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Hans Hollein, façade from Strada Novissima, The Presence of the Past, 1980. Biennale of Architecture, Venice. From the show at the Victoria & Albert Museum

Reviewing a new show of architecture at the Victoria & Albert museum, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, Guardian writer Hari Kunzru describes a movement that has its roots in the theoretical foundations of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown and was epitomized by the iconic Philip Johnson‘s Sony building in New York (AKA The Chippendale building):

This is the essence of postmodernism: the idea that there is no essence, that we’re moving through a world of signs and wonders, where everything has been done before and is just lying around as cultural wreckage, waiting to be reused, combined in new and unusual ways. Nothing is direct, nothing is new. Everything is already mediated. The real, whatever that might be, is unavailable. It’s an exhilarating world, but uncanny too…The world of signs is fast, liquid, delirious, disposable. Clever people approach it with scepticism. Sincerity is out. Irony is in. And style. If modernism was about substance, about serious design solving serious problems, postmodernism was all manner and swagger and stance.

When approached playfully and from a distance, the complex of postmodern-inspired expressions—architecture, cinema, performance art, written word—could be entertaining. To a point. But if all this was sly and a bit witty, it was also unsettling. “In a friction-free world of signs, what happened to value?”

Tracing the arc, Kunzru points to its denouement:

For many, the events of 11 September signalled the death of postmodernism as an intellectual current. That morning it became clear that “hostility to grand narratives”, as Jean-François Lyotard defined it, was a minority pursuit, an intellectual Rubik’s cube for a tiny western metropolitan elite. It seemed most of the world still had some use for God, truth and the law, terms which they were using without inverted commas. Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, was widely ridiculed for declaring that the attacks signalled “the end of the age of irony”, but his use of the po-mo buzzword proved prescient. If irony didn’t vanish (though during the crushing literalism and faux-sincerity of the Bush-Blair war years it seemed like a rare and valuable commodity), postmodernism itself suddenly seemed tired and shopworn.

Graydon Carter‘s famous pronouncement has been discussed a great deal over the last decade of post 9/11 living as has the constant reappearance of irony, snarky detachment and “empty calorie” artistic expressions. But I was compelled by where Kunzru takes that line of thinking. In his view postmodernism was a pre-digital age phenom, and its defanging has a lot to do with the internetization of our lives:

In retrospect, all the things that seemed so exciting to its adherents – the giddy excess of information, the flattening of old hierarchies, the blending of signs with the body – have been made real by the internet. It’s as if the culture was dreaming of the net, and when it arrived, we no longer had any need for those dreams, or rather, they became mundane, part of our everyday life. We have lived through the end of postmodernism and the dawning of postmodernity.

That’s a provocative viewpoint and one that makes sense, particularly for those of us who have watched this cultural trajectory from the distant vantage point as laborers gleaning the field for what is essentially human, “hot” (as opposed to cool) and authentic. While a conspicuous and consumptive culture may have “dreamed” the net, other visions and other imaginings are migrating through at the same time. Less arc and more horizon, those envisionings unfold in a form that is ambient and yet stealthy, personal and yet shared. It is another kind of cultural dreaming, but a dreaming nonetheless.


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.

Ever since it was first published in 1998, Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aesthetics, edited by Bill Beckley with David Shapiro has been my primary text. This collection of essays brings together the thinking of artists and critics on the greatly misunderstood (and much maligned) topic of beauty.

Uncontrollable Beauty embodies many of the reasons why I began blogging in the first place. It speaks to what was not being paid attention to, written about, dialogued, analyzed or acknowledged in the contemporary world of art.

Here are some excerpts from that collection:

Agnes Martin: When I think of Art, I think of Beauty, Beauty is the mystery of Life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection.

Peter Schjeldahl: ‘Beauty is Truth. Truth Beauty?’ That’s easy. Truth is a dead stop in thought before a proposition that seems to obviate further questioning, and the satisfaction it brings is beautiful.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe: In the art world, the idea of the beautiful is always threatening to make an appearance or comeback but it tends always to be deferred.

Santayana: To feel beauty is a better thing than to understand how we come to feel it.

Louise Bourgeois: Beauty? It seems to me that beauty is an example of what the philosophers call reification, to regard an abstraction as a thing. Beauty is a series of experiences. It is not a noun. People have experiences. If they feel an intense aesthetic pleasure, they take that experience and project it into the object. They experience the idea of beauty, but beauty in and of itself does not exist. Experiences are sorts of pleasure, that invoke verbs. In fact, beauty is only a mystified expression of our own emotion.

So I was particularly delighted to add a new volume to my favored bed stand stack–another articulate defense of art that is not just cerebral, conceptual, emotionally detached and non-retinal. Ellen Dissanayake, author of Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why (which was first published in 1992!) approaches philosophical aesthetics from an unexpected point of view. She does not approach art as a scholar of visual language but as an ethologist and anthropologist. Her claim is that art is as intrinsic to human life as other observable behaviors like the proclivity to ritual, play, seeking sustenance. This tendency in us to “make special” is biological and as Dissanayake has termed it, “species-centric.” She spends several chapters of her book examining the anthropological parallels of art in other cultures, but it is her extraordinary skill at seeing through the vacuity of postmodernism in the visual arts that makes this book a terrific and reinforcing read for anyone interested in these issues.

Here is an excerpt from her preface that captures much of her basic argument:

While artists and art teachers might especially welcome a biological justification for the intrinsic importance of their vocation, everyone, particularly those who feel a loss or absence of beauty, form, meaning, value, and quality in modern life, should find this biological argument interesting and relevant. Ironically, today, words such as beauty and quality may be almost embarrassing to employ. They can sound empty or false, from their overuse in self-help and feel-good manuals, or tainted by association with now-repudiated aristocratic and elitist systems in which ordinary people were considered “common” for not having the opportunity to cultivate appreciation of these features. But the fact remains that even when we are told that “beauty” and “meaning” are socially constructed and relative terms insofar as they have been used by elites to exclude or belittle others, most of us still yearn for them. What the species-centered view contributes to our understanding of the matter is that knowledge that humans were evolved to require these things. Simply eliminating them creates a serious psychological deprivation. The fact that they are construed as relative does not make them unimportant or easily surrendered. Social systems that disdain or discount beauty, form, mystery, meaning, value and quality—whether in art or in life–are depriving their members of human requirements as fundamental as those for food, warmth, and shelter.

Ellen Dissanayake