All trends become clearer with time. Looking at art even 15 years out, “you can see the patterns a little better,” says Melissa Ho, assistant curator at the Hirshhorn Museum. “There are larger, deeper trends that have to do with how we are living in the world and how we are experiencing it.”
So what exactly is modern art? The question, she says, is less answerable than endlessly discussable.
Technically, says Ho, modern art is “the cultural expression of the historical moment of modernity.” But how to unpack that statement is contested. One way of defining modern art, or anything really, is describing what it is not. Traditional academic painting and sculpture dominated the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. “It was about perfect, seamless technique and using that perfect, seamless technique to execute very well-established subject matter,” says Ho. There was a hierarchy of genres, from history paintings to portraiture to still lifes and landscapes, and very strict notions of beauty. “Part of the triumph of modernism is overturning academic values,” she says.
In somewhat of a backlash to traditional academic art, modern art is about personal expression. Though it was not always the case historically, explains Ho, “now, it seems almost natural that the way you think of works of art are as an expression of an individual vision.” Modernism spans a huge variety of artists and kinds of art. But the values behind the pieces are much the same. “With modern art, there is this new emphasis put on the value of being original and doing something innovative,” says Ho.
Edouard Manet and the Impressionists were considered modern, in part, because they were depicting scenes of modern life. The Industrial Revolution brought droves of people to the cities, and new forms of leisure sprung up in urban life. Inside the Hirshhorn’s galleries, Ho points out Thomas Hart Benton’s People of Chilmark, a painting of a mass of tangled men and women, slightly reminiscent of a classical Michelangelo or Théodore Géricault’s famous Raft of the Medusa, except that it is a contemporary beach scene, inspired by the Massachusetts town where Benton summered. Ringside Seats, a painting of a boxing match by George Bellows, hangs nearby, as do three paintings by Edward Hopper, one titled First Row Orchestra of theatergoers waiting for the curtains to be drawn.
In Renaissance art, a high premium was put on imitating nature. “Then, once that was chipped away at, abstraction is allowed to flourish,” says Ho. Works like Benton’s and Hopper’s are a combination of observation and invention. Cubists, in the early 1900s, started playing with space and shape in a way that warped the traditional pictorial view.
Art historians often use the word “autonomous” to describe modern art. “The vernacular would be ‘art for art’s sake,’” explains Ho. “It doesn’t have to exist for any kind of utility value other than its own existential reason for being.” So, assessing modern art is a different beast. Rather than asking, as one might with a history painting, about narrative—Who is the main character? And what is the action?—assessing a painting, say, by Piet Mondrian, becomes more about composition. “It is about the compositional tension,” says Ho, “the formal balance between color and line and volume on one hand, but also just the extreme purity of and rigor of it.”
According to Ho, some say that modernism reaches its peak with Abstract Expressionism in America during the World War II era. Each artist of the movement tried to express his individual genius and style, particularly through touch. “So you get Jackson Pollock with his dripping and throwing paint,” says Ho. “You get Mark Rothko with his very luminous, thinly painted fields of color.” And, unlike the invisible brushwork in heavily glazed academic paintings, the strokes in paintings by Willem de Kooning are loose and sometimes thick. “You really can feel how it was made,” says Ho.
Shortly after World War II, however, the ideas driving art again began to change. Postmodernism pulls away from the modern focus on originality, and the work is deliberately impersonal. “You see a lot of work that uses mechanical or quasi-mechanical means or deskilled means,” says Ho. Andy Warhol, for example, uses silk screen, in essence removing his direct touch, and chooses subjects that play off of the idea of mass production. While modern artists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman made color choices that were meant to connect with the viewer emotionally, postmodern artists like Robert Rauschenberg introduce chance to the process. Rauschenburg, says Ho, was known to buy paint in unmarked cans at the hardware store.
“Postmodernism is associated with the deconstruction of the idea, ‘I am the artistic genius, and you need me,’ ” says Ho. Artists such as Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner, with works in the Hirshhorn, shirk authorship even more. Weiner’s piece titled “A RUBBER BALL THROWN ON THE SEA, Cat. No. 146,” for example, is displayed at the museum in large, blue, sans-serif lettering. But Weiner was open to the seven words being reproduced in any color, size or font. “We could have taken a marker and written it on the wall,” says Ho. In other words, Weiner considered his role as artist to be more about conception than production. Likewise, some of LeWitt’s drawings from the late 1960s are basically drawings by instruction. He provides instructions but anyone, in theory, can execute them. “In this post-war generation, there is this trend, in a way, toward democratizing art,” says Ho. “Like the Sol LeWitt drawing, it is this opinion that anybody can make art.”
Labels like “modern” and “postmodern,” and trying to pinpoint start and end dates for each period, sometimes irk art historians and curators. “I have heard all kinds of theories,” says Ho. “I think the truth is that modernity didn’t happen at a particular date. It was this gradual transformation that happened over a couple hundred of years.” Of course, the two times that, for practical reasons, dates need to be set are when teaching art history courses and organizing museums. In Ho’s experience, modern art typically starts around the 1860s, while the postmodern period takes root at the end of the 1950s.
The term “contemporary” is not attached to a historical period, as are modern and postmodern, but instead simply describes art “of our moment.” At this point, though, work dating back to about 1970 is often considered contemporary. The inevitable problem with this is that it makes for an ever-expanding body of contemporary work for which professors and curators are responsible. “You just have to keep an eye on how these things are going,” advises Ho. “I think they are going to get redefined.”
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About Megan Gambino
Characteristics of Postmodernism
"Postmodernism" is not a movement, it's a general attitude. So there is no agreed list of characteristics that define "postmodernist art". But we must start somewhere, so here are a few selected pointers.
Postmodernism reflects a widespread disillusionment with life, as well as the power of existing value-systems and/or technology to effect beneficial change. As a result, authority, expertise, knowledge and eminence of achievement has become discredited. Artists are now far more wary about "big ideas" (e.g. all 'progress' is good). Most important, "Modernist art" was seen not only as elitist but also as white, male-dominated and uninterested in minorities. Which is why postmodernism champions art by Third World, Feminist and Minority artists. However, critics say that - despite its supposed "rejection" of big ideas - the postmodern movement seems to have lots of big ideas of its own. Examples include: "all types of art are equally valid"; "art can be made out of anything"; "the democratization of art is a good thing" (how about the democratization of brain surgery?).
To paraphrase Andy Warhol, "anyone can be famous for 15 minutes". This idea, more than any other, sums up the postmodernist age. Faced with a new nonsensical world, the postmodernist response has been:
Okay, let's play around with this nonsense. We accept that life and art no longer have any obvious intrinsic meaning, but so what? Let's experiment, make art more interesting, and see where it leads. Who knows, maybe we can be famous for 15 minutes!
Postmodernism changed the educational priorities at numerous art colleges. During the 1970s, the art of painting (and to a lesser extent sculpture), was seen as worn out. Besides, the idea of working for four years to master the necessary skills of these traditional fine arts, was considered retrogressive. Art, it was believed, should be liberated from the elite and opened to the public, so art schools began to turn out a new type of graduate - someone familiar with instant postmodernist-style forms, as well as basic production techniques. In a nutshell, individual "creativity" was considered to be more important than the accumulation of craftsman-like skills.
Use of Technology
The era of "postmodernist art" has coincided with the arrival of several new image-based technologies (eg. television, video, screenprinting, computers, the Internet) and has benefited hugely from them. The new range of video and photographic imagery has reduced the importance of drawing skills, and by manipulating the new technology, artists (notably those involved in new media, like installation, video and lens-based art) have been able to short-cut the traditional processes involved in "making art," but still create something new. This is illustrated by the documentary photography of Diane Arbus, that focuses on members of minorities in New York City, and the video art of the Korean-American Nam June Paik (1932-2006).
Postmodernist Focus on Popular/Low culture
The term "high culture" is often used by art critics when trying to distinguish the "high culture" of painting and sculpture (and other fine arts), from the "low" popular culture of magazines, television, pulp fiction and other mass-made commodities. Modernists, along with their influential supporters like Clement Greenberg (1909-94), considered low culture to be inferior to high culture. By contrast, postmodernists - who favour a more 'democratic' idea of art - see "high culture" as more elitist. Thus Pop-art - the first postmodernist movement - made art out of ordinary consumer items (hamburgers, tins of soup, packets of soap powder, comic strips) that were instantly recognizable by Joe Public. Pop-artists and others went even further in their attempts to democratize art, by printing their "art" on mugs, paper bags, and T-shirts: a method which incidentally exemplifies the postmodernist desire to undermine the originality and authenticity of art.
Mixing of Genres and Styles
Ever since Neo-Dada, postmodernists have enjoyed mixing things up - or injecting novel elements into traditional forms - to create new combinations and pastiches. Fernando Botero creates primitive-style paintings of obese figures; Georg Baselitz paints upside-down figures. Gerhard Richter combined camera art and painting in his 'photo-paintings' of the 1970s, while Jeff Koons combined consumerist imagery (balloon shapes) with highly finished sculptural techniques to create his Balloon Dog pop-sculptures (1994-2000). Meanwhile Andreas Gursky combines photography with computer generated imagery to create works like Rhein II (1999, MOMA, New York), while Jeff Wall uses digitally processed photomontage in his postmodernist pictorialist creations.
Postmodern artists have junked the idea that a work of art has only one inherent meaning. Instead, they believe that the spectator is an equally important judge of meaning. Cindy Sherman's surrealist photography, for instance, highlights the idea that a work of art can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Indeed, some artists - such as the performance artist Marina Abramovic (b.1946) - even permit spectators to participate in their 'art works', or even require intervention by spectators in order to complete their work.
Meeting Consumer Needs
The growth of consumerism and instant gratification over the last few decades of the 20th century has also had a huge impact on visual art. Consumers now want novelty. They also want entertainment and spectacle. In response, many postmodernist artists, curators and other professionals have taken the opportunity to turn art into an "entertainment product". The introduction of new types of art, for instance - such as Performance, Happenings and Installations - along with new subject-matter - including things like dead sharks, dying flies, huge ice-sculptures, crowds of nude bodies, buildings that appear to be in motion, a collection of 35,000 terracotta figures, islands wrapped in pink polypropylene fabric, painted bodies, spooky projected imagery on public buildings, and so on - have provided spectators with a range of new (sometimes shocking) experiences. Whether these new so-called art forms actually constitute "art" remains a hotly-contested issue. The postmodern conceptualists say "Yes", the traditionists say "No".
Focus on Spectacle
In the absence of any real meaning to life - especially when we are bombarded day and night by radio and TV advertising while at the same time being forced to listen to politicians explain that two plus two equals three - postmodernists have preferred to focus on style and spectacle, often using advertising materials and techniques for maximum impact. This approach is exemplified by the commercial printing methods, billboard-style imagery and primary colours of Pop-artists like Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist. This focus on surface is a reoccurring feature of postmodernist art, and sometimes goes over the top with melodramatic, dazzling, even shocking imagery. See, for instance, the fashion photography of Nick Knight and David LaChapelle. Since 1980, the use of computer and other technologies has revolutionized multimedia art (e.g. animation), and has created specific opportunities in areas like architecture and projection mapping.
The importance that postmodernism places on getting the attention of the audience is perfectly illustrated by the shock-tactics of a group of Goldsmiths College students - known as the Young British Artists - in London during the late-1980s and 1990s. Made famous by three exhibitions - Freeze (1988) and Modern Medicine (1990), both curated by an unknown student called Damien Hirst (b.1965), and Sensation (1997) - the YBAs were lambasted for their shocking bad taste, and yet several (Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst, Douglas Gordon, Gillian Wearing, Chris Ofili, Steve McQueen, Mark Wallinger) went on to become Turner Prize-winners, while others (Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tracey Emin, Marc Quinn and Jenny Saville) also achieved considerable fame and fortune.
Three Principles of "Postmodernist Art"
1. Instant Meaning
No more faded oil paintings depicting obscure events from Greek mythology to raise a knowing smile from cultivated spectators. From its beginnings in the Pop-art movement, postmodernist painting and sculpture was bold, bright and instantly recognizable. Themes and images were borrowed mostly from high profile consumer goods, magazines, advertising graphics, TV, film, cartoons and comic books. For the first time, everyone understood the art on display. Although postmodernism has evolved since Pop-art, a key objective remains instant recognition.
However, some works of "postmodernist art" are more "instantly understood" than others. Take for instance Equivalent 1 (1966, Kunstmuseum, Basel) by Carl Andre (b.1935). It is one of those works of art that need to be explained by an expert before it can be appreciated. It's a postmodernist minimalist sculpture consisting of 120 regular building bricks. The bricks are laid on top of each other on the floor in two layers of 60 bricks, set out in a precise rectangular configuration of three units by twenty units. At first glance, this masterpiece of contemporary art looks like something you might see on a super-tidy building site. Fortunately, your art gallery catalogue tells you that Andre took his radical decision to make art flat on the floor in 1965, when canoeing on a lake in New Hampshire, and that this majestic pile of bricks exemplifies his artistic creed that "form = structure = place." As it happens, the original Equivalent 1 was "destroyed" in 1966 and "remade" in 1969. (Maybe they needed the bricks for something).
2. Art Can be Made From Anything
Continuing in the traditions of Marcel Duchamp - whose urinal entitled "Fountain" (1917) was the first famous example of an ordinary object being made into a work of art - postmodernists have made a point of creating art from the most unlikely materials and scraps of rubbish. See: Junk Art. Sculptors, installationists and assemblage artists have made art out of industrial scrap iron, gas-masks, felt, human skulls, human blood, dead flies, neon-lighting, foam rubber, soup cans, concrete, rubber, old clothes, elephant dung and more. The idea behind this is to democratize art and make it more accessible.
3. The Idea Matters More than the Work of Art Itself
Broadly speaking, up until the 1960s, artists (including Picasso, Pollock and Lichtenstein) believed that without a finished product, there was nothing. So a huge amount of attention was lavished on the quality of the finished work of art, and the craftsmanship needed to produce it. Today, things are different. Postmodernists typically have a stronger belief in the concept behind the finished product, rather than the product itself. Which is why a lot of "postmodernist art" is known as "Conceptual Art" or "Conceptualism". This new approach is exemplified by the conceptual artwork (a list of instructions) by Martin Creed, entitled "227: The Lights Going On and Off" (2001), which won the Turner Prize in 2001. Other forms of no-product conceptualism include installations (which are purely temporary affairs, after all), performance art, happenings, projection art, and so on.
Perhaps the ultimate example of conceptual art was the exhibition held in March 2009, at the French National Museum of Contemporary Art in the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Entitled "The Specialisation of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilised Pictorial Sensibility", it consisted of nine completely empty rooms, and nothing else.
Collections of Postmodernist Art
For two excellent displays of postmodernist art, visit the Saatchi Gallery, in London, or the Guggenheim, New York.