The Post-Modern Wakeup CallOne of the things that continues to surprise me about artists today is how little they know, understand, or even care about the differences between the Modern Art they learned to know and love, and the Post-modern art being produced today. I've never taken a poll, but I'd bet a tube of cadmium red light most artists today couldn't even define the difference. You see it in their work. So many seem intent on blissfully producing art that is at least a generation behind the times - especially older artists. Of course, this is a reflection of the fact that the general public, which sometimes buys their work, knows even less about contemporary art than they do. And, whenever there's a wake-up call spotlighting art of the contemporary, Post-modern era, it's usually in the form of a loud, shocking, jangling alarm clock involving some disturbing piece of protest art seemingly intend only on giving Postmodernism a bad name.
About a year ago I wrote a piece on Jeff Koons. Recently, in getting to know him a little better, I thought I'd do something more definitive. But in rereading what I wrote last May, I decided I'd captured him pretty well. I mention the controversial Mr. Koons because, today at least, he would seem to be the ideal poster boy for Postmodernism. And the fact that he is so controversial - that people either love him or hate him - simply further underlines how little people both inside and outside today's art world understand what a profound difference there is between the two 20th century art eras. Jeff Koons is misunderstood because the relationship between these two eras is too. Older artists and critics insist that they (and we) judge Koons and his work by Modern Art standards. Most often I hear him compared to Warhol, which is quite valid, only to realise that these same artists and writers also hold Warhol to Modern Art standards when in fact, he was one of the most notable pioneers of Postmodernism.
I suppose what makes it difficult to differentiate between these two eras is the lack of a big bang between them. Modern Art petered out with Minimalism perhaps ten or twelve years after Post-modern Art petered in with Pop Art. I suppose we might joke that Postmodernism at least started with a pop, if not a bang. The overlap, at any rate, eased the transition - so much so, in fact, that many artists apparently didn't even notice it. Art history is always difficult up close, but now, some forty years after the fact, we're no longer up close. Yet it's hard for the recalcitrant Modern artists and their cronies to realise that many old standards no longer apply. The artist no longer needs to be a one-man band, for instance. No longer must he or she be a consummate conceptualist, composer, craftsman, showman, media personality, and marketer all rolled into one. Any two or three will do just fine, the rest can (and perhaps should) be hired out. And while some of us have come to accept this new rule in principle, we tend to snub Post-modern artists who make unconventional choices from this list (Thomas Kinkade, for example).
The same goes for art media. I'd guess that today, there are probably over a hundred different art media an artist might choose to pursue. Obviously, it would take even the most prolific artist several lifetimes to master them all. However today, using Koons as an example, if an idea calls for stainless steel, then stainless steel it is, or porcelain, or flowers, or carved ice, created by contract artists or employees under his supervision who have mastered that particular art. And as for the media - a Post-modern artist is often most successful when he caters to - or better yet, manipulates - it just as he would an art medium. Koons, again, is a prime example. Yet his most virulent critics seem to forget that one of their most revered idols, Jackson Pollock, chose the same track.
Post-modern art, the best of it anyway, often seems to be far better understood by the general public than by the art world, which often demands of viewers a certain level of sophistication as a means of separating the two worlds. Yet many of the best artists Postmodernism has to offer accept the viewer's own existence, experiences, and emotional base as a point of departure from which to present their message. Koons' charming but infamous Puppies bear witness to this element. Post-modern art is often warm, cuddly, humorous, self-deprecating, manufactured, hyped, democratic, free, and fun. Few if any of those traits can be applied to Modern Art. In today's art world, Modern Art is where the money is. It's elitist; it's discriminatory; it's mysterious; and it's outrageously expensive.
The fact that Post-modern art is now some forty years old and now poised to become collectible challenges the same lofty pretensions Modern Art hated so radically a hundred years ago when it was struggling to break with the past. This point is not lost upon dealers and critics who work to prop up the ever more delicate house of cards which Modern Art has become. They recall what happened to the prices for Academic art once Modern Art became chic. Which is why you hear so much hue and cry from them about Koons. He's merely the lightning rod for the outraged bolts of disbelief hurled at Postmodernism over the fact that its rules governing artists (and hence much of their art) have changed.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
29 April 2001