Enormous, Threatening, Yet Dimly Perceivable: On Creating Radical and Threatening Postmodern Art Under Late Capitalism

Written for an essay/blog assessment in a sociology of pop culture course at the University of Auckland in September 2015.

As I occupy the dual and potentially conflicting position of sociologist/radical activist and current practicing artist necessarily working under and influenced by postmodernism, the question “what’s wrong with postmodernism?” has challenged me. My path to becoming an artist is one defined by postmodernism and an interest in it, from studying Visual Culture in high school to entering Elam School of Fine Arts on a portfolio created in two months after never having practiced art in my life, to my current research and writing-focussed practice and the related show at Artspace last October. I am not an artist of traditional modernist technical skill – I cannot paint or draw representatively, for one. My work is conceptual and stems from my academic interests in history, sociology, and social justice. Postmodernism has appeal to me in its interest in the voices of the Other, as within the artworld as it stands I am part of the Other.

The critical attitude toward postmodernism in this course and related readings has thus challenged me: as Ciara expounded on the commerciality of Damien Hirst’s work and questioned its status as art, I was thinking “yes, but it’s still art, and the commerciality is part of its message, part of what makes it art, not less worthy,” even as the critical sociologist in me agreed with her statements.

It was not until reading Jameson’s The Postmodern Condition, Or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism that I began to connect with the critiques on a more personal level, on the level of artist. While listening to lectures and reading Adorno I couldn’t help but feel the critiques were somewhat elitist, happy to critique popular culture or a younger generation without critiquing Modernism or high art. Jameson clarified this point for me, pointing out that the Modernist classics have been assimilated into Western cultural canon and the academic institution, so that I and my peers, growing up long after the growth of postmodernism, view the Modernist classics as distant, dead figures, worshipped by our elders – they are, to us, signs of the elite and bourgeoisie artworld (Jameson 1993, 4). Cremin’s statement that modernist movements were unified in opposition to market forces became clearer when I wasn’t constantly prepared to defend postmodernism – my practicing artist peers in particular – from what I interpreted as one-sided elitist critique (Cremin Kāhore he rā, 1).

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From Jameson’s The Postmodern Condition

This clarification was revelatory to me, enabling me to critique postmodernism without being put on the defensive; postmodernism being all I know, being submerged in it, as Jameson puts it (Jameson 1993, 48). Suddenly the critiques of postmodernism became more clear. I saw its inherent connection to capitalism and market forces. I saw how the technologies I was so interested in as an artist were more, a ghostly and ungraspable global network of capital, of power, of control (Jameson 1993, 38). I saw how the once sublime Nature was literally physically eradicated by capitalism and its structures (physical and otherwise) and how this very network took its place as the postmodern sublime.

I then had to ask, if there is no critical distance under postmodernism, as we are all necessarily submerged in it, how can one create radical art? When popularity or recognition is inherently necessary to reach people with a radical message, and popularity immediately translates into familiarity (Adorno’s work was important here) and exchange values and is thus immediately commodified, how do you produce radical art without simply falling into capital (Adorno 2001, 30)? Is it possible to work from within when exchange value obliterates use value, or the message? Jameson refers to cognitive mapping to talk about a possible radical postmodern art, saying that such an art would have to make clear that ghostly and ungraspable network of power and control, enabling the individual to locate themselves within it (Jameson 1993, 54).

In Marxian analysis, only the collective is capable of this when the individual is situated within such a totality (Jameson 2002, 274). In Foucauldian analysis, the only way to challenge global capitalism without simply recreating its oppressive and repressive elements is a grassroots, localised, pluralistic attack – note that pluralism is a core tenet of postmodernism itself (Harvey 1997, 46). Foucault himself exemplifies this in his work with prisoners and homosexuals – categories of individuals more visible to power than most. Unlike current populist action, his work in these areas was not toward state or institutional reform, which necessarily only strengthens the institution to critique, but instead in empowering resistance within these groups to institutions of organised oppression.

So according to these two analyses, the radical and threatening postmodern art must be collective, localised, pluralistic. I look around me at the artistic institutions and networks I am involved with and I see mere glimpses of possibilities of this within the artist-run scene primarily dominated by students. I see people who are engaging with mass media and the culture industry, engaging with film and music and dance, but are resisting commodification in a way by never putting a price tag on their work, never selling their work, never producing work that can be sold. In the postmodernist style they are producing performances, happenings, art that is simply people being in a space together, dancing for hours or even days on end, for example (MacDonald 2015) (club 2014). I look at my own work, recently zines produced cheaply and sold for the cost of materials and shipping, previously work at a large institution with money at hand producing writing attempting to challenge it from within. I know that I could be doing better in my attempts to challenge, in my attempts to reveal the unknowable network of late capitalism; I recall having to tone down my writing to not bite the hand that feeds me. I am not there yet – art is not there yet, but it exists on a pluralistic, a collective, a localised scale, and it has potential.

Bibliography

Adorno, Theodor. On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening. London: Routledge, 2001.

club, D.A.N.C.E art. “Guinness World Record Attempt.” Artspace NZ. W e l c o m e. Auckland, 2014.

Cremin, C. The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. n.d.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1997.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. London: Routledge, 2002.

Jameson, Fredric. The Postmodern Condition, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1993.

MacDonald, Theo. GO OUT > STAY IN > GET THINGS DONE. Inky Palms, Auckland, 2015.

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