What is postmodernism, what are its shortcomings, and how has it negatively impacted the art world and contemporary culture?
[repost with updates]
Every student of art needs to grapple with Postmodernism at some point, either climb aboard, reject it, or integrate it. In order to come to terms with it, one needs to be able to recognize and understand it. Otherwise, we are defenseless when it is crammed down our throats in art school.
Postmodernism made one powerful insight, and one terrible mistake. The former has been forgotten, and the latter accepted as an unassailable truism, especially in the art institution. It identified the underlying fictional “narratives” of Modernism and Western civilization, saw through “narrativity” itself, but denied any objective reality, and ended up as just another “narrative” limiting the scope of reality with its own conclusions.
The great understanding of PoMo was that we humans swim in a sea of paradigms. You can call them belief systems, ideologies, stories, interpretations, or what PoMo calls them, narratives. A metanarrative is a big picture containing other smaller stories.
We don’t experience reality directly, but through a gossamer of context which we impose upon it. You can see this everywhere. Imagine people walking around with giant bubbles surrounding their heads, or perhaps wearing virtual realty goggles. Reality for us is what we say it is. We all have our own version, like a Bible, a primer, or Mao’s little red book. If you travel to far off places, or think at all about nature (how a bat’s perceptual reality is completely different from ours), this becomes more apparent.
The phrase most cited for summing this up is Jean-François Lyotard‘s, “I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarrative,” which loosely translates as, “I’m not buying into your Big Picture”.
We spin these narratives like spiders spin webs, and with the same objective. We want to put ourselves in the center of a safe world in which we can hopefully ensnare everyone else. It’s probably a mental, self-preservation mechanism to convince oneself of ones own security. But one person’s narrative in which he or she is the hero, is billions of other’s deadly trap in which they are at best expendable, and at worse irrelevant victims. The more powerful narrative wins.
Often people are not willing to adopt someone else’s version of reality, and thus they must be converted to our way of thinking through violence, or the threat of murder and torture. The 20th century is riddled with these attempts to enforce this or that metanarrative over humanity, and billions have died in the various, competing quests. One group’s triumph of technology, for example, can be tens of thousands of other’s irradiation.
Every savior is used to destroy lives. All the great and lesser villains of history were once worshipped as incarnations of pure, radiant benevolence. Pol Pot, Chairman Mao, Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite, and J.P. Morgan were each a beacon of hope at one time for a group of people. It all comes crashing and burning down like the Hindenburg, and each rosy new dawn is followed by a blood-soaked, intestine-strewn dusk. Even the most peaceful and loving philosophies are co-opted in order to enforce one or another brutal form of leadership/dictatorship. All narratives are revealed as power structures privileging some and alienating vast scores of others.
After the crushing failures of the various incarnations of Communism, and the hopes for the struggling masses bundled with it, intellectuals justifiably became cynical about the next ideological Tsunami to pound the beach of our species. They clearly saw that the narratives were themselves the problem, and there wasn’t ever going to be one, all-encompassing story to save us. There couldn’t be. The story would always be a fiction, always serve an agenda, privilege some over others, and snowball until a very powerful group ruled over everyone else as tyrants (who would also need, as a matter of course, to destroy any counter narrative in order to insure the sanctity of just one narrative with themselves at the helm).
The great insight of Postmodernism was not that all the great narratives had turned into death sentences, but rather that narratives themselves are inherently the problem, and we’re each walking around with one tucked into our back pocket. Further, for most of us, the story we subscribe to is not really in our own self-interest, but rather for the benefit of whomever it was who disseminated the story (ex., believing in trickle-down theory only benefits a narrow percentage of its adherents).
Such guiding stories are so natural to us, like water is to fish, that we don’t even notice them most of the time, and may deny we harbor them ourselves. When we say, “common sense” we think we’re talking about nature or the way things obviously are, but most times we are merely pointing to a metaphoric set of rules posted on a wall that we memorized in our childhood, which were set down by our parents, leaders, rulers, or masters. A natural way of life and doing things is revealed as an abstract set of customs, which varies from culture to culture. Therefore, if you deny that you subscribe to any narrative, it probably just means that you are so immersed in it that you don’t notice it. It can take a traumatic experience, culture shock, a momentous trip on psychoactives, being ostracized or banished… to painfully wrench us from of our comfort-narrative, like a snail being pried out of its shell.
Scratch the surface and you find a story. Punch an oligarch in the gut and he belches “trickle down theory”. Selfish people like to justify their actions with, “it’s a dog-eat-dog world”, “the survival of the fittest”, and “nice guys finish last”. Of course it’s no surprise that people gravitate towards stories that are more congenial to their own perceived benefit. Every system of thought becomes the manifesto of a cult.
The goal of the Postmodernist is to free herself or himself from the shackles of the master narrative, and of “narrativity” itself. In the lingo of the new millennium, you can see this as escaping the Matrix, or perhaps recognizing that, like a computer, you have an “operating system” and are running programs. We should see this in ourselves, and not subordinate our existence to it. Meanwhile most people are busy solidifying that shell at all costs.
This is the good lesson of Postmodernism. The message is, “take that narrative you are trying to impose on me, and shove it up your ass!” But it is also, “be on guard against the cancer of ANY master narrative taking over your mind!” If you are tuned into it you can see everyone spinning their little webs of narratives everywhere, including your own mind endlessly weaving. People knock on your door wanting to peddle their narrative. The big corporations want to sell you their version of reality, which is in their best monetary self-interest, and do so through carefully crafted and filtered “NEWS” illuminating your living room via the TV screen. ISIS is patrolling the neighborhoods to enforce “sharia law”. Advertisements try to lure you into buying into a perspective in which you are incomplete without the product they are selling. There is a constant defining, redefining, re-contextualizing, all in the hopes of coming out on top, or escaping the blanket of an ideology one is being smothered by.
This lesson of Postmodernism has been forgotten, and Postmodernism has itself turned into a metanarrative, largely because the true message is too subtle and difficult to see or hold onto. It’s like an epiphany that once it’s over loses its meaning, as one returns to ones daily routine out of habit, and takes up again ones place in the “grand scheme of things”. Philosophers such as Derrida and Foucault may have seen through narrativity itself, but their philosophy is absorbed as received-knowledge by students, who make it into a rallying cry, without even suspecting they’re waving the flag of another narrative with an even thicker outline.
And here is where Postmodernism went too far, and terribly wrong.
“Deconstructionists” such as Philosopher Jacques Derrida realized that not only were these stories fictions, there was no reality outside of language itself. I don’t agree, but let me try to explain it anyway. They argued that nothing has an intrinsic essence or meaning, except within the context of language. Derrida famously wrote: “There is no outside-text”. As is typical with any Postmodern theorizing, even the most simple utterances are expressed in a way that makes them seem like you can’t quite understand them, and must keep reaching, in which case they must be profound indeed. In layman’s terms, however, he is merely saying that there’s no meaning outside of language, which, if you think about it, is fairly obvious. Meaning is an interpretation, and all interpretations are formed in language.
A chair, it was argued, has no intrinsic meaning or significance except within the context of language. A chair only has relevance in relation to a table; to sitting down to eat; to not sitting on the floor; to furniture; and to concepts of comfort and convenience… All concepts, they argue, are dependent for their meaning on “conceptual binary opposites” (or “opposites” to be less pretentious): interior/exterior, male/female, mental/physical. This is a lot like saying that a number, say, 6, has no intrinsic significance outside of the possibility of -6, other numbers, and math, which makes perfect sense.
The conceptual art piece above, “One and Three Chairs (1965)”, by Joseph Kosuth is a useful prop to illustrate this point. He provides a physical chair, a photograph of that same chair, and a dictionary definition of “chair”. [Talk about didactic art!] The piece asks which of the three is the real one, and, according to the entry for this work in Wikipedia, “the definition is real; Without a definition, one would never know what an actual chair is”. That conclusion is in league with Derrida’s argument, but I’m not 100% sure it was Kosuth’s intent. Later, I will argue why I think this conclusion is flat out wrong.
What I see as valuable in Derrida’s investigations is the recognition that we perceive reality through a lens of interpretation, which is based on thought and conclusions, which in turn are honed in the structure of language. But that’s not really their main point, and they might scoff that I missed it. They take it further and assert that there’s no reality outside of language, and this, I believe, is a mistake.
The Modernist view, which is based on reason, the enlightenment, and the scientific method, maintains that there is an external, objective reality outside of human thought which we can discover through research, experimentation, and analysis. For example, we believed the sun revolved around the Earth until Nicolaus Copernicus – building on thousands of years of cumulative knowledge and discovery – formulated his heliocentric model of the solar system, based on his additional observations and mathematical calculations. This displaced our own, intuitive, and passionately held beliefs, wrenching ourselves from the center of the universe, and off into the periphery. For the Modernist, language is a tool that is used to uncover truths greater than ourselves, which may be infinite in their complexity and reach beyond our ability to comprehend.
Postmodernists argue that reality is created within the context of language itself, and there is no outside objective truth. That which cannot be named, they argue, cannot be comprehended, or else it would be named. What we conceive as “truth” is merely our own language-based creation, something we attribute significance to within an abstract system of interrelated symbols. Because truth is based on abstract, subjective concepts, it is an illusion. There is no truth. There are only fictions. Therefore, no fiction is the right one, in which case the scientific method is just another “narrative” or “discourse”, and no more legitimate than Zoroastrianism, Scientology, or the Unarius Academy of Science.
Let me breakdown these Postmodernist conclusions into bite-sized bullet points.
- There is no absolute truth. “Truths” are “social constructions” primarily dependent on race, class, gender, status…
- Because there is no absolute truth, every belief system, or set of convictions (including science) is ultimately a fiction.
- No fiction can be more “true” than any other fiction, hence all cultures, beliefs, and sets of convictions are essentially equally valid.
- However, it is possible for one story to be more powerful or engaging than another, just as one book or movie can be better than another, in which case it is more “real”.
- Postmodernism is more real than reason/objectivity because it knows it is a fiction, and thus is a more comprehensive and self-aware story.
- Realizing that there is no truth is a greater understanding of truth than believing in an external, non-subjective presence of truth or reality.
Another way to say this is that if there is no real truth, there are only lies, and the best lie wins.
Postmodernist theory in general maintains that the whole Western tradition of thought is not only a fiction, but a pernicious one.
According to Jean-Francois Lyotard, for example:
Reason is a tool by which certain empowered groups retain their hegemony, oppressing other groups; the emotions and experiences of such groups are to be valued over rational argument. ~ Jean-Francois Lyotard
Scientific knowledge requires that one language game, denotative, be retained and all others excluded … Scientific knowledge is in this way set apart from the language games that combine to form the social bond. ~ Jean-Francois Lyotard
They have a good argument when it comes to Capitalism, or at least the implementation of it and any associated ideology. When 1% of the population is poised to have more than the remaining 99%, something has gone horribly awry, and this master narrative is proving itself to be ultimately as hierarchical and enslaving as any other.
But they have gone too far in claiming objectivity to be just another form of subjectivity, and no more valid than any other way of interpreting the world. The general, widespread conclusion attributed to PoMo, and which was drummed into us in graduate art school, is that reason and objectivity are the power tools of the white, male, heterosexual, imperialist.
Technology… aims to produce neither concepts nor images, nor the joy of understanding, but method, exploitation of the labor of others… What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to dominate wholly both nature and human beings. Nothing else counts ~ Horkheimer and Adorno
We were instructed that the whole scientific revolution, the enlightenment, humanism, and the rest of it are anathema! They are part and parcel of a brutal, domineering, patriarchal order, and used to enforce it. Science gave us the bomb, napalm, and the gas chamber. It is responsible for inflicting unimaginable horror and suffering on the innocent, and relegating the mass of humanity to extra actors in its own drama.
We must fight oppression by exposing the categories and meta-narratives by which the empowered retain hegemony, valuing instead authenticity. ~ Umberto Eco
I’m with the general sentiment here. The use of science for war, which is the attempt of one narrative to swallow another, has unleashed unimaginable, unconscionable horrors on innocent people. The arrogance and barbarism of inflicting this sort of harm on people is astounding, inhuman, vicious, and stupid. As long as our species endures, these crimes will be remembered as proof of our hideous barbarity and cruelty.
However, the scientific method, rationality, and objectivity are not identical to the ends to which they are put. There was no objective, rational, defensible reason to launch air strikes on Iraq in 2003, for example. There were rationalizations, but they could not stand up to counter argument. The case that Saddam Hussein was amassing “weapons of mass destruction” that he could use against American citizens was demolished when the weapons inspectors found no evidence of any such weapons, including in his palaces. A new justification had to be put forth. Suddenly, the reason to go to war was to “liberate the Iraqi people”. Any honest, rational, objective person could see through that. The reason to take a country to war could not be so fickle that it changed over night from protecting Americans on American soil, to liberating Iraqis on theirs. No case for war could be made that would hold up in a formal debate, hence the war was anti-rational.
For something to be held as true – or rather a working truth – in science, it needs to be proven, with evidence, in repeatable controlled experiments, corroborated by others, and invulnerable to being disproved. Subjectivity should be eliminated as much as possible when it comes to interpreting the results. And perhaps this is where Postmodern critique makes the most sense. As soon as there are results, people run with them to the closest master narrative and try to fit them into the puzzle, in which case that can mean spinning them whichever way to keep privilege where it is already enshrined. Worse still is when people have preconceived ideas and use seeming scientific methods to substantiate a foregone conclusion, such as in the case of scientific racism.
Postmodernists can easily point to the “science” starting in the mid 19th century, and culminating at the end of WWII, which strove to justify the segregation of society based on race, and establish an inarguable, and permanent hierarchy of races. Yes, indeed, here we really do see scientists using their tools to fortify the supremacy of their own race. And these were people with power, money, and positions of authority exercising the tools of their master narrative to oppress and enslave others, who were comparatively powerless on all counts. Point scored for PoMo. I think we can all agree. People found the evidence they wanted in order to fortify what they already believed, in their own self interest, and claimed to have proved it objectively, and irrefutably. And this was under the banner of scientific, objective, rational, benevolent, enlightened, humanism. It’s a staggering, knock-down blow for objectivity. Hooray for PoMo.
It was a devastating haymaker, but not a knock-out. Objectivity got back on its feet before the count of 10 was reached, and threw a hook. It asked, from what perspective can we look back on the pseudoscience of the early 20th century, and see that it was bunk? Yes, you are right. From the precipice of greater objectivity. Subsequent science has shown that there is only one race, homo sapiens sapiens, to which we all belong, and “race” is a myth. That is the scientific, objective stance of today. People who espouse racist views or attempt to enforce any subjugation of people based on a notion that they are intrinsically, genetically inferior, are being anything but objective. True objectivity should be irrespective of the self-interest of those that seek it, and proper science should and does establish safeguards, or checks and balances, against bias and subjectivity. Truth is indifferent to the seeker of truth. The whole project of rational thought is to overcome subjectivity in order to discover objective truth, and it is the opposite (or “conceptual binary opposite” if you want to use PoMo jargon) of subjectivity and relativism.
Postmodernism is a theory, and as a theory it doesn’t need, and doesn’t have any empirical evidence to support it. Conveniently, evidence also can not be used against it, within its own theoretical framework, because such evidence can be dismissed as a mere tool of the already outmoded “discourse” of the scientific method, and cannot be trusted. Not surprisingly, when Postmodernist theorists postulate a conclusion about reality, it may not hold up to investigation or repeatable experiment.
Jaques Lacan, a post-Freudian psychoanalyst/psychologist who was enormously influential on the Postmodernists, argued that infants recognize themselves in the mirror, and that this recognition enables them to see themselves as an object from the outside. It’s called “the mirror stage”, and I was taught about this in graduate school. Nice theory. However, subsequent research showed that infants are fascinated by mirrors, but don’t recognize themselves in them until after 15 months, at the earliest. As imposing as the elaborate theories of the likes of Lacan might be, they can be dissolved in the more everyday language and thought of practical approaches. Physician, Raymond Tallis unraveled Lacan’s theory with a simple observation grounded in practical, everyday, experiential reality:
“If epistemological maturation and the formation of a world picture were dependent upon catching sight of oneself in a mirror, then the [mirror stage] theory would predict that congenitally blind individuals would lack selfhood and be unable to enter language, society or the world at large. There is no evidence whatsoever that this implausible consequence of the theory is borne out in practice.” ~ Raymond Tallis
Postmodernism is so involved with elaborating its own complex theories, and so unconcerned with any verifiable evidence, that it is often wide-open to being eviscerated by a simple observation, which it is rather shocking that the theorist in question hadn’t considered. Why hadn’t Lacan stopped to wonder how blind people could enter society without a mirror stage, if the mirror stage was essential? That’s an enormous oversight.
Experiments are absolutely basic, a theory is useless if it has no relationship with experiment or observational reality. A theory is useless if it gives rise to false predictions. ~ Juan Perez Mercader, Physicist, Director of the Center of Astrobiology.
And this brings us back to Derrida’s “there is no outside text” and Joseph Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs”. Is there really no reality outside of language, and can a chair only be understood if one first has a definition of it within a language-based context?
A typical counter argument to Derrida is that “great white shark” is an English name or label, and our perception of the creature is a “social construct”, but when it bites you, you weren’t bitten by a social construct. The same goes for tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, birth and death. I’d agree with Derrida if he stopped at saying there’s no meaning outside of language, but to say there’s no reality outside of language slips into Solipsism.
Just spending a few minutes thinking on my own two feet I can come up with layman’s attacks on “Deconstruction”, which I’m not sure it can withstand. If words only have meaning within the totality of language and a narrative, how do toddlers learn language, and do they not exist in reality until they learn language? Let’s say baby’s first word is “Ma ma”. Theoretically, this word should have no meaning unless and until it is part of a working language-based model of the cosmos. A child couldn’t understand the word “chair”, either, or know what it was, or was for, until she had a cumulative grasp of language through which to impart reality upon the object of the chair. So the theory goes. But it is impossible for a baby to have learned an entire language and it’s meanings BEFORE it learns its first word. Similarly, all of animal life would not exist in reality at all, because none that we know of has the kind of elaborate, abstract, symbol-based language that we do. Should we conclude that animals have no experience of reality?!
We know what a chair is, not because of the definition, and we knew what a chair or “ma ma” was before we knew the word assigned to it in our respective languages. We had direct experience of it. Language was forged as an intermediary between our consciousness and the external, physical reality we live in. The postmodern denial of the irreducibility of physical reality is a luxury only afforded to highly paid intellectuals daydreaming elaborate philosophical narratives in their own ivory towers. Does anyone really think a baby doesn’t know what hunger is for the first couple years of its life, until it learns the word? This might be something experts on early childhood development and cognition may have more conclusive evidence regarding.
Postmodernism, when subjected to simple, hard questions, starts to seem like brilliantly complex hypotheses, served up as ostensible truths, but which don’t actually hold water. What do we make of the statement by Noam Chomsky (who is a highly regarded linguist and philosopher with dozens of published books) that he can’t even understand what the Postmodernists are saying?
“There are lots of things I don’t understand — say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat’s last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I’m interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. — even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest — write things that I also don’t understand, but (1) and (2) don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of ‘theory’ that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) … I won’t spell it out.” ~ Noam Chomsky
“(b)” would have been, “They are full of shit.” Chomsky is here addressing the material that isn’t what he would call “truisms”, which he obviously does understand. Another quote clears this up.
As for the “deconstruction” that is carried out … I can’t comment, because most of it seems to me gibberish. But if this is just another sign of my incapacity to recognize profundities, the course to follow is clear: just restate the results to me in plain words that I can understand, and show why they are different from, or better than, what others had been doing long before and and have continued to do since without three-syllable words, incoherent sentences, inflated rhetoric that (to me, at least) is largely meaningless, etc. ~ Noam Chomsky
If the core of Postmodernism, that isn’t just truisms restated in elaborate jargon (like using the word “metanarrative” to mean “interpretation”), is so elusive that one of our best linguists can’t even make sense of it, how is it supposed to be relevant to the layman, or the artist? And yet it has replaced philosophy that we can understand, can’t shoot potholes in from the comfort of our computer chairs, and has practical application in the physical world.
Perhaps the appeal of Postmodernism to artists is that it is itself a kind of art form. It seeks to create its own reality using language and the imagination. It is a kind of creative philosophy, which does not feel that it needs to be answerable to, or an accurate representation of, any implacable reality, nor adhere to verifiable facts. Whatever the reason for PoMo becoming the religion of contemporary artists – and my graduate degree in art involved far more study of Postmodern writers than any and all artists – it has an Achilles heel bigger than its head.
It was a fatal error to bundle the misuse of technology and critically flawed pseudoscience with the concept of objectivity itself. Objectivity is the absence of self in an equation, and is an antidote to the inherent bias of selfish self-centeredness, which is the prime motive of corruption. Misappropriating the tools or products of science is not an objective enterprise, but rather a selfish, and subjective misuse of accrued power.
Postmodernism, in an effort to be new and “radical”, and hence significant, went too far in unhitching itself from objectivity. PoMo is right in declaring that there is no absolute objectivity, and no unvarnished reality, at least not as filtered through the inherently subjective biological configuration of a human being (ex., we see the universe through the limited scope of human optics). But it errs when it declares that hyper-reality, such as media images, are more real than objective reality, and any subjective narrative is as good as any other. In throwing out the entirety of objectivity and rationality, Postmodernism left a vacuum that could not remain empty, but would be filled instantly with any alternative narrative, no matter how specious.
A mature mind without some sort of language-based context, and some sort of working conclusion or premises, is like a computer without an operating system. Without “reason” there is no reason to do anything. Minds will latch onto any context or structure rather than free fall in ungrounded purposelessness. In opposition to the perceived imperialist, oppressive, and ultimately self-destructive master narrative of the white male, students of Postmodernism sought an answer in it’s opposite: anti-rational, female, non-white, and formerly marginalized, persecuted, or underrepresented stories and perspectives.
Part of the Postmodern focus on “marginalized” people was eminently constructive. People who had not formerly seen positive images of themselves in media, or anywhere, could find substantiation of their being in new art and contexts that recognized and validated their existence. This was rightfully termed “empowerment”, and was a win-win situation for everyone who was open-minded, receptive, and interested in the human predicament in all its manifestations. For example, I read six of Toni Morrison’s books, and this allowed me to see a bit of her world, through her eyes, as a black woman, and even to personally experience rage at the cruelty of the white, slave-owner rapist. I could feel what it was like to be a black girl wanting to be white and have blue eyes, and wish that she could see beyond that societal conditioning. The proliferation of the art of previously marginalized and underrepresented people contributes to the whole of the collective imagination, and makes life a richer experience.
This isn’t to say that you couldn’t still be a major league asshole of a patriarch, and enjoy the novels of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, or Ralph Ellison. I had a white male contemporary Literature teacher who I could not stand, who once said that he thought it was incredibly sexy the way black women said, “uuuuh huuuh”, and did his best impersonation. I dropped his class, got an “F” because I didn’t pay the $10 fee for dropping, had to repeat “Contemporary Lit”, got saddled with him again, and dropped his class again. But in the mind of someone who is NOT an inveterate, engorged prick, exposing oneself to the vantage of others, and the othered, can help soften the edges of assholery. The benefits of PoMo and of more people contributing more art to the collective imagination is most visible in music. Contrary to the posturing and anti-aesthetic values of Postmodernism, the beauty of music is highly successful at luring people to imaginatively cross race, gender, and class boundaries.
Postmodernism helped us broaden our horizons by allowing hitherto unheard voices to express themselves, and for the rest of us to hear new perspectives. However, it backfired in its insistence that reason was merely a “social construct”, and a tool of white male hegemony. White males do not own reason or objectivity: it was honed over thousands of years by people of multiple races and genders. Reason, like language, is a product of human consciousness, and no “race” or gender can take credit for it. The Pyramids of Cheops were constructed over 4,500 years ago, using sophisticated math and astronomy. There’s debate over the “race” of the ancient Egyptians, but we can be safe in assuming they weren’t “European derived white males”.
As many critics of PoMo have pointed out, you cannot attack reason from the perspective of reason; wage a logical attack on logic; or declare that it is absolutely true that there is no absolute truth. It must be done from some other, superior vantage point. Instead of reason, other ways of “knowing” were trumpeted, such as passion and intuition. There’s nothing wrong with intuition or emotion, and there are limits to what science or reason can encompass [ex., science can NOT prove that God doesn’t exist, though it can say that there’s no evidence to support the existence of God.], but passion and gut feelings are no guarantee of goodness, and unhinged from reason can lead to disaster.
~ From The Second Coming
What rises up when reason is killed? Few are going to adopt no story. In the wake of the demise of the “metanarrative” elaborated over thousands of years, new stories were created in a single generation which strove to enforce their own power and legitimacy. Some of these, like the more radical strain of Feminism I was subjected to in college (the type that insists any oblong piece of art is a phallus and celebration of phallocentrism), are much narrower than the worldview they hoped to supplant, though different people were at the center and different people were alienated. Such movements, which may have a lot to contribute, but become counterproductive when they assume Big Picture status for themselves after only a decade or two of thinking and posturing, are easily replaced by yet another source of narrative. In the competition for the most powerful narrative, the richest and most powerful will put forth their own contender, and it will win through sheer, brute force if necessary.
When every story is more or less equal, and all conclusions are “just your opinion”, the story that will triumph is the one told the most, the loudest, and with the most fanfare. In the beginning of the new millennium, the richest and most powerful have defined reality for the rest of us. We can’t dismantle their arguments if logic is not permitted, even if their stance is logically indefensible.
As evidence of this consider that nearly 100% of scientists and scientific bodies have concluded that global warming is real, caused predominantly by the burning of fossil fuels, and is going to pose a dire threat to civilization itself within our lifetimes. Nevertheless, the general populace has lacked conviction in their findings, and gone so far as to demonize climate scientists. Many, including a goodly portion of my friends and colleagues, believe the pseudoscience churned out by quacks propped up by the fossil fuel industry, and given a platform on the news programs they fund. This distrust of science, reason, and objectivity is capitalized on by the most powerful corporations in order to manipulate peoples’ gut instincts and emotions into believing whatever will allow the fossil fuel industry, the financial institutions, and the military industrial complex to keep on doing business as usual. In a word, when reason and objectivity are taken out of the picture, they are eventually replaced by… POWER. I’m not the only one who thinks this. Noam Chomsky declared that Postmodernism functions to serve power.
[Postmodern theory] serves a function… It’s worked as a way of insulating sectors of a kind of radical intelligentsia from popular movements and actual activism, and it serves as an instrument of power. ~ Noam Chomsky (see video lecture)
The big problem on the political front is the “moral relativism”, which is the notion that there are no moral truths or absolutes: truths are created rather than discovered, and mileage can vary from culture to culture. What is moral in one culture is not in another, and we have no business inflicting our own moral standards on others. That all sounds pretty good until you start thinking of examples, and how it functions in the real world.
We can’t say absolutely that torture is wrong, nor slavery, infanticide, cannibalism, human trafficking, child brides, genital mutilation, child physical labor, conscripting children into armed battle, or executions… This undercuts the ability to address and ameliorate grotesque human rights abuses throughout the world. We really COULD make airtight arguments about why it is wrong to hack off the limbs of albinos in Tanzania, for example, and sell their flesh to witch doctors. According to PoMo, however, this would be cultural imperialism.
For those of us lucky enough to live in the developed world, we can’t use reason and logic to fight the growing ridiculous inequality at home, which in terms of percentages is as bad as anywhere. Power and money define reality through media, and this plays right into Postmodern rhetoric, which boldly states that since there is no objective reality, and we create it ourselves, our creation of reality is more real than anything else. Corporate media, then, defines reality, and it is a kind of market economics and obsessive consumerism.
How Postmodernism adversely affects art:
When there is no objective truth in science, or at all, there is definitely nothing objective or true in art. It is all subjective. If art has no real intrinsic power, than it is defined from the outside, extrinsically, by contexts or “narratives” superimposed on it. The visual language of visual art, and imagery, is entirely subordinated to verbal language. This is why Joseph Kosuth wanted to entirely eradicate imagery from his art, so that it didn’t interfere with the transmission of concepts.
The primacy that has been given to conceptual art and retroactively to its predecessors (the resurrection of Duchamp) is the consequence of how it substantiated Postmodern theory, which it frequently used as inspiration. The “art” of the pseudo-philosopher replaced the art of more traditional artists, even if it called itself anti-art, and sought to eliminate sensuality, visual pleasure, or aesthetics itself. How important is this art really – and it is ONLY as significant as it is important, because it refutes any intrinsic value in art – if the theory and conclusions it is based on turn out to be bunk? Are we left with over-inflated props illustrating mere ostentatious posturing that went flat? What is the value of conceptual art if the underlying concept is wrong?
Besides privileging conceptual art, pseudo-intellectuals in the art institution sought to find correlates in art for the perceived patriarchal, insidious, mythical “metanarrative” of Western civilization. Traditional Western art also needed to be a culprit, and so aesthetics, image-making, skill, and visual language in general were recontextualized as “the myth of the heroic, lone, white-male-genius”. This bogus convenient parallelism, most frequently argued by the “anything-but-a-white-male, valued member-of-a-community, Super-Genius*” is still a basic tenet of art education today, and has the same problem of tossing out reason with the ulterior purposes it has served. Aesthetics, image-making, skill, and facility with visual language were not invented by “dead white males”. They are an achievement of human consciousness spanning thousands of years, every continent, and eliminating them is about as appealing as stamping out melody, harmony, and the ability to play instruments from music.
If you don’t think or know that this is going on, consider my lived experience. When I was in art school it was considered hopelessly backwards to strive to make meaningful imagery using visual language, and when I got to grad school it was essentially forbidden. You could not say that you wanted to make a good painting that depicted your own experience of life in your own way. That was off the table. The only way to get away with painting would be to do it in such a way that it “deconstructed” painting as a white, male, hegemonic enterprise, or served some “radical” political agenda, in which case the aesthetics were largely irrelevant. This is exactly like going to music school and not being allowed to make a song, with or without lyrics, and any ability you might have playing any instrument being condemned as skill with the tools of oppression. Even if you are a radical, Postmodern Feminist doing conceptual art about identity politics, you can probably agree that the pendulum has swung entirely to one side if it’s not even an option to make imagery using visual language in art school. Another analogy shouldn’t be necessary, but it’s like not being able to make delicious food in cooking school. For those of us whose love of art revolves first around imagery, art education that forbids attempting to make significant imagery (that is not only relevant in as much as it is in the service of a radical political agenda), is a brick wall with barbed wire on top.
Fortunately for music lovers, Postmodernism wasn’t able to gut music of its aesthetic properties and co-opt it for its own agenda. Nobody could stand listening to a diet of radical, political, conceptual, anti-music.
And if one did want to get out a political message about, say, race, and slavery, seductive music could be a more powerful tool than academic conceptual art that was as tedious and dry as homework. Nina Simone cut “Four Women” in 1966. The song tells the story of 4 African-American women: a slave; a woman of mixed race (whose white father forced himself on his mother “late one night”); a prostitute; and an angry, militant black woman who screams, “My name is Peaches” at the end.
My skin is brown
my manner is tough
I’ll kill the first mother I see
my life has been too rough
I’m awfully bitter these days
because my parents were slaves
What do they call me
My name is PEACHES
Oddly, when I think about it, along with “Four Women”, several of my other favorite songs are rabidly political, including Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”  (if there has ever been a better anti-war song, I’ve not heard it); John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” , Camille Yarbrough’s “All Hid” , and the entire Evil Empire album  by Rage Against the Machine.
Last night, night before
mind control was for the black and poor.
Now black poor or college bred
it’s behavior modification or you end up dead
~ Camille Yarbrough, from “All Hid”
None of that music is Postmodern, because there’s a strong sense of “moral truth”, and the music itself asserts traditional aesthetic values. It is traditional art. When white dudes are singing, “Yeah, I’m rollin’ down Rodeo with a shotgun. These people ain’t seen a brown skin man since their grandparents bought one” in the shower, and Rage Against the Machine’s “Evil Empire” went platinum, you can’t kid yourself that people reject Postmodernism and Postmodern conceptual art because they can’t handle the “radical” political message. No, it’s because they find it boring.
In a Postmodern era in which language is accepted as defining reality, and thus art, visual art in particular is no longer a definer of culture. Culture defines art. And the culture that does this is the one that has the microphone, which is going to be whoever can afford to outbid everyone else. The most important art has become the art which sells for the most millions at Christies and Sotheby’s; and the most important art criticism the promotional write-ups for the art on sale. Not surprisingly, the rich favor art that appeals to the rich (sorry for the tautology, but that’s how it works): glitzy, expensive, large-scale, contentless, conceptual, perfect, and manufactured art spectacles.
There are other art critics, but they are comparatively powerless. I don’t consider myself an art critic, but I have written over 50 articles about art in the last couple years, and I probably managed to hit a few nails on the head. But I might as well be writing on banana leaves on a desert Island. And when it comes to my art, it doesn’t matter how good it is, unless the powerful elite who define art pick it up and promote it for their own self-interest (which they are not likely to do because I’m not making expensive commodifiable objects/investments that only they can afford). I might as well be painting on coconuts on that same deserted Island.
I’ve only slowly come to feel, over the last couple years, that art, now, is about POWER. This is a sad realization. The power does not belong to the artists. It is the power to make definitions, write art history, establish categories, and decide which art is valuable, and which is worthless. The key word here is “valuable”, because it means in monetary terms. The real import is not even “which” art is the most valuable, but whose art, as in which collector’s possessions. The artist is a beggar who scrambles to get acceptance from the rich benefactors of art, and table scraps thrown his or her way. He’s a court jester entertaining a tyrant in order to stay alive. Outside of the art institution, an artist is like an actor without a movie. This, of course, is exactly the type of problem Postmodernism originally attempted to address. The irony of epic proportions is that art is more than ever defined by the “master narrative” of a ruling oligarchy, and Postmodernism’s casting out of objectivity, and notions of intrinsic worth helped make this possible. Hopefully this is a distorted perception on my part, and it isn’t all that bad.
Modernism maintained that there was an objective truth, and we could get closer to seeing it by cleansing the lenses of our goggles. Postmodernism maintains that what we project on the inner screen of our goggles is more real than anything on the other side. Reality is now defined by whoever owns the projector, and they define reality in their own self interest. However, they are wrong. Rational argument can and does triumph over passionate conviction or carefully crafted propaganda, and art that is intrinsically good is better than art that is an empty vessel to be contextualized into relevance by the established art cognoscenti.
Whether or not an artist gets any recognition, once the smoke has cleared and the mirrors are revealed as just reflecting the rich collector’s posturing for themselves, only the art remains. Whatever power it has is dependent on its own intrinsic luminosity, which trumps external contextualization, just as the shark can bite you, whether or not you have a name for it. The story of art, it turns out, is only as interesting as the art it is a story about.
Postmodernism pointed out some dramatic flaws in Modernism, but crippled us by going too far to create an alternative vision, and casting out the best tools we had to explore reality and stand up to power. A whole person or culture benefits from developing not only intuition, and emotional understanding, but reason and objectivity. Postmodernism should not be seen as replacing Modernism, but rather as an addendum to it. Instead of throwing out thousands of years of human development and supplanting it with a couple decades of Eurocentric theory that only academics in the field can fathom, it would be better to integrate the insights and contributions of Postmodernism into what has worked in the past. At this stage in human history, a “radical” new philosophy is a lot like a radical new diet: it might be interesting and beneficial in the short term, but it can’t sustain life.
*I’m using a bit of hyperbole here, but, yes, there is irony in thinking that, with a wave of a hand, you can encapsulate someone else’s projects, and at the same time brand them with the crime of self-proclaimed, arrogant “genius”. Consider, for example, the claim that Duchamp’s exhibiting a urinal check-mated all conventional ideas about art. Wouldn’t the art that followed in his footsteps be the art of “genius”, rather than that of painters who labor endlessly at their craft? Personally, I hate the cult of “genius”, which is the same as the cult of “celebrity”, and sees some individuals as inherently different and superior, in which case anything they do is priceless (see Picasso). People who look for childhood prodigee artists believe in this scenario. I rather believe anyone with enough perseverance and dedication can make art, and “genius” like “royalty” is something we project onto ordinary people to make them special, probably benefiting neither.
[Note: I’m not a philosopher or an expert in the field. I’m an artist (though some seem to question that). So, this is basically an artist and layman’s crack at shooting down PoMo for other artists and laymen. I wouldn’t be surprised if I botched it here and there. Why bother doing it? Because if you are an artist today you get pummeled with Postmodern-derived “narratives” – I certainly did when I was doing my graduate work in art – and Postmodernism still appears to be a dominant underlying belief system for contemporary art. Maybe this can help other people disengage themselves from the Postmodern matrix.]
Do you think independent artists should be able to survive outside of the institution of art, by selling their art cheaply, directly to the public, and getting sponsorship?
If you like my art and art criticism, would like it to see it continue, and you have disposable income, a small donation would be wonderful ($5 would make my day). I’m running out of time, money, and freedom.
10 replies on “How Postmodernism Has Worked Against Us.”
When I say, “how it has worked against us” I don’t necessarily mean that there aren’t ways it has worked for us. Postmodernism should be an addendum on Modernism, not a replacement. There’s good in it, but I rear it’s overshadowed by the bad.
Hello, Eric. If y’r not already aware of Caitlin Johnstone, you two are both preaching against “the narrative” as it is used to control the thinking of the sheeple. She anent our uneledted rulers the ultra rich. You against a subset, the ultra rich art collectdors and those who pander to their wallets.
I’ve tried to find a way to contact her [she’s an aussie] and failed. One can at least hear what she says at: https://caitlinjohnstone.com/
May the road rise to meet y’r feet and the devil not know ye’ve passed until y’v been in heaven half an hour [hopefully after a long and productive life]
Y’r ol’ Bud, Fike
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Insightful’s an understatement! I love the way you’ve composed this post. I feel I’m gunna learn a lot from your blog (until now I have just seen this entry!!).
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I’ve always been confused by this PostModern thing that nobody seemed able to accurately describe. I had to read your post over two days because my brain exploded half way through. However, I do now have a rudimentary understanding of it.
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I got this piecemeal through undergrad and grad school, and nobody felt competent or confident enough to challenge it. Everyone just accepts that you NEED to accept Postmodernism in order to have a radical new perspective on reality, which is necessary to make radical art, which is the only relevant art.
I can remember that well. That is the mindset of the contemporary artist: trying to make some radical breakthrough. But now, I see it very differently. We need to learn from the past, respect our ancestors, and build on what has worked before, adding to it, and improving upon it, much like science does.
In that regard, we can use some of the insights of Postmodernism to do that, but most people see Postmodernism (Packaged as it customarily is, with identity politics), not as an addendum to what has gone before, but as a wholesale replacement (which is why we get people wanting to topple the canon, demonize Western civilization, etc.).
Thanks for reading the full article, and over two days. It’s a long one. And thanks for commenting.
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“When white dudes are singing, “Yeah, I’m rollin’ down Rodeo with a shotgun. These people ain’t seen a brown skin man since their grandparents bought one” in the shower, and Rage Against the Machine’s “Evil Empire” went platinum, you can’t kid yourself that people reject Postmodernism and Postmodern conceptual art because they can’t handle the “radical” political message. No, it’s because they find it boring.”
This is spot on, keep it up! I am glad I discovered your blog today!
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You are the first person to acknowledge that point. Maybe you’re the first Rage Against the Machine fan to read it, if you are.
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You are right, I amaa huge Rage Against the Machine fan and grew up listening to them. I absolutely see your point and I think you had really good examples to make it accessible. I liked that you are not taking an absolute stance against postmodernism but also find the grey areas between the black and white. Under many circumstances PoMo art can produce really inspiring pieces. However, it feels like most artists nowadays are comple divorced with reality. If you claim your artwork is immediately understood by everyone but noone gets what it is, then you probably should not claim that the public is unappreciative of art but maybe, either be honest about the exclusiveness of what you are doing or change it.
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Reblogged this on Al doilea blog.