Books: July-August 2001


M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory, and Criticism
Edited by Susan Bee and Mira Schor. Duke University Press. 467 pages. $22.95 (paper).

Economic Engagements with Art
Edited by Neil De Marchi and Crauford D.W. Goodwin Ph.D. ’58. Duke University Press. 506 pages. $22.95 (paper).00.

Is postmodernism spent? When does a “critical method” of analysis that claims that meaning is derived from the varied contexts in which something is perceived—or in which a message is conveyed
—grow tired, weighed down by familiarity, or, in pomo’s case, by the relativism with which it often seems to regard just about any subject it addresses?

In art, postmodernist questioning has challenged the notion of authorship—who really creates a work, an individual artist, or the cultural and other conditions from which it emerges? It has taken on standards of quality, too, for in a perceptually, culturally relativistic world, who is to say what is technically proficient or thematically relevant? Postmodernists have also looked at how the art market and cultural institutions choose, present, classify, and document artworks in various forms, and how such handling determines their meaning and value to the public at large.

Postmodernists regard the world with a knowingly ironic wink that says: “Of course, we all know we’re all being manipulated by the mass media, hoodwinked by media-savvy politicians, and rendered passive by a confluence of forces that seems to reduce all human experience to some sort of spectacle.” But this is old news. After three or four decades, depending on how one measures it, postmodernism might be showing its age, at least on the more superficial level of style (in fashion, visual art, design, and architecture). Meanwhile, perhaps one of postmodernism’s most notable effects, at least among many art and design students today, is that it has helped nurture a strong desire for authenticity—that is, for a sense of some absolute aesthetic values or technical standards on which to hang their professional-artists’ hats.

Against this backdrop, books, reviews, and essays are now being published that are beginning to examine postmodernism with a retrospective air. Some observers have suggested that we are living in “post-postmodernist” times.” In any case, many art-makers sense that we are passing through some sort of transitional phase that might eventually give rise to another Big Idea or Movement or Style that will give everybody something new to chew on. 

In the meantime, the American critic Eleanor Heartney’s fine, brief survey, Postmodernism (Cambridge University Press), provides a concise summary of how we arrived at this point, at least in the visual arts. From Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box (1964) sculpture, to Cindy Sherman’s untitled Film Stills (1970s) and Sherrie Levine’s appropriations (1981) of classic black-and-white images by the photographer Walker Evans, and on to the body-related art of the Nineties, Heartney traces the development of postmodernist ideas in the works of artists that gave them visible form. 

Heartney does a fine job of explaining how so many of the era’s paintings, sculptures, and multi-media installation works served to argue pomo’s sometimes obvious, but no less contentious, critical themes. Among them: the idea that the forward-moving, narrative flow of history, including art history, ended decades ago, ushering in an age of the perpetual present, in which historical styles or motifs are merely fodder for art-making “strategies” that celebrate pastiche; or the idea that, in our consumer-culture, insatiable desire for gratification through representations of what we idealize (like youthful fashion images) or through acquiring commodity objects (to shop till you drop, including for works of art) both motivates and helps explain our behavior.

Over the years, Duke University Press has published an estimable share of books in the fields of postmodernist art history, art criticism, and “culture studies.” M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory, and Criticism, edited by Susan Bee and Mira Schor, is one of its latest. It gathers a selection of essays and articles from M/E/A/N/I/N/G, an art journal that Bee and Schor founded in New York in 1986 and published for ten years. 

By the late 1970s, pioneering feminist artists had introduced many of their central themes into fine art’s international discourse. In the early 1980s, splashy neo-expressionism emerged in Germany and Italy, and in New York. It rejected minimalism and conceptualism’s austerity, and it seized the art world’s attention. A short while later, M/E/A/N/I/N/G first appeared, providing an independent venue for artists who, writing for themselves, explored postmodernist critical issues from a feminist viewpoint at a time when the art scene was charged with high energy and fueled by unprecedented commercial hype. 

Essays in the journal, which Bee and Schor published twice a year, and roundtable discussions involving female and male artists, poets, and critics, addressed such topics as how contemporary art represented gender or how conventional art history had largely excluded women artists from its canon. M/E/A/N/I/N/G touched upon subjects that glossy art magazines generally ignored during the boom years of the 1980s art market, such as everyday working conditions for artists who were not rock-star famous, or how artists who were mothers managed child-rearing and professional careers. 

Articles in M/E/A/N/I/N/G dared to examine from a feminist perspective the idea of “visual pleasure”—whose pleasure, and on what terms? They also looked at the persona of the “bad girl,” who, contrary to American society’s moralizing stereotype, just might have been a self-aware, self-assured, capable woman who knew what she wanted—security, self-esteem, a satisfying job, power, and sex—and did not hesitate to go about getting it. 

Some of the language in this anthology is dated; such inelegant phrases as “patriarchy’s strategies of ideological and institutional repression” or “the erotically disenfranchised postmenopausal woman” might make more poetically inclined readers wince. But they might also make them angry, for so many of the unfair, condescending attitudes toward women in general and toward female artists in particular that prevailed in society and in the cultural world decades ago persist today. 

Consider, for example, the typically small quantities of works by women artists that routinely turn up in major museum exhibitions like the Whitney Biennial in New York. Or the fact that revisionist art historians still find themselves having to play catch-up with outdated textbooks that diminish or ignore the accomplishments of such figures as the black American painter Norman Lewis (1909-1979) or the painter Joan Mitchell (1926-1992). Both were significant New York School abstractionists who deserve to be known to more than an informed, art-world elite. 

M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology is a valuable document whose arguments and messages still reverberate in urgent ways. Overall, the book makes the point that postmodernism never completely subsumed feminist critical theory. Indeed, over time, as structuralism begat poststructuralism and the intellectual gymnastics of deconstruction, postmodernism’s critical reach expanded to embrace not only literature, cinema, and the visual and design arts, but also the methods and subject matter of history and science. Academicians in these latter fields are still wrestling with pomo’s impact today, as it challenges the factuality of their research findings and their disciplines’ authority.

Just how far postmodernist critical thinking has stretched in the visual arts was demonstrated in the exhibition “Painting at the Edge of the World” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis earlier this year. As the show’s organizer, Douglas Fogle, observes in the catalogue that he edited, which accompanied that presentation of thirty artists’ works, today the practice of painting “is no longer solely bound by such traditional categories as figuration, abstraction, portraiture, and landscape, or even by the conventional definition of the medium as paint on canvas.” 

In the book Painting at the Edge of the World, numerous artists and critics, in a similarly broad manner, consider what painting—the concept, the process, the finished object—in our times can be. Their conclusion: A painting, which is normally an image supported by a surface (say, in oil paint on canvas), can certainly take such a form, but that it can take many other novel forms as well.

For a long time, photography has influenced what image-makers do; more recently, so has the expressive power of visual, digital media. But Fogle’s exhibition suggested, and his book echoes the idea, that, as he writes, “[P]ainting’s traditional function as a window on the world has been circumvented, or rather someone has left the window open and a number of things have crawled in.” 

Among the evidence of this change in the show and the book: works ranging from the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica’s three-dimensional paintings-as-sculpture to the Scottish artist Jim Lambie’s site-specific installations. Oiticica, who died in 1980, took paintings off the wall and broke them up into multiple planes in space; often he hung their component parts from the ceiling and placed mirrors on the floor beneath them. Lambie has “action-painted” against a gallery’s wall, using a shaggy bunch of carrots as a brush, and created geometric patterns with colored-vinyl tape on the floor of another.

Other elements that have crept into the conceptual and physical space that paintings once literally framed include the artist Takashi Murakami’s amusing blend of influences from pop art and from Japanese manga and anime (comic books and animated cartoons), and the sumptuous psychedelia of the British-born artist Chris Ofili’s mixed-media tableaux. Ofili uses paint, glitter, magazine cutouts, and elephant dung. His images refer to African art, hip-hop culture, fashion, and 1970s “blaxploitation” films. From such works, some viewers might surmise that we really are passing through a period of late postmodernism or post-postmodernism, in which artists are both theoretically and literally deconstructing the familiar forms that artistic expression conventionally takes. 

If so, then as Painting at the Edge of the World argues, painting (or “painting”) can refer as much to the making of tangible objects that represent the world—the real or the imaginary—as it does to an outlook that is philosophical and, well, “painterly.” Such is the sensibility of a person who “paints” what he experiences even as he experiences it (that is, someone who considers what he perceives as he perceives it in terms of how it could be artistically represented). Think of a painter or film-maker’s gesture as she crops a view with her fingers, imitating a picture frame or a camera’s viewfinder. Or recall the voyeuristic suburban teenager in the movie American Beauty who videotaped hours and hours of his daily peregrinations. All the world’s a stage, postmodernist image-makers tell us, and it is our job or our recreation to capture the spectacle, to make the real irreal with whatever media become available and in whichever forms we can fashion from them.

Another Duke Press anthology, Economic Engagements with Art, scrutinizes the market in which art it is bought and sold. Edited by Neil De Marchi and Crauford D.W. Goodwin, its essays examine the history of a field whose more recent roller-coaster rhythms have reflected the money-obsessed spirit of our age. In one essay, Zarinés Negrón, a 1999 Duke graduate in economics, looks back at the European art market’s early history. She recalls the life and work of the seventeenth-century Spanish painter and art theorist Francisco Pacheco, who served as an overseer of religious painting during the Inquisition. His writings described the practice of painting and advised both suppliers and buyers of art—of artworks as products—about what to look for. 

Goodwin, James B. Duke Professor of Economics at Duke and developer of a course for the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program that examines some of these same issues as seen through the Bloomsbury group, has researched the relationship between the history of art and that of economic thought. His essay, “The Economics of Art Through Art Critics’ Eyes,” looks at how the pioneering, twentieth-century critics Roger Fry, Clive Bell, and Kenneth Clark understood and explained the conditions in which art is made and consumed. Their concerns were primarily aesthetic. Still, their considerations of the nature and functions of art inevitably took into account the commerce that surrounded it. Goodwin writes: “These critics behaved and approached their subject in some ways remarkably like... economists.” 

Among their aesthetic beliefs, they held that the artist was someone who answered an inner—or higher—calling, not the dictates of market forces; that beauty could be regarded as more important than comfort; and that art was something that served to enhance or improve civilization. In short, art was something good—provided it was good art. 

Economic Engagements with Art also looks at the nineteenth-century British artist and critic John Ruskin’s musings on similar themes, at the international scope of the art market, and at luxury spending and how “pictures” were priced in eighteenth-century England. The book serves as a reminder that postmodernism’s sometimes self-important-sounding critique of art as a commodity has long roots. Artists, critics, buyers, and sellers have long recognized that artworks are products whose values and meanings shift in relation to laws of supply and demand, to the changing contexts in which they are experienced, or simply to fashion’s perennial, passing fancy.

These books and others like them put some of the ideas and subjects that historically helped shape postmodernism or that its proponents have routinely investigated into a perspective that could be helpful to university students. For anyone else who might want to become familiar with a way of critical analysis that has been pervasive and influential for a long time, they offer plenty of insight, too. However postmodernism in the visual arts further evolves is anyone’s guess. What is certain, though, is that its outlook and sensibility—ironic, challenging to established powers, sensitive to language, and endlessly intrigued by the forms and meanings to be found in the human-made, visible environment—have indelibly marked our understanding of the world and societies in which we live.

Gomez ’79 is the author of Roberto Cortázar, a biography of the contemporary Mexican painter, which will be published this summer by Landucci.

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor