Post-Modernism: A Poor Forgery
As many artists know, post-modernism is a movement which claims to have both arisen from and reacted against trends in modernism. Many post-modernists argue that they are following in the footsteps of the Dadaists, the surrealists and other 20th Century avant-garde art movements. Whilst post-modernism is essentially the avant-garde movement of today, it is a complete lie that it is anything like previous movements. It is merely a poor imitation that lacks substance.
It’s common for people today to disregard the avant-garde thanks to post-modernism. Many see avant-garde as just a silly French word that you can affix to a picture of a square and therefore claim it has artistic meaning. What you might call avant-garde or post-modernist is actually the high art of the 21st Century. Canvases filled with squares or random splatters of paint are sold at auctions for tens of millions of dollars and we have exhibition openings which are exclusively patronized by a small, culturally homogenous elite. They sit sipping on champagne while they look down their noses at the unwashed masses outside. There’s nothing deep, creative or artistic about this disgusting form of snobbery. In fact, post-modern art is more empty and soulless than existential nihilism.
With this being the condition of abstract art today, it’s pretty easy to see why its gotten such a bad name amongst ordinary people. However, things haven’t always been this way. The avant-garde used to actually mean something rather than pretending to do so. Perhaps the most striking example of true, meaningful abstract art is the Dada movement of the early 20th Century. Dada began at the outbreak of World War I and was an artistic protest. It was against the interests of bourgeois nationalism and imperialism, which Dadaists saw as a reason for war. Perhaps more importantly, it was against the cultural and intellectual conformity with the status quo. Dada was not art, it was anti-art. Art was built around beauty, yet Dada was based on ugliness. Art was sensible, yet Dada was offensive. The German Dadaist Hugo Ball expressed that For us, art is not an end in itself but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in. Dada was what many artists called a monster which would lay waste to everything in its path. This art movement gave birth to the collage and took the world by storm. Dada did not exist in a vacuum, it accompanied a wider social and political movement against capitalism and the rich. Images depicting those disfigured and crushed by poverty and war were made to shock and offend. The same goes with the depictions of the rich and powerful. Rather than being immortalized in beautiful portraits, they were criticized in paintings that portrayed them as disgusting monsters.
Another example of radical, avant-garde art is the phenomenon of proletkult and constructivism during the Russian revolution. Unlike how avant-garde is often portrayed, these movements had mass followings during their time. Before the Russian revolution, art was something for the elite. The ruling classes and the liberal intelligentsia were the teachers. Ordinary people were merely the uncultured students. In Marxist theory, art and culture is associated with the dominant class in society. Under a state ruled by the working masses, new forms of art and culture were expected to develop. Constructivism was seen as the primary vehicle for this. Art was not seen as something that required years of training, rather it was something that merely required creativity and spirit. The aesthetic of constructivism was drawn from the creation of a modern industrial society in the previously backwards and agrarian Russia. Constructivism as a mass art movement saw support from the Soviet government and became all-consuming. New forms of architecture were born as well as cinema. Sergei Eisensteins Battleship Potemkin was a silent film produced in 1925, which was named the greatest film of all times at the Brussels Worlds Fair in 1958.
The final example of sincere, expressive avant-garde art is surrealism. Surrealism has its origins in Dada and was called a revolutionary movement by the leading figure Andre Breton. The aim of surrealism was to express the unconscious in art. Many art historians point to surrealism as an inspiration for the 1968 May revolts in France, which had the slogan of All power to the imagination. Surrealism was a highly political movement, with many artists identifying as Trotskyists. Indeed, Andre Breton and his comrades were leading supporters of Leon Trotsky and his International Left Opposition against Joseph Stalin. Ironically, well-known surrealist Salvador Dali was ostracized by his peers for his support of Francisco Francos fascist dictatorship. He was seen as a traitor to the surrealist movement for his reactionary politics, especially since many surrealists had fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. From that example, we can see that the surrealists weren’t shy about their politics. Art historian Whitney Chadwick described surrealism as a movement that battled the social institutions church, state and family that regulated the place of women. Ultimately, surrealism met an end as an organised movement in the late 1960s.
As we can see, there’s a significant difference between the avant-garde art movements of the past and post-modernism today. These forms of art were politically and culturally charged. They questioned the meaning of art in itself and its role in society. They possessed cultural value far greater than their commercial value. For Dadaists, constructivist and surrealists, art was something expressive, something for the masses. For post-modernists such as Jeff Koons, who sold his piece Balloon Dog for over 58 million US dollars and publicly states that his art has no meaning, art expresses nothing and belongs to the rich. Ultimately, post-modern art has no connection to any political movement. There is no critique of modern capitalism, war in the Middle East or anything worth discussing today. Post-modernism is an empty shell. An offensively bad imitation of what used to be.
So what can we do to remedy the state of the avant-garde? Well, I’m certainly not going to advocate for a return to the movements of old. Trying to return to Dada, constructivism or surrealism outside of the historical context that created them will do nothing but lead to the same cheap imitations we see today. I don’t claim to have all the answers but I have a few suggestions. Firstly, avant-garde art should be accessible to all. It should be something that makes one cry out, I could do that! Not because it is overly simplistic but because anyone can do it. It is fundamentally democratic at the point of production. Avant-garde art should also provide commentary on society today, there are plenty of issues to explore. Art without meaning is nothing more than aesthetics. Finally, it should be democratic in consumption. Avant-garde art should stand on its own artistic merit, not the judgement of billionaires who want to flaunt their wealth. It’s time for the post-modern to die and be thrown in the trash heap of history. It’s time for a new, powerful avant-garde art movement to rise from the ashes.