Stephen Hicks, whom we met at a friend’s home few months ago, wrote this excellent essay. Here he provides the background on how modernism began the descent into ugliness:
“By the beginning of the twentieth century, the nineteenth-century intellectual world’s sense of disquiet had become a full-blown anxiety. The artists responded, exploring in their works the implications of a world in which reason, dignity, optimism, and beauty seemed to have disappeared.
The new theme was: Art must be a quest for truth, however brutal, and not a quest for beauty. So the question became: What is the truth of art?
The first major claim of modernism is a content claim: a demand for a recognition of the truth that the world is not beautiful. The world is fractured, decaying, horrifying, depressing, empty, and ultimately unintelligible.
That claim by itself is not uniquely modernist, though the number of artists who signed onto that claim is uniquely modernist. Some past artists had believed the world to be ugly and horrible—but they had used the traditional realistic forms of perspective and color to say this. The innovation of the early modernists was to assert that form must match content. Art should not use the traditional realistic forms of perspective and color because those forms presuppose an orderly, integrated, and knowable reality.
Edvard Munch got there first (The Scream, 1893): If the truth is that reality is a horrifying, disintegrating swirl, then both form and content should express the feeling. Pablo Picasso got there second (Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907): If the truth is that reality is fractured and empty, then both form and content must express that. Salvador Dali’s surrealist paintings go a step further: If the truth is that reality is unintelligible, then art can teach this lesson by using realistic forms against the idea that we can distinguish objective reality from irrational, subjective dreams.”
He then goes on to explain the collapse of modernism by 1970, at which point artists were already going weird (as explained below, an artist had already sold a can of his own excrement to a British museum for $40,000), and the descent into postmodernism began, which is where “art” remains to this day. After reading this, you’ll see why we need to re-create beauty in the world:
“Postmodernism’s Four Themes
Where could art go after death of modernism? Postmodernism did not go, and has not gone, far. It needed some content and some new forms, but it did not want to go back to classicism, romanticism, or traditional realism.
As it had at the end of the nineteenth century, the art world reached out and drew upon the broader intellectual and cultural context of the late 1960s and 1970s. It absorbed the trendiness of Existentialism’s absurd universe, the failure of Positivism’s reductionism, and the collapse of socialism’s New Left. It connected to intellectual heavyweights such as Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, and it took its cue from their abstract themes of antirealism, deconstruction, and their heightened adversarial stance to Western culture. From those themes, postmodernism introduced four variations on modernism.
First, postmodernism re-introduced content—but only self-referential and ironic content. As with philosophical postmodernism, artistic postmodernism rejected any form of realism and became anti-realist. Art cannot be about reality or nature—because, according to postmodernism, “reality” and “nature” are merely social constructs. All we have are the social world and its social constructs, one of those constructs being the world of art.So, we may have content in our art as long as we talk self-referentially about the social world of art.
Secondly, postmodernism set itself to a more ruthless deconstruction of traditional categories that the modernists had not fully eliminated. Modernism had been reductionist, but some artistic targets remained.
For example, stylistic integrity had always been an element of great art, and artistic purity was one motivating force within modernism. So, one postmodern strategy has been to mix styles eclectically in order to undercut the idea of stylistic integrity. An early postmodern example in architecture, for example, is Philip Johnson’s AT&T (now Sony) building in Manhattan—a modern skyscraper that could also be a giant eighteenth-century Chippendale cabinet. The architectural firm of Foster & Partners designed the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation headquarters (1979-86)—a building that could also be the bridge of a ship, complete with mock anti-aircraft guns, should the bank ever need them. Friedensreich Hundertwasser’sHouse (1986) in Vienna is more extreme—a deliberate slapping together of glass skyscraper, stucco, and occasional bricks, along with oddly placed balconies and arbitrarily sized windows, and completed with a Russian onion dome or two.
If we put the above two strategies together, then postmodern art will come to be both self-referential and destructive. It will be an internal commentary on the social history of art, but a subversive one. Here there is a continuity from modernism. Picasso took one of Matisse’s portraits of his daughter—and used it as a dartboard, encouraging his friends to do the same. Duchamp’sL.H.O.O.Q. (1919) is a rendition of the Mona Lisa with a cartoonish beard and moustache added. Rauschenberg erased a de Kooning work with a heavy wax pencil. In the 1960s, a gang led by George Maciunas performed Philip Corner’s Piano Activities (1962)—which called for a number of men with implements of destruction such as band saws and chisels to destroy a grand piano. Niki de Saint Phalle’s Venus de Milo (1962, Figure 8) is a life-size plaster-on-chickenwire version of the classic beauty filled with bags of red and black paint; Saint Phalle then took a rifle and fired upon the Venus, puncturing the statue and the bags of paint to a splattered effect.
Saint Phalle’s Venus links us to the third postmodern strategy. Postmodernism allows one to make content statements as long as they are about social reality and not about an alleged natural or objective reality and—here is the variation—as long as they are narrower race/class/sex statements rather than pretentious, universalist claims about something called The Human Condition. Postmodernism rejects a universal human nature and substitutes the claim that we are all constructed into competing groups by our racial, economic, ethnic, and sexual circumstances. Applied to art, this postmodern claim implies that there are no artists, only hyphenated artists: black-artists, woman-artists, homosexual-artists, poor-Hispanic-artists, and so on.
Conceptual artist Frederic’s PMS piece from the 1990s is helpful here in providing a schema. The piece is textual, a black canvas with the following words in red:
WHAT CREATES P.M.S. IN WOMEN?
Let us start with Power and consider race. Jane Alexander’s Butcher Boys (1985-86) is an appropriately powerful piece about white power. Alexander places three South African white figures on a bench. Their skin is ghostly or corpse-like white, and she gives them monster heads and heart-surgery scars suggesting their heartlessness. But all three of them are sitting casually on the bench—they could be waiting for a bus or watching the passers-by at a mall. Her theme is the banality of evil: Whites don’t even recognize themselves for the monsters they are.
Now for Money. There is the long-standing rule in modern art that one should never say anything kind about capitalism. From Andy Warhol’s criticisms of mass-produced capitalist culture we can move easily to Jenny Holzer‘s Private Property Created Crime (1982). In the center of world capitalism—New York’s Times Square—Holzer combined conceptualism with social commentary in an ironically clever manner by using capitalism’s own media to subvert it. German artist Hans Haacke’sFreedom is now simply going to be sponsored—out of petty cash (1991) is another monumental example. While the rest of the world was celebrating the end of brutality behind the Iron Curtain, Haacke erected a huge Mercedes-Benz logo atop a former East German guard tower. Men with guns previously occupied that tower—but Haacke suggests that all we are doing is replacing the rule of the Soviets with the equally heartless rule of the corporations.
Now for Sex. Saint Phalle’s Venus can do double-duty here. We can interpret the rifle that shoots into the Venus as a phallic tool of dominance, in which case Saint-Phalle’s piece can be seen as a feminist protest of male destruction of femininity. Mainstream feminist art includes Barbara Kruger’s posters and room-size exhibits in bold black and red with angry faces yelling politically correct slogans about female victimization—art as a poster at a political rally. Jenny Saville’s Branded (1992, Figure 10) is a grotesque self-portrait: Against any conception of female beauty, Saville asserts that she will be distended and hideous—and shove it in your face.
An art exhibition in 2000 asked patrons to place a goldfish in a blender and then turn the blender on.
The fourth and final postmodern variation on modernism is a more ruthless nihilism. The above, while focused on the negative, are still dealing with important themes of power, wealth, and justice toward women. How can we eliminate more thoroughly any positivity in art? As relentlessly negative as modern art has been, what has not been done?
Entrails and blood: An art exhibition in 2000 asked patrons to place a goldfish in a blender and then turn the blender on—art as life reduced to indiscriminate liquid entrails. Marc Quinn’s Self (1991) is the artist’s own blood collected over the course of several months and molded into a frozen cast of his head. That is reductionism with a vengeance.
Unusual sex: Alternate sexualities and fetishes have been pretty much worked over during the twentieth century. But until recently art has not explored sex involving children. Eric Fischl’s Sleepwalker (1979) shows a pubescent boy masturbating while standing naked in a kiddie pool in the backyard. Fischl’s Bad Boy (1981) shows a boy stealing from his mother’s purse and looking at his naked mother who is sleeping with her legs sprawled. If we have read our Freud, however, perhaps this is not very shocking. So we move on to Paul McCarthy’s Cultural Gothic (1992-93) and the theme of bestiality. In this life-size, moving exhibit, a young boy stands behind a goat that he is violating. Here we have more than child sexuality and sex with animals, however: McCarthy adds some cultural commentary by having the boy’s father present and resting his hands paternally on the boy’s shoulders while the boy thrusts away.
A preoccupation with urine and feces: Again, postmodernism continues a longstanding modernist tradition. After Duchamp’s urinal, Kunst ist Scheisse (“Art is shit”) became, fittingly, the motto of the Dada movement. In the 1960s Piero Manzoni canned, labeled, exhibited and sold ninety tins of his own excrement (in 2002, a British museum purchased can number 68 for about $40,000). Andres Serrano generated controversy in the 1980s with his Piss Christ, a crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist’s urine. In the 1990s Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1996)portrayed the Madonna as surrounded by disembodied genitalia and chunks of dried feces. In 2000 Yuan Cai and Jian Jun Xi paid homage to their master, Marcel Duchamp. Fountainis now at the Tate Museum in London, and during regular museum hours Yuan and Jian unzipped and proceeded to urinate on Duchamp’s urinal. (The museum’s directors were not pleased, but Duchamp would be proud of his spiritual children.) And there is G. G. Allin, the self-proclaimed performance artist who achieved his fifteen minutes by defecating on stage and flinging his feces into the audience.
So again we have reached a dead end: From Duchamp’s Piss on art at the beginning of the century to Allin’s Shit on you at the end—that is not a significant development over the course of a century.”
Hicks goes on to explain the need for a revival of beauty and meaning, but it is obvious to me :) And that is one of my deeper purposes in life.