Yes, it was the end of the eighties and post-modernism was the thing. They’re not so far back, but there’s an unsurpassable gap between us: that time in which television was everything, Michael Jackson sold thirty million copies of Bad and artist Jeff Koons was going to marry porno actress Cicciolina. What a trio! Their biographies are a catalogue of the customs and traditions of a whole age. A broken toy adult locked up inside his own amusement park, a loaded art speculator, and a porn star turned politician.
“I wanted to make an icon of him [de Michael Jackson] resembling very much one of God. I’ve always admired Michael Jackson’s radicalism; he wouldn’t do anything at all of what was needed to communicate with people.” Jeff Koons.
Koons knows all the resources of his times. More than being an artist, what he wants is becoming a celebrity, and to achieve his goal he makes use of the mass media. So he presents a white and golden piece of Michael Jackson with his Bubbles chimpanzee, a sort of real-life sized superlative Lladró figurine. And it sells. You better believe it sells! For more than five million dollars… This is the end!
“Gott ist tot”, God is dead, Nietzsche said in 1882. One hundred years later, art philosopher Arthur C. Danto certifies the end of art. If God is no longer able to act as the source of a moral and teleological code, art according to Danto is already unable to create a solid and progressive narrative line. This doesn’t mean that the production has stopped; on the contrary, there may never have been so many artists (and conscious of being so) as today.
What kind of artistic and thinking pulse do we find in those late eighties? All of modernism’s positivistic hope is destroyed. Modernism was linked to idealism, unstoppable progress, and rationalism. It was optimistic. It trusted reason and science. Post-modernism reflects deception before these soothing ideas and their abandonment. According to post-modern logic, what was the result of progress in science and technology? The atomic bomb. Where does the rationalization of work take us? To the alienation of man. What have economies of scale brought about? Ecological imbalance and cyclic economic crisis. How was decolonisation achieved? Through unfair wars for the Third World. Who takes care of minorities? Themselves, which means, only a few. Before all this progressive despondency, Reagan and Thatcher win the elections.
When it comes to art, we can no longer refer to a main style, but a disparity of artistic manifestations that have been called ‘contemporary’ from the moment we become conscious that they are not ‘modern art’ done in the ‘present’, but precisely a response to (or even a reaction against) modern art. And not all the emerging manifestations can be tagged as post-modern, since that would mean identifying post-modernism and contemporary art, and this doesn’t help to understand and describe this essentially non-convergent moment. Besides, from the sixties onwards, artists have pressed on to eliminate the limits of art, leaving it in a blurry situation.
Puppy, Jeff Koons, 1992. The giant West Highland Terrier, completely covered with plants in full bloom, uses the sweetest iconography ever -flowers and puppies- in a monument to sentimentalism.
Barbara Kruger, 1987. When she entered the world of commercial art, the artist received a lot of criticism, since the society of consumerism had been the target of her protests. In an interview she affirmed that selling her works in famous galleries wasn’t contradictory at all, but part of the mechanism of expansion that is the market; she said: “I started to understand that outside the market there’s nothing.”
Let’s go step by step. For Arthur C. Danto, the evolution of art has known three periods: the Pre-history of art (from before 1400 A.D.), the History of art (from 1400 A.D. until the 1960s, when it expired), and the Post-history of art. Post-historical art has ascended to the stage of philosophical reflection, leaving the physical or visual on the verge of disappearance, or reduced to mere anecdotes, as happened at the beginning of the 20th century with the notion of beauty, considered something dull. Unless someone thinks Koons’ dog is cute, as might be the case…
The reflections about art during the Historical period had considered each successive movement as the final stage and culmination of what true art was meant to be. This linear and arrogant structure disappears in the contemporary period. Because there is no truer art, and there shouldn’t be only a single way of creating it. The philosophical definition of art should contemplate any form of art. It cannot be exclusive or go against certain proposals. Criticism should be plural before the infinite directions, channels, languages and platforms of contemporary art. Ernst Gombrich affirmed, very wisely, that art itself doesn’t exist, what exists are only artists and their work.
As a response to the snobbery of modern art from the mid-20th century and to its distance from society, post-modern art, a lot more trash, tends to be figurative rather than abstract, local rather than universal, popular, accessible, and less pompous. Contemporary art wants to run away from the ‘iron cage’ of illustrated thought and instrumental rationalism, dominant in the last two centuries.
Art outside the museum, out of the cage, acquires a new life. Popular culture, underground or alternative cultures, and, in one extreme, counter-culture appear as new agents in a game that up to then was only played by high culture. Warhol will be one of the first to question the museum space by presenting pop culture as an artistic theme. Culture and art are on the streets.
Towards the seventies, in New York, it will be made clear that artistic movements are dead, and the audience will opt for individual talents instead. On the one hand, the plurality I mentioned earlier is encouraged, but on the other, this mechanism will mean an increase on the artist’s value, on their cache, in an economical and commercial dynamic that inaugurates a new kind of art consumption. The idea that the citizen is above all a consumer becomes popular. What we consume and how we consume it work as class indicators. Art is another commodity, but one of the ones that grant status. The mass media and advertisements do great part of the work when it comes to mass consumerism seduction (an omnipresent denunciation in the work of Barbara Kruger).
Judy Chicago and her The Dinner Party, a feminist work from 1979, in which a triangular table with 39 dishes on an embroidered tablecloth pays homage to mythological or historical women.
Some accuse post-modernism of being a cultural stage of veneration of capitalism and neoliberalism (as artist Julian Schnabel’s work leads us to think). But the contrary is also affirmed, that it acts critically, or in any case ironically, even if it does so from fragmentation (Judy Chicago’s feminism, for example).
Andy Warhol with his Brillo Box turns art expectations upside down and make us enter the most playful post-modernism. His proposal includes all the constants of the new post-modern scenario: it appeals to mass culture, television, it’s quickly consumed thanks to its trivial content, it doesn’t imply an elaborate or critical discourse, it’s a decontextualized part taken from a whole, incorporates the ‘New!’ label, it’s a simulacrum, a theft, an illusion (as are Cindy Sherman’s photographs), it seduces us but makes us remain passive. As spectators we’re ready to welcome show business society.
Post-modern artists have strengthened the communicative value of objects, weaving a discourse that is eminently ironic, parodic, the only antidote against the hypocrisy inherent to the world (Maurizio Cattelan manages it by ridiculing Catholicism), and it adds a touch of ethnicity or primitivism not devoid of kitsch and tending towards the pastiche. Historicist eclecticism and constant hybrids are evident in post-modern architecture (one only needs to have a look at Ricardo Bofill’s catalogue). The executive intervention of the artist has been diluted in favour of the active participation of the audience (as in the charity dinners organised by originally Argentine artist Rirkrit Tiravanija). It’s a live art reflecting what’s going on, second by second. The artist will look for personal promotion through sensationalism and extravagance (Damien Hirst is the king of this), erasing the border between work and private life (Joseph Beuys is the father of the creature), often using their own body (Orlan, please, stop!).
Andy Warhol with the Brillo Box wooden boxes, in 1964, apparently identical to the commercial product Brillo, which was serially produced in cardboard.
A photograph by Cindy Sherman from the Film Stills series. Her method is based on the representation of clichés of social roles, repressed pleasures, fears or violence.
La Nona Ora. Maurizio Cattelan presents a wax figure of Pope John Paul II crushed by a meteorite.
The building Walden 7 is inspired by Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s sci-fi fictional work, Walden dos. It consisted on the construction of a great deal of self-managed homes to simulate a vertical city.
Post-modern theory isn’t a general analysis of the world. Who lives or has lived in the post-modern world, the whole world population? Overcome the blinding euphoria of the eighties, we can emphatically say no. Post-modernism has expired. And although we’ve still some post-modern characteristics, no one sells thirty million albums anymore. Those trying to be the first to give the recipe of what’s happening now talk about post-post-modernism, or meta-modernism, or even about trans-modernism (yes, we live in a world 100% transgenic and 100% transgender). From the eighties we have preserved and stressed even more our relationship with the media, but we’ve had to get rid of cynicism. We can no longer afford it. That nonchalant attitude of post-moderns is neither ethical nor practical in a post-millennial landscape marked by the climate change, the financial crisis and globalization, which, far from homogenising, increase economic differences. In the same way the cleverest can no longer go about being cynical, now the most naive ones are at least well informed.
Rirkrit Tiravajina’s project is an invitation to enter the sphere of hospitality, recovery and community in the midst of an art fair in which visitors can participate in activities such as having herbal teas, cooking or eating, paying whatever they want.
As an artist I’ve always confronted topics that I can’t avoid, and death is an important matter,” Damien Hirst declared in 2010.
Joseph Beuys during his most famous performance, with his roommate, a coyote.
Orlan’s surgery interventions are meant to give her the physical features of the great beauties of Western art.