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Tom Estlack on Aspects of Late Postmodernism (Part 1)

February 9, 2010 Point of View No Comments

There have been many attempts to describe or categorize a seemingly evident paradigm shift in Arts, Culture and Society, which has moved beyond the category of “postmodern”. Some authors have described early postmodern works of Art (for example), as being indecipherable for different reasons (Susan Sontag). The groundbreaking work by these groups represents the beginning of new ways of communicating content and ideas. The first attempts at expression in a new form are crude, and limited in vocabulary. It’s only with historical experience, that artists learn to use the newer language to communicate in subtle ways, with a heightened sense of nuance and a more developed vocabulary. Artists, whose work has built on the work of early postmodernism, and have developed the language to the point where their work is (arguably) more “decipherable”, might include many living artists working today. Some of my personal favorites include Bruce Nauman, William Kentridge, Kara Walker, Richard Serra, Louise Bourgeois and many others.

Richard Serra's "Sequence" 2006, "Torqued Torus Inversion" 2006, and "Band" 2006, Museum of Modern Art: "Richard Serra's Sculpture: Forty Years." Photo: Lorenz Kienzle

An attempt to define a cultural state that is completely beyond postmodernism is premature. While the qualities that exist now are quite different than those that were dominant 10 or 20 years ago, the condition seems to have taken on a more acute stage of postmodernism.

Earlier postmodernism exhibited some of the following traits:

  1. Global Village (Marshall McLuhan)
  2. Viewer of artworks is a passive reader of signs and signifiers
  3. Cultural and semiotic environment resembles the psychological state of schizophrenic personality disorder (Lacan – The New School)
  4. Viewer’s identity is related metaphorically to scenarios expressed in artworks
  5. The artist is a replicator of content
  6. Populations are managed by international paramilitary organizations

Recent developments in postmodernism present a slight paradigm shift, but not a drastic change from this scenario:

  1. Global Village (Marshall McLuhan)
  2. Viewer of artworks is an active replicator of content – viewer is now a “user”
  3. Cultural and semiotic environment resembles the psychological state of narcissistic personality disorder
  4. User’s identity is assimilated into a semiotic environment and regurgitated back as part of the simulacra of popular culture
  5. The artist creates scenarios or environments that engage the “viewer’s/user’s” decision making process
  6. Populations are managed by the use of information and entertainment media

I won’t get into extensive explanations on postmodernism, because there is more than enough literature on the subject. Given the nature of what content currently exists, it seems that an assessment of the present situation, in some kind of general form may be due. I’ll try to describe the differences as I see them.

Louise Bourgeois's "Maman" at Rockefeller Center in New York, 2001 (Courtesy National Gallery of Canada, Cheim & Read)

The Role of the Viewer
Some writers note that in earlier postmodernism, that the viewer is an active reader of content. I differ with them in terms of referring to the viewer as “active”. While compared to the modern era, the viewer had to be more engaged in order to gain an understanding of the work, the level of activity this required was significantly less than it is now. Users, in the larger scope of cultural communications, are more active than they have ever been before. The type of activity in which they are engaged is different, however. The earlier postmodern scenario engaged the viewer in an active pursuit of synthesizing and following the string of concepts presented before them. This was a highly cognitive action. The level of activity that has changed, surrounds the fact that “users” participate in a form of the creative process. Contemporary artworks engage (what Richard Serra has called) the “behavioral space” of the viewer; making the viewer an active participant in the “performance” of an artwork. Viewers are continually made unwitting participants in works of art. To use the example of Serra’s sculpture, the work becomes a performance piece, a sculptural form designed to provoke or invite “user” participation; making the viewer a participant in the performance of the work. This becomes the environment that the artist has orchestrated. The content in publishing, popular film and television depends more and more heavily on marketing research data, which is perpetually harvested from an array of internet-based social utilities (data given voluntarily and unwittingly by the user).

About Tom Estlack:  Tom is an intermedia artist with an international exhibition record. He works with “new media”, sculpture, drawing and painting. Tom’s work incorporates video, animation, music, interactivity and multisensory stimuli. He holds a bachelors degree in painting from Columbus College of Art and Design, and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Tom has been teaching foundations, web authoring and design since 2002.


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