Whitehot Magazine

The Semiotic Anti-Subject: Postmodernism’s Repudiation Of Subjectivity by Donald Kuspit

 Andy Warhol (1928 - 1987), Flowers. 

By DONALD KUSPIT October, 2022 

What is postmodernism?  There are all too many definitions, all agreeing on only one thing:  something has changed, socioartistically as well as aesthetically.  In general, postmodernism involves a sense of déjà vu—a cynical sense of having seen it all, epitomized by Roland Barthes’s notion of the “already read, seen, done, experienced,” which reduces it to a fragment of a discourse—a bit of text that is a link in a chain of language, itself a dictionary of themes, as he says in S/Z.  Any artist, writer, thinker invariably stands in ambiguous relationship to the existing discourse.  He is its plagiarist, but he can also stand in ironical—seemingly critical—relationship to what he appropriates from it, in the sense that his new text—but in postmodernism nothing is “new,” only “neo”—can be “a double-layered or two-storied phenomenon [involving] some kind of opposition between the two levels, an opposition that can take the form of contradiction, incongruity, or incompatibility,” to use D. C. Muecke’s description of irony.(1)

Muecke thinks there is “an element of innocence” in irony, but there is nothing innocent about postmodern irony.  It cynically manipulates what is cynically the case to generate a sense of contradiction, incongruity, incompatibility, which creates an aura of novelty—cynical novelty—around what is otherwise foreknown.  Such clever, constructed absurdity supposedly piques the reader’s interest or draws his attention, an exercise in curiosity that makes the whole enterprise worthwhile, or at least intellectually justifies it.  In fact, it is a kind of intellectualization of the already intellectualized—the already known, historical, thematized, conceptualized, and thus categorically the case.  The artist becomes a cunning manipulator of the linguistically given, and the viewer an educated reader, rather than a person who has a certain complex, sometimes unexpected, not always immediately intelligible experience of the art—let’s say romantic experience of it.  In contrast to such a romantic person, who approaches art with no preconceptions but with a great sense of anticipation, however much he knows about its history and meaning, the trained reader knows what to expect in advance, and deftly teases the art apart, tracing its textual elements to their sources, restoring them to their thematic contexts—“classical” collective contexts.  Such an analysis stays on the uncritical surface, for it does not analyze the significance of the collective thematic context, let alone bring it into question as a formulation and site of human significance and value.  In Barthes’ words, embedded in Sherrie Levine’s 1982 “Statement,” art is “a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture….A multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.”(2)  Levine’s “Statement” is itself nothing but a tissue of quotations, mimicking “her strategy of appropriation,” as has been said, in that it “employs often-quoted phrases from Roland Barthes,” indicating that it is the epitome of a postmodern work of art, all the more so because it is completely “conceptual.”  The so-called critic-analyst-interpreter’s job is to trace the quotations back to their sources, and celebrate the irony and intricate variety of their relationships.  This is not unlike the old art historical tracing of influences, as though that exhausted the meaning and explained the value of an art, thus unwittingly—but Barthes is witting—debunking it.  Reduced to a culturally given code of conventions, not to say clichés—its creative and imaginative difference neutralized and denied—it becomes indifferently the case, another look-alike bead on a cultural string.

Sherry Levine, Fountain (Buddha), 1996, cast bronze, 12 x 15 7/8 x 18 in. (30.48 x 40.32 x 45.72 cm)

Such a limited view of art as a set of masterful ironies, whose invention and decipherment both afford a certain intellectual excitement—not exactly elation—has its emotional value, especially for the artist.  It defends against the feeling that art without its irony would be futile—hardly worth the trouble of making.  It has to be unconsciously depressing for the artist to know that he is bound by what is already known and seemingly fated—predetermined—by language.  And even with irony it is depressing to be reduced to acknowledging a discourse in which one is trapped.  The postmodern artist is a kind of clever animal, able to juggle quotations—an ingenious but hardly innovative act.  What used to be jungle cunning now consists in the artist turning somersaults in his linguistic cage, or biting his own linguistic tail—which is what irony is—because he can’t bite the keeper of his language, the mysterious keeper who taught him the language from which he can’t escape.  The language was a collective fait accompli before he entered it, to his creative despair.  He may bandage it over with irony, but his art still reeks of stalemate and redundancy.  It is a sophisticated Alexandrianism, in which, to use Clement Greenberg’s words, “the same themes are mechanically varied in a hundred different works of art, and yet nothing new is produced.  Statius, Mandarin verse, Roman sculpture, Beaux-Arts painting, Neo-republican architecture.”(3)  Greenberg thought that avant-garde art was an attempt “to go beyond Alexandrianism,”(4) but it seems clear that postmodern—post-avant-garde—art involves the Alexandrianization of avant-garde art, especially its final conceptual phase and swansong.  In fact, postmodernism involves the Alexandrianization of the whole history of art, which reduces to an infinitely extendible series of quotations that can be strung together for ironical effect.  Indeed, putting one next to another automatically generates an ironical effect, that is, a sense of contradiction, incongruity, incompatibility, however much it suggests they meet, in some conceptual truce, or at least intellectual utopia, on the higher ground of a theme in postmodernism, irony is as reified, overfamiliar, and predictable—as much a repeated quotation—as the art out of which it is constructed. 

Chocolate Grinder, No. 1 (1914) By Duchamp Marcel; Oil, thread and pencil on canvas primed in black

Alexandrianism always involves staying on and copying the linguistic surface of an art.  More crucially, it assumes there is nothing behind the surface—art is all surface, with nothing that might be called “depth” behind it.  In Alexandrianism, a known art is reduced to a linguistic façade, which is reified into a copy that is appropriated as a look, and as such stripped of its aesthetic and expressive implications.  As Kandinsky might say, it becomes all socio-linguistic body with no human soul.  Duchamp once said that a work of art eventually loses its aura or emanation, living on in the purgatory of art history.  But the moment it is seen as an exercise in language it becomes a hollow ghost in an intellectual hades.  For me the denial of depth is the key to postmodernism.  It is a rebellious attack against and contemptuous dismissal of the modern belief in depth—the modern idea that surface is a symbol and symptom of depth, rather than to be taken at face value.  Where the modern artist wants people to see the depth behind the surface, the postmodern artist thinks everything you need to know and that can be known is on the surface.

Kandinsky states the modern position when he declares:  “I’d like people to understand at last what there is behind my painting…and not to be satisfied to notice that I use triangles and circles.”(5)  Warhol takes a postmodern stance when he remarks:  “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am.  There is nothing behind it….I see everything that way, the surface of things, a kind of mental Braille.  I just pass my hands over the surface of things.”(6)  Not dipping below or able to dip below the surface, one might add, because the surface is solid unbreakable glass, reflecting the artist back to himself, a grandiose gesture of narcissistic mimesis that ironically turns him into another surface without depth, a façade with nothing behind it like a house in a Potemkin’s village—a linguistic copy of an unoriginal self.  In contrast, the modern artist finds the “universals or near-universals” or “archetypes” of human nature, as the sociobiologist Edward Wilson calls them,(7) in the depths of the work of art.

The Oedipean tragedy, violating “the Westermarck effect, which inhibits incest, and the natural aversion to snakes” are two among the many examples of ancient archetypes Wilson examines.  We are usually unconscious of their import, however much emotion they arouse, but they “spawn legions of metaphors that compose not only a large part of the arts but also of ordinary conversation,” Wilson notes, so that he become indirectly conscious of their significance.  The arts, then, are inseparable from what he calls “the human aesthetic.”  “They are invariably focused toward certain forms and [dominant] themes”—“widely recurring abstractions and core narratives” that convey “the epigenetic rules, which are the inherited regularities of mental development that compose the human nature”—“but they are otherwise freely constructed.”(8)  One might say their surface is constructed in such a way as to convey a humanly meaningful depth without dropping us into it so that we lose the detachment necessary to finding our way in and around and back out of it.  Art helps us make the necessary interior journey, but it also helps us make the return journey to the exterior world, so that we are not victimized by what we experience on the inside.  From this point of view, the work of art condenses or compresses the journey inward to the depths of human nature and the journey back again outward to its social surface in one dynamic form.  Its elements must do double duty—exist simultaneously as convincing symbols of social surface and psychic depth—of the superficial and the fundamental.  Thus the artist must be, as Baudelaire said the true artist is, a “homo duplex,” that is, an introvert attentive to his own psyche and an extrovert attentive to the society in which he happens to live.

Postmodernism rejects this doubleness.  The artist is only an extrovert—a passive extrovert without active introversion to balance himself.  When Warhol says “I want to be a machine” and “I think everybody should be a machine” and also “I like boring things.  I like things to be exactly the same over and over again,”(9) he acknowledges this passivity, ultimately a failure of creativity.  I think Warhol is the emblematic postmodern artist and the emblematic anti-subjective semiotic artist—the artist who deals exclusively in linguistic surfaces.  Pop art has in fact been understood to be the first postmodern art, “a sort of break point in our culture,” as Jean-Louis Picard and Peter Watson point out.  Watson writes:  “Since it flourished, many people have become enthusiastic about contemporary art but at the same time are unable to see much merit or enjoyment in what preceded it.”(10)  Where the “avant-garde forms of art that  dominated painting and sculpture in the first six decades of this century” had “relatively limited appeal,” Pop art had broad appeal because “its images and techniques were familiar to everyone,” and it posed “no difficulties of abstraction, symbolism or art history to overcome.”  Pop art doesn’t require depth interpretation to grasp, but rather sociological understanding and behaviorism.  Pop art is “a sort of visual Esperanto…all the more striking for the fact that though it is relatively new, Esperanto is, to all intents and purposes, already dead.”  In other words, it does not supply the sense of aliveness the romantic artist is so desperate for, and is necessary for emotional survival in a society that feels dead or dying on the inside.  Indeed, Pop art confirms its living deadness.  Watson suggests that Pop art, “in taking us back to the popular art of the nineteenth century, is perhaps reviving the wrong part of the nineteenth century, when artists earned enormous amounts of money in their lifetimes, but did not produce lasting work,” nor, one might add, creative work.  Watson thinks Warhol is the Meissonier of our day.

Andy Warhol, Green Coca-Cola Bottles (1962), acrylic, screenprint, and graphite pencil on canvas.

What Warhol and postmodernism deny when they deny depth and its metaphoric rendering—creative transformation into a form that symbolizes and expresses and evokes it—is “the existence of a universal human nature,” as Wilson says.  Singling out Derrida’s and Paul de Man’s “deconstructive philosophy” as “the extreme manifestation of postmodernism,” Wilson writes that from their point of view “each person creates his own inner world by acceptance or rejection of endlessly shifting signs.  There is no privileged point, no lodestar….And given that science is just another way of looking at the world, there is no scientifically constructible map of human nature from which the deep meaning of texts can be drawn.”(11)  Wilson responds:  “The postmodern hypothesis does not conform with the evidence.  It is blissfully free of existing information on how the mind works.”(12)  Thus one of the consequences of its staying on the linguistic surface is that the inner world it conceives is blissfully free of mental conflict.  It is a matter of internalized language.  Signs are eccentrically combined into a pseudo-personal system of ironical structures that can be intellectually deconstructed.  However meaningful, these are hardly the same as the inescapable organic mental conflicts—such as occur at each of the “eight ages of man,” as Erikson says(13)—that must be worked through and resolved, although they can re-appear at any age.  One cannot simply accept or reject such conflicts, the way one can deliberately accept or reject linguistic signs—but on what basis? (certainly not an emotional one for the postmodernists)—but only suffer them involuntarily.  They are the usually unconscious substance of depth, and postmodernism does not engage or believe in them.  It lacks any sense of mental development, and, more crucially from the point of view here, it denies the dynamic unconscious.  If the inner world is a derivative, extension, and construction of linguistic signs it is more self-conscious than unconscious, and without its own dynamic. 

The idea that “everything [in art] is done by docilely submitting to the arrival of the ‘unconscious’,” as Redon wrote, so that the semi-consciously constructed surface of art is “suggestive” of the unconscious depths of the “subjective world,” which has its “own logic,”(14) dies with postmodernism.  So does beauty.  The idea that painting can be a “documentation of the unconscious,” as Kandinsky’s painting supposedly is,(16) or that the “source of art [is] the Unconscious,” as the Surrealists and Pollock thought,(17) is over and done with in postmodernism.  In postmodernism art does not convey “nonobjective feeling…by objective imagery,”(18) as it did in traditional art, nor does it convey nonobjective feeling by nonobjective forms.  It is entirely a matter of objective imagery, indeed, overly objective imagery.  Non-objective forms are socially objectified into standardized images, along with the subjective imagery that constitutes the bulk of modern art.  Expressionism becomes Neo-Expressionism, Surrealism becomes Neo-Surrealism.  Objectified into one more “typical” art, Expressionism and Surrealism lose the aura of incomprehensibility or mystery that gave them unconscious resonance—the sense that their absurd imagery conveyed deep emotions that could only be experienced rather than understood—that made them provocative and intriguing. 

Mondrian said that “it is the artist’s task to make forms and colors living and capable of arousing emotion,” so that “if he makes art into an ‘algebraic equation,’ there is no argument against the art, it only proves that he is not an artist.”(19)  But Sherrie Levine says that “succeeding the painter, the plagiarist no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings,”(20) suggesting that all the conceptual plagiarist does is make algebraic equations, crude examples of which are Joseph Kosuth’s early works.  It used to be an intellectual and moral crime to be a plagiarist—to copy tradition rather than build on it, as Winnicott said, and certainly to copy the dictionary—but now it has acquired what Breton once called the dignity and status of art, assuming that art still has dignity and status and has not become, as the historian Robert Constant said it has, ridiculous.  If, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm writes, “all ‘postmodernisms’ had in common an essential skepticism about the existence of objective reality, and/or the possibility of arriving at an agreed understanding of it by rational means,” and thus “tended to a radical relativism”(21)—one only has to think of Barthes’s remark that “the realistic artist never places ‘reality’ at the origin of the discourse, but…only a succession of copies”(22) to get the point—then art also seems relative to whatever one irrationally wants it to be.  As Hobsbawm says, “the modernist avant-gardes had already extended the limits of what could claim to be art (or, at any rate, yield products that could be sold or leased or otherwise profitably separated from their creators as ‘art’) almost to infinity.  What ‘postmodernism’ produced was rather a (largely generational) gap between those who were repelled by what they saw as the nihilistic frivolity of the new mode and those who thought taking the arts ‘seriously’ was just one more relic of the obsolete past.”(23)  Clearly the romance of art is over in postmodernism.  This hardly means that postmodern art is a new classicism, if classicism means, as Edward Wilson says it does, the achievement of equilibrium(24)—the same dynamic equilibrium, overcoming the disequilibrium that “means conflict, disorder,” that Mondrian said was the goal of art.(25)  As I hope to show, in postmodernism the problem is boredom, as Wathol’s taste for boredom indicates, not disequilibrium.

Piet Mondrian, “New York City 1” (1942), oil on canvas (Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France, via WikiArt).

I want to drive home the difference between modernism and postmodernism with a few more quotations.  They are my way of more fully developing what I want to call the semiotic psychosis that pervades postmodernism.  In such a psychosis there is the denial of any link between the linguistic sign and subjective reality.  More particularly, in semiotic psychosis the linguistic sign is removed from and elevated above the context it makes emotional sense in, and from which, in a sense, it emerges, and to which, in a sense, it continues to refer long after it has become part of common sense.  This radical decontextualization in effect isolates the linguistic sign as a transcendent absolute, a kind of Ding an sich standing above all the human contexts in which it might appear.  Semiotic psychosis is clearly an example of omnipotence of thought.  Without its emotional context, the sign loses its fundamental human meaning—broadly speaking, its function as an expression of human nature.  The radical surgery of decontextualization—it is a kind of Solomonic dumbness, for Solomon was wise enough not to cut the baby in half, separating it once and for all from its real, caring mother—is the method of postmodern madness.  I hope to show the folly of the separation of the linguistic sign from its expressive function—its reference to human feeling—thus diminishing its meaning.  Postmodern art does what Barthes does, wittingly or unwittingly, for it is a construction of inexpressive or sham and simulated expressive or de-expressified—once vitally expressive but now expressively redundant and overobjectified to the extent of becoming hackneyed—linguistic signs, in whatever standard form.  The supposedly objective—certainly objectifying—language of theory has had to come to the rescue of art because of its emotional failings, that is, its impoverished postmodern language.  Art has had to think of itself as theory in disguise, which is the way Kosuth thinks of it, because it has lost its expressive creativity.

In his essay on Proust, Samuel Beckett writes:  “The pendulum oscillates between these two terms:  Suffering—that opens a window on the real and is the main condition of the artistic experience, and Boredom—with its host of top-hatted and hygienic minsters, Boredom that must be considered as the most tolerable because the most durable of human evils.”(26)  Warhol’s art, and postmodern art in general, is an allegory of Boredom, while Kandinsky’s art, and modern art in general, is an allegory of Suffering.  If, as Beckett writes, “the suffering of being” involves “the free play of every faculty,”(27) then suffering is more creative than boredom.  Indeed, since the faculties are inhibited and deadened in and by boredom—a form of depression, as André Haynal argues—it renders creativity and freedom meaningless.  Beckett states:  “The periods of transition that separate consecutive adaptations… represent the perilous zones in the life of the individual, dangerous, precarious, painful, mysterious and fertile, when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being.”(28)  Modern art is such a period of creative transition and perilous freedom—suggesting that it was short-lived, however much we may speak of a “tradition of the new”—and postmodern art represents a return to boredom, the boredom without which we could not adapt to living and that is itself the major mode of adaptation to much of life.  If there is any explanation for the rise of Pop art—simultaneously with Minimalism, with which it shares a certain boredom-inducing and symbolizing features, such as repetitive quotation and self-quotation, more particularly, straitjacketing, untransformative seriality—it is because we can tolerate just so much suffering and freedom, and finally have to capitulate to boredom, which is the most tolerable, because most passive, suffering.  Anyway it is socially safer to be bored than creative.  Warhol’s Pop art is a well-adapted, fundamentally boring and bored uncreative art.

Judy Olausen, Rosalind Krauss, c.1978.

The advocate of linguistic boredom in art—one of its top-hatted, hygienic ministers—is Rosalind Krauss.  Her “polemical…tone” and “combative posture,” as she calls them, belie her magisterial advocacy of linguistic boredom, signaled by her dogmatic use of structuralism (Saussure) and poststructuralism (Barthes) to jettison the concept of artistic “originality,” along with a cluster of related concepts, namely, creativity, authenticity, and expression as well as biography, personality, and the unconscious, and, one might add, suffering.  In a sense, to impersonally theorize about art, as a basic response to it, as she does, rather than to spontaneously and personally feel it, making it a part of one’s emotional life, that is, introjecting it—no doubt after being “programmed” enough to appreciate or attune to it, as Clement Greenberg says—is to show that one is bored with it, that is, ready to adapt it to the boring world, which means to banalize it into another piece of boring collective language.  Theory is hardly an adequate human response to the unconscious suffering the most creative art paradoxically conveys through its self-conscious use of language.

Krauss’s position is most explicit in her book The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (1985), although she seems to have made a half-turn toward biography, personality, and the unconscious in The Optical Unconscious (1993).  But it has nothing in common with the dynamic unconscious, and her treatment of Clement Greenberg’s personality from her aggrandizing narcissistic perspective—her pretense of having suffered at his hands—hardly counts as psychobiography.  It is more an attempt to discredit his creativity and authenticity, whatever their problems, than to do him human justice.

Krauss writes, in a summary statement of the postmodern position:

One of the methodological corollaries of this [structuralist] conception of meaning is that it is a function of the system at a given moment in time—the system synchronically displayed—rather than the outcome of a specific development or history.  Rejecting the diachronic, or historical, study of language(s) as a way to arrive at a theory of signification, Saussure’s work set a precedent for the attack on the temporal model that structuralist and poststructuralist theories have staged on a variety of fronts.  Some of these can be heard in Barthes’s way of accounting for the significance of the Argo-model, as he dismisses from its field of relevance a concept like “origin,” with its importance to traditional historical thinking, or concepts like “genius,” “inspiration,” “determination” and “evolution,” by which works of art are embedded within the conditions of their creation.  For the nonstructuralist critic, whole realms of inquiry—aesthetic intuition, biographical context, psychological models of creativity, or the possible existence of private worlds of allusion—are razed by these concepts, which not only imply the temporal condition of the work’s generation, but call for an interpretive model based on the analogy between the work and its maker:  the work’s surface thought of as existing in relation to its “depth” much the way the exterior of the human subject is understood to relate to his internal, or true, self.  By contrast, the structuralist model of substitutions and nomination does not call to mind the image of depth—substitution being able, after all, to take place by moving pieces about on a plane surface.  Thus if Barthes cherishes the Argo-model, it is for its shallowness.(29)

It is not clear that shallowness invalidates depth, synchronicity, after all, does not deny diachronicity.  They are complementary; one of the major tasks of philosophical thinking is to work out the dialectic of their relationship.  Krauss wants to “substitute for the idea of the work of art as an organism (developing out of a past tradition, embedded in the history of a given medium) the image of it as a structure.”(30)  Quoting Barthes, she explains the Argo model to illustrate the notion of structure:

The Argonauts were ordered by the Gods to complete their long journey in one and the same ship—the Argo—against the certainty of the boat’s gradual deterioration.  Over the course of the voyage the Argonauts slowly replaced each piece of the ship, ‘so that they ended with an entirely new ship, without having to alter its name or its form.  The ship Argo is highly useful,” Barthes continues.  It affords an allegory of an eminently structural object, created not by genius, inspiration, determination, evolution, but by two modest actions (which cannot be caught up in any mystique of creation):  substitution (one part replaces another, as in a paradigm) and nomination (the name is in no way linked to the stability of the parts):  by dint of combinations made within one and the same name, nothing is left of the origin.  Argo is an object with no other cause than its name, with no other identity than its form.”(31)

This is certainly one way of making the mountain of the Argonauts’ mission—to get the Golden Fleece, of which there is no mention in Barthes—into a technical molehill.  Amazingly, it ignores the complex human situation, full of intrigue and peril, surrounding the voyage of the Argo.  It is as though the voyage is not part of a larger history—a relatively isolated moment in a complicated, all too human development.  Barthes strips the story of its emotional momentum and, more broadly, of its subjective import.  He also ignores the heroic invention of the Argo itself, which was technically advanced for its day.  Krauss, following Barthes, has “decontextualized” the Argo; let us “recontextualize"  it via Bulfinch’s treatise on mythology:

The king Aeson…surrendered his crown to his brother Pelias….When Jason was grown up and came to demand the crown…Pelias…suggested to the young man the glorious adventure of going in quest of the Golden Fleece…in the kingdom of Cochis….At the time the only species of navigation known to the Greeks consisted of small boats or canoes hollowed out from trunks of trees, so that when Jason employed Argus to build him a vessel capable of containing fifty men, it was considered a gigantic undertaking.  It was accomplished, however, and the vessel named “Argo,” from the name of the builder.(32)

Among the fifty young men were Hercules, Thesus, Orpheus, and Nestor, as well as other “renowned among the heroes and demigods of Greece.”  Let us also recall that the Cochian king, Aetes, “considered to give up the Golden Fleece if Jason would yoke to the plough two fire-breathing bulls with brazen feet, and sow the teeth of the dragon which Cadmus had slain, and from which…a crop of armed men would spring up.”  Aetes promised his daughter Medea, “a potent sorceress,” who furnished Jason with “a charm, by which he could encounter safely the breath of the fire-breathing bulls and the weapons of the armed men.”(33)  Jason succeeded at his task, married Medea—we won’t go into the well-known aftermath—and delivered the Golden Fleece to Pelias.  The story involves the conflict between generations, and the replacement of the power and authority of the older generation by that of the younger generation, which proved itself by performing a task the older generation thought was impossible to accomplish.  This showed that the younger generation was heroic and dynamic, and thus entitled to power and authority, compared to the homebound, complacent older generation, which lacked an adventurous, innovative spirit.

Clearly Barthes’s understanding of the Argo has sold its human significance rather short, indicating that the structural model of art sells it short.  He has focused on one micro-moment of the narrative at the expense of the rest.  One might say he turns the genius of the entire event into the ingenious solution of the Argonauts to the problem of the gods’ command and the boat’s deterioration.  In effect, he has turned its depth into shallowness.  He has ignored the reason for the Argo’s voyage and turned it into an object, which is to treat it in a peculiarly irrational—somewhat one-sided or one-dimensional—way.  Now, obviously, one is aware of shallowness before one is aware of depth—one sees the boat sailing on the sea before one knows its story—but that hardly means that depth does not exist.  Karl Kraus once wrote:  “Adolf Loos and I—he literally, I in the sphere of language—have done nothing more than show that there is a difference between an urn and a chamberpot, and that it is only by maintaining this difference that there is scope for culture.  But the others, the ‘positive’ ones, are divided into those who use the urn as a chamberpot and those who use the chamberpot as an urn.”(34)  Barthes has turned an “urn”—the heroically crafted boat, ensconced in a complex, human narrative—into a “chamberpot”—the boat isolated as a certain structured form, and stripped of its creative origin and human purpose.  Krauss, following Barthes, does the same to the work of art.  She reduces it to a boring game of substitution and nomination rather than a testimony to and the relic of an exciting emotional and broadly human adventure.  The conflict between Pelias and Jason, which led to Argus’s creative invention, is altogether preluded as a factor behind—motivating—the creation of art.  It seems obvious that the boat has historical inspiration, determination, and evolution that encompasses its structure.  To understand these is to understand its structure more fully.  To understand the historical inspiration, determination, and evolution of a work of art is to understand its structure more fully.

Krauss writes:  “If Barthes has a purpose, it is to isolate [linguistic] codes by applying a kind of spotlight to each instance of them, to expose them ‘as so many fragments of something that has always been already read, seen, done, experienced.’  It is also to make them heard as voices ‘whose origin,’ he says, ‘is lost in the vast perspective of the already-written’ and whose interweaving acts to ‘de-originate the utterance’.”(35)  However, to “de-originate the utterance” does not eliminate the complex human reasons for rewriting, refashioning, and recontextualizing voices from the past.  Janet Malcolm notes that Krauss ‘holds up Levine’s purloined photographs as a kind of master trope of postmodernism.”(36)  But it seems clear that there must be an all too human reason—envy, perhaps—why Levine stole them.

Sherrie Levine, Fashion Collage: 1, 1979, collage on paper. 24 in x 18 in.

In summary, I suggest the following about the postmodern linguistic approach to art. 

(1)It denies that art has anything to do with the True Self, in Winnicott’s sense, that is, with “the spontaneous gesture and the personal idea” rooted in the experience of living and lived body.(37)  It is blind to the emotional fact that art is caught up in the dialectical conflict between the True Self, determined to creatively—heroically—assert itself—“creative apperception more than anything else makes the individual feel life is worth living,” Winnicott writes,(38) and the True Self embodies the “experience of aliveness”—and the well-adapted, play-it-socially-safe, uncreative, linguistically compliant, boring False Self.  The latter secretly feels that life is not worth living, that is, it suffers from a “sense of futility,” perhaps because it has mastered “the polite and mannered social attitude” so well that it no longer knows what “wearing the heart on the sleeve,” which it has renounced, means.  Creative selfhood defies compliant selfhood, which betrays the very idea of the self, however ironically necessary compliant selfhood is for social survival and success, as Winnicott says, even though such success leads to the loss of the feeling of being real as well as creative—creatively real—which one only experiences when one is true to oneself.  If anything, postmodern art is a consummate manifestation of the False Self.  Warhol’s portraits, and especially self-portraits, show the False Self in all its boring, disembodied splendor and mediagenic success.  One only has to compare Warhol’s self-portraits with those of Max Beckmann to get the point.  Salle’s paintings turn creative True Self art into compliant, socially successful False Self art by treating it as though it was mimicking itself.  In both cases, as in all postmodern art, the authentic is turned into the inauthentic by being treated as no more than a linguistic sign of something that does not exist—the authentic self, authentic art—except as a sociolinguistic mirage.  It is because of the absence of any belief let alone idea of the authentic that postmodern art is boring and depressing.

(2)What Barthes calls substitution and nomination I want to call aesthetic management, a term used by Bernd Schmitt and Alex Simonson, two professors of marketing, in their book Marketing Aesthetics:  The Strategic Management of Brands, Identity, and Image.(39)   Aesthetic management is not artistic creation, and can be said to supersede it in postmodernism.  Postmodern art is a managed aesthetic construction rather than an imaginative artistic creation.  More broadly, postmodern art has nothing to do with expressive creativity and everything to do with the management of linguistic signs.  As Schmitt and Simonson say, the point is to construct “an appearance center” out of them.  Such a center has “irresistible appeal” and conveys “an attractive and lasting identity.”  But the important point is that such a construction is not a haphazard, hit-or-miss matter, but rather a carefully managed marketing strategy in which the formal alphabet of “color, shape, line, and pattern” and the content alphabet of human interest themes are synthesized to scientifically predictable effect.  Both alphabets are prefabricated linguistic signs, and their use in an appearance center is socially prescribed.  One only has to think of Warhol’s paint by numbers pictures to get the procrustean point.  John Baldessari’s constructions also use prefabricated images to confirm an already managed reality—the overwhelming reality of the administered society, as Adorno calls it.  Beckett’s creative suffering was the individual’s escape from it, but there is no suffering or creativity—no escape—in Warhol and Baldessari’s anti-individualistic constructions, only the aesthetic management and institutionalization of already institutionalized and managed boredom.  “The idol,” Erich Fromm writes, “represents [man’s] own life forces in an alienated form.”(40)  His humanity and life force never come back to him, however much he submits to the inhuman and lifeless idol, for it has consumed them for its own social glory.  The postmodern idol mirrors—mimics--the collective to perfection, and without irony.

In postmodernism the work of art becomes an appearance center with at best a marginal relationship to subjective reality, in the sense that it is a stimulus designed to evoke a consumer response.  It also becomes an idol confirming the pervasiveness of self-alienation in a marketing society, as Fromm calls it.  The work of art is no longer an imaginative re-creation of an archetypal theme, making us conscious of its formative influence on our individual lives and of its general implications for human nature, but rather a linguistic construction whose form and content are socially typical rather than archetypal, however much the socially typical surface is a diluted version of archetypal depth—so diluted that it is emotionally and cognitively shallow, and thus evocatively impotent.  Its effect is transient and momentary, and one sees through it the instant one has experienced it, if recognition of its conventions and structure can be called a significant experience.  One cannot durably identify with it—it does not seem to give one a piece of oneself one had not known one had—but rather expels it with the first taste.  Or else one instantly metabolizes it, which means it passes through one’s psyche without having any noticeable effect on one’s being.  A steady diet of postmodern art lacks emotional and cognitive nutrients.  To subsist on it is to become as boring and depressed—de-energized—as it is. 

(3)For the postmodern artist, art is a mode of discourse rather than an expression of existence.  Being the former seems to preclude being the latter.  That is, to organize an aspect of a general discourse is not necessarily to refer to anything existentially and experientially real—anything romantically deep.  Thus art-making is not a creative transformation and insightful symbolization of reality—there is no such thing as what Jacques Maritain calls creative intuition or what Winnicott calls “creating into”—and the work of art is not what Christopher Bollas calls a “transformational object,” that is, an object that facilitates and supports emotional and cognitive growth, thus fundamentally transforming and strengthening the self.  Perhaps the rock bottom model of postmodern art is Duchamp’s ironical transformation of everyday objects into art objects.  It cannot be called creative because it involves no insight into the everyday because it is “selfless.”  And it regards objects simply as linguistic signs to be manipulated in a linguistic construction.

Ever since, everyday life has come to be understood as an ironical form of art, and art as an ironical form of everyday life.  Certainly that is the postmodern point of Alan Kaprow’s notions of the “non-artist” and “the blurring of art and life,” to refer to the title of his collected essays.(41)  It certainly makes art and life look easy, which is no doubt why the postmodern attitude is likely to be around for a while.  Nonetheless, we are beginning to see a revival of romantic creativity in the form of a search or perhaps just a wish for beauty in art.  It is an idea that still seems to have some adventure in it, for beauty is a transformation of suffering, and there is no life without suffering.  Beauty is a peculiarly subjective transformation or, to use Kandinsky’s and Freud’s word, sublimation of the inner world of feeling—this holds whether one conceives it as “disinterested satisfaction,” as Kant did, or as derived “from the field of sexual feeling,” as Freud did, indeed, perhaps the “perfect example of an impulse [the sexual impulse] inhibited by its aim”—that William Gass reminds us is the only worthwhile goal of art.  Its absence in art, and the artist’s failure to realize it or indifference to it, are masked by his concern with the ideological issues of everyday life or, if one wishes, the objective conditions of society.  These no doubt make one sick, but the illness that results from trying to remedy them will not make one creative.  It will certainly not help one emotionally survive in an ever more ingeniously alien if superficially comfortable society, which is what modern art did.

In a world of scientific and technological triumphs, I don’t see any other purpose for art than to symbolize subjective states, which still have their mysteries.  They can perhaps be understood and mastered, in however personal and limited a way, through art.  From this point of view postmodern art has profound subjective meaning, for it embodies our profound alienation from our personal creativity—we have given creativity away to science and technology—for all the social yea-saying of it.  This is alienation at its most extreme.  It is perhaps good to know that we are not yet nauseated by our own alienation, but can enjoy it and the failure of subjective nerve it signifies in the form of postmodern art. WM


(1)Quoted in Frank Stringfelllow, Jr., The Meaning of Irony:  A Psychoanalytic Investigation (Albany:  State University of New York Press, 1994), 3  

(2)Quoted in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds., Art in Theory 1900-1990 (Cambridge, MA:  Blackwelll, 1992), 1066

(3)Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture (Boston:  Beacon, 1965), 4

(4)Ibid, 25

(5)Quoted in Michel Butor, “Pollock:  The Repopulation of Painting,” Inventory (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1968), 257

(6)Quoted in Andy Warhol:  A Retrospective (New York:  Museum of Modern Art, 1989), 457

(7)Edward O. Wilson, Consilience:  The Unity of Knowledge (New York:  Vintage, 1999), 242, 243

(8)Ibid., 237, 238

(9)Andy Warhol:  A Retrospective, 457

(10)Peter Watson, From Manet to Manhattan:  The Rise of the Modern Art Market (New York:  Random House, 1992), 267, 270

(11)Wilson, 233

(12)Ibid., 234

(13)Erik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York:  Norton, 1985), 247-274

(14)Quoted in John Rewald, “Odilon Redon,” Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Rodolphe Bresdin (New York:  Museum of Modern Art, 1961), 25

(15)Charles Baudelaire, The Mirror of Art, ed. Jonathan Mayne (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1956), 129

(16)Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, eds., Kandinsky:  Complete Writings on Art (New York:  Da Capo, 1994), 21

(17)Quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1968), 546

(18)Quoted in Ibid., 344

(19)Quoted in Ibid., 358

(20)Wilson, 235

(21)Eric Hobsbawn, The Age of Extremes:  A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York:  Vintage, 1994), 517

(22)Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author (New York:  Farrar, Straus & Girous/Hill & Wang, 1974), 167

(23)Hobsbawm, 518

(24)Quoted in Chipp, 354

(25)Quoted in Harrison and Wood, 1066

(26)Samuel Beckett, Proust (New York:  Grove Press, 1957), 16

(27)Ibid., 9

(28)Ibid., 8

(29)Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 1985), 3

(30)Ibid., 2


(32)Thomas Bulfinch, The Age of Fable or Beauties of Mythology, ed., W. H. Klap (New York:  Random House, 1942), 131-132

(33)Ibid., 132

(34)Karl Kraus, Beim Wort Genommen (Munich:  Kosel, 1955), 341

(35)Krauss, 294

(36)Janet Malcolm, “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” Part II, The New Yorker, October 27, 1986, 61

(37)D. W. Winnicott, “Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self,” The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (New York:  International University Press, 1985), 148.  All subsequent quotations from Winnicott are from this essay unless otherwise noted.

(38)D. W. Winnicott, “Creativity and Its Origins,” Playing and Reality (London and New York:  Tavistock, 1962), 65

(39)Bernd Schmitt and Alex Simonson, Marketing Aesthetics:  The Strategic Management of Brands, Identity, And Image (New York:  Free Press, 1987).  All subsequent quotations from Schmitt and Simonson are from this book.

(40)Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (New York:  Avon, 1965), 208

(41)Allan Kaprow, Essays on The Blurring of Art and Life (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1969)

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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