Inside the Whale: An Intro to Postmodernist Art


Paul Wood explicates his first sentence, “Postmodernism is a convenient but confusing term” with a torrent of explanations, icons and quotes from a diversity of critics, and includes his own salient and illuminating comments.

He begins by noting that Modernist painting in the mid-1960’s was characterized by the “post-painterly abstraction” of Olitsky that was extolled by Clement Greenberg, the arch defender of Modernism, as “an impassioned attempt both to elicit and to record his most intuitive, evanescent coloristic impulses…nothing less than among the most beautiful, authoritative and moving creations of our time in any art.” Whether or not he was having a relationship with Olitsky at the time is uncertain.

Lucy Lippard is less effusive in her praise, terming Olitsky’s art as an “escape attempt” from modernism and a form of “visual Muzak.”  Wood wonders if postmodernism is truly a paradigm shit or a compromise with forces in the wider culture that militate against hard-won standards of quality in the modern tradition…seen from the point of view of modernist criticism, postmodernism would either not really be art at all or, more simply, bad art.”  The historical shift from modernism to postmodernism is located in the decade between 1965-1975, evolving from conceptualism to addressing the fault lines of contemporary society, principally class and gender, extending to race or ethnicity and then to the environment.  Wood notes that minimal Art of the mid-1960’s was the completion of modernist reduction, the long culmination of throwing out the inessential from the work of art in the pursuit of the most concentrated, most distilled and most unified effect.  It is, perhaps, like throwing out your car, home books, clothes and wife (or husband) to “reduce” your life to its most distilled and simplified, therefore honest, form; a questionably intelligent or progressive decision for most of us who have to live in the real world and care for others instead of narcissistically catering to our ego in search of artistic enlightenment.

Conceptual art was a term that applied to a range of art that used language to analyze the problems left by the collapse of modernism and was characterized by an increased use of photography, often in conjunction with texts.  The question of context was the key issue being addressed by this evolving art wherein the unitary form of modernism was replaced with undifferentiated objects such as industrial waste, rolls of felt, scattered chips or blocks of wood, orange peels, rolls of wire or anything to reveal the de-differentiation of art.  As of yet we have not seen food fights or the flinging of human fecal material as a gesture of neurotic de-differentiation.

Bruce Nauman relates: “I spent a lot of time at the studio kind of reassessing why are you an artist and what do you do….I paced around a lot so I tried to figure out a way of making that function as the work.”  Which makes one wonder what DuChamp was doing when he got the idea to display a urinal.  Wood notes that it was the radical climate of the 1960’s that led to a drive to get away from all forms of hierarchy in society and within the work of art itself…a democracy of form that paralleled the emergence of radical democracy in the New Left of the time.  Of course, “getting away from hierarchy” is ultimately a much deeper work resulting from an arduous contemplative and meditative stance in one’s life wherein the egoic structure, having developed over hundreds of thousands of years, is brought into the light of awareness and dismantled to allow the “further reaches of human nature’ “to emerge…a selflessness that leaves hierarchy behind to a child-like stage of human development. It is the art of internal silence.

Further developments in postmodernism led to Matta-Clark’s adventuress in creating duplexes with open air spaces where there had been none before…and drilling holes in the side of buildings to get a better view of the upcoming Pompidou Centre, not unlike drilling a hole through the earth to see the stars on the other side…laborious but nonetheless effective.

Tony Smith’s narrative of driving along the unfinished New Jersey turnpike as a more powerful experience then any any he had been able to feel when faced with conventional art, (which I personally would extend to postmodern art), is a potent denouement of his aesthetic perceptibility. Smith states: “…It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art.” Hopefully, Tony will not be creating any spiral turnpikes, as they will wreak havoc with the elderly’s vestibular apparatus.

Wood also notes that politically the turning toward modernism marked a crisis for the Left…a New Left had taken on the role of the leading critical force against the status quo, on a spectrum of issues ranging from nuclear disarmament to civil right to opposition to the war in Vietnam, as well as to the increasing alienation resulting from the commodification of all aspects of life in the metropolitan nations.”  I believe it is true that the commodification of life began with the industrialization of the world, particularly in America and with its attendant consumerism…a new way of seeing the world…as something that I want to have, rather than an acknowledgement of necessity.  This consumerism has taken over the worldview of all Americans and is a neurosis of wanting…and wanting more…and more.  It is against this neurotic wanting that minimalism and much of postmodernism is reacting, in my opinion.

In conjunction with the above thoughts is the essay of Frederic Jameson: Post Modernism: or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism where Jameson’s fundamental point is that the definitive emergence of the consumer society marks a distinct phase in the evolution of capitalism, a phase wherein capitalism has become all-encompassing with no outside…”it represents a momentous transformation in the underlying structures of contemporary bourgeois society.”  For Jameson, the effect of this change upon art was registered in what he termed ‘the waning of affect.’  The supreme formal feature of all the postmodernisms he reviewed was ‘a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense.’ The contrast he chose was between a painting of shoes by van Gogh and a painting of  Diamond Dust Shoes by And Warhol.  Van Gogh’s painting has depth and is a contemplative work while the silk-screen of Warhol is profoundly superficial in context. Perhaps this is what Warhol was attempting to illustrate.  Nevertheless it represents a profound lack of mature spiritual mentorship in our world wherein depth of character and being is largely replaced with specialty of egoic concerns.  Perhaps artists should labor to emulate this mentorship rather than simply pointing to the superficiality.

According to English artist Victor Burgin, the failure of modernism in art is because it could not come to terms with the wider modern condition in which it was practiced…”the consequence of modern art’s disavowal of modern history remains its almost total failure to be about anything of consequence.’”  I would add that the failure of postmodernism is that it has not come to terms with the truth of beauty…there is an underlying adolescent anger which propels it toward its avowed disassociation from aesthetics.  It is the artistic equivalent of cutting off the nose of history to spite the face of eternity.  Blake reminds us, “ Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” Postmodernism refutes the beauty in history because the art in history does not meet with its approval.  Most unfortunate.

One Response

  1. What does “in the whale” mean?

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