Modernism Vs Postmodernism

.. views on the importance of representations, historical context and signifying practice. These include critiques of: gender and ethnic difference; the supposed importance of originality, authorial status and allied issues; and historical narratives. Cindy Sherman’s work provides relevant examples of these critiques. Her series of self-portraits showing her in different roles use photography rather than the more ‘artisanal’ medium of painting.

Some of her pictures take their images from cinema, pointing to the stereotyped representation of women in that medium (e.g. No.13, pl.74). Others use images from ‘old master’ paintings: No.228 (pl.72) shows her in the role of Judith with the head of Holofernes, and draws attention to a complex series of ideas, including feminist interest in masquerade and the exploitation of male desire, and (by means of the obviously fake, humorously grotesque severed head) the constructed artificiality of representation. Her use of numbers rather than titles may be an ironic reference to the similar practice of canonically Modernist painters such as Pollock. Sherman ‘wanted to imitate something out of the culture, and also make fun of the culture as I was doing it’ (Modernism in Dispute, p,82) Her work thus connects with and critiques the ‘history of representations’ of women, the nature of art as a medium and, by using a replicable method, photography, together with a reworking of existing images, ideas about originality. It can be seen as an example of art ‘centred on a medium but certainly not bounded by it’. A similar range of issues is raised by artists whose work, by its use of consumer durables, spans the boundaries between avant garde art and kitsch, thereby transgressing one of the fundamental tenets of Greenbergian modernism, the clear distinction between ‘high art’ and ‘mass culture’.

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Although the work of Jeff Koons, which includes displaying vacuum cleaners in a perspex showcase (pl.202) can be seen as postmodernist, it could be connected both with the work of pop artists such as Richard Hamilton (e.g. $he, pl. 149) and the ‘readymades’ of Duchamp. Koons’ work, however, fits with Burgin’s view of art as ‘a set of operations in a field of signifying practices’. His use of consumer durables as art relates to Baudrillard’s ideas about living in ‘a world of representations, of consumption, of media images, of shifting surfaces and styles’ (Modernism in Dispute, p,241) (where individuals are defined by the types of commodities they possess). By appropriating objects and displaying them as art, Koons critiques the Modernist idea of art as essentially original. His use of commodities as art is also interesting in relation to the commodification of Abstract Expressionist paintings, which were advocated as a sound financial investment in the early 1950s.

The variety of work produced by Koons raises an issue not explicitly mentioned by Burgin, the eclecticism often associated with postmodernism. This, and its occasionally ephemeral nature (as in the case of Puppy, made of flowers) relates more closely to Jameson’s sense of the postmodern as involving ‘superficiality’ and ‘deathlessness’ (Art in Theory, p.1077). There are other issues relevant to postmodernism to which Burgin does not directly refer, such as: a critical approach to the exhibitions and museums system, which has lead to alternative ways of presenting works of art; a tendency to pastiche or parody of earlier works of art; and, in some instances, the necessity of active involvement by the viewer. While Burgin’s statement does not emphasise these points, they are illustrated by his own work. What does Possession mean to you (pl.

189) uses a glossy advertising-style photograph which is placed in the context of a caption about the ownership of wealth to put a different, socio-political perspective on the image, calling into question issues of gender dominance and property ownership and thus critiquing social norms. It was exhibited not as a single ‘artwork’ in a gallery, but in a set of ‘500 copies posted in the streets of the centre of Newcastle-upon-Tyne’. The replication of the image and its display on the streets can be seen as critical both of the idea of the importance of orginality and of the exhibitions and museums system. A decoupling of art from the established methods of presenting it to the public seems to be characteristic of postmodernism, and is also exemplified by developments such as the Land Art of Richard Long and Robert Smithson, and the public projections of Krystof Wodiczko. These images, for instance his projection of hands holding prison bars onto a courthouse (pl.D71), function, like Burgin’s poster, as socio-political commentary and also share with it the ephemeral quality mentioned in relation to Koons.

Work by Burgin such as ‘Any moment previous to the present moment’ (pl.169), which consists of text from which the viewer/reader has to construct his/her own image, highlights both Burgin’s view of the importance of concepts in postmodernist art, and the tendency within postmodernist art to invite the viewer to sustained active participation in the work of art. This is in direct opposition to the passive contemplation advocated by Modernist critics such as Fried who, in Art and Objecthood, claims that good art should be ‘instantaneously present’. This idea of the importance of ‘presentness’ is contradicted by the title of Burgin’s article, ‘The absence of presence’. Taking Burgin’s statement as a point of departure, it is possible to connect postmodern ideas to a diverse range of works of art, which are in turn associated with a series of contemporary concepts and concerns. While Burgin provides a means of distinguishing postmodernism from Modernism in art, there remains the problem of how to, or indeed whether, one ought to distinguish qualitatively between different postmodernist works. If social relevance is a characteristic of postmodernism, then degree or accuracy of social relevance may be used as an evaluative tool; however, as Harrison and Wood have pointed out (see Modernism in Dispute, p.240) radically critical work may become marginalised and lose its ability to challenge.

Furthermore, if the main impact of a work depends on its contemporary relevance, it is likely to lose conceptual value with the passage of time; Haacke’s The Safety Net (pl.D24) borrows its meaning from contemporary politics rather than conforming with Greenberg’s idea of art as self-defining, and is hence now arguably of historic rather than artistic interest. The aesthetic of Greenbergian Modernism may never recover a dominant position within art history but, as Harrison and Wood have suggested, ‘the contingency of the historical is only half the point of art’. Arts and Paintings.


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