut from Richard Pousette-Dart

‘Symphony No 1, The Transcendental’, oil on canvas, Richard Pousette-Dart,1941-42

to Jackson Pollock

“No. 5”, Jackson Pollock, 1948, (no information on media)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

to Matisse

“Woman with a Hat”, Henri Matisse, 1905, Oil on canvas, 31 1/4 x 23 1/2 in. (79.4 x 59.7 cm)

 

 

 

 

to the Russian constructivists,” Mr. Kimball said.

Lyubov Popova, “Air + Man+ Space”, 1912 (no other information available)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He could surprise. Julian Schnabel, precisely the sort of artist one would have expected him to eviscerate, won qualified praise,

St. Francis in Ecstasy, 1980, Julian Schnabel, 96” by 84”, oil, plates, wood putty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and the work of the highly eccentric Norwegian figurative painter Odd Nerdrum.”

“Early Morning”, Odd Nerdrum, oil on canvas, 206cm x 175.5cm

I replied to my friend that  I too consider myself a Modernist and an advocate for mastering technique in an era of novelty art, video and installations. However, where I differ from Kramer is in scorning art with a political message.  Indeed, I’ve argued that art SHOULD be political. By this I mean art should come from an internal source of values, assumptions and beliefs  that serve as a moral rudder. This doesn’t mean it can  be kitchy or amateurish.  For arguments supporting the role of politics in art, see my last blog on abstract art.

But where Kramer & others are misled is in characterizing  the current worship of “funky, kinky, kitschy claptrap” as “political” rather than the result of a profound philosophical shift in thinking over the past half-century.  This shift has been described under the catch-all phrase “postmodernism”, but in fact, the values, beliefs & assumptions of this perspective have been around for millennia. In previous centuries, this philosophical approach has been called “Relativism”.

Wikipedia defines Relativism as the concept that points of view have no absolute truth or validity, having only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration. The term often refers to truth relativism, which is the doctrine that there are no absolute truths, i.e., that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as a language or a culture . Wikipedia describes the Sophists as the founding fathers of relativism in the 5th century BC.  The thinking of the Sophists is mainly known through their opponents, Plato and Socrates. In a well known paraphrased dialogue with Socrates, Protagoras said: “What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me.”

Sophistry has been around for 2500 years and its current incarnation, called Postmodernism, extends the idea of truth to any assumption of expertise.  In the arts, this has meant the end of the “artist as seer” or the popular perception of the artist as an individual somehow uniquely blessed with talent.  In the Postmodern world, it is the idea rather than the execution that is important and everyone can have ideas even if they are not able to express them with technical expertise and a highly developed sense of aesthetics.

Postmodernism has instigated its own cultural revolution and like revolutionaries everywhere, the targets of revenge are images that represent the ancien régime. As the Christians did to statues of ancient Greek gods; as the Protestants did to Catholic religious icons; and as the Chinese Cultural Revolutionaries  and later the Taliban did to Statues of Buddha; adherents of Postmodernism have metaphorically smashed the noses off earlier artistic and aesthetic values. And just as the former experts in every field were vilified & made to wear dunce caps s during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, so the experts in every field int he West have been discredited by the Postmodern Cultural Revolution.

Just as in China there may have been a perceived need to tear down the established order, so in the West there was a perceived need to destroy an art establishment rife with race, class, gender & sexual biases. A quick net surf reveals the following snippets that indicate the continuing existence of an art establishment that defends against outsiders.For instance, Wikipedia includes an artical of writer Jennifer Weiner who has been a vocal critic of the male bias in the publishing industry and the media, alleging that books by male authors are better received than those written by women, that is, reviewed more often and more highly praised by critics.

In addition to the exclusionary tendency inherent in Modernism, Modernism, had its basis in Enlightenment beliefs in the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation. At the core of the Enlightenment was a faith in human progress toward a higher level of civilization . For instance Spinoza, felt that through the application of Enlightenment thinking, human society could achieve “democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state”.

After two world wars, economic depression, the rise of fascism, totalitarian regimes and the eclipse of democracy by capitalist oligarchies the optimistic views of Modernism were abandoned. Wikipedia describes Modern Art as the institutionalized purview of an established elite so that modernism lost its appeal to progressive thinkers. In the 1960s the anti-modernist movements began to take shape and pave the way for the emergence of postmodernism. Thus Postmodernism evolved as an antidote to an established elite and institutionalized bias against those of the wrong gender, race, class or sexual orientation. Has this been achieved?

 

I ran across this quote in the Nov. 2011 issue of The Walrus magazine. interviewer Daniel Baird quotes Adam Gopnik, a bestselling New York writer, as saying,

“My work at this point is about the longing for modernity in a postmodern world.”

Baird says he is moving on to the larger, humanist, even spiritual themes and that much of his recent writing is driven by a need to find meaning and purpose within a radically secular world, to find powerful and grounding symbols of order. His current writing is about “finding a sense of home and rootedness and meaning in a fragmented postmodern world.” Hear, hear.

To me the main issue with postmodernism is the lack of any point of view, moral or otherwise, or even the belief that an artist should have a point of view. This is, I believe, what has led us in the West to the current sense of ethical & intellectual fragmentation

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