Monday, 22 August 2011


When Magritte first saw a reproduction of de Chirico’s The Song of Love, he felt, as he later wrote, ‘that it represented a complete break with the mental habits of artists who are prisoners of talent, virtuosity and all the little aesthetic specialities: it was a new vision’. M. Duchamp’s Fountain (a porcelain urinal signed R. Mutt) and L.H.O.O.Q. (reproductions of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, to which have been added moustaches and beards), A. Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, J. Cage’s 4’33” (a musical composition in which the performer –the pianist, does not hit any keys, thus the audience absorbs the silence around them), J. John’s Flag and C. Andre’s Equivalent VIII are only a few examples among several works of art that challenge the perception of art as an institution.

From the point of view of German sociological theory, modernity embraces the ideals of Enlightenment. It is a constant effort for objectivity and the establishment of the rational at the expense of tradition and the myths of the past (emancipatory potential of Enlightenment). Postmodernism, on the other hand, attacks ‘grand narratives’. According to Lyotard, ‘grand narratives’ do not serve anymore in contemporary society. Their credibility is questioned by the rise of the fragmented society. Contrary to the notion of universal philosophy, Lyotard underlines the emergence of new features in culture; Unpredictability, lack of style, autonomy of the individual and the difference.

Modernism is devoted to draw the unimaginable, to make visible the unpresentable and to present the absent. Postmodernism denies norms, themes and contexts. A postmodern work ‘is not governed by pre-established rules and can not be judged according to a determining judgement by applying familiar categories’. Thus the event is an excess of modernity and according to Lyotard it evolves the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo). In other words, a novel piece of art (in terms of technique and presentation), when first emerges, is postmodern by nature. Once it multiples or to put it in different words, once it establishes itself, it becomes modern. Thus ‘postmodernism is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant’.

Postmodernism is a state of flux. During the process of making art, clarity is neither a way nor the end. While in the context of modern the role of the participants (artist, subject, medium) is clearly defined and energy is about ‘support’ (ways and means), within postmodernism, there is no clear distinction between the roles. The energetic formation of the object is its ‘metamorphosis’. The so-called ‘Duchamp-Warhol axis’ is an example of postmodern art in which readymade objects and every-day products are no longer perceived for their utility; they are being transformed into a new state; art.

The general theme of difference is fundamental to postmodernists (poststructuralists). Lyotard suggests that ‘a universal rule of judgement between heterogeneous genres is lacking in general’. Difference generates paradoxes as it does not overcome concepts and language but indicates their limits. While Habermas places great emphasis on the functions of language and his basic position that ‘the telos of speech is understanding /agreement’, Lyotard argues that language is a prison from which the individual can escape by using desire as the key to his freedom and that ‘consensus is only a particular state of discussion, not its end. Its end, on the contrary, is paralogy’.

The theme of ‘desires’ is also present in his 1974 book, Économie libidinale, in which ‘like Foucault, he saw knowledge and power as essentially connected, and maintained that totalising theories (e.g., Marxism) claiming universal validity are sources of totalitarian social structures that destroy the plurality of desires’. French postmodernist social theory in general pays great respect to the notion of desire. They perceive language as a ‘prison-house’ and desire as the exodus from it. In other words, ‘under the signifier, under language, is desire’.

In the introduction of The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard states that it is not necessary for a language to be communicable, in other words, it is not fundamental to have stable language combinations and that consensus through discussion does violence to the heterogeneity of language games. In other words, he examines the possibility to ‘legitimate the social bond on the basis of paralogy and disagreement, dissensus’. Lyotard defends ‘paralogy’ by saying that in the post-industrial era the question of the legitimation of the knowledge is not connected anymore to grand metanarratives. R. Magritte’s Ceci n’ est pas une pipe is a critique (a manifesto) on language and consensus. By denoting that a painting is not what it represents, Magritte ‘reveals the inadequacy of words to describe things or how words and images can be juxtaposed so as to challenge meaning’.[1] By stating the paradox, Magritte raises the problem of the safety of the narrative. Following the rise of technology, the classical dividing lines between sciences are called into question. Postmodern science faces new legitimations; performativity and invention.

The rejection of modernity might not yet constitute a leading trend but undeniably is an event. From paintings and installations to music and architecture, more and more artists disconnect from the past and new forms of expression emerge. Galleries nowadays may exhibit J. Muñoz (who described himself as a story-teller) at the same time with Duchamp, Man Ray and Picabia (Tate Modern). Jasper Johns’ Flag is still the most expensive painting sold by a living artist while Damien Hirst’s skull was sold for £50m. Postmodernity has arrived, we now need to figure which place it will acclaim in the art world.

[1] Bowman, R. (1985) “Words and Images: A Persistent Paradox”, Art Journal, Vol.45, No.4, The Visionary Impulse: An American Tendency, p.336