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Mid-America College Art Conference, Richmond, VA, 1997

Postmodernism Decays: Other Attractors Awaken.
A Grand View Emerges from Irony, Dolefulness, Narrowness

Robert Stanley


Intro: Attitude

A big word these days, attitude. From celebrity stances to intellectual positions, people expect attitude. Well, most of these attitudes and fronts are too small-minded. I'd like to see a truly big-minded attitude, like the spirit of the Renaissance. This is not a wish on my part to recreate the arts of that period. I just like the big attitude they had. And, noticing the pendulum swings of history, there are so many today who want an escape from the current smallness that the future belongs to big attitude.

The Renaissance attitude was expansive. History recounts "l'uomo universale." We are more likely familiar with our era's faith that no one can be "universal" or even that Postmodern shibboleth, "essentialist." I suspect that belief is probably wrong; we can aspire to becoming universal. While every bit of data and information obviously cannot be known, much less mastered by an individual, is it so impossible for artists once again to see connections and underlying order in our current information overload?

The Renaissance artist lifted himself above being a menial, and insisted on respect for intellectual powers as well as for his skill. There was a balance between the self and the world. There was confidence in a mission and belief in a world to be explored. Tell me that is impossible today.

Vasari notes that artists were trained in "disegno." Disegno proposed that there was a "composition" to the mind's ordering of the world, to politics, to science, to literature, and that this ordering was revealed in and through painting. Artists were concerned with the whole world. That was a big attitude.

Such unforgettable eras as the Renaissance and Classical Greece had a common surge to them, a surge that balanced the outward and the inward, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, nature and intellect. In many other eras one or the other tendency dominated, skewing this balance. The spirit of the current era hearkens back to one such skewing, the Romantic Movement.

The Romantic Movement looked intensely inward, focusing on a kind of divine madness that set the artist over against the rest of the populace. Today, we have inherited that Romanticism, under the sign of deconstructionism, as one critic claimed in reviewing Patricia Dunckner's "Hallucinating Foucault"—or as we can see for ourselves in contemporary galleries and museums.
To be overly focused on the self to such a degree that one is isolated from a grand, holistic picture seems the demiurge of many these days. Such self-focus can be considered decadent, in the biological root meaning of the word. When cells exist for themselves rather than for the whole, that whole decays. This is true not just for bodily health, but for individual artists in the body politic. Getting caught up in narrow concerns leads to decadence. I hope the future for us artists holds a greater sense of unity, belonging, and contributing.

This essay first responds briefly to Modernism and Postmodernism. Then it looks at the current state in Art. Next, there's a suggestion of probable future attractors. Finally, it will survey what artists might do, if anything, to affect the process of big attitude. Kandinsky believed artists, as an apex of a triangle, point the way to what all society will eventually experience. Marshall McLuhan, and numerous philosophers and artists, have said the same. This, of course, can be recognized as a remnant of Modernism, but I hope it is seen as a reformed modernistic tendency, shorn of Modernism's urge to doctrinaire orthodoxy.

In Modernism, Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary, Terry Barrett says "The predominant characteristics of Modernism are an optimism regarding technology; belief in the uniqueness of the individual, creativity, originality, and artistic genius; a respect for the original and authentic work of art and the masterpiece; a favoring of abstract modes of expression over narrative, historical, or political content in art; a disdain for kitsch in culture and a general disdain for middle-class sensibilities and values; and an awareness of the art market."

Response to Modernism
My response to Modernism is that we were eventually discomforted by the way its beliefs had evolved into a doctrinaire rigidity. By the time Greenberg and Rosenberg had been denigrated by Wolfe in The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House, we were ready for new ideas. As usual, the baby went sailing with the bath water. (For one thing, if the Modernist belief in progress and science was all that bad, I'd be incising these words in clay—even with all the aggravation, I'll take the computer.) Since we are familiar with Postmodernism's critique on Modernism and its Structuralist basis, there really is no need to go over that territory again.

Postmodernism revealed Modernism's end-game reductionism, Minimalism, as absurdly chilling to human emotion. The current problem is that, once again, revolutionaries (in this case, the Postmodernists) overthrew the establishment only to become an establishment themselves. Thus we now need to look at the problematic of postmodernism as acutely as postmodernism looked at modernism.

The general belief is that Postmodernism opposed all Modernism's tenets. Thus Postmodernism is: pessimistic regarding technology; does not believe in the uniqueness of the individual, in creativity, originality, or artistic genius; dis-respects the original and authentic work of art and the masterpiece; favors narrative, historical, or political modes of expression over abstract art; does not disdain kitsch. Postmodernism does, however, seem to share two aspects with modernism: a general disdain (or at least, irony) for middle-class sensibilities and values; and an awareness of the art market.

Response to Postmodernism
My Response to Postmodernism is that its self-indulgence, irony, narrowness, pessimism, and superficiality outweigh whatever fun it was.

With Postmodernism, we gave up on formal meaning. After so much meaning and angst in Modernism, it is somewhat understandable that the pendulum swung—but did it ever swing! Visual artists had become servants of semiotics, theory, and social work for gods' sakes! We deconstructed to destruction; we decontextualized to non-sense.

Commenting on the ascendancy of theory over substance, Franz Schulze wrote: "...a preoccupation with theory has taken command of the international worlds of art and architecture alike, with the result that discussion has not only come alive, but often seemed to replace the stuff it is supposed to be about. This has not guaranteed a better overall grade of published writing...on the contrary, theoretical thinking has led all to easily, and globally to intellectual maundering expressed in impenetrable prose."

Enough of this maundering and impenetrable prose! I'd like to see an unaffected return to the skills that make us unique: line, shape, value, texture, color, composition. Why should we fine artists surrender these skills in the battle for the eyes of the world—to let commercial advertisers and entertainment "kick our butts" as it were?

Even the arts establishment is getting tired of skill-less art.
Andrew Hultkrans skewered the arto-philosophico, 1996 rave "Chance: Three Days in the Desert":
"Baudrillard, now decked out in a gold lame blazer with mirrored lapels, mounts the stage...[H]e begins to recite a criminally pretentious poem...as the band skronks away behind him...Since Foucault, there has been an unspoken trend in academia towards transforming the professor of theory into the rock star...I suspect Baudrillard came to this Valhalla of simulacra [Whiskey Pete's casino, 40 miles south of Vegas] to rehearse his lounge act."

Current State
From all around, then, and from inside ourselves, voices can be heard crying, "we've had enough of postmodernism." The current state finds alternatives already being tested. Using the 1997 Whitney biennial as a limited example, some trends can be seen.

Whitney Biennial curator Louise Neri claims "All the artists we're dealing with are conversant with previous ideas and practices, whether it's to do with a critique of formalism or of institutional practice. But they're also insistent on the primacy and intensity of the experience, whether visual, aural, or both."

Kathryn Hixson, reviewing that same Whitney Biennial, claims "The work is post-deconstruction, post-multi-culti: not didactically political or 'laden' with complicated intellectual tracts...nor is it market-driven as '80s Postmodernism was supposed to have been. The models brought forth are storytelling, religion, and poetry, couched in the well-worn dichotomy between inside and outside. In the downsized '90s, the inside—the personal, intimate, emotional, and intrusive—has regained the prestige and consideration many have been trying to champion to counter the weight of oppositional critique (which now endangers sales and funding) in favor of humanistic unity."

My response to the current state of art is that while it is good to see a movement toward more personal structurings in response to the outside world rather than riding an ideological high horse through that world, there is still a way to go along the path of skill and structure. Beyond a marginal concern for the viewers' visual experience of the art, there is a bigger attitude, wherein depth, or "disegno" in Renaissance terms, is a prime concern. Although structure in and of itself is no godsend, as the ossification of The Academy or the coercion of any dictatorship have shown, in an atomized society such as ours consensual structure might keep us from reeling into disintegration.

Any structuring or ordering that occurs, best comes from the inside, and is not forced by dogma, as was the late stage of Modernism. If artists can come to an attitude about a big direction while still maintaining individuality, we might be whole again—whole like the human body in health, where each †cell is unique, yet works within the common structure. What follows delineates the forms such ordering might take.

Attractors Towards the Future
What are the Attractors Towards the Future? If we are changing, evolving past Modernism and Postmodernism, where might we be heading? Realizing the only truly predictable thing about the future is that we cannot accurately predict it, there are some factors which indicate the future's general direction, the flow of its currents.

Based on the old saying, "If you're not rowing, you're going downstream," and taking into account the flood-like surge of history, we artists and educators most likely cannot make huge changes. But we can aim the canoe a bit.

Perhaps a better metaphor than river currents for describing how changes occur would be gravitational attractors in the universe. These attractors pull in both dust particles and giant globs of matter to form new worlds. History reveals that new periods seem to accrete around several core ideas. There appear to be three main attractors around which the future might coalesce: 1) the current art world's emerging emphases: which are the deeply personal and artistic skill; 2) the enormous growth of information availability and world-wide communication, which creates a pressure for ordering these data; 3) the more intense interfacing of the Eastern and Western world views, which demands a new synthesis.

One of the most obvious attractors of the future is the present, especially if it contrasts with its predecessor. As mentioned above concerning the Whitney and Venice biennials, we seem to be heading towards the more personal (and not just individualistic), and towards some delight in using artistic techniques (rather than ignoring media altogether or glorifying the "untrained" look). Considering that these are somewhat of a reaction to past practices that had nowhere to go (much as Modernism seemed to have nowhere to go after minimalism), it is likely that the personal and the skillful will continue to grow.

Another attractor is the stupendous proliferation of information and communication. This will certainly demand a response from society. We already hear of "sensory overload" and "potholes on the information superhighway." One likely response is to look for an inner order to withstand the external tumult. We already see externally imposed ordering to some degree on ?the Internet, where push technology and certain other filtering sites help us handle the mayhem. Likewise, in an internal or "spiritual" sense some holistic approach will likely arise in this age of instant and global information. The need for order when a society gets overwhelmed by chaos is one of the major repetitions of history. One hopes we reach such a holistic order through the heightened perceptions of artists rather than through some form of dictatorship; for the modern equivalent of the old human need to "get the trains running on time" still lurks I'm afraid. Rather than have people seek an external imposition of order, saying "someone save me," I'd rather that we evolve, Tao-like, an inner unity and order. One way or another, the present chaotic overload will evolve an ordering.

The third attractor is the blending of Eastern and Western cultures.
It seems inevitable that the major cultures will influence each other exponentially, much more that they did in the days of black ships or even airplanes. McLuhan seems to have been on the money about the "Global Village." The major factor in Eastern Tao, Buddhist, and Hindu world views is that they make sense of the world by unifying with it rather than looking at it as a separate entity. At the risk of oversimplification, the story of a Japanese man's response to the headline "Hillary Conquers Everest!" is revealing. This Eastern reader of the headline said "I don't understand. He didn't conquer it; he befriended it." Apocryphal or not, it illustrates the point.

This East/West synthesis is one of the most provocative areas for me. How will we work out the Western root culture of individualism, scientific inquiry, and search for material truth with the Eastern root culture of community, of sensing oneself as a small part of the world, and immaterial focus? Adding to the problem is that the "world" of these root cultures is not just "nature" anymore. How would Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Lao-tse, or Gautama Buddha deal with quantum mechanics, the airplane, satellites, instant communication? Of these holistic thinkers my favorite is Heraclitus, who said "you can never step into the same river twice." He and the founder of Taoism, Lao-tse, seemed to have an openness to and acceptance of everything in the great surround while searching for unifying wisdom. I suggest getting radical: getting back to these roots for the principles that illuminate "nature"and it current expansion. I would include in the meaning of "nature" all current phenomena that have extended the biosphere electronically, physically, and mentally. Yes, even simulacra should be included. All things in our expanded universe need to be looked at as Renaissance and Classical Greek artists looked at their worlds. They looked, to seek order in the chaos. Now that would be radically holistic.

To Do List:
Considering that predicting the future is iffy and that all we can do is re-orient our canoe in the flood of history, what might we do?
First, we adjust the scale of our vision, open up the horizon to think grandly. Considering the birth of the universe, the life of a human, do we have time to look at splinters merely as splinters, or simulacra as simulacra? Better yet, can we balance our concern with toe jam with our knowledge that we exist because stars blew up billions of years ago? Extremes, whether the overwhelming universality of Modernism or the narrowness of Postmodernism, do not please our need for balance.

Secondly, we can educate art students broadly, by including serious attention to science, literature, philosophy, and history. Serious attention is needed, not watered-down treatments of these areas. As artists, we've got to stop looking inward so narrowly.

Narrowness keeps us from growing. We become some kind of tribe that is only vaguely aware of the "barbarians" who are "out there."

Perhaps we also need to get off our preachy high-horses, our feeling that we need to follow the Romantic notion of "Épater la bourgeoisie," of slapping people awake. Renaissance artists opened worlds without as much skirmishing with the public as we seem to crave. Perhaps if we open up, we can be a greater resource for the commonweal. We do have in Western roots a basis for such a relationship. The Greeks had an ideal called"arete," self fulfillment in a group.

Thirdly, that particular specialness of Art, the visual, could be celebrated rather than ignored or denied.
It is a mystery why we visual artists would want to give up our special tools. Should singers give up musicality? Why give up the field of the beautiful to commercial advertisers? The celebration of "brut," and "untrained" art seems more a revolt against societal constraints than a celebration of anything.

Also, the larger, "lay" audience is not cockroaches. One of the best things about being human is delight. Shock is interesting too, but can't we do both? From the windows of Chartres through the political angst of Goya, even if laymen don't "get" the message, they appreciate the beautiful in these works. Dumbing down our skills disrespects an audience whom we think can't "get" high art.

As in the past, the revolt against the Academy (here, again read Postmodernism's revolt against Modernism) has become its own Academy, thereby quashing or constraining individual explorations. In too many art schools there are no standards for critique except that the work has to be "meaningfully expressive," a dictatorship as arbitrary as Stalin's cold stare.

Eric Fischl relates "[at art school] we were taught no technical skill, no craft. Most of us had to go and learn it by ourselves later."

If students are given the skills and the language (Form) of art and are exposed seriously to the other major disciplines, they can find their own way. If we truly want to empower our students, we'll say "here are the tools, learn them." Next, we'll insist that they probe their world and their psyche to express with these tools something they find truly meaningful. We will be especially leery of groupthink. The criteria for the critiques would be "have you probed deeply enough?" (what used to be called Truth), and "do all the artistic elements add to your probe?" (what used to be called Form or Beauty). There will, of course be little initial agreement in these areas, but at least the student is free of that tyranny where doing anything is okay as long as it meets certain current modalities of art. Given the parameters of searching the whole world and themselves, and of actually making use of visual skills, the ensuing dialectic could be fruitful.

In Summary, I think the future might see artists with: 1) a grand view; 2) a celebration of and delight in skills; 3) power rather than dissipation.

First, artists would hold a grand view rather than messianic illusions or ironic narrowness. The limitations of Modernism and Postmodernism have become apparent. Both, ironically, end in a pinched attitude. Great art was made in expansive times, for example Greece in the fifth century B.C. and the Renaissance. With the biosphere entering an era of physical and mental expansion, and with art coming off a narrow focus, the synergy is there for a grand view once again.

Secondly, artists would possess a celebration of and delight in skills rather than a suspicion of their use. It is simply more difficult and more fun to be skillful. It also is no sin to please an audience, especially if you want to reach them. Preaching to the choir shouldn't make the preacher feel he's done well. Similarly, wowing the art establishment with "correct think" should not be our goal. Rather, delight in the making and creating delight in the viewing would improve the future of art.

Artists might express power rather than dissipation. We have learned much since the coming of Modern Art. Modernism taught us to be anxious, to care about changing the world. Then we learned, from a doctrinaire Modernism, that we can be too much anxious and too overbearing. So, Postmodernism helped us to become empathetic and non-elitist. But Postmodernism cast out harmony and beauty. Today, a new learning looms. We can balance our concerns for the big and the little because, like only a few times in history there is a great task. Like the Renaissance, a whole re-ordering lies ahead. In the 1940s Motherwell said there was nothing to affirm in society. Art since then has intensified this Romantic notion of attacking societal values. Yet, wonderfully enough, today we can affirm because we resemble not so much the post-war society of Motherwell, but a new world, like Leonardo's. Rather than striving for irony, pedantry, or preachiness, artists can create in a powerful balance: passion and intelligence. Use our hearts. Use our heads. Use our tools.

©1997 Robert Stanley