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Why Postmodern Art is Vacant

Andy Warhol was and still is arguably the most recognisable face of modern art. His pieces sell for hundreds of millions, and to find one of his works at a garage sale or flea market would set you up for a very comfortable retirement. With his thick retro glasses and lustrous platinum wigs the man was the epitome of the avant-garde. The central function of his work and the work of his contemporaries was to jumble together high and low culture, to claim them as equal to each other, and to challenge our notion of what really was “worthwhile art.” Building on the work of the early conceptual artists from the turn of the last century, he tore asunder the old ideas of traditional aesthetic value, stating through his pieces that there can only be interpretation and that all works are of equivalent value.

However, when he died in February 1987 the world got a real look at Andy Warhol and what he really considered to be “worthwhile art.” Behind the doors of his neo-classical townhouse the rooms were not furnished by piles of Brillo boxes or indeed stacks of soup cans but objects of a rather different style. Classical busts sat on mahogany tables, portraits lined the walls, and on many surfaces sat fine antiques. Warhol had chosen to adorn his house with pieces that had stood the test of time, pieces that followed the old rules on aesthetic value, but most importantly pieces that would have been shunned in the art world he had created and dominated.

In his defence, like any shady salesman he knew not to use his own shoddy merchandise, he was at least honest with himself (if not with his public). Warhol was a salesman before he was an artist, as he hinted when he said, “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” This telling remark represents the mantra of the modern artist: willing to expose society’s greed, consumerism, and corruption so long as he receives generous compensation for doing so. The contradictions of Andy Warhol’s public and private tastes, along with the inherent contradictions present in modern art, expose it for what it really is – a fraudulent enterprise that does not stand up to close scrutiny; a con perpetrated by talentless hacks and the elitist snobs who give them both funds and oxygen.

The fact is that from the time of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal to Damien Hirst’s pickled shark and beyond, the only people able to afford these modern art pieces have been the elite. An elite who, afraid they might fall behind the latest trend, nod their approval at a giant sculpture of a pair of buttocks (a Turner Prize-nominee), eager to show that they, like their elite friends but unlike the masses, “understand.”

Yet, modern art is still portrayed as being avant-garde, defying trends, and sticking it to the establishment. The people who buy these pieces are the very trend-setters it claims to rebel against. A quick look at who is actually purchasing these works shows celebrities like Madonna, Jay Z and Brad Pitt, tycoons like the Russian Billionaire Roman Abramovich, and advertising moguls like Charles Saatchi. Modern art is not anti-establishment: it is the establishment. On occasions when these works actually come into contact with real people, their judgement is unequivocal. In 2001, a Damien Hirst exhibit was thrown out by cleaners who mistook the beer bottles, coffee cups, and ashtrays for rubbish.

Damien Hirst installation

There are dozens more such instances. The cleaners of these galleries should be praised and not scolded, for they have displayed a firmer grasp of art than most critics, and appear to be the only ones willing to notice that the Emperor is naked.

The whole modern art scene has become stale; the ugliness, the obsession with the scatological, and the gratuitous levels of sexually explicit content are now tiresome clichés. While conceptual artists no doubt like to see themselves as being experimental, revolutionary, and unorthodox they have simply become boring. From painting with it (The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili) to tinning it (Artist’s Shit by Piero Manzoni), the uses of faeces has well and truly been exhausted by these charlatans. Pieces that were once seen as shocking no longer shock, the taboo has been broken, displaying a sexual explicit piece is now no more revolutionary than painting a bowl of fruit.

Not only are they dull and predictable, but the artistic skill of many of the big names in contemporary art is suspect. Behind the grandiose pieces and the attention grabbing works created purely for shock value lies a very important question: “Where is the skill and ability in all this?” No skill is required to place a rotting cows head in a glass cube with an insect-o-cutor (A Thousand Years by Damien Hirst). No ability is needed to set up a room with a light that switches on and off (Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off by Martin Creed, a work that won him the Turner Prize). It is most probably the case that the electrician who installed said lights and the abattoir worker who severed the cow’s head possess more skill and expertise than either Mr. Hirst or Mr. Creed.

In a 2015 interview with the BBC about his forthcoming exhibition involving marble carvings, Hirst was confronted by the interviewer with the charge that he does not make many of his pieces. Hirst replied that: “to carve one of these structures takes two years, and it’s like, I haven’t got time to learn to carve. But I know exactly what I want, and I want it to look perfect and I can make it perfect using these guys” (referring to a team of sculptors he had employed). He finished by stating, “It’s never been a problem for me in art and I don’t think it’s a problem…I mean it’s amazing that we’re having this conversation really.”

Michelangelo’s Pieta, carved by his own hands, took two years to create and was the result of thousands of hours of anatomical study. Mr. Hirst’s remark that he, “hasn’t got time to learn to carve” is symptomatic of what is wrong with modern art. His incredulity at having been asked such a question by a philistinic BBC interviewer is palpable. It is almost beneath him. Why should he – Damien Hirst, multi-millionaire darling of the art world! – waste his time doing something so trivial, so menial as actually crafting his creations?

A nonsense has dominated modern art theory (insomuch as there is a theory) that, after the horrors of two World Wars, a return to conveying the beautiful, the sublime, and the transcendent would be fruitless, unfeeling, and in some way would serve to whitewash history. As Theodore Adorno, one of the most prominent cultural critics of the Frankfurt school, declared, “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”

This is piffle. It is true that nothing could match the scale of the Holocaust for organized brutality or the Somme for mindless loss of life. However, the Renaissance saw large scale wars across Italy and Europe between warring Kingdoms and city states, disease was widespread, and poverty was grinding. Yet in the midst of all this horror and death Italy and Europe underwent a cultural flourishing that yielded some of the greatest artistic masterpieces man has ever created. Late gothic art produced glorious carvings, panel paintings, frescos, sculptures and manuscripts in the years after the black death swept through Europe killing between 75-200 million people in a mere seven years. To somehow suggest that Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” is any less captivating or magnificent post-1945 or post-1918 than it was pre-1939 or pre-1914 is fatuous.

To claim that the old aesthetic orthodoxies became obsolete after the horrors of the World Wars demonstrates a complete lack of historical knowledge and context. Such claims are a kind of virtue signalling. Those who made them wished to show how distressed they were with the state of affairs – that they felt so deeply they were no longer able to see beauty or form in the world. But it is precisely during or in the immediate aftermath of war that art and all it provides–beauty, consolation, affirmation, a feeling of transcendence–is most needed. Yet modern artists see fit only to contribute to the ugliness and desecration.

Marcel Duchamp famously pencilled facial hair on the Mona Lisa in the immediate aftermath of World War I. His Dada movement arose as a symptom of post WWI discontent with its obsession for readymade pieces that were literally any old bit of rubbish the artist found lying around. In 1921 Duchamp’s “created” a piece entitled Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy? which consisted of 152 marble sugar cubes placed in a birdcage with a thermometer and a cuttlefish bone. He claimed he was producing these works in opposition to what he called “retinal art” art that was created merely to be pretty. He, on the other hand, was creating art, “in service to the mind.” How much of a “service” the above piece is to the mind remains an open question.

Paintings by Richard Jack and William Barnes Wollen convey the futility, the chaos and the brutality of WWI using traditional means. As for the Holocaust, one need only look at the paintings displayed at Yad Vashem in Israel, created by the inhabitants of the European ghettos and camp survivors. The works cross a broad range of styles yet most stay within the bounds of traditional aesthetic taste and form and aptly depict the misery and hopelessness of the camps and ghettos. Charlotte Buresova did not resort to gimmicks or rubbish-filled bird cages. Despite being imprisoned in the Terezin camp, she still drew pieces that showed the humanity of those around her. She and her fellow Holocaust surviving artists are a testament to the fact that, contrary to Adorno’s assertion, beauty and consolation can be achieved long after the cannons have fallen silent and despite the horrors witnessed and perpetrated.

It is foolish to say that this breakdown in realism and art in general can be put down to the traumatic events of the first half of the 20th century. Something much more nuanced appears to have been at work. The Dadaists and those who thought like them went through and came out of the wars convinced that the old techniques and traditions were now redundant and to be thrown on the bonfire. They rejected the old ideas convinced that the world was forever in flux and that it was time to start anew in an era were this flux was to be embraced. Objectivity was no more. Everything and anything could now be considered art, and everything was as good as anything else.

Intriguingly, there is another movement that broadly mirrors the development of Dadaism: that of the Postmodernists, more specifically the ‘Frankfurt School.’ Like the Dadaists, their genesis was in the interwar years but also like the Dadaists their influence really only started to be felt in the post-War years. They too came out of the first half of the 20th century traumatised. They were appalled by the rise of fascism, but also crestfallen at the failure of Marxist-Leninism to deliver utopia. Having conducted a postmortem on Marxism, they formed their own new ideology, still heavily influenced by Marx but with a new emphasis on the cultural rather than the economic. Like the Dadaists, they also felt the old traditions should be thrown on the rubbish heap of history – faith, family, and the nation had to be destroyed. And, like the Dadaists, they were convinced the subjective was king and objective truth was dead. Affirmation and construction were to be abandoned for desecration and destruction.

After the war, Adorno threw his weight behind many aspects of modern art in his posthumously published book Aesthetic Theory. Both ideologies complemented each other and marked the beginning of the postmodern age we are living through today. Both sought to wipe away the underpinnings of Western thought and tradition but without any coherent idea of what ought to replace them. Just as it is nearly impossible to see any stylistic trends common to the work of the Dadaists, it is difficult to find any workable, functional alternatives to Western reason and culture in the writings of the Postmodernists. Each thinker seems to have their own vague idea about what should come next. A responsible iconoclast does not attack traditions and institutions without offering some sort of coherent alternative.

The institution of art is merely another one of the institutions the Postmodernists have marched through, tearing apart everything in their path. Having succeeded in destroying the underpinnings of art, declaring everything to be art–and moreover good art–while emptying the word ‘beautiful’ of meaning, modern artists are now stranded on an open prairie. With no fences to restrain them or give them direction, they wander aimlessly, often getting lost in the process. The very term “art” now means nothing. For if everything is “art” then “art” is everything, therefore why define it as “art” at all? Why have galleries or exhibitions?

The only way to restore meaning to the word “art” is to set some clear objective parameters, and to vanquish aesthetic relativism. This does not mean these parameters cannot be tested and breached; the early Impressionists rebelled against the old standards and produced wonderful art. But it does mean that, like the early Impressionists, any advancements that are made must be tempered by imposing new parameters and still retaining a level of acknowledgement and respect for the older traditions.

Exactly what these parameters should be is a topic for another essay, but it is vital that the need for such rules is acknowledged, along with an acknowledgement that things have gone too far and that “art” is now a term used far too loosely. Unless this is done, the very idea of “art” will be lost to an all encompassing definition that includes everything and excludes nothing. This is precisely the outcome that Adorno and his cohorts desired.

Jason Newman

Jason Newman

Jason Newman is a student journalist in Ireland who studies Politics and English. Follow him on Twitter @jasonnewman96
Jason Newman

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Jason Newman is a student journalist in Ireland who studies Politics and English. Follow him on Twitter @jasonnewman96

26 Comments

  1. Melinda Hajdin says

    To be fair, Warhol was confronting the vacuity of a mass-produced society obsessed with celebrities, brand names, and other such trash. He was a one-trick pony, though.

  2. I don’t see anything hipocritical about Warhol collecting more traditional art. If a film director had a keen interest in classic film noir you wouldn’t expect him to make black and white films and eschew CGI.

    It’s simply an acknowledgement that art evolves and that different styles are appropriate for different epochs. What was appropriate for Renaissance Italy isn’t appropriate for Sixties USA.

  3. Roger Latour says

    About the sublime, this taken from Wikipedia is as good as what I remember from reading the treatise: “Burke defines the sublime as “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger… Whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror.” Burke believed that the sublime was something that could provoke terror in the audience, for terror and pain were the strongest of emotions. However, he also believed there was an inherent “pleasure” in this emotion.”.

    So perhaps Damien Hirst works along these lines after all… The Sublime by Hirst…

    We don’t expect architects to build their art, why should we expect it in other arts? Quite often when Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese (1528–1588) was signing a new painting he was actually “branding” work done in his workshop by students and assistants…

    • I think you’re actually wrong about this: architects are required to have plenty of hands-on knowledge in relation to the skills required to build their designs. Your point about artists who had (or have) a team of craftspeople is different than the point that Newman is making because Veronese could paint; Michelangelo could (and did) work stone.

  4. Your views about what constitutes art strike me as very naive, and indicate a rather limited view of the potential of art to engage viewers and evoke emotions and ideas. I recommend more study in the area of aesthetics. As a painter myself, I have come to appreciate beauty in far more places than contrived, predictable and purely representational artworks that demand no metaphorical interpretation. Yawn. Boring. Tom Wolfe wrote a slight book called The Painted Word which I think gets at what bothers you about the current state of the art world. It is all too easy to make simplistic dichotomies about beauty and ugliness, or good taste-bad taste, but as with everything in life, art is a spectrum, affecting people differently according to their intellectual, emotional, psychological, political etc. qualities. Not everything is relative. But art is entirely subjective, so making broad stroke condemnations of categories of art will get you nowhere if your audience has any aesthetic sophistication. Better to stick to interpretations of specific pieces, giving your take, and opening up discussion, one piece at a time. That can be fun and if you don’t wall yourself off, enlightening.

    • The idea that Duchamp got rich selling the urinal piece shows zero research in Art History. Duchamp had no money in the 20s until his father died. Then he inherited money, and invested it in art works by Picabia. This is just one mistake in this mistake ridden, tendentious, ultra right screed. If you are going to write about the history of who purchases art works, maybe minimal acquaintance with the literature should be required. And a halfway decent editor would mark up the copy with (ref?) for each of the bogus statements. Unfortunately, the ignorance of the author was matched by the vacancy of the editor. Internet publishing at its worth.

    • Paulo Pinheiro says

      If art is interely subjective, than anything could count as art. The dirt on the floor is art. A face disfigured by acid is art. A pile of shit is art – did you know dogs are great artits?

    • William dais .. The painted word is a good read. I was quite stung by his observation that the general public is just given the results, rather than asked to play, in the aesthetic game. The art buyers at least get pandered to, for their money.

      And don’t think representation and metaphor can’t live on the same canvas. Wolfe’s book (iirc) was about how art had abandoned representation of the lived-in world, for diagrams of theories. Very arrogant to suppose the old artists had no world theory or elaborated metaphors of their own.

      I suspect your use of “slight” means the book stung you also.

      I am no longer a painter.

  5. Hi Mr Newman,

    Your premise is good, and contrasting trends in art with trends in political philosophy is a very interesting path to go down. Your treatment of Dadaismus neglects some truly brilliant work by Klee, Kandinsky, et al., and the poets of German Expressionism abandoned traditional norms of meter and structure to amazing effect to describe the horrors of WWI. I hope you make another run at this at some point, perhaps incorporating the parallels in cynical manipulation and deception you find in Gramsci and with that of Warhol. Perhaps there are some more literate than I am who can point you to some temporal cohort of Gramsci?

    With kind regards,

    Bill

    PS: One of my favorite poems where Stramm extracts lyrical beauty from death and horror.

    Sturmangriff — August Stramm

    Aus allen Winkeln gellen Fürchte Wollen
    Kreisch
    Peitscht
    Das Leben
    Vor
    Sich
    Her
    Den keuchen Tod
    Die Himmel fetzen.
    Blinde schlächtert wildum das Entsetzen.

  6. George Barker says

    Modern “art” is not a new form of art. It is intended to mock. It is destructive, not creative. It is a statement of hatred for Western Civilisation, not love for some new idea. Antifa are acting on the same premise.

  7. I am glad that again on Quillette, which I proudly support, hosts free points of view. But I wonder, after reading this, what purpose is served by a ranting by someone who clearly isn’t acquainted with the subject he’s set up to treat? I think a great deal can be criticised and exposed about the workings of the contemporary art scene, but alas it takes some familiarity with the subject to avoid grotesque judgements and generalisations like I read here. It is a bit more complicated than glorifying the take of the cleaners who threw everything off. Cleaners would have done it will the whole of science philosophy and ingeneering papers they’d not understand. I mean, really?!
    In sum, this is well below standards piece that can discredit the whole Quillette enterprise as that of some illiterate punks. Please don’t publish this stuff again.

  8. I think that many of the comments are valid criticisms, and we all have varying points on the subject matter. The one thing I would like to point out, is in the author’s bio: art student.
    That said, this is a pretty good piece by someone just starting out. Give it a decade or two, and let’s see what results.
    As for me, rubbish is rubbish. A fur coat draped over a chair as art? Well, someone will buy it.

  9. rapidsmark says

    This is a great article. I hope it starts a discussion. I’ve seen some installations at 2 Chicago museums ( Contemporary and Art Institute) and I thought: “how do they get away with this? In 50 years this will be considered a laughable con job.”

  10. Daniel says

    Unexpectedly I found the work of Damien Hirst in the heart of Venice at Palazzo Grassi. The crash of styles, the feeling of beauty and decay, pickled sheep in sterile conservation, ancient architecture falling to dust, left me deeply impressed. No doubt I enjoyed art.
    Don’t throw the baby out with the postmodernist bathwater.

  11. Conrad says

    I am surprised this piece made it to publication, not because I generally disagree with the thesis (the contemporary art world is rife with bullshit) but because it is so poorly argued. It reads like an editorial in a college newspaper, full of straw men (e.g. “the Postmodernists”), lazy generalizations, and blatant tells that the author did little to no research anywhere in the process.

  12. Jim Marshall says

    What a deeply depressing and disturbingly regressive article. The argument for ‘objective parameters’ is a turgid rehash forwarded by art commentators of every generation. These include Bellori’s claim that Caravaggio was destroying the beauty of art with his naturalism, in the 17th century, and the Nazi’s suppression of ‘degenerate art’, in the 20th century.
    This article is so riddled with poorly argued sweeping statements (e.g. ‘The whole modern art scene has become stale’) that it is difficult to respond in full. However I would recommend that the writer reads Arthur Danto’s books ‘After the End of Art’ and ‘The Abuse of Beauty’. These provide wonderfully erudite commentaries on changing attitudes to art practises and aesthetic ‘parameters’ in the 20th century. And they also provide a clear argument as to why Duchamp was a ‘giant’ of modern art, influencing the Dadaists and Surrealists, in the the early 20th century, to Warhol and conceptual artists, in the late 20th century.

  13. Pingback: Link: Why modern art is vacant | Philosophies of a Disenchanted Scholar

  14. jim marshall says

    Yes, the article reflects many of Roger Scruton’s ‘traditionalist/conservative’ views. But, in my opinion (and as you might expect), that also concerns me greatly!

  15. Santoculto says

    Worthy art = millions of tourists visiting Spain, France and Italy, to start, while most people dislike “modern” art.

  16. The author is correct, everyone with the least bit of sense knows it, and modern art is 99% a con job and 1% naivete.

    Some of the comments here suggest the author needs to understand this trash before he can denounce it. Don’t bother – it’s just a waste of time.

    Everything as Art: An infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters will eventually produce the complete works of William Shakespeare … but who wants to sort through all the gibberish to find it?

  17. Spencer says

    Stay in school kids.

    This is bad in so many ways, I’d need to waste my morning recounting them.

    At a time when fools like Milo can make a career out of nothing more than “being provocative”, I shouldn’t be surprised to see such an article. But tendencies to take college essays for serious cultural criticism should be avoided.

  18. The claim that Dadaist art has no beauty fails to acknowledge the contributions Dadaists have had on modern web and graphic design. For example, Kurt Schwitters, a Dadaist, created collages out of ‘bits of trash’ that are extraordinarily beautiful. His art and aesthetics influenced Bauhaus ideology from which all modern web and graphic design descends. This very web page is an example of the influence of Dadaism on contemporary aesthetics.

  19. Pingback: Why Postmodern Art is Vacant | Theory of Knowledge Site

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