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.
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.
2002, first published in the Free Radical #52