Postmodernism

Race and Ethnicity in Postmodernism

Postmodernism had a profound influence on the concepts of race and ethnicity in the United States in the mid-20th century.

Learning Objectives

Describe the influence of postmodernism on the concept of race in the United States

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, arguing that the outcome of one’s own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative rather than certain or universal.
  • A great deal of art during this era sought to deconstruct race through a postmodern lens, arguing that race is not based in any biological reality but is instead a socially constructed category.
  • Primarily through a postmodern perspective, the author bell hooks has addressed the intersection of race, class, and gender in education, art, history, sexuality, mass media, and feminism.
  • The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s led artists to express the ideals of the times. Galleries and community art centers were developed for the purpose of displaying African-American art, and collegiate teaching positions were created by and for African-American artists.
  • By the 1980s and 1990s, hip-hop graffiti became predominate in urban communities. Most major cities developed museums devoted to African American artists. The National Endowment for the Arts provided increasing support for these artists.
  • Post-black art is a phrase that refers to a category of contemporary African-American art. It is a paradoxical genre in which race and racism are intertwined in a way that rejects their interaction.

Key Terms

  • bell hooks: Born Gloria Jean Watkins (1952 – ); an American author, feminist, and social activist; known for her focus on the interconnectivity of race, capitalism, and gender and their ability to perpetuate systems of oppression.
  • deconstruction: A philosophical theory of textual criticism; a form of critical analysis.
  • post-structuralism: A doctrine that rejects structuralism’s claims to objectivity and emphasizes the plurality of meaning.

Background

Postmodernism (also known as post-structuralism ) is skeptical of explanations that claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person (i.e. postmodernism = relativism). In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only exists through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, arguing that the outcome of one’s own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative rather than certain or universal.

Postmodernism frequently serves as an ambiguous, overarching term for skeptical interpretations of culture, literature, art, philosophy, economics, architecture, fiction, and literary criticism. It is often associated with deconstruction and post-structuralism because its usage gained significant popularity at the same time as 20th-century post-structural thought.

Postmodernism postulates that many, if not all, apparent realities are only social constructs and therefore subject to change. It claims that there is no absolute truth and that the way people perceive the world is subjective and emphasizes the role of language, power relations, and motivations in the formation of ideas and beliefs. In particular, it attacks the use of binary classifications such as male versus female, straight versus gay, white versus black, and imperial versus colonial; it holds realities to be plural, relative, and dependent on who the interested parties are and the nature of these interests. Postmodernist approaches consider that the ways in which social dynamics, such as power and hierarchy, affect human conceptualizations of the world have important effects on the way knowledge is constructed and used. Postmodernist thought often emphasizes constructivism, idealism, pluralism, relativism, and skepticism in its approaches to knowledge and understanding.

Postmodernism and Race

Postmodernism had a profound influence on the concepts of race and ethnicity in the United States in the mid-20th century. Many people began to reconceptualize the term “race” as a social construct – meaning that it has no inherent biological reality, but is a classification system that’s been constructed or invented for societal purposes. Following the Second World War, evolutionary and social scientists were acutely aware of how beliefs about race were used to justify discrimination, apartheid, slavery, and genocide. This questioning gained momentum in the 1960s during the U.S. civil rights movement and the emergence of numerous anti-colonial movements worldwide.

A great deal of art during this era sought to deconstruct race through a postmodern lens. The author bell hooks is widely known for her writing focused on the connection of race, capitalism, and gender and what she describes as their ability to produce and perpetuate systems of oppression and class domination. She has published more than 30 books and numerous scholarly and mainstream articles, appeared in several documentary films, and participated in various public lectures. Primarily through a postmodern perspective, hooks has addressed race, class, and gender in education, art, history, sexuality, mass media, and feminism.

A photo of bell hooks speaking into a microphone.

bell hooks: The author bell hooks is widely known for her postmodern writing focused on the connection of race, capitalism, and gender.

Some African-American artists began taking a global approach after World War II. Artists such as Barbara Chase-Riboud, Edward Clark, Harvey Cropper, and Beauford Delaney worked and exhibited abroad in Paris, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. Other African-American artists made it into important New York galleries by the 1950s and 1960s: Horace Pippin and Romare Bearden were among the few who were successfully received in a gallery setting. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s led artists to capture and express the times and changes. Galleries and community art centers were developed for the purpose of displaying African-American art, and collegiate teaching positions were created by and for African-American artists.

A colorful collage made up of abstract images and figures.

E.J. Martin 1990: Midnight Golfer by Eugene J. Martin, mixed media collage on rag paper.

Post-black art arose during this time as a category of contemporary African-American art. It is a paradoxical genre of art where race and racism are intertwined in a way that rejects their interaction. By the 1980s and 1990s, hip-hop graffiti became predominate in urban communities. Most major cities had developed museums devoted to African American artists. The National Endowment for the Arts provided increasing support for these artists.

Postmodernist Sculpture

The characteristics of postmodernism, such as collage, pastiche, appropriation, and the destruction of barriers between fine art and popular culture, can be applied to sculptural works.

Learning Objectives

Discuss postmodern sculpture

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • While inherently difficult to define by nature, postmodernism began with pop art  and continued within many following movements including conceptual art, neo-expressionism, feminist art, and the young British artists of the 1990s.
  • Intermedia, installation art, conceptual art, video, light art, and sound art are often regarded as postmodern mediums.
  • In the 1960s and 1970s artists like Eduardo Paolozzi, Chryssa, Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, Edward Kienholz, Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell, Duane Hanson, and John DeAndrea explored abstraction, imagery, and figure by using video art, environment, light sculpture, and installation art in new ways.
  • Jeff Koons is a good example of a postmodern sculptor; his works elevate the mundane, contain a heavy dose of kitsch, and project an element of ambiguous cynicism often seen in postmodern works.

Key Terms

  • postminimalist: One who works in the style of postminimalism.
  • kinetic: Of or relating to motion.

Background

The characteristics of postmodernism, include bricolage, collage, appropriation, the recycling of past styles and themes in a modern-day context, and destruction of the barriers between fine arts, craft and popular culture, can be applied to sculpture. While inherently difficult to define by nature, postmodernism began with pop art and continued within many following movements including conceptual art, neo-expressionism, feminist art, and the young British artists of the 1990s. The plurality of idea and form that defines postmodernism essentially allow any medium to be considered postmodern. In terms of sculpture, characteristics like mixed media, installation art, conceptual art, video light art, and sound art are often regarded as postmodern.

Pop Art

The pop art movement emerged in the mid-1950s in Britain and the late 1950s in the United States. Among the early artists that shaped the pop art movement were Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton in Britain and Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in the United States. Pop art presented a challenge to traditions of fine art by including imagery from popular culture such as advertising and news.

Picture of a large typewriter eraser on display outside.

Typewriter Eraser by Claes Oldenburg, 1999: Claes Oldenburg is known for memorializing everyday objects in his works, challenging the idea that public monuments must commemorate historical figures or events.

Jeff Koons

Jeffrey “Jeff” Koons (born January 21, 1955) is an American artist known for working with popular culture subjects and reproducing banal objects, such as balloon animals produced in stainless steel with mirror-finish surfaces. His works have sold for substantial sums, including at least one world record auction price for a work by a living artist.

Koons gained recognition in the 1980s and subsequently set up a factory-like studio in a SoHo loft on the corner of Houston Street and Broadway in New York. It was staffed with over 30 assistants, each assigned to a different aspect of producing his work, in a similar mode as Andy Warhol’s Factory (notable because all of his work is produced using a method known as art fabrication). Today, he has a 16,000-square-foot factory near the old Hudson rail yards in Chelsea, working with 90 to 120 regular assistants. Koons developed a color-by-numbers system so that each of his assistants could execute his canvases and sculptures as if they had been done “by a single hand”.

A picture of the giant, magenta balloon dog sculpture on display inside a museum.

Balloon Dog (Magenta), Jeff Koons, 1994–2000: One of five unique versions (Blue, Magenta, Orange, Red, Yellow). Made from mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, the Orange version was sold in 2013 for a record price for a living sculptor.

Koons is a good example of a postmodern sculptor because his works elevate the mundane, contain a heavy dose of kitsch, and project an element of ambiguous cynicism often seen in postmodern works.

Puppy by Jeff Koons

The “Puppy” topiary sculpture by Jeff Koons, on the outdoor terrace at Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain.: Koons’ “Puppy” presents a large scale puppy on the terrace of the Guggenheim, Bilbao.

Neo-Expressionism

Neo-expressionists sought to portray recognizable subjects in rough and violently emotional ways using vivid color schemes.

Learning Objectives

Critique the controversies around neo-expressionism related to marketability, celebrity, feminism, and intellectualism.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Related to American lyrical abstraction, the Bay Area Figurative School, the continuation of abstract expressionism, new image painting, and pop art, neo-expressionism developed as a reaction against the conceptual art and minimal art of the 1970s.
  • Critics questioned neo-expressionism’s relation to marketability, the rapidly expanding art market, celebrity, the backlash against feminism, anti-intellectualism, and a return to mythic subjects and individualist methods that some deemed outmoded.
  • Women were marginalized by the movement, with painters such as Elizabeth Murray and Maria Lassnig omitted from many key exhibitions.
  • The return to traditional painting in the late 1970s and early 1980s seen in neo-expressionist artists such as Georg Baselitz and Julian Schnabel is described as having had postmodern tendencies.
  • Neo-expressionism’s strong links to the commercial art market has raised questions about its status as a postmodern movement and about the definition of postmodernism itself.

Key Terms

  • outmoded: Something that is considered unfashionable.
  • neo-expressionism: A style of modern painting and sculpture that emerged in the late 1970s and dominated the art market until the mid-1980s; characterized by portraying recognizable objects like the human body in rough and violently emotional ways using vivid color schemes.
  • bay: An opening in a wall, especially between two columns; the distance between two supports in a vault or building with a pitched roof.

Background

Neo-expressionism is a style of modern painting and sculpture that emerged in the late 1970s and dominated the art market until the mid-1980s. Related to American lyrical abstraction of the 60s and 70s, the Bay Area Figurative School of the 50s and 60s, the continuation of abstract expressionism, new image painting, and pop art, neo-expressionism developed as a reaction against the conceptual and minimalist art of the 1970s. Neo-expressionists returned to portraying recognizable objects such as the human body (though sometimes an abstracted version), in rough and violently emotional ways using vivid colors and color harmonies.

Overtly inspired by so-called German expressionist painters such as Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and other expressionist artists such as James Ensor and Edvard Munch, neo-expressionists were sometimes called Neue Wilden (“the new wild ones'”). The style emerged internationally and was viewed by critics as a revival of traditional themes of self-expression in European art after decades of American dominance.

The social and economic value of the movement was hotly debated. Critics questioned neo-expressionism’s relation to marketability, the rapidly expanding art market, celebrity, the backlash against feminism, anti-intellectualism, and a return to mythic subjects and individualist methods that some deemed outmoded. Women were marginalized in the movement, with painters such as Elizabeth Murray and Maria Lassnig omitted from many of its key exhibitions, most notoriously from the 1981 “New Spirit in Painting” exhibition in London that included 38 male painters and no female painters.

This lithograph portrays an abstract object or figure that appears to be bound with ropes or string and wiggling around.

Elizabeth Murray, Wiggle Manhattan, lithograph, 1992: Elizabeth Murray is an example of a Neo-Expressionist painter who was marginalized in the movement due to her gender.

Neo-Expressionism Around the World

Georg Baselitz, born January 1938, is a German painter who studied in the former East Germany before moving to West Germany. Baselitz’s style is interpreted as neo-expressionist, but from a European perspective it is seen as postmodern. His career was amplified in the 1960s after the police took action against one of his paintings because of its provocative and offensive sexual nature.

A photo of Georg Baselitz standing amongst his art.

Georg Baselitz by Lothar Wolleh (Mülheim, 1971): Georg Baselitz’s paintings are representative of neo-expressionism.

Ida Applebroog is a notable American painter whose work is included in many public collections in the United States. During the 1990s, she received multiple honors, including the College Art Association Distinguished Art Award for Lifetime Achievement and an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the New School for Social Research/Parsons School of Design.

Neo-Expressionism As Postmodern Art?

The return to traditional painting in the late 1970s and early 1980s seen in neo-expressionist artists such as Georg Baselitz and Julian Schnabel has been described as one of the first coherent postmodern movements. Its strong link to the commercial art market has raised questions about its status as a postmodern movement and about the definition of postmodernism itself. Hal Foster stated that Neo-Expressionism was complicit with the conservative cultural politics of the Reagan-Bush era in the U.S. Félix Guattari disregarded the “large promotional operations dubbed ‘Neo-Expressionism’ in Germany” as an example of a “fad that maintains itself by means of publicity…postmodernism is nothing but the last gasp of modernism. ”

These critiques of Neo-Expressionism reveal that money and public relations strained the credibility of the contemporary art world in America during the same period that conceptual artists and women artists including painters and feminist theorists like Griselda Pollock were systematically reevaluating modern art. Brian Massumi claims that Deleuze and Guattari opened the horizon for new definitions of beauty in postmodern art. For Jean-François Lyotard, paintings by Valerio Adami, Daniel Buren, Marcel Duchamp, Bracha Ettinger, and Barnett Newman, and the painting of Paul Cézanne and Wassily Kandinsky, were the vehicles for new ideas of the sublime in contemporary art.

Political Art

Political art in the nineties was a form of protest for queer and feminist movements against the patriarchy.

Learning Objectives

Discuss how personal revelation through art was used as a political tool throughout the 1990s

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The 90s saw a continuation of political art whereby stigmatized communities such as racial minorities, women, and LGBT individuals created what is termed political art in opposition to the patriarchy.
  • The Guerrilla Girls are an anonymous group of feminist, female artists devoted to fighting sexism and racism within the art world.
  • The LGBT community responded to the AIDS crisis by organizing, engaging in direct actions, staging protests, and creating political art.
  • Street art can be a powerful platform for reaching the public and a potent form of political expression for the oppressed.

Key Terms

  • feminism: A social theory or political movement supporting the equality of both sexes in all aspects of public and private life; specifically, a theory or movement that argues that legal and social restrictions on females must be removed in order to bring about such equality.

Background

A strong relationship between the arts and politics has existed across cultural boundaries and throughout history. Artistic responses to contemporaneous events take on political and social dimensions, becoming a focus of controversy and even a force of political and social change. The 1990s saw a continuation of political art around the world. Stigmatized communities such as racial minorities, women, and the LGBT individuals created political art in opposition to the patriarchy.

The notion that personal revelation through art can be a political tool guided activist art in its study of public dimensions and private experience. The strategies deployed by feminist artists paralleled those of other activist artists, including “collaboration, dialogue, a constant questioning of aesthetic and social assumptions, and a new respect for audience.” These were used to articulate and negotiate issues of self-representation, empowerment, and community identity.

The Guerrilla Girls

The Guerrilla Girls are an anonymous group of feminist, female artists devoted to fighting sexism and racism within the art world. The group formed in New York City in 1985 with the mission of bringing gender and racial inequality in the fine arts into focus within the greater community. Members are known for the gorilla masks they wear to remain anonymous.

Throughout their existence, the Guerrilla Girls have utilized protest art to express their ideals, opinions, and concerns, as well as to fundraise for the group. Their posters, which now are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and others they once protested against, are known for their bold statements such as, “When racism and sexism are no longer fashionable, what will your art collection be worth?” In the early days, posters were brainstormed, designed, critiqued and posted around New York. Small handbills based on their designs were also passed out at events by the thousands.

A photo of a billboard describing the “anatomically correct Oscar” and pointing out facts about inequality at the Oscars.

Guerrilla Girls Billboard: Guerrilla Girls billboard in Los Angeles protests white male dominance at the Oscars in 2009.

In 1990, the group designed a billboard featuring Mona Lisa that was placed along the West Side Highway, supported by the New York City public art fund. For one day, New York’s MTA Bus Company also displayed bus advertisements asking, “Do women have to get naked to get into the Met Museum?” Stickers also became popular calling cards representative of the group. In the mid-1980s members infiltrated the Guggenheim Museum bathrooms and placed stickers about female inequality on the walls.

Since 2002, Guerrilla Girls, Inc. has designed and installed billboards in Los Angeles during the Oscars to expose white male dominance in the film industry, such as: “Anatomically Correct Oscars,” “Even the Senate is More Progressive than Hollywood,” and “The Birth of Feminism, Unchain the Women Directors. ” Guerrilla Girls have also published books that include their statistical data, information about protest arts, and goals regarding inequality in the art world. Their first book, Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls

LGBT Rights and the AIDS Crisis

The AIDS crisis of the 1980s led to increasing stigma against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, who in turn protested with political art and activism.

The LGBT community responded to the AIDS crisis by organizing, engaging in direct actions, staging protests, and creating political art. Some of the earliest attempts to bring attention to the new disease were staged by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a protest and street performance organization that uses drag and religious imagery to call attention to sexual intolerance and satirize issues of gender and morality. At the group’s inception in 1979, a small group of gay men in San Francisco began wearing the attire of nuns in visible situations, using high camp to draw attention to social conflicts and problems in the Castro District.

One of their most enduring projects of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, in which members who have died (referred to as “Nuns of the Above”) are immortalized. Created in the early 1990s, the quilt has frequently been flown around the United States for local displays.

A photo of the quilt in Washington DC, showing its enormous size.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt: The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, often abbreviated to AIDS Memorial Quilt, is an enormous quilt made as a memorial to celebrate the lives of people who have died of AIDS-related causes. Weighing an estimated 54 tons, it is the largest piece of community folk art in the world as of 2016.

Street Art

Street art is an umbrella term defining forms of visual art created in public locations, usually unsanctioned artwork executed outside of the context of traditional art venues. The term gained popularity during the graffiti art boom of the early 1980s. The terms “urban art”, “guerrilla art”, “post-graffiti” and “neo-graffiti” are also sometimes used when referring to artwork created in these contexts.

There is a strong current of activism and subversion in urban art, as it can be a powerful platform for reaching the public and a potent form of political expression for the oppressed. Some street artists use “smart vandalism” as a way to raise awareness of social and political issues, especially around issues of race and racism. Street artists sometimes present socially relevant content infused with aesthetic value to attract attention to a cause or as a form of “art provocation.” Street art is a controversial issue: some people consider it a crime, others consider it a form of art.