In treating any disease it
is important to identify the problem at its root. It is also
important to find classic cases of the problem to illustrate
clearly the results of the disease. Some of the cases here are
not pretty and might be offensive. It will take some courage to
follow me through the following series of articles as we
investigate the nature of Postmodern Art. Fortunately the cure
for this type of disease exists but, as with all treatments, we
will have to act to eradicate this plague from our world. Come
with me as we enter into the aftermath of the Greek daughter's
There are two versions of the legend of Pandora's Box. One
version tells us that the box contained all kinds of misery. When
Pandora opened the box a plague dispersed and doomed humanity to
suffer ruin, insanity, and despair. She hastily closed the box
to stop the plague but, pathetically, only Hope remained inside.
In the other version the box held all of humanity's glories.
When she opened the box progress, knowledge, and exaltation
vanished into oblivion, forever lost to humanity.
Today, in the here and now, both versions of the legend of
Pandora's Box are tragically true.
Our civilization's humanities, the branches of knowledge such as
philosophy and art, have contracted Postmodernism. In the
contemporary arts it has spread like an unchecked virus,
literally and figuratively defacing painting and sculpture
Let us examine a few of Postmodernism's sorriest growths.
De Kooning, 1953
easy, by any means. The drawing was done with a hard
line, and it was greasy too, so I had to work very hard
on it, using every sort of eraser."
Documented by modern art historians and
considered a historically significant piece is
Erased De Kooning, 1953, by Rauschenberg. He was given a drawing by one of America's leading Abstract
Expressionists, De Kooning. He then erased the De Kooning image,
signed it himself and exhibited the artwork as his own.
interview with art critic Calvin Tomkins, Rauschenberg said:
"I had been working
for some time at erasing, with the idea that I wanted to create
a work of art by that method. Not just by deleting certain
lines, you understand, but by erasing the whole thing. Using my
own work wasn't satisfactory . . . I realized that it had to be
something by someone who everybody agreed was great, and the
most logical person for that was de Kooning. . . . finally he
gave me a drawing, and I took it home. It wasn't easy, by any
means. The drawing was done with a hard line, and it was greasy
too, so I had to work very hard on it, using every sort of
eraser. But in the end it really worked. I liked the result. I
felt it was a legitimate work of art, created by the technique
Erased De Kooning, 1953 established a
historical precedent that the destruction of an artwork is
important aesthetically. Generally, it marked a place in
the postmodern continuum in which the theme of shock is an
Christo and Jeanne-Claude,
"But there is one quality [that artists] have never
used, and that is the quality of love and tenderness
that we human beings have for what does not last."
it a quality of nihilism on an epic scale?
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, America's leading conceptual artist
team, raised and spent
26 million dollars on his Umbrellas, 1991 project. Over
3,000 industrial-sized umbrellas were placed simultaneously over
large tracts of land in California and Japan. The project took
years of methodical planning, required 1000's of workers, and
supporters from both the private and public sectors. The visual
impact of the project was monumental; the huge umbrellas spread
out as far as the eye could see. The actual work was only
presented for 18 days and then it was dismantled and carted
away. That's it. Gone.
Jeanne-Claude comments: "...Throughout
the millenniums, for 5000 years, artists of the past have tried
to input into their works of art a variety of different
qualities. They have used different materials, marble, stone,
bronze, wood, paint. They have created abstract images,
figurative images, religious images, profane. They have tried
to do bigger, smaller, a lot of different qualities. But there
is one quality they have never used, and that is the quality of
love and tenderness that we human beings have for what does not
last. For instance, we have love and tenderness for childhood
because we know it will not last. We have love and tenderness
for our own life because we know it will not last. That quality
of love and tenderness, we wish to donate it, endow our work
with it as an additional aesthetic quality..."
This sentiment sounds poetic and
beautiful but think about what it means as an aesthetic
practice: Beethoven conducting the 9th for one
performance and then destroying the score; Michelangelo
pulverizing the newly completed David; or Hugo laying
waste to the Les Misérables
manuscript on a Guernsey shore.
Imagine creating a 26 million-dollar
project with tons of enthusiastic support and then wiping it off
the face of the planet. Christo comments that their
"work is a scream of freedom." I don't know about freedom,
but I see an end result that holds a statement of
nihilism on an epic scale. Actually, the piece could be called
Beyond Nihilism because what was left was not nothing but an
absence of what was there before.
Incidentally, this project spectacularly illustrates several of
Kant's aesthetic concepts of the sublime: mathematical
enormity, the formlessness of the final outcome, mass
acceptance, and the violation of our ability to comprehend the
total. I will discuss more of Kant's aesthetics in Pandora's
Box Part III.
McCarthy, Sailor's Meat
portrait of the artist during a performance piece.
McCarthy is captured on a video which
documents his performance piece, Sailor's Meat, 1975. The
video lasts about an hour and shows the naked artist
flagellating, raping, and gagging himself with hotdogs. The
particular aspect of this piece to note is that he is actually
doing these things to himself; it is real life, in contrast to
say the art of acting.
McCarthy on his subjects and peeve with Disney: "Maybe it is
a conditioned response: we're taught to be disgusted by our
fluids. Maybe it's related to a fear of death. Body fluids are
base material. Disneyland is so clean; hygiene is the religion
of fascism. The body sack, the sack you don't enter, it's taboo
to enter the sack. Fear of sex and the loss of control; visceral
goo, waddle, waddle."
Postmodernists have been praised for their ability to push the
boundaries. To a figurative painter/sculptor and to a postmodern
artist, pushing the boundaries means two completely opposite
things: to a figurative artist it means to advance art by
creating new developments that add to the long line of
accomplished artists through history. To a postmodern artist it
means to shock us even if that involves destroying the very
nature of art; if it is a painting, let's knife it; if it is the
artist's hand, let's cut it off. Aptly, McCarthy, in another
performance piece has stylistically enacted these concepts.
figurative painter/sculptor and to postmodern
artist, pushing the boundaries means two completely
opposite things: to a figurative artist it means to
advance art by creating new developments that add to
the long line of accomplished artists through
history. To a postmodern artist it means to shock us
even if that involves destroying the very nature of
Related to McCarthy in spirit are a host of postmodern artists,
Chris Burden, who literally crucified himself to a
car. The gross nature of these postmodern artists and their
desperate need to affect us negatively is again a clear
indication of the premise of shock as the standard of postmodern
art, even if it is suicidal.
Some of you might consider these projects as harmless jokes or
examples of insanity. But the facts are that these postmodern
artists have devoted their entire careers to making
exactly these kinds of works and that the highest reaches of the
art establishment esteem them.
Continuing our diagnosis let us take an inventory of the
significant postmodern standards we have uncovered:
A theme of shock is present in all these variations of
postmodern art. Destruction of artwork is applauded. The use of methodical planning and mass
voluntary help towards the outcome of tremendous financial waste
that ultimately results in absence. Real-life debasement
and violence are postmodern art forms. The postmodern art
community rewards expressions of suicidal tendencies for the
cause of art.
What does the combination of shock, destruction of art,
methodical planning, financial and material waste, and suicidal
participants remind you of? September 11 or bin Laden perhaps?
By these standards, could not the destruction of the World Trade
Center be the most brilliant example of the furthest reaches of
what is possible to a postmodernist? The enormity of that
project is gigantic: the methodical planning, the support of
volunteers, the huge waste of money, the real violence of the
act, and the end result of nihilism on scale that would make
Christo jealous, Hitler smile, and poor Pandora freak out.
Beyond obliteration the consequential absence of the Twin Towers
could be viewed as the crowning glory of postmodern art. If bin
Laden claimed to be an artist, he could be hailed as the greatest
postmodern artist since Marcel Duchamp.
In Pandora's Box Part II, I will
discuss postmodern art education and motives.
First published in
the Free Radical #52, 2002
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