A little lesson in art history


Is there anything new under the sun? And if so, what difference does it make?

Postmodern artists would answer the first question with a resounding "no." In recent columns and reviews, I've explored some of the views of these artists, who reject the idea of originality. They also argue that an artwork has no meaning outside the context of political, historic and social networks in which it is placed.

I owe much of my understanding of these issues to Joel Eisinger, who teaches in the art history department at the University of Minnesota at Morris, and is the author of "Trace and Transformation: American Criticism of Photography in the Modernist Period." Eisinger was kind enough to share more of his thoughts on the postmodern school:

"All meaning is seen as existing in relationships rather than in essences," Eisinger says. "In language, a word acquires its meaning through its relations to other words and not through what it refers to."

For postmodernists, the implications of this seemingly simple idea are profound. It suggests that words and images don't just reflect meaning, but actually create it. And it implies that this realm of signs always intervenes in any contact we have with the external world, or with nature.

"For example, if we see a mountain, we see it in terms of what we have already learned about and seen of mountains through words and images," such as still photographs, paintings, TV, movies, Eisinger says. "We might even experience the mountain in terms of the way that a park service has built a road or scenic overlook. In other words, it is not a direct or pure experience."

Eisinger says that postmodern artists work on the principle that, as young children, we learn to use language and images and construct from them a sense of our identity and the world around us. According to this point of view, even our deepest sense of self is not innate but acquired from the ocean of signs into which we're born.

So everything we say or write, or paint or photograph or sculpt, is only a repetition or approximation of something else that already exists. Originality is impossible. Many postmodern artists want to make this explicit by not even attempting to make original art, blatantly appropriating existing art instead.

Eisinger also suggests an alternative way of looking at originality based on the critic Arthur Danto's theory of the "end of art history."

Danto, a follower of the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, suggests that art history has an internal engine driving it forward in a progressive movement toward a state of self-knowledge. When complete self-knowledge is reached, art history ends - but art-making does not.

Danto suggests that art has had two historical periods following the Renaissance.

In the first, the driving engine was the naturalism. Artists discovered chiaroscuro, linear perspective, the representation of anatomy, human expression, etc. With the invention of cinema - the ultimate example of naturalism - this history was abandoned, Danto says.

In the modern period, the internal engine of art history was generated by the inquiry into the nature of art. Artists asked, "What can we get rid of and still have a work of art?" In painting, they discarded narrative, perspective and finally, representation itself. MarcelDuchamp suggested that the essential aspect of a work of art was not the object at all - but an idea.

Other artists went in the opposite direction. They asked, "What can we include within the boundaries of art?" So Picasso glued oil cloth onto a painting and nailed rope around the edge,Schwitters made collages of trash,Rauschenberg placed a stuffed bird atop a photo collage,Fluxus made art by turning a light switch on and off. Following this path, art became anything.

Once art reached the stage at which it could be either anything or nothing, there was no place for it to go. According to Danto, there cannot be another historical period in art - no more internal engine driving art forward, no more inventions of new art forms.

People will still make art (and Danto likes a good deal of it), but in his theory, there is nothing original left to do. Today, art serves purposes other than its own discovery and unfolding. These purposes may be political, social, aesthetic or something else entirely. There is no grand battle between abstraction and representation; the same artist can work in one style one day and the other on the next.

I don't know if Danto is right, but his ideas are certainly thought-provoking. He isn't suggesting that there is no more we can learn from pictures, just that the era of formal invention in art is over.

The forms that already have been invented have by no means been fully explored. Doing that can keep artists busy for hundreds of years. Chinese art, for example, has never been propelled primarily by formal invention but thematic variation, which allowed classical Chinese landscape painting to thrive for about 1,000 years.

Many people today who are interested in the question of formal invention are looking closely at digital art and video art. Some argue that the computer and television are merely new tools with which people repeat old forms, such as collage and montage. Others say that computers and video are producing totally new artistic forms.

"Perhaps the safest thing to say is that it's still too soon to know what will happen," Eisinger suggests. "Both computers and video are relatively new media, and every new medium imitates older ones before revealing its own unique qualities."

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