An Essay on Modernism II

Following is the second essay I wrote on Modernism for Art History. It did even better than the first one, so here it is.

Question: Can Pop Art be considered as the precursor of post-modernism? Discuss with reference to at least three artists.

The great question for arts criticism in our era seems to be “what is post-modernism?”. Nearly every aspect of modern culture and academia seem to have their post-modern genre, however these fields may bear little actual relation to each other. Post-modernist philosophical arguments like that of Thomas Kuhn’s Paradigm notion would hold that there is no objective truth and that all viewpoints are essentially based on their own presupposed agendas. Neurologist Dr Steven Novella counters this notion in Neurologica 1.

In architecture, post-modernism manifests as a rejection of the form dictated by function minimalism of modernists such as Mies van der Rohe, with a return of decorative surfaces and features heavily influenced by the 19th century work of Sir John Soane. It’s interesting to note that Philip Johnson, creator of The Glass House in Connecticut, one of the most severe works of austere glass and steel minimalism, is also considered one of the fathers of post-modern architecture. His adjacent brick bunker-like guest house, has an interior of vaulted ceilings, concealed light sources and multilayered complexity that quote from the vaulting of Soane’s own home 2. His 1984 AT&T building in Manhattan features a controversial, furniture-evoking neo-Georgian pediment, while PPG Place in Pittsburgh could almost be Pugin’s Westminster realised in glass.

With all the disparate cultural threads offered the post-modern tag; architecture, philosophy, visual arts, it is perhaps best to say that post-modernism is less a movement, or style, than it is a generalised era. In architecture however, we have a hint as to what may be a common thread – the quote.

Throughout the history of Western art, quotation, both direct and symbolical has been a staple. Jewellers for example, express cultural quotations with the commonly understood symbology of precious stones. In visual arts, fruits, flowers, musical instruments, animals, in fact almost any item can have a symbolical meaning that is reinforced through repeated quoting. Even non-symbolically, the wholesale open quotation of parts of earlier works such as Rubens’ appropriation of Michelangelo’s Leda and the Swan for his work The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus, was a common and well understood tradition which allowed the connoisseur to derive pleasure from a work on a level beyond the pretty picture that was the work itself. This tradition waned as non-representative pure abstraction came to dominate Western art.

By the beginnings of Pop, fine art and the meme of the “successful” artist had become culturally and economically dominant. Yet because of this, the accessibility of art to the average person had decreased as large scale works selling for astronomical sums of money meant that a distance of unattainability had formed. Conversely, the simplicity of these works, such as Rothko’s Red and Orange, in freeing the viewer from the need of representative interpretation and existing simply as viscerally beautiful visual experiences, may increase their accessibility to a mass audience.

Pollock’s canvases may have been considered the apotheosis of modernism by Clement Greenberg, but like all of the modernist project it could be argued that it all falls one step short of its logical conclusion. Modernism, in attempting as it does to re-engineer society, art, design, in fact every aspect of the human struggle in terms of efficient, spare, flat, unadorned ideas, attempts to strip from us the clutter of our humanity. Its vision is of a clean, pristine posthuman world of doubtless supermen. It is the nuclear scientist with the physique of the linebacker. It is the square jaw, and distant gaze in the poster of the defiant factory worker. For lovers of hand-crafting, it is the vision of an Ikea hell-on-Earth. Despite all of this, the modernist project refused to take that final step and cast aside the messy-ness of the artist as expression of human ego.

Extraordinary wealth and economic motivations bred inoffensively decorative works which functioned as matching accompaniments for the décor of the corporate captain’s workplace or home. The near religious worship of the artist’s “creativity” meant a snapback was inevitable.

Pop went straight for the supermarket of mass consumer culture. Ignoring the mysticism and obscure theories that legitimised (if only for sale) the pure abstraction of the New York style, it quoted verbatim pre-existing images that were a part of the everyday western consumer experience.

In his “Encounters” with Warhol, Arthur Danto encapsulates the core of Pop, not only must the artist quote pre-existing cultural iconography, but that it must be blatant. It must be so recognisable as an intact quote that every single viewer should know the original from personal experience 3. In this way, it contrasts with the classical quotation rhetoric which was kept to the educated classes. The inclusiveness of pop, centres around images everyone could enjoy for their graphic quality, which it must be remembered comes from a design oriented background that over the years has had to prove its efficacy through measurable results to achieve ends in the marketing industries. Danto attributes this as a reason for Warhol’s popularity 4. Pop doesn’t make us feel stupid for not getting it. We can like, or not like the image, but we don’t have to feel worthy of it. Pop is not humbling.

Both Warhol and Lichtenstein strive, through their reproduction of existing media, to create works that utterly nullify the artist’s contribution. Warhol spoke of his desire to work as a machine 5, and his movement to printmaking 6, which culminated in his factory work that often had nothing of his hand involved in the final artefact. Ironically this is almost a return to the working methodology of the old masters prior to the 18th century. With even greater irony, in attempting to remove themselves from their work, they only further reinforced the position of the idea-centric artist as cultural superstar. Do we believe that was accidental?

As the pop embrace of consumerism, borne by a true love of mass culture began to unwind, the economic and social turmoil of the anti-mass culture who’s most obvious popular expression would be Punk began to sneer cynically at the juxtaposition of Artists making advertising. The insular and snide edge that would seem so archetypical of non-architectural Post-Modern art became ascendant. It was no longer good enough for a work to be profoundly self-obliterating, the unmasked face of God that the Abstract Expressionists created. And it was no longer good enough for a work to welcome you plainly with common terms of reference. The quote of the post-modernist is a critical, hostile and exclusionary vicious whisper. It is the laughter and sideways glance from the cool kids in the school corridor. The purpose of the post-modernist quote is to mystify, and raise not the great, common and binding things of our culture, but the obscure and mediocre with a joking and cynical sense of irony, so that a small clique of those in the know, those who have researched the artist and understand the reference, can enjoy the smug superiority of getting it.

Post-modernism is the logical conclusion to the cyclical process of the conquest of the mainstream by the avant-garde. Or, is it theft (or purchase) by the mainstream? Revolution and counter-revolution, each movement seeking to at once tear down, yet build upon that which has gone before. As Christin J. Mamiya describes it 7, Pop isn’t just the precursor of Post-modernism, depending on your definition it is also the fist distinct post-modern art movement.

Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy animated series, distils the quote-rich in-joke and exclusionary nature of the post-modern in the episode “8 Simple Rules for Buying My Teenage Daughter”. In a momentary scene, The Herculoids, monstrous characters from a late 60s Saturday morning cartoon show, have their application for a babysitting job turned down by the mother of the modern nuclear family. In that one unexplained moment, instantly recognisable to a minority and utterly baffling to most, is it derision, or nostalgia? As The Simpsons, of which Family Guy is itself a deconstruction, so eloquently put it in a scene of two pre-packaged “rebellious teenagers”;
“Dude, are you being sarcastic?”
“I don’t even know anymore”.


Postmodern Culture: Edited by Hal Foster
Pop Art and Consumer Culture: American Super Market: Christin J. Mamiya
Modern Dreams: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Pop: Various
Pop Art: Royal Academy of Arts 1991
NAS Modernism Reader: Various
Nwurologica: Steven Novella:

  1. “This is the “paradigm” argument of Thomas Kuhn, one of the fathers of postmodernism. Evidence for evolution is only evidence if we assume the evolution paradigm in the first place. Kuhn, who basically said that paradigms can only be judged from within the paradigm itself, not falsified from the outside. And when one paradigm shifts to another it happens for quirky and subjective (i.e. cultural) reasons. Kuhn and Fish miss the whole “later justification” thing that is central to scientific methodology. They miss that science itself is not a set of beliefs but a set of methods. So in practice the only “basic presuppositions” that are necessary to falsify evolution are those of scientific methodology – not evolution itself” – Neurologica, June 25 2007
  2. “This was a big breakthrough for me to thumb my nose at my mentor Mies van der Rohe, and to say things should be warmer, and toastier and sexier than they are in modern trabeated square beamed architecture “ – Philip Johnson interviewed – Sir John Soane: An English Architect, An American Legacy
  3. “it was essential to the enterprise that the images be so familiar that “stealing” them was impossible: they belonged to the iconography of everyday life, like the American flag, the dollar sign, the soup label, the before-and-after shots of transformed faces and physiques.” – Danto , Encounters and Reflections: Art in the Historical Present
  4. “With Warhol, the gesture was mainstream: this was what Art had evolved into by 1964, when his search reached its end. Moreover, it was a cemebration rather than a criticism of contemporary life, which is partly why Warhol was so instantly popular.” – Danto , Encounters and Reflections: Art in the Historical Present
  5. “The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do.” – Interview with Warhol. Harrison and Wood, 1900 – 90
  6. I heard that Lichtenstein said he might not be painting comic strips a year or two from now – I think that would be great, to be able to change styles. And I think that’s what’s going to happen, that’s going to be thewhole new scene. That’s probably one reason I’m using silk screens now. I think somebody should be able to do all my paintings for me. I haven’t been able to make every image clear and simple and the same as the first one. I think it would be so great if more people took up silk screens so that no one would know whether my picture was mine or somebody else’s” – Interview with Warhol. Harrison and Wood, 1900 – 90
  7. “In reviewing the historical continuum of art during the past century, one might perceive modernism as a well-defined program and the history of modernism as a logical, linear progression of artistic opposition against established art forms. According to this first scenario, recent postmodern art can be seen as simply a new phase of modernism – a continuation rather than a break with the modernist tradition – and the term postmodernism functions as a temporal and philosophical designation. The emergence of Pop fits nicely into this construct. By the late 1950s, Abstract Expressionism had become entrenched as the reigning art movement. Pop challenged many of the tenets underlying this movement that championed purity of form and expression. Such adversarial stances were fundamental to the perpetuation of the avant-garde, which was based on an uncompromising admiration for the new, novel and innovative. The banal nature and familiarity of Pop images, derived verbatim from mass culture and presentedin serial fashion, contrasted sharply with the abstract, highly personal canvases of the Abstract Expressionists. From this standpoint, then, Pop epitomized the ideal of modernism but developed in a later perid – henct the label “postmodern” “ – Christin J. Mamiya – Pop Art and Consumer Culture: American Super Market.