postmodernism at the v&a

3 October 2011 § Leave a comment

Or to give it its full title Postmodernism – Style and Subversion 1970-1990.

Strangely the V&A select a date period for the exhibition as postmodernism has always been a slippery thing to pin down. Does anybody really know when it started or when it finished – if indeed it has? It’s very nature – drawing heavily on the past whilst at the same time rejecting it with pastiche, irony and the subversion of the title – makes the whole era confusing to define and explain. In the sad absence of any attempt at definition by the V&A here is a copy of an amazing and almost unknown document that provides one of the only theoretical definitions.

Entitled ‘The Postmodern Manifesto’ and found, unpublished, by Jacques Derrida’s deathbed, it is also signed by the hugely influential thinkers Roland Barthes and Michel Foucauld (courtesy Brian Sewell in the Standard):

1. The art of the past is past. What was true of art yesterday is false today.

2. The Postmodern art of today is defined and determined, not by artists, but by a new generation of curators, philosophers and intellectuals ignorant of the past and able to ignore it.

3. Postmodernism is a political undertaking, Marxist and Freudian.

4. Postmodernism is a new cultural condition.

5. Postmodernism is democratic and allied to popular culture.

6. Postmodernism denies the possibility of High Art.

7. Postmodernism deconstructs works of High Art to undermine them.

8. Postmodernism is subversive, seditiously resembling the precedents it mimics.

9. Postmodern art is pastiche, parody, irony, ironic conflict and paradox.

10. Postmodern art is self-consciously shallow, stylistically hybrid, ambiguous, provocative and endlessly repeatable.

11. Postmodern art is anti-elitist, but must protect its own elitism.

12. To the Postmodernist every work of art is a text, even if it employs no words and has no title, to be curatorially interpreted. Art cannot exist before it is interpreted.

13. Postmodernist interpretation depends on coining new words unknown and unknowable to the masses, on developing a critical jargon of impenetrable profundity, and on a quagmire of theory with which to reinforce endowed significance. Vive le Néologisme!

Brian Sewell, clearly not a fan, dismisses postmodernism  thus in an excellent essay in the Standard: “Once the distinctions between the visual arts and other forms of intellectual sustenance are blurred in the pan-cultural soup of Postmodernism, nothing means anything precisely, everything is individually interpretable by anybody, and the deliberately obscure language of this anybody or group of anybodies becomes an art form in itself, for in Postmodernism art and language are one and the same and everything is text.”

Oh well, but like it or not postmodernism has existed and been represented in many different ways in the fields of architecture, art, design, theatre and music. The V&A here attempt an overview of the whole movement, vastly ambitious and only vaguely successful. You leave no more knowledgeable about postmodernism but it is still an enjoyable ‘romp’ though the era – bright, brash, colourful and theatrical.

Art-lovers will note an almost complete absence of works but will find a nice sense of period. Working from a supposed beginning in architecture the exhibition runs helter-skelter through design, music, art, film and more. There are wonderful Sotsass pots, memorable pieces of Italian design and Memphis furniture. A clip from Blade Runner plays next to costumes from the film: Rachel’s office dress and the window-crashing replicant’s plastic mac. There are clips from Grace Jones, Talking Heads and Devo music videos plus items of costume – my highlight the ‘big suit’ of David Byrne‘s.

Eventually, after passing through a section on money – the Warhol dollar sign is of course there – the exhibition ends with a Robert Longo film and a large portrait featuring one of his convulsive figures (David Byrne drew on theses convulsions in his stage act by the way). The image is unsettling – is he falling, dancing or perhaps just been shot. We are of course not meant to know. The exhibition asks us therefore  ‘Are we all post-modern now?’ Probably.

At the V&A until 15 January 2012

defining contemporary art?

7 August 2011 § Leave a comment

Since I purport to comment on contemporary art I thought it might be useful to post some sort of definition. In an attempt to find any sort of consensus I stumbled across an excellent blog called ART CANON whose tag line is art genres, groups, movements and styles, art critics, historians, philosophers and theorists (Not sure who Jacques Ranciere is, or want a definition Neo Geo? Then this is the site for you!) Here is their entry which takes from Tate and Wiki:

Term loosely used to denote art of the present day and of the relatively recent past, of an innovatory or avant-garde nature. In relation to contemporary art museums, the date of origin for the term contemporary art varies. The Institute of Contemporary Art in London, founded in 1947, champions art from that year onwards. Whereas The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York chooses the later date of 1977. [Tate]

Contemporary art can be defined variously as art produced at this present point in time or art produced since World War II. The definition of the word contemporary would support the first view, but museums of contemporary art commonly define their collections as consisting of art produced since World War II. [wikipedia]

Not clear, so perhaps the biggest contemporary art gallery in London – Saatchi – has a good definition? Nope – they don’t even bother. The Tate is the next and it calls itself ‘Modern’ (as many contemporary art galleries do), and if you want to get more confused try the auction houses. Sothebys Contemporary department includes work from ‘the early abstract expressionists to the present day’. Since the term had also been sometimes used in the 1920’s one assumes they refer to the American movement of the mid 1940’s. Christies Contemporary Art is ‘dedicated to art created after 1970…  focusing on the various artistic movements of this time, from Minimalism and Conceptualism…Bonhams do not have a definition and nowadays tend to hold ‘Modern and Contemporary’ sales. None of them help clarify matters by chucking in occasional pre-war works, by Picasso for example, in to their Contemporary sales.

Contemporary art is most normally taken as starting after the end of the modernist period (in which I’d include the abstract expressionists) so I thought a look at writings on post-modernism might help. Post-modernism is also hard to pin down but usually is considered as a movement including most, but all, Contemporary art – and, as the name suggests, succeeding modernism. In Wikipedia’s definition it contradicts its previous entry (quoted by ART CANON above) by now placing the start of Contemporary art as 1950. To confuse matters further some thinkers and philosophers feel that modernism has not ended, or that post-modernism is actually just a part of modernism – but I won’t go in to that!

Mark Tansey - Modern Postmodern

It is generally accepted however that by 1960, amongst many other influences, the Assemblage art of Robert Rauschenberg, the Fluxus movement and the Pop art of, for example, Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton had at least laid the foundations of what we would now call contemporary art. It is in the end probably impossible to define exactly where modernism ‘died’ – so let’s just settle for somewhere between 1950 and 1980. 

In general the main problem lies with using social science to define art history – can the start and end of ‘modernism’ ever be defined? Can anything ever come after post-modernism (or contemporary art)? Would we not be better off just sticking to the ‘isms’ and movements like cubism and Pop art, which have clear styles, aims, practitioners and so on? And so for a definition of contemporary art, I will leave that as a trap for others!

So, does that help? I thought not, but it is nevertheless good to see that – as is often the case in the art world – there is no definitive answer. The moral perhaps is if you want to hold an opinion, or like a work that is ‘unpopular’ – then why the h*ll not!

Homework for tonight:

Terry Smith, What Is Contemporary Art? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, 344 pp. ISBN: 13-978-0-226-76431-3.
E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, Phaidon, 1960 386 pp, ISBN: 0-7148-1756-2
Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les Presse Du Reel, 1998, 125 pp. ISBN-10: 2840660601
Nelson Goodman, Of Mind and Other Matters, Harvard University Press, 1984, 210 pp. ISBN: 0-674-63126-9

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with postmodernism at a kick up the arts.

%d bloggers like this: