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.
Postmodernism’s Sorriest Growths
Rauschenberg, 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.” Rauschenberg
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.
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.
“Hygiene is the religion of fascism.”
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.
First published in the Free Radical #52, 2002