Postmodernism, an art movement that doesn’t really exist?
In the past, when someone decided that they wanted to be an artist, it was usually because they liked to draw and paint or sculpt and thought they were good at it. Learning to be a good artist always meant primarily learning how to be better at drawing, painting or sculpting.
This is not the case nowadays. It is still true that many artists begin their journey as children when they first pick up a crayon and draw. However, many of those who complete fine art degrees at university do not spend a high proportion of their time studying what used to be considered the basic skills of the artist. Rather, if they complete a fine arts degree, they have very likely lost the desire to draw under the influence of their art-school education. Typically contemporary art students are told that they must conform to a worldview that rejects the values that underlie traditional art and abandon traditional methods altogether. Those who resist will not do well unless they can persuade their teachers that their use of drawing skill is in pursuit of ‘irony’. If they use their art to mock those traditions then they will be permitted to flourish.
This description is a generalization of the situation today, but to a greater or lesser extent it is true for most art schools that participate in the modern university system. The highest praise that the teacher and critics can give an artist is that he ‘challenges established norms’ (here meaning Christian and Judeo-Christian values). So, for example, any artist who expresses, through his work, an unorthodox approach (from a Christian point of view) to sexual morality will be praised for doing so, especially if his art has the power to shock conservatively minded people.
A typical example of work consistent with these ideas is by the British artist, Chris Ofili who was born in 1968. In 1999 a painting of his was part of an exhibition shown in New York City. It was a Madonna described by Wikipedia as follows:
On a yellow-orange background, the large painting (8 feet high and 6 feet wide) depicts a black woman wearing a blue robe, a traditional attribute of the Virgin Mary. The work employs mixed media, including oil paint, glitter, and polyester resin, and also elephant dung, map pins and collaged pornographic images. The central Black Madonna is surrounded by many collaged images that resemble butterflies at first sight, but on closer inspection are photographs of female genitalia; an ironic reference to the putti that appear in traditional religious art. A lump of dried, varnished elephant dung forms one bared breast, and the painting is displayed leaning against the gallery wall, supported by two other lumps of elephant dung, decorated with coloured pins: the pins on the left are arranged to spell out “Virgin” and the one on the right “Mary”.
A distorted image of the Virgin Mary adorned with pornography and elephant dung was clearly intended to deride Christian values. I have read accounts of comments by the artist that, along with everything else, he thought the depiction of Virgin Mary as a black woman did this too. If so this was a mistake on his part, given the tradition of the portrayal of black and brown skinned Madonnas in both Orthodox and Catholic Churches.
Initially Ofili’s painting did not attract much attention. This all changed, however, when the then mayor of New York, Rudi Guiliani publicly objected to it. His discomfort and the wider interest it generated, combined with the fact that Christians and conservatives who were now aware of it also hated it, delighted the art world. The fact that Ofili had succeeded in baiting such people gave his work new value in their eyes. As a result of the publicity it attracted, Ofili’s painting was quickly snapped up by a collector and it was sold in 2015 by Christie’s for $4.6M before being given to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The artist himself was elevated into the mainstream of the art establishment as a result. He would go on to win the Turner Art Prize – one of the most prestigious awards the British art establishment can bestow, to become a member of the Royal Academy, and to sit on the board of the Tate Modern gallery in London.
What is the basis of the philosophy of this particular brand of anti-traditionalism that Ofili typifies? It is often characterized as postmodernism. The Tate Modern website tells us that artistic postmodernism started to catch on around 1970 and defines it as ‘a reaction against the ideas and values of modernism, as well as a description of the period that followed modernism’s dominance in cultural theory and practice in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. The term is associated with scepticism, irony and philosophical critiques of the concepts of universal truths and objective reality’.
This, it seems to me, is somewhat disingenuous because it does not tell the full story. While artists today do challenge the principle of objective truth and any institution based upon that principle such as mainstream religion, they are certainly not even-handed about it. It is Christianity and especially the Church over and above all other religions (with the possible exception of orthodox Judaism) that is targeted. Similarly, while all natural science is founded on the principle of objective truth, there seems to be a selective approach to their challenges to the scientific establishment too. Rarely do we see ‘postmodern’ artists attacking such politically fashionable scientific hypotheses as anthropogenic climate change or Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The driving principle behind the contemporary art movement is not, in fact, post-modernism as it is described by Tate Modern, but rather the latest iteration of Marxism called Critical Theory.
Marxism originated as a materialist, pseudo scientific method of inquiry made in the 19th century by Karl Marx, therefore it is part of the ‘modernity’ that the contemporary art movement claims to be a reaction to. It was first known as ‘scientific socialism’ because it claimed a methodology that applied the principles of analysis of natural science to history in order to predict the future of society. By tracing the chain of events in history and applying the laws of cause-and-effect, Marxists predict a Utopian future in which all human needs are met. The necessary causal influence for change that pushes mankind on to its final destiny is in their view, violence. The violence that will bring about the desired change is, they claim, the product of an ongoing struggle between oppressor classes and the oppressed that will lead first to the total destruction of present society, and then the rise of a utopia out of the ashes.
In this scenario the oppressors fight to maintain the status quo which benefits them, and the oppressed fight to destroy it. Building on ideas developed by the German philosopher Hegel, this ‘dialectic’ of opposites, oppressors and the oppressed, is not seen as a harmonious process of resolution by discussion, but rather one that can only be resolved by the victory of the oppressed over their oppressors. Violent conflict is seen therefore as a necessary component to its resolution.
This is not a political movement that seeks to change modern society into one that is more just. Rather, it is an ideology, a cultish, pseudo-religion that seeks the total destruction of the present society so that a fresh start can be made. There is however, no template for what this new society will look like, for it is assumed that it will emerge naturally from human interactions free from the traditions of the past.
Part 2 to come: Marxism and Critical Theory in the culture.