Art After Post-Modernism

The logic of this manifesto and exhibition comprehends and condenses a new, well-developed esthetic now beginning to displace and definitively succeed the combined esthetic of Modernism and its coda, so-called Post-Modernism, which in tandem formed the artistic continuum dominating the fine arts in the twentieth century. Inevitably and inexorably, this new and growing international art movement will determine the course of the fine arts well into the 21st century, the third millennium.

Art after Post-Modernism is reconstitutive. It seeks to recover the technical and expressive resources that were systematically stripped away and abandoned in the various fine arts over the course of the 20th century. This new art's inevitability results from the ongoing Romanticism of the last two centuries, under which the crucial intellectual impetus of great artists has been dissatisfaction with the established philosophical and esthetic high culture of their particular time in history. Accordingly, the artist undergoes an alienation which leads him to reject the high-cultural status quo and attempt to overthrow it, by inventing through his work what he considers to be a better esthetic response to, and philosophical explanation of, the current cultural realities. Therefore, by a continuously alternating succession of rejection and replacement since 1800, art of the highest cultural level was progressively dismantled until, in painting and sculpture for example, it was finally reduced by 1970 to its basic building blocks in Minimal Art, and then abandoned altogether in the "dematerialization of art" movements: principally Conceptual, Environmental, Ecological, Performance, and Installation Art.

In the present context, the term Post-Modernism is relegated with finality to its dominant usage in the several fine arts: as a general label for late deconstructive movements. The common conception of the term is substantially different: a misunderstanding caused by the word's popularization as a label for a certain period and general style of architecture. This architecture's recent preeminence has now decisively ended. Despite the generic, popular understanding of the term "Post-Modernism"—an impression principally caused by the often eclectically composite nature of what is called Post-Modern architecture—a systematic survey of the term's usage in criticism of the other fine arts reveals the expression to be employed, in overwhelming numbers, as a label for artistic phenomena strictly of the late-dismantlement sort.

In the visual arts, "Post-Modernism" is quite predominantly used to encompass late reductive movements: from an uncertain point not long before Minimalism, through the latest tortured developments in the now aimlessly drifting and meandering dematerialization of art. In poetry, the term has been applied almost exclusively to contemporary verse so stripped of technical resources that it is largely indistinguishable from common prose if read aloud. In serious music, one finds "Post-Modernism" used to denote the dismantlement process completed, for example, in the random noise-music of John Cage. And so it is used in drama and dance criticism too: as a descriptive label for extremely reductive works, such as the Living Theater company's audience/cast interactive performances improvised without a script.

Often the term "Pluralism" is used as a virtual synonym for "Post-Modernism," referring to the overall cultural situation of the fine arts under the prescriptive and authoritarian domination of late dismantlement. Pluralism is actually a misnomer. In the visual arts, it purports to denote a large diversity of artistic movements, modes, and genres. In truth, however, the term Pluralism, in this context, merely refers collectively to many disparate facets or manifestations of a single, general esthetic. All such related phenomena add up to what can succinctly be called the late-dismantlement esthetic of deconstructive Post-Modernism, in which there is an extreme to total divestiture of the former expressive and technical resources of the several artistic disciplines. It follows logically that there is no such thing as reconstructive Post-Modernism. The same term cannot rationally apply to two diametrically opposed, chronologically overlapping but ultimately consecutive periods of art history: the first dedicated to dismantling high art, the second to high art's innovative reconstitution. Reconstitution from both the ruins and the liberation resulting from high art's own previous, self-imposed analytic dismantlement.

The fundamental premise of art after Post-Modernism is that since the various art forms of high culture have been analytically dismantled—fully picked apart and broken down—the important, unavoidable, inevitable work now confronting serious visual artists, writers, and composers, is to pick up the junked pieces and put that culture back together again in limitless new ways. The logic of art after Post-Modernism is that if artists are to avoid merely perpetuating the late-dismantlement esthetic, which has now reductively dead-ended, then the only valid direction available to them is to reclaim innovatively the lost and abandoned resources of technique and content in their different artistic disciplines. Yet they must do this while further observing the lessons of the 20th century's analytic dismantlement, so as not to simply rehash or recycle the cultural and artistic past. And because of the dismantling legacy of Pop Art, which eliminated the dogmatic notion of a hierarchical exclusivity of cultural levels, artists of high-cultural intent can adequately reconstitute high art only by exploiting usable resources of expression and technique found in any level of culture.

A small percentage of European, Pan-American, and other world artists are doing precisely this. Art after Post-Modernism incorporates a wide range of cultural references and material, from folklore and popular culture to mythology, religion, history, science, philosophy, and literary and art history. The challenge of art after Post-Modernism is that in today's diverse and chaotic culture, the most competent and valuable art will be that which makes the fullest and richest use of the entire range of culture at all levels, past and present.

Like all great art of the last two centuries, art after Post-Modernism is culturally vandalistic. That is, it seeks to destroy the high-cultural status quo and replace it with new, more timely, more adequate philosophical and artistic constructs. For example: "We must destroy the soulless, materialistic life of the 19th century," wrote Kandinsky in 1912, and "we must build the life of the soul and the spirit of the 20th century." Art after Post-Modernism is culturally vandalistic, furthermore, because its typical method in employing the wide range of cultural references, by which it grapples with the whole of surrounding culture, is to distort or effectively deface its sources as it bends them innovatively to its own creative needs. In addition, the cumulative effect of this new art's tremendous retrieval of cultural resources may sometimes invest its individual works with the character of a collection of loot, as if plundered by a tribe of Vandals, in a raid on past and present culture at many levels.

In the wake of the complete, analytic dismantlement of high art, art after Post-Modernism now rises as a total exploration of expressive resources and possibilities, an entirely new manner and degree of incorporating and innovating many different kinds of artistic expression from the widest possible range of cultural origins and cultural levels. The great variety of this new art will go completely beyond any conceivable resemblance to the limited range of between-world-wars figurative painting, the specter which some critics have raised in comparison to the current reappearance of recognizable imagery. As the small portion of contemporary art which constitutes the highest and most advanced cultural level, art after post-Modernism includes some painting which looks fairly traditional in a representational sense, yet which grasps, assimilates, and employs more diverse cultural sources and resources than art has done heretofore, in previous ages. Only a shallow perception of this particular sort of painting would inspire the adjective "retrograde" in a critic's hasty judgement.

Painting after Post-Modernism, specifically, will include a great deal more stylistic variety within its single, coherent, overall esthetic—variety manifested in unlimited combinations of abstract and figurative, pictorial manners and modes—than has existed in any prior period in the history of art. And this will be simply a natural result of art after Post-Modernism's fundamental esthetic method of non-hierarchically exploring, with high-cultural complexity of awareness, the widest possible range of cultural resources, in order to create highly ambitious works of art that grapple innovatively and intelligently with beauty, meaning, and value in the contemporary world.

This new art is the present innovative frontier of world culture at its highest level; the frontier upon which the vital reconstitution of high art is taking place. This reconstitution will be brought about in part through recovery of the discarded resources of previous high-cultural modes, resources that will thus inevitably reappear, but in an altered condition, employed with an altered perspective, in the new artistic constructs of art after Post-Modernism. Insofar as these recovered resources may appear familiar, some observers will fail to understand the innovative artistic use being made of them.

Besides recovered resources, it is of equal importance that the reconstitution of the several fine arts will be further accomplished by exploring and exploiting, for creative purposes, the entire range of the available surrounding culture, past and present. Such scope in the most advanced artist's effort and attention represents an entirely new high-cultural point of view: an unprecedented, non-prescriptive and non-hierarchical openness to making art by utilizing any expressive and technical possibilities found at any level of culture. One must look to the question of overall innovation as the measure of artistic value under this new esthetic, which has no prescriptive, authoritarian principles, but rather maintains an objective openness, for high-culturally innovative purposes, to all the possibilities of artistic expression, based upon any sources and resources whatsoever, of technique and content, that are to be recovered, found, or invented from within the entire, complex range of culture.

Art after Post-Modernism lays the superior claim as the art which constitutes the one true innovative frontier in all the fine arts at the present time, the twilight of the second, and the dawn of the third millennium. One may also call this frontier the cutting edge, the vanguard, the only important contemporary art, the eventual art-historical and canonical mainstream, or the art of the future, if one pleases.

In speaking of this new art, we are indeed speaking more of the future than of the present. The examples of this new movement created thus far in the visual arts, literature, architecture, music, and theater, are merely the first evidence, the first wave of manifestations of a movement whose future possibilities are vast, and whose present instances are just a preliminary indication of what those possibilities are. These instances are only a preview of the extent to which the challenge of art after Post-Modernism will inspire and constitute an entire new age in art, an age as great as that of Modernism itself, which artistically occupied nearly the whole 20th century. In other words, the great importance of this new art does not lie in what the movement has already brought about, as excellent and exciting as these accomplishments are. It lies rather in what great works of art the inexorable logic of art after Post-Modernism will cause to be created in the millennial future of the 21st century.

James Mann, Curator

Las Vegas Art Museum

April 8, 1997
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