How heartening it is when you find a passage that captures the essence of some of your internal floaters—those inchoate, imprecise concepts that circumambulate in the mind and never quite land on two feet. I had the settling sensation of an exhale that comes when order has been brought to a previously perceived chaos when I read Louis Menand’s article about the writer/thinker Donald Barthelme in the Febrary 23rd issue of The New Yorker.

The whole piece is worth a read, but I want to share a few passages that crystallized my thinking about a whole slew of responses to modernism and postmodernism as applied to critical theory, thinking, art and culture. Writers more proficient than the rest of us in the evolution of consciousness have written about the sea change in thinking that happened during the 60’s and 70’s. But observing the flow of these ideas as a visual artist has left me with a mishmash of responses. At times this shift has been utterly euphoric, like my first encounter with the thinking in A Thousand Plateaus. At other times I have felt the white heat of an arid emptiness, one where there is a poignant absence of the salty sweat and heavy breathing of beings who are making real things that matter, to them and to others.

Menand captures some aspect of that ambivalence (and the need for definitional distinctions) in his piece on Barthelme.

Postmodernism is the Swiss Army knife of critical concepts. It’s definitionally overloaded, and it can do almost any job you need done. This is partly because, like many terms that begin with “post,” it is fundamentally ambidextrous. Postmodernism can mean, “We’re all modernists now. Modernism has won.” Or it can mean, “No one can be a modernist anymore. Modernism is over.” People who use “postmodernism” in the first “mission accomplished,” sense believe that modernism—the art and literature associated with figures like Picasso and Joyce—changed the game completely, and that everyone is still working through the consequences. Modernism is the song that never ends. Being postmodernist just means that we can never be pre-modernist again. People who use it in the second sense, as the epitaph for modernism, think that, somewhere along the line, there was a break with the assumptions, practices, and ambitions of modernist art and literature, and that everyone since then is (or ought to be) on to something different. Being postmodernist means that we can never be modernist again.

How (in the first account) did people like Picasso and Joyce change the game? They did it by shifting interest from the what to the how of art, from the things represented in a painting or a novel to the business of representation itself. Modern art didn’t abandon the world, but it made art-making part of the subject matter of art. When (in the second account) did the break occur? It happened when artists and intellectuals stopped respecting a bright-line distinction between high art and commercial culture. Modernist art and literature in this version of the story, depended on that distinction to give its products critical authority…

It is sometimes said that the distinction between high and commercial culture collapsed when artists and intellectuals discovered aesthetic merit in things like jazz and movies…If you propose to admire a popular movie because it’s formally interesting or morally exigent, you aren’t changing the system of appreciation at all. There may be some new stuff above the line, but there’s still a line. What killed the distinction wasn’t defining pop art up. It was defining high art down. It was the recognition that serious art,too, is produced and consumed in a marketplace. the point of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup-can paintings was not that a soup can is like a work of art. It was that a work of art is like a soup can: they are both commodities.

This calling into question, problematizing, deconstruction—whatever you want to call it—of the status of art is what makes a lot of people uncomfortable with postmodernism in the second sense. They don’t see that sort of postmodernism as demystifying; they see it as debunking. High art and literature have always been stimulated by popular sources (and have given stimulus back); and anti-art, art that thumbs its nose at aesthetic decorum, has an honored place in the modernist tradition. Duchamp and the Dadaists were making anti-art almost a hundred years ago. But you can make anti-art—Duchamp’s “Fountain”, for example—only when everyone still has some conception of authentic, stand-alone, for-its-own-sake art. Warhol’s work is not anti-art. Finding no quality on which to hang a distinction between authentic art and everything else, it simply drops the whole question.