An Evaluation of Select Postmodernist Works of Art
The paper is an evaluation of various works of select postmodern artists. It is a critical albeit brief examination of the historical context on which postmodernism, as a form of art movement, had evolved and highlights the main precursors for its evolution as a distinct art form. It substantially discusses the core characteristics of postmodern art, largely explaining the reasons why artists identified with the postmodernist movement rejected everything associated with modernist art genre.
Some of the works of leading disciples of postmodernism, such as Marcel Duchamp, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude, among others, will be viewed from the standpoint of what other leading postmodernist artists had pronounced. Postmodernism is correctly understood as an art movement that evolved from the modernist school of thought. It was marked by a significant departure from the modernist understanding of works of art; including the manner art works were done. In fact, postmodernist art eventually developed as a complete rejection of anything associated with modernist art per se.
Majority of art scholars agree that it was first developed as a working idea starting in Europe in 1914 that eventually found its way in the United States sometime between 1962 and 1968. Modernism in art is exemplified by what critics call as grand narratives or the abstract ideas of what is thought to be the universal and comprehensive explanation behind a specific historical event or experience. By rejecting the modernist direction of an art work in progress, for example, postmodern artists attempt at eliminating whatever differentiates low art from high art, demolishing standard notions and tenets that govern a specific artwork .
To a postmodernist painter, for example, nothing remains stable and constant, and that art, as an expression of the ideas of the painter, should be evaluated not by what people see but by the ideas that preceded said work. However, some defenders of modernism, such as Clement Greenberg and Hilton Kramer, including postmodernist philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard himself, believe that postmodernism is merely an extension of the modernist era, without experiencing a specific and separate epoch itself . When it comes to aesthetics and art, Lyotard is considered as a major thinker of the postmodern school of thought.
Postmodernism in art is exemplified by the eventual paradigm shift in the way art as the tangible expression of the ideas and emotions of the artist is viewed and evaluated. Some of the distinct art forms belonging to the postmodern category are abstract expressionism, Dada and minimalism, among others. Specific art movements also developed, such as new classicism or classical realism, conceptual art and installation art, to name a few. Notably, conceptual art was considered as a postmodern one precisely because it was trying to debunk conventional notions about art.
In modernist context, art could be as such for its own sake. The drift from romanticist and classical realist approaches towards greater freedom on the artistic expression accommodated artworks characterized by art for art’s sake, formal purity, authenticity, medium specificity, originality, universality and avant-garde. When conceptual art was first introduced, it generated a lot of controversy because it challenged the widely accepted ideas of viewers about art itself. Redefining conventional notions is one of the features of a postmodernist thought.
One of the earliest and leading proponents of conceptual art was Marcel Duchamp, a French artist closely associated with Dada and surrealism. Although he produced few artworks and was not even thought as a major proponent of conceptual art in writings, he was considered as one of the leading precursors because of the way he challenged typical notions about art, both as a process and as an output. To him, an artwork becomes valid only when it is able to involve the viewer who must establish the link between the innate thoughts and ideas of the artist and the real world.
In the end, the spectator becomes part of the art itself, having contributed in the unraveling of the concept behind the artwork. He generated adverse reactions when he exhibited a urinal, Fountain, and emphatically considered it as a valid art form. Fountain was done in 1917 and was considered as one of the major landmarks of the 20th century art movement. It formed part of what was then called as found art or readymades, since the subject of sculpture was already an existing object. Fountain successfully demolished art convention by altering the philosophical or metaphysical state of an already existing object.
It was one of the decisive art works that was able to produce an artistic expression of something that has not been altered physically but was conceived differently when presented as a work of art. The seminal and revolutionary ideas presented by Duchamp were more clearly emphasized by Sol LeWitt when he published his essay, entitled “Sentences on Conceptual Art”. LeWitt was a postmodern American artist who was famous for his wall drawings and what he called as “structures”, his preferred term for sculptures.
For LeWitt, the actual making of an art piece is less important than the concept or core idea behind the work. In fact, the execution stage is only a mechanical process and the discovery for the concept lies with the spectator. LeWitt even went to the extent of saying that even the idea behind the work may not even descend to a spectator’s mind nor it may even leave the mind of the artist. For him, conceptual artists are mystics and not rationalists who are dictated by rational judgments. Conceptual artists may even proceed to various expressions of their ideas without necessarily following a logical order .
Moreover, a work of art becomes successful only when it is able to change, modify, alter or even substitute any popularly held notion about art per se. Other notable followers of postmodernism are couple Christo and Jeanne-Claude, born as Christo Vladimirov Javacheff in Bulgaria and as Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon of Morocco, respectively. Although they explained that their works of art are simply for the sheer enjoyment of art itself, they were considered as postmodernist because of the manner their artworks presented entirely radical ideas in the realm of aesthetics and art.
They are widely known for their environmental works, or rather as pieces of art largely inspired by what they conceived as objects existing in nature, including criticisms for making artworks on a massive scale. One of the most significant works Christo and Jeanne-Claude made was The Gates. It was a site-specific artwork that involved the installation of 7,503 vinyl “gates”, traversing an estimated 37 kilometers in the heart of Central Park, New York City. It was exhibited last February 2005, generating varying reactions from art critics and the general public alike, including cyclists who criticized the work as a traffic obstruction.
All their environmental artworks bring to the fore the earlier works of Richard Long, a British sculptor, photographer and painter. Long was most notable with his “Statement”, actually a single sheet of card folded into three columns, entitled “Five, six, pick up sticks, seven, eight, lay them straight”. It was composed of 44 sentences, with some of the words rhythmically repeated. Actually, it was written primarily as an expression of his irritation with art critics who then considered his works as laden with romanticist ideas, rather the postmodernist concepts he wanted to impart .
Mostly inspired with what he saw in nature through his various “walks”, Long’s devotion to natural objects was largely influenced with his childhood musings when he and his siblings used to accompany their father at Avon River to witness spring tides. He is largely credited with unwittingly effecting changes in teaching materials used in kindergartens in Britain. In lieu of definite objects, such as dolls and toys, those materials were replaced with cubes, circles, squares, pebbles and sticks, allowing the young children to discover themselves and find their place in the universe.
Not many were impressed with his works, though. This is what postmodern art is all about, however. Conceptual art, for example, is designed to engage the mind of the viewer. For conceptual artists, what is far more important (in fact, the only important thing) is the way the spectator uses his mind to discover the moving thought behind the work and not by what is seen by the eyes or felt by human emotions. LeWitt, in fact, considers anything in the work itself that calls attention to the eyes as a hindrance for fuller understanding of the idea behind the work itself and the unfolding of truth about itself.
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