In recent years, various attempts to define the "art world" have become increasingly vague in connotation and problematic in relation to their social context. As advanced culture moves toward the end of the millennium, one could say that the cultural and economic requirements needed for emerging artists (and many mature artists) to effectively pursue their respective goals have become severely limited, if not altogether neglected within the society. The absence of a consistent support apparatus, both public and private, within the current artistic community could be read as a kind of fallout from the absurd marketing strategies of the eighties. It was a system bolstered in part by an Anglicized postmodern rhetoric that disclaimed stereotypes of the "struggling artist" as irrelevant to the more ideological issues of art as commodity. As a result of this alienating mechanism one could no longer assume that the community of artists and what was being defined as the" art world" -- collectors, dealers, investors --were identical.
In the eighties, the "art world" could offer a form of social detachment to conceal the boredom of image-repetition, rampantly displayed in galleries, art bars, discos, and clubs. On one level, these images constituted a " real life" representation, signs appropriated from popular TV soap operas, print media, and popular entertainment. On a mundane level, Postmodernism in the eighties became a kind of manifesto for the "art world" -- the re-sale marketing and investments, the social gatherings dinners, and drugs. The "art world" of the eighties was all about cultural Reaganomics -- supply side art -- as if clients were infinitely available to buy gargantuan paintings and bits of detritus called "installations."
On a more academic level, Postmodernism was a form of critical theory that challenged certain assumptions about Modernism. One of the primary assumptions, somewhat ironical, in retrospect, was that Modernism was "elitist" and that its elitism was shaped by notions of quality that were presumably based on aesthetic formalism. Yet given the limited views about Modernism being taught in American art schools throughout the seventies it was no surprise that the generation of artists that evolved into prominence during the eighties were possessed by the overburdening desire to let go of their collectivist "nom du pere" and relinquish the formalism of past decades. At this juncture, Conceptual Art became a code for anything that could be called an "idea" and was fast becoming a radical presence in M.F.A. programs, an alternative to formalism.
At the beginning of the eighties, critical theory -- whether French or German -- became virtually synonymous with Postmodernism . To engage in the so-called "deconstruction" of cultural sign became a fundamental issue in art. Experiencing a work of art was no longer about any degree of heightened emotional awareness. Art was no longer about any degree of heightened emotional awareness. Art was no longer about transformation of one's idea of the world through feeling. In Postmodern terms, art was, at best, an historicist exercise; at worst, a cultural delusion. Desire was considered inferior to information. Initially, critical history was important as a method in coming to terms with the absent "aesthetics" of Neo-Expressionist painting. Gradually, it evolved into something else - an anti-canon to offset the canon of Modernism and the "elitist" conventions of a patriarchal culture.
Advocates of Postmodernism, weaned on the writings of Benjamin, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Barthes, Lyotard, and Baudrillard, began to declare intellectual warfare on "Eurocentric" art suggesting that the latter was merely a representation of a much broader, yet concealed history of western colonialism and imperialist expansion. In such a climate, the term "aesthetics" was no longer useful. What replaced aesthetics - and to some extent, criticism - was a form of applied theory, generally appropriated from philosophy, sociology, and psychoanalysis. For many of those who entered into the art world at the end of the seventies, it was evident that much of the theoretical rhetoric was already firmly established in other fields - namely, literature, cinema studies, and architecture.
By the mid-eighties, a popularized form of critical theory began appearing in various art magazines. Although commercially biased, the rhetoric suggested a reduction of options as to which artists they considered acceptable for publication. One result of this rhetoric was the introduction of the artist as a kind of rock star. Some artists, so inspired by this new model, began hiring assistants and press agents in order ot fashion their image, to re-create themselves in order to appeal to "collectors" who demanded a new mystique. It was as if being an artist was simply a matter of successful publicity and promotion. Art magazines became important promotional vehicles for a new market-driven art-world.
What is commonly called the "art-world" today is less a community of creative people that a detached network of subscribers whose existence depends on a set of precise taxonomical divisions. For varios complex reasons, too many artists are becoming insecure about their current role in society or their direction in becoming in becoming a significant cultural force. Instead of taking a position in response to the "instant effect" art of the nineties, artists are buying into the most superficial, non-thinking aspect of information culture, thus putting themselves in a position of competition with advertising and the most superficial entertainment media. This results in unnecessary pressures less beneficial than frustrating. This is not to imply that social and economic pressures cannot be real. Rather it is to suggest that when careerism becomes an obsessive goal these pressures can become unnecessarily inhibiting in terms of how one functions as an artist. The result is a hardened cynical approach to art, an approach that extends beyond irony. To see the opposite of cynicism one must return to the origin of oneıs emotional strata to see what one is doing and why one is doing it. What is the purpose of oneıs art? Why be an artist? What is the motivation?
These are tough questions. I think they have always been tough questions, but, of course, the present always outweighs the past. We are all up against the present. And part of this alienated present -- what Postmodernism has determined as a outmoded idea of metaphysics -- is a failure of trust. It is a failure to see the common basis that underlies artistic intentionality. Advanced creative expression in this culture is not valued as part of societyıs normative structure. In fact, artists are seen as an idiosyncratic minority.
The splintering of factions within the community of artists at the current moment seems unnecessary and self-defeating. As society has moved from an industrial to a conceptual base, artists are caught within a period of high transition, a new phase of acculturation. In view of this transition, one might ask why so many panels and articles have become fixated on the question of "otherness" when, in effect, the pursuit of art in itself has become societyıs "other." As for these separatist factions within the art world, it appears that the greater sector of our mediated global society does not particularly care. Regardless of the art worldıs perception, the ideological boundaries established within the current discourse are trivial, if not insignificant, among the vast majority of commercial technocrats and other work-a-day professionals. In this isolated context, artists might further ask: Where is the real community? And what kind of audience and support system is available?
I doubt that Postmodernism has changed the way society perceives what artists do. What society understands about advanced art is the mediaıs view of art. This was true with early Modernism and it is true of Postmodernism today. The populist view has no particular regard for either art or artists other than as a political rallying point. The French Situationists made it clear in the sixties. Society wants its spectacles as a diversion from the pain of capitalist exploitation, a diversion from the masochistic lifestyles of a programmed recessionary economy in the late twentieth century. Still, in spite of the media "consensus", it is necessary that artists proceed as if their art mattered, as if their social role offered society a spiritual infusion as opposed to a simulated careerism. If the artistıs role seems illusory, it is still an essential one. Artists cannot sustain their work in a cultural vacuum driven only by fashion, cyber-technology, nostalgia, and cynicism.
I would say that the more accurate use of the term Postmodernism today has less to do with a genre or style of art than it has to do with a condition of culture that effects the way we live in the world today. This is not a new idea, merely one that got derailed largely for the benefit of utilizing rhetoric as a marketing strategy. It would seem more appropriate to let go of this rhetoric in order to claim a more practical application of the term "Postmodernism" -- as a form of acknowledgement in relation to the general conflict between cultural identity and the pressures to become, shall we say, transcultural. This conflict, which is by no means a simple one, implicates such variables as psychological distance, fragmentation of belief, and the suspension of oppositional ideological and economic interests.
One might also cite the perennial information glut as obscuring the trace of historical memory, including aesthetic signification , and displacing it with effects of surreal brutality and violence that cross over between domesticity and public life. These effects are contingent on the cultural variables of everyday life. They are not directly responsible for art, though indirectly they influence the content of art. Art strives to be qualitative through the artist's experience but art cannot solve real life problems. Yet art defines itself in relation to these problems and, increasingly, in relation to their transcultural effects.
Historically, art has been able to sustain itself as a conduit of expression, even under the most difficult and intensely disturbing situations, even in the most underprivileged situations. The individual's struggle to make art under dire circumstances has been, in some cases, one of considerable significance, and often lends itself directly to the content of the artist's work. On the other hand, one cannot ignore middle class privileges as a realty for artists whose external world has proven more fortunate. The luxury of not having to worry about rent, food , and survival is another case. Yet this does not and should not disqualify the significance of an artist's work. Art is a matter of finding the means to intuit meaning.
Whether the struggle is an internal or an external one, there are important artists who are not being shown, promoted, or advertised in the delimited infrastructure of today's "art world". There is a problem when becomes an overtly market-driven enterprise, contingent upon mystique, as it was in the eighties. To make art happen as a vital force despite the rhetoric that supports this mystique, through the sale of escapist spectacles, is to recognize that artists may still have a community in which to muster strength and mutual support. This community may be defined as one that maintains as its basis an open sense of internal critique. It is only through a sense of dialogue within the community that artists can hope to contribute a presence in relation to the cultural context that exists outside.
Over the years - since art has become "radicalized", or rather, acquiescent to theory - some advocates of Postmodernism have tried to diminish the separation between serious art and the wider market-driven "art world" as a conformist phenomenon as if the need for any kind of real dialogue among artists and critics was insignificant. It is precisely the artist's dialogue that offers a spontaneous urgency and a necessary point of resistance to the conditioning processes inherent in an advanced capitalist world. If I understand the message of Joseph Beuys correctly, this is what he advocated in his "social sculpture". For Beuys, the puritanical isolation of the "art world" - based solely on materialism - was a negative force in culture. Instead, he incited the activation of what he called "power fields" with society - and the artists were the instigators.
I would argue that in the most fundamental sense to be an artist is ultimately a task of liberation. This is to suggest that to be an artist in the international sense is not simply about marketing one's logo, but is also about maintaining oneself in opposition to the assumption that the information network carries its own "natural" momentum and will automatically improve life. It would seem that artists cannot escape the ethical responsibility to resist this ominpresent pressure - the wholesale seduction - that the "art world" assumes in its desire for a revisionist informational environment. To be an artist - regardless of how ones success is measured - has always been a matter of intelligence, passion , constraint, shrewdness, and wit. This implies a position of resistance, but not one of denial. The power of art lies in its oblique angle to the accepted cultural norm. Artists define themselves as artists both in terms of their attraction and repulsion to this norm. The crucial issue here is in finding what sustains the necessity of oneıs liberation, because artists will move in relation to this necessity more than in the pursuit of ideas.
Art must be willing to resist what Barthes designated as "the fashion system" or it will gradually deconstruct itself under the guise of political slogans and social codes. In doing so, art will cease to exist as a cultural force of any remarkable consequence. Becoming an artist is a matter of priorities. Again, one must be willing to ask: What is the motivation for doing what one is doing? It is within the context of a community that these priorities can be tested and better understood. Liberation through art is both social and psychological. To this extent, art is a force that resists institutionalization. Art is a force close to life.
While the term Postmodern art may have been useful in architectural theory in the late seventies, it does not fit seamlessly within a generalized discourse on the current situation in art. In fact, Postmodern art does not exist. It is not a style, because its very premise -- being one of historicist appropriation -- refutes style. As a prerequisite to Modernism, the concept of style can no longer bear the weight of Postmodernism. The only reason to discus style in the nineties in the nineties is to offer another marketing device to sell inferior art. Inferior art? Put another way, the concept of style has often been used to sell derivative art that lacks insight, force, and qualitative significance To clarify: We are not talking about an individual artistıs historical orientation or approach to art-making; rather we are talking about the imposition of a nuance or a maneuver or a politicized theme. It is a problem that could relate as much to formalist Modernism as to neo-Conceptualism. It is an overdetermined method that tries to deny its sources and, in doing so, merely becomes another marketing device -- a metonym for advanced capital.
Postmodernism signifies repetition within the reification of objects. In such a cultural climate -- fraught with cybertechical gadgets -- the current "art world" constitutes an abundance of signs caught within a tautological system of privileged referents. The same signs get repeated; thus, there is no forward motion. Yet there is an illusion of stasis. There are few cause and effect relationships of any consequence associated with the intent This is one of the fundamental problems with regard to art made for the internet. The experiential dimension is limited to the program, and the program is finite to the extent that the variables are only as good as the moment they were determined. At this juncture, I would have to conclude that the vast majority of art on the internet is merely another aspect of formalism that employs electronics instead of canvas.
This is not to discount the spectacular effects of visual culture as induced by computer interactive programs. The question being raised here is more about the lingering effect of these images. It would seem that the force of ideas in art has largely depended on what might be called the tactility of the image. The exceptions that I have seen are largely related to video installations where the interactive aspect of the work is truly an engagement with the immediate space where one is situated; but this is a much larger, speculative issue than I have time to address in this paper.
Just as images of the Rock star Madonna have the apparent power to replace sex with the signs of sex, so art has been given a surrogate status in relation to theory. Put another way, art has come to play second fiddle to another level of rhetorical justification. The signs of art exist in a state of flotation - automatist signifiers within a non-context of a burgeoning commercial cyberspace. The endgame is directed toward purchases that are made to vanis the very instant we dial the toll-free number. Instead of art, we are receiving the very signs of art - signs that lead nowhere, signs without certainty. One could argue that this paradigm describes the condition of society as it has come to frame corporate culture. In this sense, we might argue that the Postmodern condition exists, but not Postmodern art. The substitution of packaging, in the Postmodern sense, has been mistakenly correlated with a Modernist style and has contributed, in large part, to an over-informed and under-educated art audience. Postmodernists, of course, disclaim the Modernist notion of the indelible trace of the artist's mind as having any relevance to today's visual culture - again, another topic for another time.
Postmodern culture is the rule, the predictable spectacle, the cycle fo entertainment and arousal, all aspects of predictability, that artists must be willing to both accept and finally reject. Artists are both transformers and resistors, capable of recognizing themselves both as de-centered and as re-centered subjects. Being an artist is a matter of trying to locate ones position in Postmodern culture. It requires an inner-directed sense of reality, one that resists the loss of self-esteem. The artist's identity is contingent on a functional dialectical means, not a fationalized programming. The challenge for the artist is to rejuvenate the aura in art and thereby to re-discover the transmission of the creative impulse. In contrast to the more utopian aspects of Modernism, artists today may become socially and politically involved not within an isolated and paranoid cultism, but involved with a community of artists willing to question the assumptions wrought by Postmodern culture. Being an artist has the ethical dimension, in the Spinozoan sense, of attending to specifics first and of avoiding the generalized moral imperatives of a puritan social taxonomy.
For the inner-directed artist, skepticism will come to replace cynicism in art. To be skeptical is to have a necessary aesthetic distance in relation to one's practice. To be cynical is to serve detachment in relation to one's experience with a work of art. In latter case, art is negatively transformed into a system of politicized representations. Cynicism assumes privilege as the condition of art without ever confronting the effect of privilege in relation to content. Privilege often disguises itself through arrogance and projection.
The dialogue between artists will become essential to the task of identifying the evolving possibilities for art in the future. Certainly the internet is one way of facilitating communication within a globalized context. Yet artists should exercise caution. The digital dialogue is important if it allows experience to be articulated an if it further opens the door to a critical discussion on the qualitative standard in art. Quality in art can no longer be dismissedm and it can no longer be confused with privilege. It is a matter of a heightened sensory cognition, and it is for this reason that the notion of quality will persist. It will persist as an informed subjective idea. The experience of art cannot be proven, but it can be communicated. I would suggest that being an artist today is to offer a purposeful and deeply intuitive resistance to the enormous influx of cultural programming that has become an assumed liability on the informational superhighway. This alone should be enough for artists to insist in an independent, yet interactive position in the world. Why? Because I still believe that artists make the future possible through the determination of their owm deeply personal creative efforts.
This paper is based on a talk given in the Graduate School of the School of te Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on December 13, 1994. The intial idea evolved from a short statement that I prepared for M/E/A/N/I/N/G, issue #15 (Spring 1994). the title given to this essay was appropriated, more or less, from an early essay by the Surrealist poet, Phillipe Soupalt
Copyright ©1996 Robert C. Morgan All Rights Reserved
Robert C. Morgan is an international critic, artist, art historian, curator, and poet.
He is the author of Commentaries on the New Media Arts (Umbrella Associates, 1992), After the Deluge: Essays for Art in the Nineties (Red Bass Publications, 1993), Conceptual Art: An American Perspective (McFarland, 1994), and Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art (Cambridge University Press, 1996) and Between Modernism and Conceptual Art (McFarland, forthcoming 1997). He is a Professor of the History and Theory of Art at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a Visiting Professor at Pratt Institute and the School of Visiting Arts in New York. Dr. Morgan lectures regularly and is a frequent panelist on a variety of contemporary issues in art.