Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Objectivity of Beauty Part 9 (Postmodernism & Art)

“The disconnection of art from the aesthetic has been hailed as the most significant development in contemporary visual art, as a final freeing of the artist from all obligation.” ---Monroe Beardsley

The Collage

There are many examples of postmodern art, but perhaps the best is the collage. With its scope for bringing together disconnected images, the collage has become a powerful symbol of the disjointed worldview at the heart of Postmodernism.

In postmodern collages, the random juxtaposition of unrelated images is emphasized. There is no over-arching continuity and no larger themes that help the artwork make sense because it doesn’t need to make sense. “Let things just be ambiguous,” the postmodernist artist says, “or you are forcing your own categories onto something and that is being oppressive.”

Peddling in the Past

Postmodernism is a peddler in various genres of the past. However, it draws on historic genres, not as a way to understand or appreciate other traditions, but in order to debunk them in the same way that it self-consciously debunks itself. Howard Fox puts it like this:

“At root Post-Modern art is neither exclusionary nor reductive but synthetic, freely enlisting the full range of conditions, experiences, and knowledge beyond the object. Far from seeking a single and complete experience, the Post-Modern object strives toward an encyclopaedic condition, allow a myriad of access points, an infinitude of interpretive responses.” (Howard Fox, “Avant-Garde in the Eighties,” in The Post Avant-Garde: Painting in the Eighties, ed. Charles Jencks (London: Academy Editions, 1987), pp. 29-30.

Postmodern art relishes in anachronism. I saw a vivid example of this when I visited the Tate gallery in London. There was no organization to how paintings were displayed on the walls, with the consequence that Pre-Raphaelite work was randomly mixed up with modern and Postmodern artifacts. This was not an accident since a central plank of Postmodernism has been to wave a hand at all of history and say, “there’s really no difference between what they were doing then and what we are doing now. There is no essential difference between a Michelangelo sculpture and a pile of bricks.”

Schizoid Art

Postmodern art is eclectic, fluid, elastic, pastiche, disjointed and anachronistic. It spurns the differences between various genres as it does the distinctions between fine art and mechanical art or between high art and low art. All distinctions are deconstructed with the same vigor that narrative structures are denied. The result is a kind of artistic schizophrenia, where radically different and even contradictory categories can be meshed together with no cohesion or meaning. As Terry Eagleton writes:


"There is, perhaps, a degree of consensus that the typical postmodernist artifact is playful, self-ionizing and even schizoid; and that it reacts to the austere autonomy of high modernism by impudently embracing the language of commence and the commodity. Its stance towards cultural tradition is one of irreverent pastiche, and its contrived depthlessness undermines all metaphysical solemnities, sometimes by a brutal aesthetic of squalor and shock."

The Deconstruction of Art

We have already seen that Postmodernism rejects overarching stories in favor of random disconnected stories. “Stories” in this sense can include any and all categories which give continuity or meaning to particulars. In Postmodern art this plays out in the rejection of all external norms of the craft, all external ideas of what it means to be an artist, all external ideas of what it means for an artifact to be beautiful or even to be art.

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The Postmodern artist has striven to show that the very concept of art is relative and void of any objective meaning.

In 1972, when Carl Andre was paid £30,000 to exhibit Equivalent VIII in the Tate gallery, there was a public outcry. The outcry was not because people considered Equivalent VIII to be bad art; rather, the outcry was that anyone could consider a rectangular collection of unworked fire bricks to be ‘art’ in the first place.

That was in 1972 when Postmodernism was in its infancy. Now, however, we have grown so used to such novelties that they cease to be novel. If a rectangular collection of unworked fire bricks can pass as art, and can even have thousands of pages devoted to it in professional journals, is there anything that definitely is not art? It would seem not, for even a night’s sleep can become a work of art, as when the art celebrity Andy Warhol took a video of an actor sleeping and then showed it to audiences. The film lasts eight hours. We are told that this is an example of ‘performance art.’
Similarly, the repertoire of musical arts now include many works in which the division between music and noise becomes a fine and often indistinguishable line. I had the fortune, or rather the misfortune, to once attend a performance in which the score called for various objects to be thrown on the floor. The same composer (John Cage) also wrote a piece titled 433 which consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. The pianists sits in front of a piano with the lid closed.

Even artists themselves are sometimes unable to identify art unless they are told, for I understand that one artist had to be banned from a gallery because he ate Robert Gober’s latest creation – a bag of doughnuts on a pedestal.
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The artist Walter de Maria has gone through much effort to ensure that no one will ever mistake his High Energy Bar for just an ordinary stainless-steel bar. He initiated a licensing procedure in which he gave the steel bar a certificate bearing the name of the work and stating that the bar is a work of art. There is, however, an interesting twist since the certificate states that the bar is a work of art only when the certificate is present with it. Take away the certificate for five minutes and apparently the bar reverts back to just an ordinary bar (and, therefore, dropping in its monetary value) until the certificate is brought back.

It is easy to laugh off such art as absurd. That would be a mistake. Art like this is a serious application of the postmodern project of deconstructing all labels, categories and stories. Postmodern art, like postmodern philosophy, is self-reflexive, turning in on itself and showing that it is just as meaningless as everything else. Just as Postmodern semantic theorists argued that one cannot get beyond the sequence of verbal signs to anything that stands outside of, and independent of, the language system that constitutes a text, so postmodern art preaches that there is nothing external to an artwork for it to point towards, whether rationality, value, beauty or any aesthetic category.
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Despite their attempts to get beyond story-telling, all the above examples tell a common story. The ideology of Postmodernism runs through all of these examples as a grand narrative.
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