Modernism, Formalistic Abstraction’s Lost Sibling


Eric Bookhardt

An article, titled “Controversy vs Quality”, was featured prominently in the May 21 issue of the Wall Street Journal, and was fairly typical of its kind, in that it was an appeal to do away with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) as we know it. The pretext for this execution call was the Awards of the Visual Arts (AVA 9) exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
The author, purportedly one of the journal’s editors, was at pains to differentiate himself from the “yahoos” and “Bible-thumpers” (his nomenclature) in whose legion he was marching. And he had no complaints about obscenity, since the show had none. Instead, the business journalist was outraged by what he perceived as an art establishment “orthodoxy” bent on imposing “mediocrity” and “arid drivel” on an innocent, unsuspecting American public. “The artist’s work, no matter how reductionist or outrageous, has to be understood,” he railed. “If they have created a movement it would have to be called hyper-solipsism.”
Hyper-solipsism. That caught my attention. The article’s a fairly typical partisan rant, itself an example of hypersophism in that it failed to mention that the NEA only funded a fraction of the mostly private underwritten AVA 9 show. The exhibition, organised by the South Eastern Centre for Contemporary Art, was not exactly cutting-edge and may in fact have elements of mediocrity. What it was, however, was in many ways representative of pluralistic, postmodern American art.
Further, the author revealed himself to be unaware that historically most new art was not instantly accessible, and thus had to be ‘understood’ over time. Still, the “hyper-solipsism” remark was intriguing, even haunting in some strange way. Perhaps because the self-referentiality implied is a notion ordinarily associated with the abstract expressionist variety of modernism. Postmodernism, on the other hand, has supposedly positioned itself against what modernism has stood for. But has it really? It might be instructive at this point to be generous, to afford the Journal’s man a degree of tolerance he seems unwilling to grant those in the art world’s evil “orthodoxy.” Why was this poor soul so deeply hurt by work whose range of meanings was not instantly “understood” by him, so that he felt compelled to dismiss it all as “solipsism,” among other things? (And does he expect artists to find junk bond theory – postmodern economic appropriatism – any less baffling?)
He may have been disappointed that the AVA 9 show comprised what is generally known as idea art, something so typically devoid of traditional ‘aesthetics’ or ‘taste’ (favoured buzzwords of the New Criteria), that paranoid right-wingers have come to view it as a leftist conspiracy (as if the left still existed!). Someone should have sat those poor fools down a long time ago and explained the facts of art world life to them.
Once, in those rosy days when most of us were either very young or not yet born, and artwork as an art object was a tangible thing, finite, whose existence seemed as specific as its physical dimensions. But, by the late 1950s, something funny had quietly happened that changed everything – mass media, especially television, became so omnipresent, and everything so wired, so photographed and re-photographed, but nothing was the way it had traditionally seemed. Direct perception of events was replaced by ever shifting camera angles, and native experience was replaced by pre-packaged production values.
Philosophically, the authenticity of our experience came into question. Necessarily, art followed suit and became, no longer an object, but a complex of processes whose meanings were dependent upon the context of their presentation. As the formalistic modernism of abstract expressionism had represented the last gasp of the ‘aesthetic object’ era in art making, the new media-inspired artists emerging in the late 1970s (Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Jenny Hotzer et al.) seemed emblematic of the process and context orientation that became identified as postmodernism.
Such art was celebrated in densely academic, scientific seeming tracts by writers such as Rosalind Krauss and Fredric Jameson, among others, who generally made it sound like some new kind of breakthrough. All this set the tone for the art of the 1980s, including the context-conscious art in the AVA 9 show.
What most of these writers failed to fully acknowledge was that we had been through all this before with Pop – the first major media art movement – and the force which initially laid to rest formalistic modernism. British art critic Lawrence Alloway – way back in the 1960s – described Pop as manipulating the codes, “the sign systems of American culture.” Which is essentially how critics like Krauss validated artists such as Sherrie Levine, while quoting from Roland Barthes, among other structuralist and poststructuralists, who themselves were expanding on ideas already laid out by Marshall McLuhan in the early 1960s (though McLuhan himself was rarely, if ever mentioned). Ultimately, the media image appropriation of Sherrie Levine and others seem to differ very little from similar media appropriation tactics utilised by Rauschenberg or Warhol some 20 years before.
So why all the hoopla? Cynics have suggested that in the wake of the 1970s conceptualism, the galleries need something more tangible to sell, and some people had made a real killing off of pop art, so … Others have suggested that since nothing much of cultural or technological significance has happened since the 1960s, we have to keep repeating fragments of that decade until something else finally comes along.
Pop had been a perfect illustration of the (field theory) of electronic media, a force that by the 1960s had become totalising in its omnipresence. Thus Pop fulfilled the traditional role of the avant-garde (art about the idea of art): it reflected through new art the changes in consciousness imposed by new levels of technology. If abstract expressionism was the art of post-war high industrialism, then Pop reflected late industrialism so what does postmodernism reflect? Continuing late industrialism… (“Post-industrial” is simply the polite way of saying we lost our industry to Japan.)
But there are a few differences. Where Pop had been irreverent and fun, postmodern art seems to take itself pretty seriously. And if Pop had seemed accessible, much postmodern art seems pointedly inscrutable – you pretty much have to know the theory or else you’ll never ‘get it’. In other words this is a kind of literary art, and to know what it’s ‘about’ you have to know the literature. (And if you are a Wall Street Journal editor – how the hell are you going to find the time, right.)
And so, the reality of postmodern art is not that it is any sort of commie plot as our friend from Wall Street and his “yahoo” and “Bible thumper” cohorts seem to suspect, but that it is utterly enmeshed in quasi-scientific, academic theory. University art has increasingly become a discipline as specialised as, say, theoretical physics.
This then is the deep, dark secret: postmodernism is the new academic art. And while there is nothing in any of this to suggest that this art would necessarily tend to be “mediocre” or “arid drivel,” there is implicit in it the distinct suggestion of an intellectual game, a game of codes and contexts. Such a game could be extended indefinitely – familiar forms yielding to endless opaque riddles posturing as new art-about-the-idea-of-art about-the-idea-of-art about-the-idea-of-art, ad infinitum, add absurd (but this may seem trivial). Furthermore, postmodernism may not even be post-modern. Its emphasis on manipulating ready mades, mass images, and objects taken out of context, can be traced back before Rauschenberg and Warhol – way back to America’s early experience with Marcel Duchamp, who many regard as this country’s avant-garde father of… modernism. So postmodernism may simply be the alternative modernism, formalistic abstraction’s lost sibling.
So where does this leave us? Good question.
If we go back to the beginning of art, we find ourselves in a cave. Art originally dealt with the conditions that people faced – hunger, the bison situation – back when the physical and metaphysical world were one, but life’s challenges were many. While postmodernism’s underlying theories often reflect real life issues, much postmodernist art itself seems oddly hermetic, or “solipsistic,” as noted by our Wall Street scribe. Certainly not all – Peter Halley’s work uses abstracted computer circuitry as a metaphor for the abstraction of meaning posed by mass communications, a bison situation of consciousness – but most postmodernism seems curiously insular.
In New Orleans there is a loose knit group of artists that have come to be known as the Visionary Imagists owing to their signature blending of imagism and a kind of visionary surrealism (or magic realism) of the sort found in Latin America, Louisiana, and the American southwest. While neither modern nor post-modern, this art deals in a somewhat accessible way with real-world issues of environment and gender – as well as media and the abstraction of meaning.
The wave of the future? It is ‘too soon to tell’ what the movement’s contribution might ultimately be, notes art historian Mary Warner Marien in a story on the visionary imagists in the June 25, 1990 issue of the Christian Science Monitor. Noting, however, the way in which it expresses “global concerns through a local style,” the article concludes “the movement goes a long way to redeem what has disparagingly been called provincial art. As part of an emerging new American regionalism, Visionary Imagism calls into question the whole notion of a cultural mainstream.”
If this, or any other such socially and environmentally oriented art catches on, it will be interesting to see what conspiracy theories and NEA bashing it might inspire. But, come what may, it probably won’t be dismissed as “solipsistic”.


First published in the New Art Examiner Volume 18, no 2 – October 1990: Publisher Derek Guthrie, Managing Editor Alison Gamble.

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