By Tom Wachunas
“Postmodernism: The cultural condition marked by the absolute gratification of human desires and the absolute neglect of human needs.” ― Peter K. Fallon
“Amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatans.” – Noam Chomsky
“Postmodernity is said to be a culture of fragmentary sensations, eclectic nostalgia, disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality, in which the traditionally valued qualities of depth, coherence, meaning, originality, and authenticity are evacuated or dissolved amid the random swirl of empty signals.” ― Jean Baudrillard
Leave it to the French to come up with memorably lofty expressions of disapproval. The above quote from social and cultural critic Jean Baudillard is a fine example – “…disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality…the random swirl of empty signals.” Such elevated language! And who could forget the hilariously messy confrontation between English knights and French soldiers in the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” wherein one irritated Frenchman sneers at his enemies from high atop his castle wall, “I fart in your general direction.” Precious. Stretch the context a bit, and that snooty epithet could arguably describe the mindset of not only many viewers but also makers of contemporary art.
Speaking of Frenchmen with an attitude, there’s Marcel Duchamp and his 1917 Fountain – a porcelain urinal offered as a work of art. I have often commented on this work as one man’s intentional crossing into utterly new and rocky aesthetic terrain – a harbinger of Modernism’s radical redefining of art.
Signed “R. Mutt 1917” in black, like so much scrawling on lavatory walls, the work always suggested to me just how pissed off, so to speak, Duchamp was at the impotence and irrelevance of the sacrosanct idealizations touted by the academic art world. For that matter, so were many other upstart European artists at that time as well as during the previous 50 or 60 years.
All of the above is by way of setting up a breach of my self-imposed blogging protocol to tell you something about my piece currently on view in the Stark County Artists Exhibition at Massillon Museum. While it’s called A Brief History of Modern Art, in retrospect the overarching “message” of my 3D drawing would be largely unchanged had I inserted “Postmodernism” in place of “Modern Art.” This is because I regard Postmodernism, an open-ended, catch-all term generally designating contemporary culture after 1970 or so, not as embracing anything “original” (and only superficially “new”), but rather as deconstructing and/or re-assessing the 20th century philosophies and cultural practices (which were in turn largely reactionary in nature) that preceded it. I think of Postmodernism as if it were the complicated, even troubled stepchild that views parent Modernism like an ordinary found object.
So yes, my piece is derivative, but what art isn’t these days? (I can see right now that another post will be needed to further explain my thoughts on originality.) I incorporated three nearly identical vacuum cleaner undercarriages not necessarily as a snarky code for “modern art sucks,” though I can fully appreciate how such an association could be made, as a few folks have suggested recently. I simply found their convoluted forms to be visually intriguing and otherwise appropriate abstract symbols of the complex ideas embodied in Modernism/Postmodernism.
Retracing all those intersecting and abutted shapes, volumes and planes with graphite on the middle unit – drawing on top of the pre-existing drawing, as it were – represents a dominant tendency in contemporary art toward recapitulating itself into a kind of Classicism in its own right, like sculpting in marble. Hence the faux stone effect of the unit on the right.
These words from around 3,000 years ago come to mind: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here before our time…” (Ecclesiastes 1: 9-10)
Quo vadimus… where does our art (my own included) go from here? I’ve no idea. But wherever it is, I’m fairly sure it’ll be déjà vu all over again.
TOP PHOTO: Fountain by Marcel Duchamp