Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Post-Modern Art: The Sound of One Hand Clapping?

When I was a young art student, we painted, drew, made images, made non-images, ever searching for personal forms of expression that connected us to the larger art scene. Because I myself bought into the silly idea that real art history began with the 20th century, why study "the masters"? This modern notion pervaded many disciplines and is probably not unique to our generation, though it has been accentuated in recent times. The arcane languages of modern art were of such variety and interest to me that I never tired of exploring any and all things post-1900, and occasionally those predecessors who influenced the great names of our "modern" era (Picasso, Matisse, etc.)...

But while living through the Pop/postmodern era of Happenings and conceptual art, it was hard to get a handle on what was really happening at the eye of the storm. For this reason, it is a thrill when one stumbles across an essay that so concisely captures the larger whole with such perspicacity.

If you have ever been even partially immersed in the art scene this past four decades, you'll find that Keith Martin-Smith's essay on Art, Post-Modern Criticism and the Emerging Integral Movement resonates.

The question “what is art” is both more simple and more complex than it might seem at first glance. Andy Warhol once quipped, “Art is whatever you can get away with.” Is it? His observation raises some interesting questions: How does one go about judging a work of art as “good”, “bad”, or “better than” something else? What standards are used? Is something shocking, like a New York City artist who recently put vials filled with her menstrual fluids on display, art? Or is such a display really something else?

Art criticism and the fine arts in general have fallen on strange times, which is why so many of us end up going through museums of modern art with either a roll of our eyes or a confused expression on our faces. Poetry and literature have not fared much better, and the reasons lay in the adoption of a particular kind of postmodern approach to criticism, “deconstructive postmodernism”. Art and its critics, many of whom probably are not even familiar with postmodernism as a movement, have nevertheless been under the influence of deconstructive postmodern philosophy since the days of Marcel Duchamp's “Fountain”, an ordinary white porcelain urinal, signed by Duchamp, put on display in 1917 as “serious artwork”. Its display caused a sensation and critics, the public, and other artists argued strenuously about the work. But Duchamp was clearly onto something, for in 2004 five-hundred leaders in the art world voted it “the most influential work of modern art”, beating out Picasso's “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon” and “Guernica”. How is it that a signed toilet is viewed with such reverence, and without a knowing wink?

A little further, Martin-Smith writes:

Irony and its scale of impact, then, are very important in postmodern art. Another measure of value the postmodern critic uses is that the work in question be different – so long as an artist is different than the establishment their work gains automatic points. Critics see it as “daring to” stand apart from the “dominating” culture — menstrual fluids in beakers nailed to a wall as a kind of feminist protest against patriarchy, or so I assume. Beauty and truth? For the postmodernist, beauty and truth really can't exist, so for them beauty becomes the irony itself. Most of us have been to modern museums of art, and seen the rather dull geometric shapes painted onto canvases that are, at best, mildly interesting. These museums bore or confuse most of us, which is why they struggle to continue to exist. Much of the work inside their walls speaks to the head, to the educated who “get” their irony and find it attractive. But most of us agree that a triangle painted on a black canvas, or ink blots thrown across a wall, have nothing whatsoever to say to the heart, to the person looking for an emotional or even…gasp…spiritual connection to the work.

Postmodern art's real power comes from forcing the receiver of the art to question their assumptions about what “art” is, about who and what and how art is created, and how it is received. Beauty and truth are left to antiquity, to the naïve who still believe in cross-cultural truths. In that sense “Fountain” can be said to have achieved success — it forced viewers to question, and often angrily dismiss, the work because it challenged their assumptions, destroyed their sacred cows, and in so doing influenced the next two generations of artists profoundly. And in this Duchamp's brilliance is simply without question. The question remains, though: is it art, or is it really something else?

For anyone remotely interested in what the past century of art history has been about, I strongly encourage you to read the full Keith Martin-Smith's full essay Art, Post-Modern Criticism and the Emerging Integral Movement. In my estimation this is one of the clearest presentations I have ever read about what has happened and is happening in the arts.

Are you beginning to see the light?

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