Express Yourself: It's Later Than You Think

If you're confused about Postmodernism,that may mean you understand it.

MORE than a quarter century ago the painter Ad Reinhardt declared that his new black-on-black canvases were the "last pictures which anyone can make." The critics raved, and many agreed with the "Black Monk" that his masterpieces would be history's "ultimate" paintings. Unfortunately, other artists refused to hand in their brushes, so art continued. Ever since, modern art has resembled a doomsday cult on the day after the deadline for the end of the world. The true believers awoke one day to find that the sun had risen, the mad prophet had disappeared, and they all had to find something to do with the rest of their lives.

This predicament is now called Postmodernism, and if you're confused about it, that's probably because you're beginning to understand it. If you're an artist, what follows will be old hat. But as a service to the layman I can define a few of the basic terms.

Modern Art: In the future "modern art" will mean "the kind of art they did in the twentieth century." Like "Baroque"or "Romanesque," "modern" will be a term used to date something.

Cubism: A movement started by Picasso and Braque to distinguish their work from what Cézanne had already done. Critics named it Cubism. In modern art, naming your art movement is a must. Cubism is still the most important modern-art movement, for the same reason that John D. is still the most important Rockefeller. All the other movements are like downtown Rockefellers, and you can forget about them unless you expect to encounter an art category on Jeopardy.

Futurism: This was a movement of intellectuals who wanted to replace tradition with the modern world of machinery, speed, violence, and public relations. It proves that we should be careful what intellectuals wish for, because we might get it.

Dada: Dada artists were ironists. Duchamp was their star, and his masterpiece was a urinal. He ended his life playing chess. He claimed he was making an art statement. My grandfather was a prankster too, and he ended his life playing chess. But since he did it to keep from being bored, no one thought it proved anything. This suggests that Dada artists are exempt from the general rule that ironists are the biggest victims of their own irony.

Surrealism: An archaic term. Formerly an art movement, no longer distinguishable from everyday life.

Abstract Expressionism: After the Second World War the United States emerged as the world's superpower. American companies like Cities Service and Esso, which had once been regional businesses, became international corporations. They adopted abstract names like Citgo and Exxon to give themselves world-class status. Since multinational giants couldn't have little pictures of red barns or weeping clowns in the lobbies of their Bauhaus buildings, Abstract Expressionism emerged as the world's most prized form of interior decoration.

Pop Art: In aristocratic societies rich people used to commission exquisite paintings for their walls. Years later cheap imitations would filter down to calendars in gas stations. In our democratic society this works backward. Here art begins as the kind of picture you'd find on a matchbook cover. Then in a few years expensive imitations of it wind up on the walls of plastic surgeons and Hollywood agents.

New Wave Art: Modern art as it would have been done by the Big Bopper, the Del-Vikings, or Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. New Wave art was the rage of the eighties. Now it's exhibited in oldies-but-goodies museums, usually in black-and-pink frames.

Graffiti Art: Many people decorate their homes with designer graffiti, even though most of them would probably have real graffiti scoured off the walls of their buildings. Personally, I think that graffiti artists should go to the homes of their patrons with spray cans and make their living rooms look like subway cars. This would separate serious lovers of graffiti from uptowners spelunking for art thrills.

Realism: Currently, realistic paintings are valued for their craftsmanship. In the next century, when art will be packaged as virtual-reality software, realistic paintings will sell the way Shaker furniture does now. Shaker furniture will sell the way Van Gogh paintings do. Pop-It Beads owned by Jackie Onassis will come to market only occasionally.

Commercial Art: Anything done by an artist with a cash register by the door. Commercial art is traditionally delivered to a client in a brown-paper bag with an invoice stapled to the outside.

Fine Art: With commercial art you find out how much they're going to pay you, and you do the work. With fine art it's the other way around.

"That's Not Art, That's Illustration": Almost everybody is an artist these days. Rock-and-roll singers are artists. So are movie directors, performance artists, makeup artists, tattoo artists, con artists, and rap artists. Movie stars are artists. Madonna is an artist because she explores her own sexuality. Snoop Doggy Dogg is an artist because he explores other people's sexuality. Victims who express their pain are artists. So are guys in prison who express themselves on shirt cardboard. Even consumers are artists when they express themselves in their selection of commodities. The only people left in America who seem not to be artists are illustrators.

Love Me, Love My Art: Norman Rockwell used to say if a picture is going badly, put a dog in it. If it is going really badly, put a bandage on the dog's paw. This is the basic principle behind victim art.

Tattoo Art: I've never liked tattoos, although I think they improve some people--especially the kind of people who hang around tattoo parlors.

Kitsch: In my lifetime kitsch has progressed from the cynical sentimentality of Maxfield Parrish calendars to the sentimental cynicism of Batman movies.

Style: Style is the most valuable asset of the modern artist. That's probably why so many styles are reported lost or stolen each year.

Tradition: There are still some traditionalists, mostly employed by art schools, who continue to paint like members of the Ash Can School, with earnest First World War realism. For years it has pleased the avant-garde to keep these Amish around to portray the art establishment. But for generations the real art establishment has been made up of earth sculptors, body piercers, and topless cello players. It's been a long time since a painter of the Ash Can School has even had a prayer.

The Avant-garde: More than a hundred years ago some French bohemians decreed that the purpose of art was to shock the middle classes. It may have been a great idea back then. But these days the middle classes aren't paying attention. They're all on Jerry Springer or Ricki Lake, talking about their cross-dressing experiences or sex with the baby-sitter. Cutting-edge artists have to watch this stuff in despair and complain about the state of American culture even as they demand more grant money to do their cutting-edge art. In the future this spectacle of the middle classes shocking the avant-garde will probably become the textbook definition of Postmodernism.

"Sometimes You Gotta Break the Rules": One of the things not enough people appreciate about modern art is that its philosophy can be summed up as a Burger King commercial.

Craftsmanship: Traditional craftsmen worked within certain conventions. Occasionally those conventions would be redefined by acts of genius. In modern art, though, everybody has to redefine art all the time. This might have made our era another Renaissance, if only there had been a sudden explosion of geniuses in the world. But since ego is more common than genius, Postmodern art is destined to be more narcissistic than heroic.

Art Theory: The typical modern artist produces a small body of work wrapped in a theory. Some even dispense with the work itself and exhibit only their theories, typed up. To me this seems a sensible economy of style. If the purpose of art is to redefine art, then words should do the trick. There's no use cluttering up the world with redundant examples.

Self-expression: The crowbar used by artists to pry open the Pandora's box of self-indulgence for everybody else in society. Thirty years ago it was the dream of every bohemian artist to be seen getting out of a limousine wearing blue jeans and sneakers. Today it's the dream of probably half the people in the country.

The Miracle of Authenticity: The faith that if we're all authentic and express ourselves, society will benefit. A charming ideal, but it overlooks the obvious. There are a lot of authentic jerks and idiots in the world. Encouraging them to express themselves will never do anybody much good, much less society.

Instinct: Back in the prehistoric jungle all the animals who trusted other animals got eaten. The only ones who survived to reproduce were the ones who instinctively feared everybody and bit their heads off. This explains why so many people who, like artists, trust their instincts behave like crocodiles.

Consciousness-Raising Art: An all-purpose excuse for the artist to cast himself as a pearl before the swine of democracy. Whenever I know that an artist is trying to raise my consciousness, I have flashbacks of Jane Fonda, Sissy Spacek, and Jessica Lange lecturing Congress about the realities of farm life.

Forever Jung: Postmodernists believe that truth is myth and myth truth. This equation has its roots in pop psychology. The same people also believe that emotions are a form of reality. There used to be another name for this state of mind. It was calledpsychosis.

Multiculturalism: I've never understood why artists, who so often condescend to the clichés of their own culture, are so eager to embrace the clichés of cultures they know nothing about.

Waiting for Van Gogh: In the world in which most of us have grown up, popular art has inherited and exploded all the forms of art that came before it. Everything from the primitive art of tribal societies to the fine art of aristocratic ones has been thrown into the cement mixer of modern culture, along with its juxtapositions of celebrity and anonymity, poverty and sudden wealth, and the continuous swooning of the popular media over trends and fads. The truth about Postmodernism is that we haven't really figured out yet how artists will thrive in modern mass societies. We're all experiments.

The Atlantic Monthly; July, 1996; Express Yourself: It's Later Than You Think; Volume 278, No. 1; pages 66-68.