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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Postmodern Art and Postmodern Philosophy

Marcel Duchamp Fountain, 1917
Charles Jencks, in his book The Post-Modern Reader, points out that the term “postmodernism,” or “post-modernism”( as it was spelled in the 1960s), was not an invention of the philosophers but of artists. He says that the earliest appearance of the term was in the 1870s, when the British artist James Watkins Chapman used it to mean something like “more Modern than Paris, more Modern than Impressionism, more Modern than Modern.” However, Chapman could not popularize the term.

In the 1880s, the term “post-impressionism,” gained popularity, and in the 1910s, the intellectuals were using the term “post-industrial.” But in the 1960s, the use of postmodernism to describe the end of modernism became widespread, especially in literature. By the 1970s, postmodernism was a powerful movement in all arts and sciences. The term got picked up by philosophers due to the rising influence of French post-structuralists or deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard in America.

Given the non-philosophical origin the term “postmodernism,” is there a connection between the postmodern philosophy and postmodern art? In his essay, “Postmodernism: Barthes and Derrida,” (Chapter 14; The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, edited by Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes), David Novitz points out that there is an important connection between postmodern philosophy and postmodern art. Here’s an excerpt from his essay:
As one might expect from its name, the artistic movement known as modernism has its origins in a growing emphasis on the worth, the autonomy, and the achievements of the individual: as both the subject and the creator of art. Influenced by the philosophical doctrines of the Enlightenment, modernism tended to the view that works of art were individual, quite unique, objects of beauty created by the imaginative endeavors of highly talented individuals. The boundedness of art, its separation from life, its intrinsic artistic nature, capable always of a true explanation, and capable of carrying real values that could, and in the best cases would, survive across cultures and times, are all doctrines that are intimately related to the central thought of the Enlightenment, and all help characterize what art critics now refer to as modernism. Coupled with this is the idea of genius: that some people have outstanding natural talents, a natural brilliance, and are capable of designing, more or less from scratch, wholly unique and exceptionally valuable artifacts that are works of art. High modernism, towards the end of the nineteenth century, saw the essence of the visual and musical arts as residing in their formal properties; it was this that distinguished them from life (Bell 1961), as well as from non-artistic artifacts.  
Postmodernist art begins with an assault on the modernist boundaries of art; a refusal to see art as purely formal and as distinct from life, hence a willingness to appropriate the ready-made objects of everyday living and to subsume them under the rubric of art. Hence, we can think of Dadaism as the first postmodernist art movement; and there is, of course, a well-documented history of subsequent assaults in contemporary art on the once sacred boundaries between art and life. But it can and has been shown that while the modernist boundaries imposed on art tend to distort and oversimplify the scope and complexity of our artistic endeavors, this fact does not and need not commit us to the philosophical doctrines of postmodernism (Novitz 1992). One can hold the view that modernist ideas about art and the associated practice were needlessly confined, without thereby subscribing to the epistemologies, the anti-metaphysics, the theories of value, interpretation, and meaning advocated by postmodernists like Derrida, Barthes, Margolis, or Rorty.
I think that a postmodern philosophy is a critical need for postmodern art because a postmodern artist is not just making a pretty picture, he is making a philosophical statement. He aims to transcend the previous conceptions of aesthetics and get the audience to see the ugly as the new beautiful. This can only be done through philosophy.  

1 comment:

Stephen Hicks said...

Thoughtful post.