Pandora’s Box Part 3

Pandora’s Box Part 3

by Michael Newberry
There is a newly-discovered version of the legend of Pandora’s Box. In this third version insanity, despair, and hatred had overrun the world and Pandora, driven by a sense of hope, opened the box by unlocking it with a key. Out from the box rose up all the glories of humanity and they spread throughout the world with undiminished splendor. Pandora discovered that the glories had never disappeared, but it was humankind that had lost the key to identifying the magnificence that lay before them.

The form of art and its function in human life are central to the debate between postmodern art and art. In the first two parts of this series I essayed 1) how postmodern art shocks your epistemological processes through its anti-art means, and 2) how it shocks your psychological processes by expressing disturbing content as the ends. Along these lines, I will go deeper in examining the theoretical basis of postmodern art and then, I would like to show you that an alternative to postmodern art exists, today, in the here and now.

To start I would like to address a few of Kant’s concepts of the sublime. These concepts are important because he introduces some profoundly radical concepts into the history of aesthetics that have, in a fundamental sense, become the blueprints for postmodern art.

Kant states: “The beautiful in nature is a question of the form of the object, and this consists in limitation, whereas the sublime is to be found in an object even devoid of form.”

Kant is contrasting the beautiful with the sublime. He connects, quite reasonably, the beautiful with the form of an object but, oddly, he attaches formlessness to the concept of sublime. To give you two examples, think of the Venus de Milo and Duchamp’s Fountain. The Venus de Milo derives her aesthetic value because of the sculptor’s superlative skill in creating a fluid, graceful female form in stone. The Fountain, on the other hand, is a urinal. It derives its postmodern aesthetic esteem because Duchamp exercised no skill and used no means; it is the antithesis of making sculpture. In a very true sense it is aesthetically formless, it represents an idea, but the actual urinal is of no aesthetic value in itself.

Kant’s view is that a concept communicated through a formless means is superior to a concept communicated through the form of sculpture or painting. In other words, it is the concept that counts and not the artwork.


The Venus de Milo is an example of a concept communicated through the form of beautiful sculpture, requiring great skill.

Beauty, however, is inferior to the sublime, which can be communicated through formless artlessness, requiring no skill, by Kant’s reckoning.


The Fountain is a urinal. It is also an example of postmodern sublimity.

Kant’s concept of the formless nature of the sublime is the ideological birthplace of the postmodern aesthetic that art, visual art, doesn’t need to be expressed through the means of representational painting or sculpture. In practice, this aesthetic opened up the floodgates of a nihilistic revolution in the 20th Century in which postmodern artists deconstructed art and/or substituted any object but painting or sculpture for art, i.e. arranged rubbish, excrement, installations, etc.

An opinion voiced by many people in response to postmodern art, such as Andre’s bricks arranged on a floor as exhibited in the Tate, is “my eight-year-old could do this.” It is easy to understand their perspective; their assumption is that a value is something that takes effort and skill, the higher the value the more it would require superlative skill, not something assembled at random.


Arranged bricks at the Tate Modern.

This attitude, in part, echoes Aristotle’s comment that “art is identical with a state of capacity to make, involving a true course of reasoning.” The idea is that a sculptor sculpts and a painter paints and they remain true to their arts forms, to the means of creation. There would be no room in his concept of art to include assemblages of factory-made objects. “All art is concerned with coming into being, i.e. with contriving and considering how something may come into being and whose origin is in the maker.” An Aristotelian definition of a person who scattered bricks would be a brick arranger, not an artist.

A contemporary take on the nature of art comes from Rand, who connects humanity’s need of art to the process of translating concepts, through painting or sculpture, into an immediate perceptual concrete. She observes: “An artist isolates the things which he regards as metaphysically essential and integrates them into a single new concrete that represents an embodied abstraction.”

In Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, we literally see a woman leading people forward, an immediate perceptual concrete, and this scene projects concepts such as fighting for one’s values, overcoming barriers, and life or death struggles. Experiencing this phenomenon is what can give humans the sense of the reality of their possibilities. The idea is that artistic visions can and do inspire our dreams and goal-directed actions in real life.


The nature of art is to be a beacon to guide one’s path in life. In what direction does your path lead?

Both Rand and Aristotle keep aesthetics grounded to art. On the other hand, Kant, through his concept of the formless nature of the sublime, divorces aesthetics from art.

As the means of an artwork deals with the form, the end deals with the “point”, the intellectual and emotional expression of the art. In Kant’s view the end point of the sublime should “excite[s] a feeling of an outrage on the imagination, and yet it is judged all the more sublime on that account.”

Kant’s theory of the sublime is the foundation for all the derivative theories of shock aesthetics that find realization in such postmodern works as: meat grinders for humans, Hatoum’s Mouli Julienne; the irrelevant defacement of the Mona Lisa image by the inclusion of a moustache, Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q.; canned shit, Manzoni’s Merde d’artista; empty room as art, Creed’s The Lights Going On and Off; etc.

hatoum duchamp-LHOOQ artshit creed

On a basic human level there is a touch of nastiness in all these works. They are displays that take us to states of mind that are either envious, grotesque, or senseless.

The Dalai Lama by contrast believes that your happiness is threatened if you embrace negative states of being. He eloquently states: “…hatred, jealousy, anger, and so on are harmful. We consider them negative states of mind because they destroy our mental happiness; once you harbor feelings of hatred or ill feeling towards someone, once you yourself are filled by hatred or negative emotions, then other people appear to you as also hostile.” Though he is not making an aesthetic statement, his idea serves as an ethical stance in which happiness is a proper aim for one’s life.

The question arises: what role does human value, as a subject matter, have in aesthetics?

Kant has already shown us his negative stance by the idea of an “outrage on the imagination”. In contrast to Kant’s aesthetics, Rand and Aristotle have benevolent views of what the end point in art should be. In Rand’s case she thinks art can/should create the experience of “a moment of metaphysical joy–a moment of love for existence.” And Aristotle thinks that: “Every art is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”

Rand and Aristotle come from the standpoint that every act of human creativity has a human value as an end point, including art. The converse would be that if an act has a negative state as its end, it would be destructive or meaningless for a healthy humanity.

So let’s start afresh, away from Kant’s malapropos use of the word “sublime”, and find out what the dictionary definition of it is. The American Heritage Dictionary defines sublime as 1) characterized by nobility; majestic. 2) a. Of high spiritual, moral, or intellectual worth. b. Not to be excelled; supreme. 3) Inspiring awe; impressive. 4) Archaic. Raised aloft; set high.

Keep those definitions in mind as we look at the following work.

Feldman’s sculpture group, The Future In Our Hands, 1992, Reservoir Park, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is four life-size bronze statues placed around a large outdoor fountain. There are two males and two females, life-sized, each playing with a child.


Instead of looking at each sculpture separately, let’s first look at their common features.

Each adult is standing with one leg solidly anchored on the ground, giving us the sense that they are grounded in real life. Their other leg is relaxed and slightly extended, giving them a sense of balance and flexibility. Each adult is intently looking at their child and, more, their entire body language is directed to and in support of the child. Notice how each adult has an extended free arm poised for maintaining balance. Their free arm is also extended in an expression of care.

Each child is in a moment of freedom; they are rising, reaching, or flying.

Notice that none of the children are held or held back.

There is an intensely intimate physical connection between the adults and the children. Aside from the one child literally in flight, the other children are balancing themselves on their parents. As well, in beautiful exchanges of tenderness, the parents are balancing the children with little more than a touch of a finger, the support of a palm, or the tip of a nose.

F1 F2 F3 Future

If we continue to look more closely at the sculptures, we will notice that each adult is a unique body type: the lithe girlish figure contrasts with the full womanly figure; the men’s figures are similarly contrasted between slender and solid builds.


Unique individual features merged with a theme of benevolence, perhaps meaning that goodness starts with the individual?

Notice the face of the mother tossing the child; the line of her mouth and the tilt of her nose are distinct features. We have the sense that if the model walked by we would recognize her. Each figure has these unique characteristics, which marks them as individuals. But common among them is the elegance of the proportions of their body parts. Not a hand, head, or foot seems out of sync with the whole body. Here Feldman has stepped away from the generic prototypes of the ancient Greeks, where, for example, youths’ heads look very much alike.

In each sculpture notice the flow of the surface skin and how it molds the underlying anatomy from the hips to stomach up to the chest to around the shoulders. Look at the natural shape of the knees; we can sense how they are either locked into place or totally relaxed. This is a virtuosic display of modeling clay. It also shows the breadth of Feldman’s anatomical knowledge from the delineation of a neck muscle to the hardness of an elbow.

It might be easy to overlook the simple naturalness of the children. But there are several very difficult technical things going on here. One is that their proportions are true to little children: the largeness of their heads and the fullness of their torsos. Another aspect is the modeling of their flesh, which gives us a sense of a malleable plumpness. The third is that these toddlers are in incredibly dynamic poses. Children, throughout the history of art, from the Egyptians to modern times have often looked, simply put, weird. It is refreshing to find in sculpture children that look like children.

Futurekid F1kid F2kid F3kid

Stepping back, let’s take in the sculptures from a distance and look at their big forms. The big form is, in contrast to details such as ears, the essential “sweep” of the whole sculpture. If you use your imagination it is like waving a magic wand in ascending arches, in large flowing curves, or in shooting diagonal exclamation marks. And imagine that your gestured arches, curves, and diagonals magically turn into wildly arching backs, shoulders pivoting against thrust hips, and ecstatic children soaring.

Looking at the sculpture of the lithe woman with the flying child, follow the bow-like sweep from her right shoulder through her left hip down through left leg that ends at the curve of her left big toe. Notice how the child is flying diagonally off the sweep of the mother’s body, like an arrow shooting off a bow. Feldman is using this big sweep to dramatically accent the child’s flight.

Parenthetically, Rodin’s greatest historical innovation was his integration of big sweeping forms of the human body, which he used to give a sense of immediacy, of living in the moment, to the expression of the figure. His figures never feel “posed”, like the melodramatic poses you might see in silent movies. It is outside of the scope of this essay but it could be argued that Rodin sacrificed proportions, the flesh-like texture of the modeling, and the completeness of the entire figure so that he could achieve the big sweep of immediacy and form. On the other hand, Feldman has integrated this technique without sacrificing any of these other sculptural values.

FuturesmallP F3smallP F2smalllP F1smallP

A swirling twist of space is the big form in the sculpture of the child who is raising himself off his mother’s shoulder. She is taking a step, rotating in the direction of her turned head, following the direction of her child, whose back enhances this line and whose head is turned in such a way as to continue this sweep out towards his furthest sight. The whole composition is like a waltz of balance.

Looking at the sculpture of the child balanced on his father’s shoulder, we can sense a flowing “S” sweep from the father’s right leg, swinging up through his torso, curving through the tilting torso of the child, ending in a burst of joyfully flung arms and legs, much like the ascent and explosion of fireworks.

Perhaps the most impressive of the four sculptures is the one in which the father has raised the delighted child on high. Notice the soaring line from the father’s right shoulder through his arm up through the child’s high flung leg.

The Future in Our Hands has a lot to take in: the theme of joy of supporting human growth with its sub-themes of individuality, flight, comradely, and equality of the sexes. There is its multi-faceted execution of intimate detailing, naturalism, dynamic movement, and big forms all of which underlie and support the theme. In one way it simply looks natural but the aesthetic construct is a tour de force of integration.

I don’t know if contemporary critics, curators, and collectors have lost the capacity to feel awe for good things. Whether they have or have not, it would be hard to miss the qualities in The Future in Our Hands of nobility, value, excellence, and raising the human spirit aloft, in essence those things which make the sublime.

The Postmodern project substitutes exaltation for rage, visual means for formlessness, and sublimity for nihilism, but it can not destroy the existence and nature of art, or other human accomplishments. But these anti-art definitions can and do destroy our general ability to identify important aesthetic values in works of art; if we are not careful we could lose the language to distinguish the good from the absurd.

The antidote to postmodern and the key to understanding the dilemma posed by this Pandora’s Box series is identification: open your eyes and name it for what it is.

All three versions of the legend of Pandora’s Box are true: the swirling demons and the diseases of insanity; the hope; and, as well, the magnificence of human creation. But it is the third version of Pandora’s Box, the one in which “out from the box rose up all the glories of humanity and they spread throughout the world with undiminished splendor” is the real one. It is the version that has value for those of us wishing to achieve a flourishing existence on earth.

Michael Newberry
2002, first published in the Free Radical #54

Pandora’s Box Part 2

Pandora’s Box Part 2
by Michael Newberry

… pathetically, only Hope remained inside. In the other version the box held all of humanity’s glories. When she opened the box progress, knowledge, and exaltation vanished into oblivion, forever lost to humanity.

Art, in all its forms, plays an exalted role as one of humanity’s glories. It also plays a profoundly personal role. Think, for instance, of the impact your favorite artwork has had on your life. Has it moved you to tears, to resolution, to moments of joy? Have you felt that an artwork was as close to you as a lover, a friend, or a child? Have you imagined what your life would be like without art? Picture your most beloved painting or recall your favorite song or regard your most treasured book and ask yourself what if it had never existed. Would that leave a gaping hole in your soul where once something precious had been? When Pandora opened the box, marvelous things rose up and vanished into space before her eyes. Without grasping the nature of this phenomenon, she unleashed Postmodernism on humanity.

Artistic creation is fragile. For most artists creation calls on the limits of their intellectual, sensory, and psychological resources; each artwork is, in essence, the artist’s summation of what is important from his or her existence. Additionally, it is usual that an artist’s career calls on the limits of their financial resources. Given the nature of such a daunting task, it is no wonder that artists can break down and give up. Imagine young students impatient to express their visions and passions on canvas and imagine their vulnerability in hoping they will have what it takes to realize their dreams. Without the certainty of accomplished works behind them, they are, indeed, vulnerable to peer pressure, authoritative experts, and the influence of the icons of their day. If their profoundly personal visions and attempts are not acknowledged and supported, then it merely takes an air of disapproval to blow away the sparks that would blaze their future.

Several years ago I taught foundation classes at Otis College of Art and Design, one of the most reputable art colleges in the United States. While there, I offered seven students a private apprenticeship program outside of their schoolwork. These students had everything one could ask for: they had fire, talent, intelligence, and drive; they had that “lightbulb” look in their eyes. They studied with other foundation teachers who taught them rock-solid basics, but in the following year they entered into the fine art program, which was dominated by postmodern teachers.

During a critique, one teacher and his students called my 18-year old apprentice a “fascist”, an “imperialist pig”, and “naïve” because he had exhibited a realistic oil self-portrait with studies that documented his creative process, which was dramatically lit. He was not criticized for lack of sincerity, passion, or talent. By contrast, another student received the highest mark and praise for a goldfish cast in resin which had its eyes plucked out and sewn to its tail. A day after the critique my student came to me crying and passionately asked “why?” What horrible things did my student do to deserve such nasty condemnation from the teacher and his cohorts? Could it possibly be that they were chastising him because he displayed skill and passion in painting?

(A sad postscript is that this student, one of the most passionate and talented artists I have met, gave up art some years after college, tried to live in the normal world, and committed suicide at 39 years old.)

Another apprentice of mine took classes with an abstract expressionist teacher (in the style of Pollock) who deflected answering students’ direct questions. In the third week of class, this apprentice came to me with tears bursting from her eyes and blurted out, “what does this teacher want from me?” I guessed that the teacher was looking for expression divorced from thought so I recommended that my apprentice use a stream of consciousness technique to make it through this class. I told her to unscrew her head and leave it on the shelf before entering this class. She followed my advice to the letter. She did not “think”, did not ask questions, and did nothing to aim for a realization. Later in that class, the teacher waltzed around the room with my apprentice’s “creation” and claimed that it was a museum piece and that she was a genius. Overnight she became the teacher’s star pupil. My apprentice said in a mood of distaste “that work took only 5% of my capacity”. Was this teacher so out of touch with these students that she confined their potential by ignorance? Or did she do it on purpose?

During our apprenticeship program, every one of the seven broke down in frustration due to their postmodern education. “What do they want?” Was the unanswerable query. After witnessing two years of these episodes, it became apparent to me that it wasn’t knowledge, dedication, skill, or love of art that was wanted by these teachers. It was both obvious and inconceivable that the teachers acted to thwart these students’ minds and abilities. Did the teachers really want to turn students into confused wrecks? What sort of people embrace such a stance?

Rarely have I seen genius and rarely have I seen the completely hopeless. One student was sent to my class with the aim that she would finally pass, having failed the course given by other teachers twice before. She had no interest, had no touch, and had no understanding for drawing; she had no “light bulb” in her eyes. Shockingly, just before our holidays she presented me with an invitation to her exhibition at a modern art gallery. I will never forget the look on her face after she watched me read her invitation; she was gloating. I thought of the struggles of my apprentices pouring their passion, their egos, and their overtime into developing their potential for art; I thought of the psychological abuse they were taking for it, and I thought it unjust. Was it the way of the art world that this pathetic student should displace them?

I don’t mean to imply that all postmodernists are untalented, but talent in the sense of mastery of drawing and painting is not a consideration for a postmodern art education. Before their second year, my apprentices were advised by the Dean of Otis College, by the Director of Foundation, and by the Director of Fine Art that if they wanted to continue drawing the figure they would have to go into Graphic Design and forgo Fine Art. If the postmodern community does not want skill, could it be that they want students who embody a “getting away with it” mentality?

A few years ago I went to an artist’s talk given by a postmodern teacher/artist at a prestigious university gallery. Prior to the talk I was embarrassed to find, after several minutes of looking around the gallery, that, in fact, there was an exhibition in the room, but I hadn’t seen it. Her works were camouflaged within the architectural setting. One of them was a 3″ x 1″ wide plaster band that wound around on the floor of the room. It was there to be “sensed” and to subtly affect movement within the room, changing the traffic flow of the space intended by the architect. In her talk, she proudly stated that she couldn’t draw, couldn’t paint, and didn’t know anything about architectural design. Yet all her works were dependent on architectural settings designed by others. She condescendingly referred to one of the buildings as a “fascist”. When asked if she had ever created directly from nature she said she had never “thought of that.” Without any skill in art, she had several museum exhibitions in which she presented her deliberate acts of subtle subversion. Could it be possible that subversion was the standard by which this postmodern exhibition was chosen?

With every postmodern exhibition, with every class, with every critic’s praise, clues emerge as to the motives of the postmodernists and the general direction of the postmodern movement. I believe there is a key concept guiding postmodernists but they, in their obscure way, don’t want us or perhaps themselves to understand what it is. Let us dig deeper and see if we can find what that key is.

Museum directors are the guardians of art. They strive to protect art by heightening cultural awareness: they give artists venues in which to exhibit; they cultivate public interest in their exhibitions; they arrange recognition of artists through critics and media; they raise funds to pay for their initiatives; and they produce educational programs for adults and children. They have media, millions of dollars, and educational institutions at their disposal to influence culture. Directors are the middlemen between important new artists and the public; their influence is profound in shaping “high” culture.

The mission statements of many contemporary art museums include aims to express the “aesthetics of our time,” to seek out artists that are creating “new inroads,” and to exhibit the “best” artists alive today. “Best” here does not have the meaning that it has in sports, where the winner is the better athlete. Artistic value is interpreted, meaning that it is up to the curators to evaluate who are the best artists based on contemporary aesthetics, which is postmodernism, and to support them accordingly.

The Encyclopedia Encarta describes the aims of Dadaists’ (the first postmodern artists) works as “… designed to shock or bewilder, in order to provoke a reconsideration of accepted aesthetic values”. But postmodern art goes deeper than merely raising challenges to specific values; it is meant to disrupt your psychological and epistemological processes or, in other words, to shatter your sanity and throttle your mind.

To accomplish this, postmodern artists mangle either or both the content and means:

1) They can choose a subject matter that will stretch your capacity for the unimaginable, usually by projecting a thoroughly disgusting state. Cultural Gothic by P. McCarthy is a good example of this in sculpture. It is a mechanized sculpture group in which a father encourages his adolescent son to fuck a goat.


A Postmodern version of a close family?

Branded by J. Saville is an example in painting. It is a self-portrait in which the obese woman thrusts out a fistful of her flesh towards us in an angry and defensive gesture. Incised scalpel-like wounds that spell out words “delicate” and “decorative” cover her rotten-colored flesh. Both these works intentionally take us into psychotic states.


Saville, Self-portrait
Parenthetically, it could be implied that I take issue with the artists’ right to express themselves, which is not the case. My point here is that these works are esteemed by the postmodern establishment for their shocking content and not for their quality as painting or sculpture.

Strictly speaking, Saville and McCarthy aren’t postmodern purists; they compromise their postmodern, grotesque subject matters with figurative painting and sculpture. For purists, matching the means to the ends is a hallmark of the highest reaches of art, postmodern or not.


“…art cannot be art and anti-art
at the same time.”

2) The other method of shock aesthetics is to redefine art as anything but painting or sculpture. The classic example is The Fountain by Duchamp, a urinal presented as an artwork. The simple device of substituting anything but art, such as a toilet, as an artwork creates an epistemological disturbance in our minds. Think of substituting “table” for “egg”, “ice-cream” for “go”, “car” for “food”, etc. It is something like a computer virus that plays havoc with your system and ultimately renders your computer’s programs useless. In this way, postmodernists have substituted Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning for drawing, Christo’s Umbrellas for sculpture, and Creed’s Empty Room for substance. Shock aesthetics is also commonly known in art history as part of the anti-art movement. Oddly, modern art historians gloss over the fact that, logically, art cannot be art and anti-art at the same time.

In Part I of this series I stated that the theme of Christo’s Umbrellas magnified the contrast between the huge cost, effort, and scale of the project and its end of non-existence. The thematic idea is that this nihilistic work is not about “nothing” but it is about the non-existence, the absence, of something that had existed before. Stay with me on this idea; it is important because nihilism is one of the key aesthetic concepts of postmodernism. Now let us tweak the context and think of the entire postmodern art movement as one gigantic Christo project, in which “absence” is the theme. The postmodern movement has taken on the universality of representational art, with its history of 30,000 years, and succeeded in, in the eyes of the contemporary art world establishment, of virtually wiping it off the face of the planet. It has ripped the lid off Pandora’s box and replaced “progress, knowledge, and exaltation” with bile.

Notice what this does to the status of the art director as a guardian of art, it creates a grotesque paradox; the directors of contemporary art museums are the promoters and protectors of anti-art. One important way in which they protect postmodernism is by ignoring any alternative; they are silent when it comes to value-orientated, representational art.

Far from being harmless, silence from the art establishment delivers a deathblow to viable representational artists. I discussed this issue of postmodern silence with Dr. Chris Sciabarra and he replied: “[A] dominant ideology “brackets out” of the equation real alternatives: it just doesn’t allow fundamentally revolutionary alternatives to even be considered. I think this is not simply a conscious conspiracy, but a method of silence, of omission. It becomes part of the overall worldview, this tacit exclusion.”

Silence is a very clever weapon for postmodernists to use; it implies that representational art is dead and that even if something is out there it doesn’t merit notice. Tom Wolfe tells the sickening story of young Fredrick Hart scanning art magazines, hoping for a review of Ex Nihilo, the facade of the Washington National Cathedral, an eleven-year sculpture project. “Months went by…nothing.”

The exceptional representational artist faces another kind of wall of incomprehensibility as a consequence of this “silence.” In my long career as an artist, I have met many “regular” people, who don’t know art in depth. Though some of them have mentioned the “silliness” of contemporary museum exhibitions. Yet, they have reverence for the title of “museum” and they do not understand why representational artists should have problems in getting critical recognition. They feel this is something that they cannot judge and it should be left to the experts to decide. The undertone of their unstated words is, “if the experts do not acknowledge you then there must be a good reason for it”. It is also unfortunate that if artists try to retaliate against the silence of the postmodern establishment, then it sounds like “sour grapes.”

In an Agatha Christie story, there is a small aside about the theft of a brooch. In the novel, everyone suspected the maid, as she was the only one in the house at the time of the theft. No one accused her of the theft because she was an elderly woman and had always been very conscientious. The assumption of the locals and her employers was that she desperately needed money. The maid was terribly upset because she could see suspicion in their eyes and she could do nothing about it. The maid died before the mystery was solved. The brooch had been attached to a blouse that had been sent to the cleaners; the laundress had stolen it. The horror of this case was that the maid, in the absence of the solution to the mystery, died without ever being granted recognition for her goodness and honesty.

Just as the solution to this mystery is crucial to clear up where the crime lay and redeem the innocent, understanding the mysterious motives of the postmodern movement is crucial to bringing about recognition of the goodness and honesty of benevolent, representational artists. Earlier I asked questions and raised the issue about the key concept guiding the postmodern movement. Now it should be clear. Postmodernism is literally an anti-art movement. Its objective, ostensibly, is the elevation of postmodern artists, but its motive is the eradication of art.

The postmodern aesthetic is a virus composed of the unstable components of nihilism for its means and disgust for its ends. It will take innovative contemporary representational art and reason-based aesthetic criticism to remedy this plague. Stay tuned for Pandora’s Box Part 3, the last of the series, in which I contrast two contemporary views of the sublime; the postmodern and the neo-sublime.

Michael Newberry
2002, first published in the Free Radical #52

Pandora’s Box Part 1

Pandora’s Box Part 1
by Michael Newberry

In treating any disease, it is important to identify the problem at its root. It is also important to find classic cases of the problem to illustrate clearly the results of the disease. Some of the cases here are not pretty and might be offensive. It will take some courage to follow me through the following series of articles as we investigate the nature of Postmodern Art. Fortunately the cure for this type of disease exists but, as with all treatments, we will have to act to eradicate this plague from our world. Come with me as we enter into the aftermath of the Greek daughter’s blunder…

There are two versions of the legend of Pandora’s Box. One version tells us that the box contained all kinds of misery. When Pandora opened the box a plague dispersed and doomed humanity to suffer ruin, insanity, and despair. She hastily closed the box to stop the plague but, pathetically, only Hope remained inside. In the other version the box held all of humanity’s glories. When she opened the box progress, knowledge, and exaltation vanished into oblivion, forever lost to humanity.

Today, in the here and now, both versions of the legend of Pandora’s Box are tragically true.

Our civilization’s humanities, the branches of knowledge such as philosophy and art, have contracted Postmodernism. In the contemporary arts it has spread like an unchecked virus, literally and figuratively defacing painting and sculpture beyond recognition.

Let us examine a few of Postmodernism’s sorriest growths.
Erased De Kooning, 1953

“It wasn’t easy, by any means. The drawing was done with a hard line, and it was greasy too, so I had to work very hard on it, using every sort of eraser.”

Documented by modern art historians and considered a historically significant piece is Erased De Kooning, 1953, by Rauschenberg. He was given a drawing by one of America’s leading Abstract Expressionists, De Kooning. He then erased the De Kooning image, signed it himself and exhibited the artwork as his own. In an interview with art critic Calvin Tomkins, Rauschenberg said:

“I had been working for some time at erasing, with the idea that I wanted to create a work of art by that method. Not just by deleting certain lines, you understand, but by erasing the whole thing. Using my own work wasn’t satisfactory . . . I realized that it had to be something by someone who everybody agreed was great, and the most logical person for that was de Kooning. . . . finally he gave me a drawing, and I took it home. It wasn’t easy, by any means. The drawing was done with a hard line, and it was greasy too, so I had to work very hard on it, using every sort of eraser. But in the end it really worked. I liked the result. I felt it was a legitimate work of art, created by the technique of erasing.”

Erased De Kooning, 1953 established a historical precedent that the destruction of an artwork is important aesthetically. Generally, it marked a place in the postmodern continuum in which the theme of shock is an absolute good.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Umbrellas
“But there is one quality [that artists] have never used, and that is the quality of love and tenderness that we human beings have for what does not last.”

Or is it a quality of nihilism on an epic scale?

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, America’s leading conceptual artist team, raised and spent 26 million dollars on his Umbrellas, 1991 project. Over 3,000 industrial-sized umbrellas were placed simultaneously over large tracts of land in California and Japan. The project took years of methodical planning, required 1000’s of workers, and supporters from both the private and public sectors. The visual impact of the project was monumental; the huge umbrellas spread out as far as the eye could see. The actual work was only presented for 18 days and then it was dismantled and carted away. That’s it. Gone.

Jeanne-Claude comments: “…Throughout the millenniums, for 5000 years, artists of the past have tried to input into their works of art a variety of different qualities. They have used different materials, marble, stone, bronze, wood, paint. They have created abstract images, figurative images, religious images, profane. They have tried to do bigger, smaller, a lot of different qualities. But there is one quality they have never used, and that is the quality of love and tenderness that we human beings have for what does not last. For instance, we have love and tenderness for childhood because we know it will not last. We have love and tenderness for our own life because we know it will not last. That quality of love and tenderness, we wish to donate it, endow our work with it as an additional aesthetic quality…”

This sentiment sounds poetic and beautiful but think about what it means as an aesthetic practice: Beethoven conducting the 9th for one performance and then destroying the score; Michelangelo pulverizing the newly completed David; or Hugo laying waste to the Les Misérables manuscript on a Guernsey shore.

Imagine creating a 26 million-dollar project with tons of enthusiastic support and then wiping it off the face of the planet. Christo comments that their “work is a scream of freedom.” I don’t know about freedom, but I see an end result that holds a statement of nihilism on an epic scale. Actually, the piece could be called Beyond Nihilism because what was left was not nothing but an absence of what was there before.

Incidentally, this project spectacularly illustrates several of Kant’s aesthetic concepts of the sublime: mathematical enormity, the formlessness of the final outcome, mass acceptance, and the violation of our ability to comprehend the total. I will discuss more of Kant’s aesthetics in Pandora’s Box Part III.

McCarthy, Sailor’s Meat

Self portrait of the artist during a performance piece.

McCarthy is captured on a video which documents his performance piece, Sailor’s Meat, 1975. The video lasts about an hour and shows the naked artist flagellating, raping, and gagging himself with hot dogs. The particular aspect of this piece to note is that he is actually doing these things to himself; it is real life, in contrast to say the art of acting. McCarthy on his subjects and peeve with Disney: “Maybe it is a conditioned response: we’re taught to be disgusted by our fluids. Maybe it’s related to a fear of death. Body fluids are base material. Disneyland is so clean; hygiene is the religion of fascism. The body sack, the sack you don’t enter, it’s taboo to enter the sack. Fear of sex and the loss of control; visceral goo, waddle, waddle.”

Postmodernists have been praised for their ability to push the boundaries. To a figurative painter/sculptor and to a postmodern artist, pushing the boundaries means two completely opposite things: to a figurative artist it means to advance art by creating new developments that add to the long line of accomplished artists through history. To a postmodern artist it means to shock us even if that involves destroying the very nature of art; if it is a painting, let’s knife it; if it is the artist’s hand, let’s cut it off. Aptly, McCarthy, in another performance piece has stylistically enacted these concepts.

Related to McCarthy in spirit are a host of postmodern artists, such as Chris Burden, who literally crucified himself to a car. The gross nature of these postmodern artists and their desperate need to affect us negatively is again a clear indication of the premise of shock as the standard of postmodern art, even if it is suicidal.

Some of you might consider these projects as harmless jokes or examples of insanity. But the facts are that these postmodern artists have devoted their entire careers to making exactly these kinds of works and that the highest reaches of the art establishment esteem them.

Continuing our diagnosis let us take an inventory of the significant postmodern standards we have uncovered:

A theme of shock is present in all these variations of postmodern art. Destruction of artwork is applauded. The use of methodical planning and mass voluntary help towards the outcome of tremendous financial waste that ultimately results in absence. Real-life debasement and violence are postmodern art forms. The postmodern art community rewards expressions of suicidal tendencies for the cause of art.

What does the combination of shock, destruction of art, methodical planning, financial and material waste, and suicidal participants remind you of? September 11 or bin Laden perhaps?

By these standards, could not the destruction of the World Trade Center be the most brilliant example of the furthest reaches of what is possible to a postmodernist? The enormity of that project is gigantic: the methodical planning, the support of volunteers, the huge waste of money, the real violence of the act, and the end result of nihilism on a scale that would make Christo jealous, Hitler smile, and poor Pandora freak out. Beyond obliteration, the consequential absence of the Twin Towers could be viewed as the crowning glory of postmodern art. If bin Laden claimed to be an artist, he could be hailed as the greatest postmodern artist since Marcel Duchamp.


In Pandora’s Box Part II, I will discuss postmodern art education and motives.

Michael Newberry
First published in the Free Radical #52, 2002

Terrorism and Postmodern Art

Terrorism and Postmodern Art

by Michael Newberry

A Wonder of the World. Gone.

To witness the obliteration of those glowing, lithe twins was a shock beyond comprehension. They were so playful; light danced on them as they stretched up towards the sky. They were so free; you could not say that they stood tall with pride because they were so unselfconscious of their beauty and height. They were so innocent; they believed in friendship, progress, creation, and joy. They were.


There are people in the world who can’t stand to see that beauty and creativity exist. The guy who took a hatchet to the Pieta of Michelangelo. The Taliban leader who chose to blow up the Buddhist cliff sculptures.

On the other side of humanity, a vast majority of people felt universal shock. Waves of anger, sorrow, and sadness have followed. Though, personally, after I experienced the shock of the attack, I felt none of those other emotions. Instead a quiet calm spread over me and I knew it was a time for cold, calculating, and uncompromising action and thought. A time to expose evil and put it in its place. And a time to stand up proudly and defend the values of civilization against the onslaught of a species of human beings that romanticize destruction.

The definition of civilization, found in the American Heritage dictionary, is an eloquent statement:

“An advanced state of intellectual, cultural, and material development in human society, marked by progress in the arts and sciences, the extensive use of writing, and the appearance of complex political and social institutions.”

Every civilization has had artworks, including buildings, that represent that country’s values. A unique aspect of art is that it represents the purpose of what one lives for. It represents the “point” of life. In a similar way, the art in major art institutions represent the soul of a culture or civilization.

The World Trade Center has been that kind of symbol for us and I can think of no greater expression of civilization at its height.

Apparently neither could the mastermind of the terrorists’ attack.

Terrorism, as I understand it, is based on destruction and murder, using shock tactics and unconventional means that result in a populace experiencing mass fear, anxiety, or apprehension. Though terrorists might state lofty aims, it is generally recognized that they don’t have the character to create anything other than bring about destruction. And rarely will you hear anyone claim that they destroy for the sake of destroying. But if one looks at the results of terrorism one must conclude that their aim is simply to inject fear into their victims’ state of mind. Fear is not the stuff that civilization is made of.

Now that the World Trade Center is gone, what is going to replace it? I don’t mean replace it only in the physical sense, but what is going to replace it as a symbol of civilization at its best. There are reports that a monument and four skyscrapers of 50 to 60 floors will be built on the site. But that project has something hopelessly anemic about it. It sounds prudent and safe and, absolutely, lacking in imagination. Of course the Empire State Building stands, but what about finding something new from our art culture, some artwork to hold up proudly as a symbol worth creating and fighting for?

Unfortunately, the great American skyscraper is the exception to the state of serious art in contemporary western civilization. What dominates western civilization now is postmodern art. Postmodern art is a completely unique historical phenomenon. Every other culture through the history of humanity has proudly produced and honored painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and stories. But postmodern art, in theory and practice, is an anti-art movement. It prides itself on the destruction of the above mentioned forms of art and on shocking its audience.

It starts theoretically with Kant’s Critique of Judgment, a treatise on aesthetics. He elevates fear of experience and formlessness of means in his concepts of the Sublime and he condescendingly relegates form, theme, beauty, and sensory pleasure as elements of craftsmanship. It is an amazing piece of work. Imagine dismissing the principles that are the aesthetic foundations of Michelangelo and Beethoven as crass and replacing them with a principle of nothingness–as a superior aesthetic. Incredible.

Louis Aragon, a Dadaist poet, rants, “No more painters, no more scribblers, no more musicians, no more sculptors…no more nations, an end at last to all this stupidity, nothing left, nothing at all, nothing, nothing.”

Tristan Tzara, another Dadaist, states pathetically, ” Art is a private thing, the artist makes it for himself; a comprehensible work is the product of a journalist…We need works that are strong, straight, precise, and forever beyond understanding.”

Neither of these statements is understandable in the ordinary sense of communication between civilized people. But their stance is clear: they are for the obliteration of the forms and comprehensibility of art. But this attack is not limited to art. The obliteration of forms of human understanding results in fear and will likely lead to a snap with reality that will force the subject through a long descent into psychotic hell.

At a recent exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, one of the exhibits was a photo documentation of Paul McCarthy smearing his face and beard with excrement and using his head as a brush to “paint” a large white canvas. He is a professor of art at UCLA.

Perhaps the best known and most widely and wildly academically acclaimed postmodern artist is Marcel Duchamp. He presented a urinal for an exhibition in 1917 in New York. A copy of it is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Our society, unwisely, has swept postmodern art away from its consciousness and, unfortunately, all real art with it. They have hidden it, like the insane uncle, mentioned only in whispers, tucked away in a sanatorium with a name like Village Heights. The whispers leave a hint in the air that if we acknowledge that our uncle is in fact crazy then somehow we will be equally affected.

Notice how leading newspapers and internet news sites sweep art under such light and effervescent categories as Style, Entertainment, Arts & Leisure, as if putting art under pleasant headings will change the nature of it. My guess is that because of the disgusting or utterly puzzling content of postmodern art the news media feels more comfortable relegating it and consequently all art to a less than serious status. Imagine listing politics under Gatherings, or economics under Business & Play.

But serious art and postmodern art are not the amusements of the masses and they are not accessories to life. Art is to culture what the soul is to a human being. If you try to ignore your soul, stuff it under a rug, or dress it up, it will rebel. A culture’s art, like your soul, will not be dressed-up or repressed; if you do not respect its nature it will prick your confidence, disrupt your peace, or, possibly, sabotage your virtues and make you wish you never existed.

Ignored as it may be, postmodern art, America’s crazy uncle, is not in a sanatorium. Postmodern art rules the art institutions of western civilization. Its aesthetics are the criteria guiding curators and directors of contemporary art museums. It is the only aesthetic taught to upper level students in the major art schools around the world. It is the criteria used by the most influential art critics. It is debated in nuances of comical and absurd proportions by the scholarly community. It is the baying of sheep. Unless, of course, the sheep know what they are baying about. If they understand the point of postmodern aesthetics then they know that they are promoting anti-art. Which means that they are actively promoting the demise of civilization’s art forms as well as Western art. Western art–Aeschylus, Michelangelo, Beethoven, and Yamasaki–represents the soul of the greatest civilization in humankind’s history and postmodernists want to replace it with what? With the cynical spirit of Marcel Duchamp’s toilet?

Ominously, the postmodernists are as clever as bin Laden or whoever is the mastermind of the recent attack on civilization. Postmodernists have infiltrated our civilization’s greatest art institutions. And they have done it with our naïve blessings. They now represent America’s art culture, its soul. They are the spiritual voice of America.

And that voice is sending a message out to the world: “No value here. Go ahead and dump on us.”

How long do you give a country whose leading art institutions project the self-abasement of hatred, of self-pity, of cynicism, and of the living-dead?

America is embarking now on a moral crusade to eradicate the evil of terrorism from the world. It is a sick irony of massive proportions that America, through its network of museums, dealers, intelligentsia, and funding, is the world’s leading exponent of postmodern art. And that is a very big chink in her armor. The symbol for this aspect of her culture and equally well for the terrorists is the bloody formless waste that was the World Trade Center and its people. A symbolic and literal marking of the decline of a civilization. But this does not have to be. It is imperative that Americans do three things to repair the damage wrought on her by the terrorists and the postmodernists:

Make in clear to the postmodernists that their nihilism is not wanted. You do not have to be an expert in art to tell the director of a museum that you are disgusted by their exhibitions. It won’t go by them unnoticed.

Support the arts that give you the experience that you are glad and thankful to be alive –works you can point out with pride.

And build a new Wonder of the World.

Michael Newberry

First published in 2002 in the Free Radical
revised in New York, 2006