Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

The Conformism of Postmodern Style

By Claudia Moscovici on Wednesday, September 1, 2010 03:51 pm

(Please welcome a second Litkicks appearance by Claudia Moscovici, who recently told us about her experience writing the novel Velvet Totalitarianism. Today she introduces the main idea behind her book Romanticism and Postromanticism, an art-related idea that resembles some of the theories I've recently heard about genres and literary fiction. Enjoy ... -- Levi)

Artistic freedom and aesthetic value are interrelated. Art that is not considered valuable by the artistic establishment -- art critics, museum curators and art historians -- doesn’t even get the chance to be evaluated by the public. Such art doesn’t make it to museums of contemporary art like the Guggenheim. It also doesn’t get discussed in the art sections of influential newspapers and art magazines. Analogously, literature that is not considered valuable by the publishing establishment -- literary agents, editors, publishers and critics -- doesn’t get a readership because it never makes it into print. (Granted, of course, the Internet has recently opened up possibilities to express more diverse points of view that didn’t exist before.)

So artistic freedom isn’t just about creating whatever one wants in the privacy of one’s home or studio without the fear of being arrested or shot for it. Although this basic freedom is very necessary, artistic freedom also entails a correlate liberty: namely, the public’s freedom to be exposed to a wide variety of artistic and literary styles. That way we can make our own choices and express our personal tastes. When there’s only one politician or political party to vote for on a ballot it generally means there’s no real freedom of choice in politics. When there’s only one artistic current or style displayed in museums of contemporary art it means there’s no real freedom of choice in art.

Artistic freedom requires an openness or pluralism in our cultural environment. It depends upon the artistic and literary establishments giving a variety of styles a fair shake. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that such an open-minded cultural environment exists in the art world in the United States today. I admit right away that I’m not impartial about aesthetic matters. In 2002, the sculptor Leonardo Pereznieto and I began an international aesthetic movement, called postromanticism.com, which celebrates sensuality, passion and beauty in contemporary art. But my argument for artistic freedom is more general than my preference for a certain type of art. I’d be curious to know if Litkicks readers share my impressions of the contemporary art world (or not).

Many art critics are far more optimistic than I am. For instance, scholars who focus on contemporary art describe the liberating effect of “the end of art.” What they mean by this is that the elitist standards associated with the traditional art promoted by art academies and the salons, which made “good” art subject to very specific and rigorous rules, have died since the development of modern and postmodern art. In postmodern art in particular, they claim, artists can do whatever they please in a cultural environment where everything goes. Some scholars and art critics, such as Hal Foster (The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture) and Arthur Danto (After the End of Art), celebrate this pluralism or interpret it as an inevitable cultural evolution. Others, like Susi Gablik (Has Modernism failed?), tend to be somewhat more critical or at least ambivalent about it. Last but not least, organizations like Fred Ross's artrenewal.org lament the dissolution of aesthetic standards and promote Realism as an alternative.

In my estimation, this supposed artistic pluralism, or openness to diversity in art, is largely illusory. While it’s no doubt true that the hierarchy between “high art” or “good art” and “low art” or “bad art” has been seriously undermined, the kind of contemporary art that is displayed by museums of contemporary art or discussed by art critics and scholars who specialize in contemporary art remains strikingly uniform, even prescriptive. So while a pluralism in standards of value exists, it’s unfortunately overshadowed by a simultaneous dogmatism in the kind of art that’s being displayed, discussed and taken seriously by the artistic establishment for the past forty years or so. If one visits museums of contemporary art and departments of Studio Art and Design, one is struck by the conformity of thought and the similarity of artistic styles. One notices that only or primarily the art that’s currently considered “cutting-edge” and “postmodern” is presented as a valid part of the contemporary art scene. By way of contrast, contemporary artistic styles that are more traditional in inspiration -- especially Realism and Romanticism -- are ignored or dismissed as “antiquated,” “old-fashioned,” “kitsch” or just plain “derivative.” The message of the current art establishment seems to be: “everything goes” as long as it’s not traditional, realist or resembles what the general public conventionally views as art.

If all or most contemporary artists created in a postmodern style, then the conformism would not be the direct result of any kind of dogmatism imposed from above by the artistic establishment. Similarly, if the public only liked postmodern installations and ready-mades, then the fact that museums of contemporary art display such art would also be a reflection of the public taste. But that’s not what actually happens in our culture today. If anything, there seems to be an inverse relation between the art that the public prefers and what critics, scholars and museums curators consecrate. While the public tends to like and buy works in the Realist tradition, this kind of art is rarely featured in museums of contemporary art or discussed by art critics and scholars today. I find this automatic exclusion of certain artistic styles and dogmatic valorization of others a disturbing cultural phenomenon in a supposedly free and democratic society.

Growing up in Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist regime, I remember noticing the uniformity of contemporary art. During the Stalinist and post-Stalinist periods, art had to be done in a certain “Social Realist” style. Sculptures and paintings commonly represented in a realistic (yet also idealized) style communist heroes fighting against our country’s invaders or workers combating the bourgeois oppressors. Drama and fiction predictably staged the on-going heroic battle of the proletariat against the threat (or temptation) of bourgeois values. Granted, the dogmatism in art and literature was not one of the things that bothered our family most about living in totalitarian Romania. Nor was it what led us, ultimately, to immigrate to the United States. We had more pressing concerns than the impoverishment of high culture: we had to deal with the poverty of our daily lives. The lack of food and consumer goods and the constant monitoring by the Secret Police (Securitate) posed much more serious, and pressing, problems, which I depicted in my novel Velvet Totalitarianism. Nonetheless, the ideological homogeneity and censorship of art and literature was a symptom of a more general political and cultural repression: of the lack of choice and freedom that characterizes life in totalitarian regimes and that, by way of contrast, constitute two of the most attractive features of democratic societies.

After emigrating to the United States, I became especially interested in the link between artistic/intellectual freedom and political/social freedom. In college and graduate school, I studied literature and art: two aspects of culture that were dictated from above in communist Romania. It was not long before I noticed that contemporary art in Western countries also appears to be homogeneous, even if in a completely different (one could say, opposite) way from the Socialist Realism prescribed in Eastern Europe during the communist era. Rather than being Realist in style and bearing a clear ideological (Marxist) message, Western contemporary art seems to be deliberately anti-representational and anti-interpretation (as Susan Sontag describes the formalism of contemporary literature in her groundbreaking book Against Interpretation). Some of the most important museums of contemporary art -- the Guggenheim and MoMa in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris -- consistently display pop art in the style of Andy Warhol and installations made up of trash and other materials and assisted ready-mades that carry the tradition of Duchamp to an extreme, all of it loosely fitting into the flexible category of “postmodern art.”

I also noticed that the kind of art that actually sells in American galleries doesn’t seem to be the kind that’s displayed by museums of contemporary art or praised by art critics. If one visits art galleries all over the United States, one is much more likely to find contemporary paintings and sculptures in the Realist and Modernist traditions -- up to and including Abstract Expressionism. The contrast between the kind of art that people enjoy seeing, buying and displaying in their homes or offices and the kind of art that critics praise may be a symptom of the fact that since the nineteenth century (more specifically, since Theophile Gauthier’s notion of “art for art’s sake” gained popularity) art has made certain claims to purely aesthetic value. Since then, critics have maintained that artistic value lies not in how well art sells (or its market value), but in its purely “aesthetic” qualities. The influential twentieth-century art critic Clement Greenberg, who popularized Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism in general, made the strongest case for this understanding of art solely on its own terms.

Yet in an era of supposed cultural pluralism, it seems somewhat suspect to assume that the kind of art that a large section of the general public prefers must necessarily be of poor quality. It’s also elitist and dogmatic to assume that only the art that critics and museums of contemporary art favor reflects “real” aesthetic value. Although the process of artistic consecration differs in the West from how art gained value in Eastern Europe during the communist era, the end result is, unfortunately, strikingly similar: artistic uniformity and conformism. Under communism, such uniformity was imposed from above by the state apparatus, through ideological indoctrination and censorship. In the United States, it occurs in a more complex, or “overdetermined” manner, through what the French sociologist of culture, Pierre Bourdieu, calls the processes of “consecration” which give art its “cultural capital”: namely, through the institutions that study, display, discuss and disseminate contemporary art. If art were truly democratic and the field of cultural production were truly pluralistic, as some critics maintain, wouldn’t a wide range of contemporary styles of art be granted value, provided that they were well executed? If I keep the qualifier -- if they were well executed -- it’s because, in my understanding, cultural pluralism doesn’t imply that all art is necessarily equal in quality. For as long as people will have standards of taste and value, by definition, not all art will be regarded as equally good or equally bad.

In my estimation, pluralism entails a democratization of art, where a wide range of diverse and distinct artistic styles are given a real chance to be considered, discussed and judged by the general public: by being displayed in museums, taught in courses, discussed by art critics and… debated on art and culture blogs, such as this one. But pluralism in the sense that some postmodern critics use the word today -- i.e. as the dissolution of the difference between “good art” and “bad art” -- strikes me as dangerously similar to what occurred under the reign of Socialist Realism. All Socialist art was by definition “good”: declaring that some artists were more talented than others was regarded as an old-fashioned and elitist bourgeois distinction.

Whatever the difference between good and bad art may be, I think that this distinction is worth preserving. A meaningful cultural pluralism doesn’t automatically do away with artistic standards. Instead, it multiplies the choices offered to the public. When a culture eliminates artistic choice and the standards by which people can evaluate different styles of art and presents only a few styles of art as valid -- which is what I’m afraid is happening in our country today -- the result is the flattening of art to ideology.

This creates a dull conformism that, no matter how much it’s justified or hailed by the artistic establishment, leaves the public feeling deeply skeptical about the value of contemporary art. As the New York art critic Suzi Gablik states in Has Modernism Failed, many people tend to view contemporary art “as a loss of craft, a fall from grace, a fraud or a hoax ...” For art to be vibrant and alive in a culture, it has to be taken seriously -- or at least enjoyed with pleasure -- by a large section of the viewing public, not just by a small elite of critics, artists and scholars who appear to many of us to be praising work of questionable value.

23 Responses to "The Conformism of Postmodern Style"

by D. R. Popa on

I can’t praise enough Claudia Moscovici’s pleading for artistic pluralism. As a political asylee in the US I learned how to distinguish between real pluralism and fake (the superficial “everything goes”). I deeply agree with her when she says “It’s also elitist and dogmatic to assume that only the art that critics and museums of contemporary art favor reflects ‘real’ aesthetic value.” For pluralism entails in deed a democratization of art, far from both conformism and pretentious elitism.

by TheTaoist on

I think the author had an interesting take on postmodernism--one that seems obvious when you think about it, but that doesn't get much attention. I live in San Francisco, and there are a lot of people here who think they're are really subversive and cutting edge because they avoid emotion and heart and feeling. Cerebral (or faux-cerebral as the case of often is) equals great and original art. Reading this piece made me remember a David Foster Wallace essay I once read in which he admitted that the next "rebel" artist may be the earnest one who lets her feelings come out without trying to hide behind irony all the time. Irony's great and detachment has its place, but sometimes, you need to communicate a feeling without a filter.

I guess in the end, anything and everything becomes old and conformist, even anti-conformist philosophies.

Thanks for the thought provoking piece.

by Bill_Ectric on

Playing the devil's advocate for a moment, I'll point out that it's impossible for anyone to absorb an unlimited amount of art or literature. Sometimes we blame the critics for not paying attention to certain works of art, not realizing that the critics are saturated. There is only so much they can do. Instead of less critics, maybe we need more.

Great book cover, by the way!

by Leonardo on

Great article. Very insightful!!!

It is true that most art sold in America is not the type of art shown in museums, which gives us an interesting point on what the public really want!

by Claudia on

Bill, since you mention liking the cover of Romanticism and Postromanticism: it's the painting "Echo," by the postromantic painter Edson Campos (edsoncampos.com). Another one of his paintings ("Red Amy") is also the book cover for my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism.

I agree with your main arguments. We need to take a more pluralistic approach to art and literature. We need variation in style and technique to truly reflect our cultural values and ideals. Obviously, a strict set of guidelines for what is "good art" and what is "bad art" cannot tell future generations our story. At least, not as we'd like to see it.

I think we'd like to be remembered as a culture that is founded on pluralism, a culture that appreciates diversity in its people and artistic expression. The problem I see is that we've taken post-modernism as the perfect form of free expression. But we forget so easily that by choosing one form of expression above all others, our cultural identity returns to what we've fought so hard to escape in the past. It becomes rigid and soulless.

This article reveals some of the many pitfalls of categorization.

by Gary Jenkins on

I completely agree with the main points of this article. In today's world, there is a striking difference between what is "officially" recognized as Art, often devoid of beauty and feelings, and what most people truly appreciate, works they can relate to on an emotional rather than intellectual level.

I'm not sure I agree at all. What you get when you lean toward what people prefer to buy is on prominent display in dentists' offices across the country.

Not to be too contradictory... but I just purchased a John Baldessari piece very much like the ones on official display this month at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

I have absolutely no problem with museums being elitist and remote from the popular tendencies. That's what museums do best. I think it's very healthy. Art is not a garage sale. It's arrogant and snotty and remote and full of grand ideas and old habits that are just waiting for someone to come along and smash them to bits. But only a very teeny tiny percentage of people are allowed to do the smashing. That's the fun of it.

Claudia, I looked at your post-romanticism site, and it is quite good. I would like to see some more post-romantic landscapes. I think this is an area that would lend itself to this movement.
And no, I have not seen any post-romantic work in galleries yet, but I will stark looking more closely.

by Claudia on

Michael, thank you for your comment. I really enjoy reading your Proust essays (as a fellow Proustian), so I'm glad to hear that you like what you've seen of the postromantic movement. I'm afraid that the lack of landscape paintings in postromanticism.com reflects my own blindspot and preference for figure painting/sculpture. We only have one photographer specializing in landscapes in or group, under the "photography section" on postromanticism.com. But more contributions are welcome! And there are dozens and dozens of galleries exhibiting the work of postromantic artists all over the world. These are by no means starving artists!

Alessandro, I appreciate your comment as well, but for a different reason: we agree to disagree about artistic freedom in the name of intellectual freedom:). But, actually, we are equally elitist, just
may have different aesthetic standards. I prefer the more traditional ones that are NOT in vogue in the academia/schools of art and design or with most art critics (since the advent of modernism). I'm not arguing for the end of elitism in aesthetic standards, but for a wider range of artistic styles that should be presented (by critics, scholars and museums of contemporary art) to the general public. Claudia

by Jean Callah on

I notice that almost all the painters and sculptors on Claudia's Postromanticism site are men and the subject of their art the female body. Is this still the only axis of passion and sensuality?

Claudia, apropos of the nudes and female figures on your site, I am struck by the fact that many of them seem (to me) to take as a point of departure the work of Gustav Klimt - who was perhaps a post-romantic!

by Claudia on

Jean, that is not the only axis of passion and sensuality (I hope). But it's most of what I found in this type of art when I looked around. Any movement beginning with one person or point of view will have many blind spots. The more people (artists and writers) join it, the more it fills out in different directions, until it eventually disperses its focus completely and offshoots into whole new movements. I'll explain more about how postromanticism came to be in a future piece on this art. And Michael, you are right to identify Klimt as an inspiration for some of the artists, especially Francois Fressinier. Postromanticism is inspired by many artistic movements, including Realism and art nouveau, not just Romanticism. But Romanticism is its biggest influence, hence the name. I suppose that I regard artistic movements as not just sequential or diachronic, one following the other in art history and then dying forever, but also as synchronic (medieval art was a big inspiration--one of many--for Romanticism, just as Romanticism, Realism and art nouveau are for postromanticism).

by Peter on

I'll agree with you, since we have a plualistic society we should eliminate conformism, but the some people believe certain views of aesthetics are superior, it doesn't mean that those people in that time (middle ages) were conformist.

by kjml on

Claudia,

Thanks for a lively and informed discussion of crucial issues in modern culture and aesthetics and, especially, for an encouraging common sense perspective in your analysis of the problem. I think you have it right, thatwhile a pluralism in standards of value exists, it’s unfortunately overshadowed by a simultaneous dogmatism in the kind of art that’s being displayed, discussed and taken seriously . . .

Indeed, I would take this one step further by asserting, that the dogmatism regarding values results from a dogmatic faux-pluralism. As you note: there results "this automatic exclusion of certain artistic styles and dogmatic valorization of others". (Values like 'originality' and 'complexity' ossify into 'anti-representational' and 'inscrutable'; "challenging" is replaced by "shocking", while "inclusive" becomes "arbitrary".) Who decided that pluralism is best exemplified--read: to be defined--by certain genres and styles and not by others. The attempt alone is ludicrous and the result absurd. But there is hope!

In literature we already see evidence of fine minds at work undermining the conformity from within. Using the very elements and techniques of Post-modernism ('intertextuality',' heteroglossic' narrative voicing, and fabulism, for examples), some writers are already poking fun at the pretensions and the dogmatism of the theorists. In Mat Johnson's "Pym", the only black, male professor in the college is fired for not joining the 'diversity' committee, leaving them with their principles intact and their uniformity unassailable. (The phrase "hoist on their own petard" comes to mind.) In John Banville's "Mefisto", the PoMo doctrine of the impossibility of formal unity is both confirmed and confounded in a tale that brings new meaning to "up jumped the Devil." And on another front, the novel "Freedom", by Jonathan Franzen, is being praised for its old-fashioned narrative architecture and its formal integrity. These things should give us hope.

Your essay is a great contribution to that hope. It is well written, well argued, and well informed. And it is honest into the bargain. Kudos and thanks.

by Claudia on

Peter and kjml, I appreciate your thoughtful comments. Kjml, the critical praise for Jonathan Franzen's Freedom gives me hope too that critics don't just go for the "subversive" and experimental. As did the critical praise received awhile ago by Eugenides' Middlesex. Both of these novels combine the best of both worlds: really sophisticated characterizations and socio-historical descriptions with a traditional narrative style and structure. That's probably why they have universal success, with both critics/academics and the general public. In my estimation, Freedom is one of the best in contemporary fiction. It's got that WOW factor, as I argue in my review of it, below:

http://literaturesalon.wordpress.com/2010/11/10/jonathan-franzen’s-freedom-the-wow-factor-in-contemporary-fiction/

Interesting and insightful. Postmodern art is indeed dreary, predictably uniform, and unaesthetic, reflecting a fruadulent "anything can be art" aesthetic. Its use of language -- or artspeak -- is also suspect, mere pretentious garbled gobbledy-gook, spoken only by the so-called "initiated."

Very interesting piece.

I think one should also count art schools/colleges amongst this 'dogmatic' art establishment; several of my (much) younger friends quit art school early or finished feeling cheated simply because all they felt they were being taught was PoMo 'concept', 'anything goes' etc, etc. What they really wanted was to draw, paint, sculpt... just get their hands dirty and make something.

Saying that, I do believe the tide is turning and that traditional skills are making a real come-back. Tracey Emin, Professor of Drawing? Unthinkable 10 or 20 years ago. Plus we now have Damien Hirst attempting to 'paint'. This can only be good for true pluralism and diversity: educate the kids, teach them the proper skills and then let them decide what, if anything, they want to do with them. You cannot honestly break rules and really take things forward if you don't know what the rules are in the first place.

This is a typical liberal view of the art world, relying on "more choices" to cure all ills. I don't think you're entirely wrong; I just lack faith in the "more choices" philosophy. More choices does not necessarily mean more meaningful choices; it is possible to have an endless array of the same junk in different packaging with different labels.

Words like "celebrates sensuality, passion and beauty in contemporary art" usually indicate that women's bodies are being objectified, sexualized and exploited to create that art - and in a world where women are the sex class and exploitation is used to keep them down, all this does is reinforce women's oppression.

Women artists start out at a disadvantage, because they're not taken seriously as their male counterparts. And because they're women, they're expected to be beautiful and they are considered expendable by the time they hit 30. Some women artists try to gain traction in their careers by portraying subjects they know will get attention: exploiting women's bodies and using sex to sell their work, whether literally or figuratively. Ultimately this does nothing that could actually improve the lot of women; to do that, sexist beliefs need to be challenged, not reinforced.

"Everything in moderation. Including moderation."

But if the public really doesn't like the kind of art shown in museums, why do so many of them visit those museums?

There's a difference between finding something interesting and wanting to see it on your wall every day.

People are far more adventurous in their artistic tastes when they know they won't be stuck with the work forever.

Beautifully written piece; but I am not in total agreement with the claim being made. We are at a point in history in which not only style but media and technologic influences are without doubt ensuring a pluralism; moreso than any other point in history. A walk through commercial galleries on Chelsea reflects this diversity which indicates a range of expression responding to market forces. Between the unresticted internet revolution and the advancement of a market based global shifting economy, it is impossible for a rational mind to think that any artistic taste cannot be satisfied with the channels that now exist.
There are more generations of artists, nationalities, movements and media out there it is impossible to digest

I think the opposite is true, at least in the metropolitan NY area. It has become entropic and has expanded to a level of confusion. Not to mention the surplus of art that will never be bouhgt suggests that anybody who wants to buy something has found it; it's a true buyer's market; it's all there and most galleries struggling under this economy will make generous deals

Thank you all for thinking and writing about this matter.

As a painter I sometimes ask myself if all I am making is ever going to reach the public I would like to become "addicted" to me. (Also a very 19th century thought ... drugs like opium).

I used this word to avoid the romantic ones "in love" or "passionate", not to be "modern" or "postmodern", but because of the "fear" of being put in a frame I would not like to be in.

Add new comment