Sunday, October 30, 2011


What I found especially interesting about this week's readings was that the idea of postmodernism is fundamentally one of opening up and dissolving categories that existed previously.  While reading the Jencks article The Post-Modern Agenda, I couldn't help but think of readings I have done on gender theory which essentially claim that the binary gender system is not an accurate way of describing individual people and their identities, and that in fact, it has never been so.  It has never really even existed, but rather is a social construct.  

Interestingly, this idea was called to mind again in the following passage from Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism and Consumer Society regarding individualism and personal identity:

Not only is the bourgeois individual subject a thing of the past, it is also a myth: it never really existed in the first place; there have never been autonomous subjects of this type.  Rather, this construct is merely a philosophical and cultural mystification which sought to persuade people that they ‘had’ individual subjects and possessed this unique personal identity.

I do not feel that postmodernism and expansive gender theory are the same thing, but I was struck by how many parallels I found throughout the reading.  In fact, there is a book by Carol Queen called “PoMoSexuals: Challenging Assumptions about Gender and Sexuality” that I read many years ago.  Now, having a better context of postmodernism, I understand these ideas within a larger cultural context.

Jencks states:

The agenda of post-modern architects- and by extension post-modern writers, urbanists, and artists- is to challenge monolithic elitism, to bridge the gaps that divide high and low cultures, elite and mass, specialist and non-professional, or most generally put- one discourse and interpretive community from another.  

He continues to articulate an idea of double-coding:

Double-coding, to put it abstractly, is a strategy of affirming and denying the existing power structures at the same time, inscribing and challenging differing tastes and opposite forms of discourse.  This double-voiced discourse has its own peculiar laws and beauties and it constitutes the fundamental agenda of the post-modern movement.

He continues to expand the idea of post-modernism into a world view, making the following point which I found to be interesting, since I have yet to think of postmodernism as something so contemporary:

One might say, without exaggerating, that the most significant post-modern movement of all is electronic democracy, information-age pluralism, and the emergent self-organisational movements of the last fifteen years, whether these are national, ethnic, regional, or transnational.

He gives a summary of the term post-modern and its seven main stages, which I found interesting:

1.     Prehistory, 1870s to 1950s
2.     Postmodern seen as Modern in decline, 1950s to 1970s
3.     Post-modern as the counter-culture of the 1960s
4.     Post-Modern as pluralist politics and eclectic style, 1970s and early 1980s
5.     Post-Modern Classicism, a public language, 1979 to the present
6.     Critical reactions to the conditions of Postmodernity, 1980 to the present
7.     Critical summaries of the Post-Modern paradigm, 1988 to the present

After listing the seven stages, he notes:

One might pause to underline the heterogeneity of these seven stages, or meanings, since so often the phrase is used without self-consciousness, as if everyone were referring to the same thing.

I was especially intrigued by a few passages towards the end of the article:

Nature or God has a predisposition to produce us.  If the strong force of the atom were just slightly stronger there would be an explosive consumption of all protons, if the nuclear force were slightly weaker, there would be no chain reaction in the sun, and if the ratios of the four fundamental forces were slightly different, we would not be here to know anything about these extraordinary gifts, these un-asked for perfect balances.

He then refers to statements made by Paul Davies and John Gribbon:

These apparent ‘coincidences’ and many more like them, have convinced some scientists that the structure of the universe we perceive is remarkably sensitive to even the most minute changes in the fundamental parameters of nature.  It is as though the elaborate order of the cosmos were a result of highly delicate fine-tuning.  In particular, the existence of life, and hence intelligent observers, is especially sensitive to the high-precision ‘adjustment’ of our physical circumstances.

Jencks, continuing:

The fact that the universe shows this kind of non-teleological teleology (a predisposition to produce something like us, if not exactly us) and the fact that it exhibits extraordinary creativity and real novelty, is unbelievable- most of all to a modernist brought up on a steady diet of mechanism, determinism, and materialism.

I apologize for quoting so much, but these last few passages really caught my attention and expanded my thinking about postmodernism and its vast interconnectedness with everything else.  The idea of postmodern religion was also called to mind, which I found fascinating as an idea.

In conclusion on the Jencks piece, one more big quote:

No longer in the post-industrial society is matter, the ‘solid, messy, and hard’ stuff, the most important, no longer is the economy fundamentally extractive, like mining, and based on physical objects, like jewellery; no longer are things just limited to one person, and have to be fought over in a zero-sum game (things are either yours or mine); no longer is the basic economic datum, like fossil fuel, consumed in use.  Ideas and information, which weigh nothing and occupy no space, are not subject to finite ownership.  Like experience itself- eros- they particularly enjoy being communicated and shared.  They are not consumed in use, but double in power by use- a positive-sum game if ever there were one.  Since the post-modern age is the information era, since knowledge is power and since it is the quality and organization of information that matter, it is crucially important that free communication be safeguarded and a good education provided for everyone.

What I took away from this entire piece is that the categories, across the board, and broadening and widening, but not completely disconnecting from the categories that pre-existed.  Rather, they are building upon, and expanding, these categories in pursuit of something more well-rounded, complicated, hard to categorize, and ultimately, more universally true.  

The Douglas Crimp piece Appropriating Appropriation was also very interesting.   It is interesting that he differentiates between appropriating style versus the thing itself, or material, as he illustrates by discussing the architecture of Michael Graves and Frank Gehry.   Continuing that thought into the art realm, he discusses Robert Mapplethorpe and Sherrie Levine.  I had quite different relationships to the work of the two.  I found Mapplethorpe to be a huge inspiration early on, both for his subject matter and the beautiful ways in which he rendered it.  I had always focused on the originality and brave nature of his work, and to see it presented within the context of appropriation provided a new viewpoint for me, though one that seems accurate and researched.

Robert Mapplethorpe photo

Robert Mapplethorpe photo

When I first encountered Sherrie Levine’s work, quite frankly, I thought it was a little ridiculous it was in a major museum.  I see now a little more clearly that I was viewing it through a lens of original creativity and placing value on individual style, where as Levine was not interested in these ideas at all and did not attempt to create work that spoke to them.  Rather, she was making broader statements about how artists function within a culture of appropriation and was not attempting to make anything unique in material, but was attempting to use appropriation as a social commentary on appropriation itself.  

Sherrie Levine, "Untitled (After Edward Weston)," 1981

After reading all of the articles from this week, I am left with the question of what it means to be an artist attempting to articulate a personal vision within an image-saturated, idea-focused world.  Is there such a thing anymore?  I certainly hope so because it is where my interest and passion lies.

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