Proficiency and Pathology (2005)
Lecture delivered at College Art Association annual conference, February 2005; posted on newCrit.org, March 2005.
I like the ideas of Postmodernism but I have come to despise their misuse.
In college I majored in philosophy and wrote my thesis on Suzanne Langer, who could be called a "prepostmodernist." She thought that our intuitive organizing function of sense gives form to existing objects and sounds and that art is an externalized equivalent of nameless, nonverbal forms in the mind.
Nietzsche's idea that there are no facts but only interpretations fascinated me and so did Bishop Berkeley's theory that matter is composed of ideas. I also appreciated Samuel Johnson's stone-kicking refutation of Berkeley.
Today I find pleasure in the great physicist John Archibald Wheeler's position that "No elementary phenomenon is a phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon" and cognitive scientist Donald Hofmann's idea that consciousness and its contents are all that exists.
But at other times I find myself thinking like a neo-platonist, sitting in a cave looking at mere shadows of some remote external reality.
Perhaps some philosopher will take external and internal reality and construct a "unified field" theory. It won't be me. I like ambiguity, and I find it difficult enough to resolve a painting, much less construct a theory of everything.
I was naturally interested when I heard the ideas of Postmodernism many years ago. Postmodernism put concrete experience ahead of external reality and abstract principle, and it realistically accepted conflict. It seemed to accommodate an artist's view that we are put in the world with the need to construct one of our own, and to encourage a corollary need for the freedom and development of the individual.
As time went on, however, I saw the interesting ideas of Postmodernism become corrupt in practice. Small minds take big ideas and debase them for their own purposes, channeling broad wisdom into justification for immediate goals. This process is woven into human history; we see it today in the misapplication of religious principles, for example.
The interesting insights of original Postmodernism became corrupted, in real life, to vehicles of oppression on the one hand and justifications for a careless disregard for even the most useful rules and limits on the other.
In corrupted Postmodernism, the assertion that nothing can be demonstrated beyond a doubt means that any clear proposition can be disqualified or weakened before it can be put into effect. The fact that so-called "larger truths" are unprovable and that values arise from circumstance has been twisted to imply that external truth and value are unusable concepts; that there can be no proof of goodness in art indicates that value distinctions are expendable fabrications and must be suppressed; that all things deserve a fair hearing means that all things are of equal value.
The practical result of this perversion is paralysis. Like so many isms, corrupted Postmodernism usurps individual choice, insisting that we listen not to the inner voice of common sense and reason but to the outer voice that applies relativism to all spheres of human thought, denigrating strongly held conviction and belief derived from experience.
Instead of providing skills to empower individuals to make choices from strength, corrupted Postmodernism preaches a value-free hypertolerance which dismisses all consequences of these empowered choices, thereby pandering to trendy rectitude and preparing the killing field where brainwashing and power politics can gain a foothold. Tyranny spreads its roots in the fertile soil of uncertainty.
Corrupted Postmodernism is a powerful weapon for discrediting anything it chooses. In fact, as has been amply shown, it discredits itself, but this matters little to its adherents because it is so useful in academic life.
It is not useful in everyday life because there is too much common sense operating there. If someone says "watch out for the truck" we do not pause to determine whether "truck" is a social construct. Truth, in everyday use, is merely part of the social contract. Proof is a specialized process for use in the laboratory and the courtroom. Intellectualized dismissal of everyday reality is unworkable. Can you imagine postmodernist police work? Postmodernist medicine? Postmodernist restaurants that give you a menu and no meal?
Corrupted Postmodernism only comes to life in the academy, where words abandon reality to serve ambition, and where reputations rise on hot air.
Even within the academy Postmodernism is severely limited. It has little application in science, for example, where systematic proof and hard facts still count. It will not convince an architect that a building foundation should be eliminated because it is some kind of discredited "ultimate principle." It will not convince book writers to scramble the order of the alphabet because it is a construct of "western white male hegemony." Architects may make buildings that look like bad 1950s metal sculpture, and writers may babble nonsense. But, as the song says, the fundamental things apply, as time goes by.
But corrupted Postmodernism can flourish where there is a weak culture of established utility. It is attractive because it talks tough while simultaneously flushing the hard parts down the tubes. It alleviates the strenuous work of teaching a skill, making it easier for everyone, teacher and student alike. It postpones hard criticism and supports a "do your own thing" approach. Wherever there is an intrinsic lack of rigor coupled with the need for competitive advantage it has spread like a kudzu vine: in the humanities, and, in that most vulnerable area, the teaching of art.
In art history corrupted Postmodernism has had a field day.
Art is basically useless; you can't eat it, drive it or live in it. It is made from cheap materials. We value it because it is the only thing we have which is made to be as good as it can be, in a circumstance of minimal function which emphasizes doing something as well as possible. What we call "art" is merely the kind of object that is best able to fulfill this apparent need.
Judgments of value, though surrounded by words like buzzing bees, are still made intuitively. Corrupted Postmodernism ridicules the very notion of superior art in favor of so-called "issues" and the various cultural products of marginalized and disadvantaged groups, but the common response to art, and its valuation, continues to be intuitive and nonverbal. These experiences justify art's place in our value system. This is how the system works. No one can define what good art is but we keep on making those choices, and these choices eventually provide a settled selection of the "best." It is called the "consensus."
Because Art History is a field of study in which the underlying principles of valuation cannot be articulated there is a hunger for the pseudocertainty of theory. Art historians, who have always been leery of any emotional involvement with art, have now learned to cope with it not only by the classic dodge of symbolic interpretation, but now, thanks to Postmodernism, by using art objects as exemplars of cultural circumstance and principle, thereby making art history a kind of specialized sociology.
Nevertheless, art history, infested as it is with corrupt Postmodernism, still looks at and talks about art. There is no wholesale abandoning of basic course materials, merely a revision of the kind of consideration they get. As wrong-headed as that may be it is does not amount to abandonment of the curriculum.
The teaching of studio foundations is another matter.
Foundations are called that because that's what they are: basic training for the eye and hand. Teaching studio proficiency introduces the mind to the great jungle of materials and imaginative possibilities that are the stuff of art, the "buzzing, blooming confusion" which provides the exhilarating environment the student will enter for self-discovery and expression.
Original Postmodernism would encourage the teaching of foundations because it is a kind of empowerment, a facilitation of observation to understand what you are seeing, not according to some prescribed dictum but through an enhanced ability to relate to external fact.
Corrupted Postmodernism does just the opposite, interposing a conceptual wall between the student and the visual world. Art has nothing to do with proofs and truths and absolutes; it orders experience to provide us with the means to intuitively discover the best in ourselves. The radical substitution of conceptual content for skill-building clearly strikes at the roots of a rich discipline that has evolved for half a millennium. Turning this great human enterprise into an academy of political correctness, a signpost to so-called "larger issues," is nothing less than barbaric.
It amounts to the destruction of a habitat.
It is not easy to find out specifically what is being done to foundation study in the name of Postmodernism, because the available descriptions are so excruciating, nonspecific and jargonized that it is impossible to tell what actually goes on in the classroom. I have had to rely on acquaintances and web sources and anecdotal evidence for specific information.
It appears to be quite drastic.
Clearly basic drawing and the skills associated with it have been radically reduced. There are discussion groups and language-based assignments, and courses to indoctrinate cultural relativism. When actual drawing is taught there is less pressure to correct skills and more emphasis on verbal explication of approved subject matter. It provides a climate that allows anything and everything except for traditional modes of learning.
This is very dangerous academically, cruel, even. When you deplete foundation skills the whole structure of skill-building collapses, depriving the student of the competence to bring materials together into a coherent esthetic whole. They will have BAs and BFAs and MFAs and no visual competence, thereby debasing the degree itself. I usually hear it rationalized as "that's how it is out there and we have to prepare them for it." OK, maybe as an MFA seminar this might be justified. But accommodating a necessary evil does not amount to a studio education.
There are also very practical consequences. As head of the painting program at the University of Miami I talk to parents all the time. They want their kids to learn how to draw and paint. Many have seen and heard of programs that substitute concepts for skills and they are uniformly horrified.
I have heard endless stories about conflicts created within the ranks of faculty by the imposition of postmodernist concept-based programs. This is to be expected, and it is exacerbated by the inflexible approach of radical postmodernists, who, like religious zealots, insist on eradicating the old order. The damage to smooth pedagogical functioning, which in most art departments is imperfect at best, is obvious.
It also affects incoming faculty, who, however thoroughly they have been trained in the techniques of making and teaching studio art, must, in many schools, whistle the postmodernist tune or lose any chance of employment or tenure. And when the counterrevolution comes, as it must, the perpetrators will be retired and the hapless followers will bear the brunt. The backlash will be ferocious. Relearning the old skills and methods will be long and painful.
Postmodernism openly declares that everything is political. Do we really need more politics? Do we really want to sacrifice every noble principle on the altar of relativity? Can we have not even a brave veneer of lip service for the old ideals of the academy as a sanctuary of freethinking where many schools of thought contend?
Perhaps we can. Now that Postmodernism has been in force for a generation there are rumblings that it is over. Let's hope so, and let's hope that the next "big thing" is more fruitful and less destructive. An "ism" needs to be judged not by its "rightness" but by its yield, by what is produced in its name.
And if we must, in the meantime, have the thought police and political correctness and corrupted Postmodernism, then give us a monastery somewhere, like the medieval Irish monks, and let us retreat and teach drawing while the vandals lay waste.