Postmodernist Art Theory

Postmodernist Art Theory- Reflection

Annelysse Eggold

Irving Sandler, and American art critic, curator and educator with a PhD from New York University, saw himself as an impartial observer of the art world, its artists and its critics.  This essay is both simple and complex. Its simplicity rests in Sandler’s intuitive understanding of the human ego…its manipulations, its fears, its desires, its struggle for identity and power, and its need to rebel against perceived authority while unconsciously striving for that same authority cloaked in a new and seemingly unique identity…in this case, the art theorist, the deconstructionist, and the nouveau Avant garde.  The story of the deconstructionist mirrors the psychic development of a human being from an obedient acceptance of the perceived and mythical powers of parents, teachers, religion and culture…to a rational stage of looking more critically at the imperfections and differences of those who would be our mentors or our masters…and then, more often than not, a stage of reaction, rebellion and reformulation of the cultural imperatives, norms, beliefs and values as mirrored in its art, literature, philosophy and ideology, whether this was the conscious intent or not.

This essay is complex because it covers a multitude of actors on the stage of art, including critics, theorists and artists, as well as philosophers and literati…their thoughts, their works, and the ways in which they changed the course of all that we call art and how we relate to all that is within and without.   We may see Irving Sandler as a playwright, who well knows the stage of art and its actors and may turn to the reader of his essay and echo this sage recollection from an earlier day:

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts…”

As the nation viewed the black body bags of its youth being unloaded from planes and wheeled onto the tarmac of military airports during the Vietnam War, there was a radical turn in the thinking of young intellectuals as they viewed the overt deception by the authority structures of their nation. Inculcating the postmodernist ideas of Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard and Lacan, the new group of radical art historians and critics formed the New Art Association, in opposition to the College Art Association and issued a manifesto of the deconstructionist, anti-formalist ideology:

“We are against the myth of the neutrality of art.

We deny that esthetic experiences flow only into further

esthetic experiences, for we believe there is a firm tie between the artistic imagination and social imagination.  We object to the study of art as an activity separated from other human concerns…

We are against the reduction of art to an object of speculation and an ornament for exploiters…We are against the artificial segregation of the study of art from other disciplines—anthropology, history, etc.—and its careful protection from social issues.  We are against the fragmentation of knowledge which suppresses the real implication of our cultural heritage by providing an ideology which upholds the racist, patriarchal and class structure of our society.”

The war between the Avant-garde and the old guard was formalized with this manifesto and formalist critic Clement Greenberg was marginalized by the scathing attacks of Kozloff and Coplans of Artforum who lost their jobs due to their strident position and subsequently formed the new major art-theoretical journal in the United States, October, which commemorated Eisenstein’s film, October, which memorialized the Bolshevik revolution.  The editors and writers of October were in open rebellion against the established institutions of art and above all, rejected formalism.  The primary goal of critical theorists was “decentering, which focused on deconstruction, or getting rid of anything that has a center or hierarchy. They denied the primacy of western culture, patriarchal figures in politics or in art, or any prior claims to “originality” in art.

It is important, if we are to understand the intention, direction and “pervasive skepticism bordering on nihilism”(Morris Dickstein) of the new critical theorists, that we reflect on the dictum of Deridda that “everything is a text and nothing is outside of the text’ where self and society become “constructs of language.”  It was this dictum, reiterated against the background of historical formalist art and the text of the Vietnam War, student protests and a government whose administration lacked integrity, that became the impetus for deconstructing the edifice of  “text”, whether it was the textual edifice of politics, literature, philosophy, ideology or art, and in its place provide theories and methods with which to challenge established and presumably anachronistic thinking.  Despite their derision of authority, the new, art theorist/deconstructionist was now in a position to assume the reins of authority and power by repudiating modernism and favoring those artists who often sycophantically catered to the art which was now favored by the critical theorists.

Dr. Sandler is well aware of the ever-flowing river of art and is sitting contemplatively on the river bank, relating what others might see as “the rise and fall” of the phenomena of art, while he sees it only as waves on the surface of a mysterious human creativity which temporarily becomes manifest in form and then recedes both in time and space while all around is the cacophony of detractors and defenders.

It seems unfortunate and often unwise to denigrate the works of others in an attempt to create the new, but emotional and spiritual maturity is not a necessary correlate of intellectual acuity, and therefore the October clique  “used deconstruction to systematically dismantle and demystify modernism, its canon, and every one of its values—originality, uniqueness, authenticity, autonomy, completeness, transcendence and aesthetic quality—a thorough demolition in the service of the nouveau-avant-garde ego. It was an artistic October, 1917.In contrast, we listen to one who also used his considerable intellectual powers to create something new:


“A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.  (Albert Einstein)


Rosalind Krauss, working with the editors of October, soon decided that photography had replaced painting as the relevant art, and that photos had to have a caption to give them meaning…now visual images could be dealt with as texts…but this is a conundrum because art theoreticians treated visual imagery as is if it were a verbal text and therefore a subject for deconstruction…but now they completely accepted the literal photograph with its literal text.  The editors of October termed the redemption of photography (redemption from a nonentity into the medium of art) “the return of the repressed”…a wonderful and illuminating Freudian term that unfortunately had more application to the nouveau art theoreticians and October than it did to photography!   Please read my previous sentence again and you will have grasped the essence of Dr. Sandler’s entire essay.

The art theoreticians went even further in stating that a reproduction (photograph) is a work of art in its own right and permits new things to be done to it, as Duchamp did when he penciled a mustache on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa.  However, it may be possible that this type of reworking of a master painting is not necessarily a new “work of art” but a work of the ego which desires to be seen as unique and separate from others and therefore, perhaps, superior. Can we be separate from the rest?  Einstein had this perception:

“Man is a part of a whole, called by him the universe; a part limited in space and time.  Yet he considers himself as separate from the rest …an optical illusion of his consciousness.  This illusion forms a prison for him, limiting him to his personal desires and to affection for a few persons closest to him.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to include all of humanity and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

In particular, the October clique challenged the reigning champion of pure photography, John Szarkowski, the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, stating that his conception of photography was in need of deconstruction…that it needed to be purged…(whether this is a throwback to the Russian revolution of 1917 or the genocides of Stalin is unclear).

Well, this is just a brief recollection of Postmodernist Art Theory, and there is more to come in a future blog since this is a most informative and illuminating tour de force by the author, Dr. Sandler.

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