Byline: BRIAN SEWELL
I AM occasionally tempted to adopt the Victorian writer's direct form of address, "Dear Reader", used when he wished to make a particular point or steer the bewildered through a paradox, and today I shall succumb.
Dear Reader, do not, I beg you, turn to another page because I employ the term Post-Modern. You have, no doubt, closed your minds to Post-Modernism and all its tiresome conflicts and confusions, and I, long since utterly perplexed, have damned it as a slippery pinhead on which foolish angels dance. I write of it now only because, in responding to a letter from a student bitterly complaining that his teachers have failed to recognise "the absurdity of Post-Modernism and the ludicrous position in which it puts them as supposed academics", I have begun to wonder when Post-Modernism began and whether it is possible to reach a simple definition that you and I might understand.
First let us dispense with capital letters and the hyphen, for in recent years a democratic change that suits the movement's Leftwing politics has reduced it to postmodernism. But is it even a movement? It is certainly not solely an art movement, for it embraces music, literature and philosophy, and in all these fields seems to have two unifying purposes; the first of these is the damnation of elitism as it might be expressed in technical skill or an ancestral aesthetic tradition; the second, entirely political, is the damnation and destruction of the very capitalism that, in the case of all the visual arts, has invested the wealth of Croesus in them and made the artists millionaires.
Ever since Duchamp, with his urinal-cum-fountain of 1917, challenged the common sense and tolerance of a public still uncertain of its aesthetic response to Post-Impressionism, artists have provoked us with affronts and we are now long accustomed to finding in art galleries material that on the street would be removed as rubbish, the spurious aggrandisement of much that is, like the human waste, obscenity and pornography it often is, repellent.
As Warhol put it, art has become whatever an artist "can get away with".
Was Warhol a postmodernist? For an answer you must turn to the acolytes of such postmodern philosophers as Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Barthes and Adorno (how my brain shuts down at the recital of their names), for it is they who hold the whip hand here. None is an artist, a critic in any informed sense, or a historian, yet anyone who reads the current turbid jabberwocky of art recognises that its writers constantly invoke these authorities, weaving an inter-textual tapestry of quotations that to the sceptic are the fraudulent and often contradictory witterings of pseudoacademics who construct with language an exclusive elitism of their own. We, the outsiders, are not meant to understand, but merely to stand in uncomprehending awe of such intelligences.
Was Joseph Beuys postmodern?
Was Duchamp modern, pre-postmodern, proto-postmodern, or just post-modern before his time? The more enquiring one is with the visual art of the later 20th century, the more indeterminable the terms modern and postmodern become; we easily limit, define and comprehend Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and a dozen other movements, but once the distinctions between art and other forms of intellectual sustenance are blurred in the pan-cultural soup of postmodernism, nothing means anything precise, everything is individually interpretable by anybody, and the language of this anybody or group of anybodies becomes an art form in itself. Under postmodernism the rise of theory has been triumphant, and theory has been accorded such privilege that interpretation by non-artists now has absolute supremacy over the physical and occasionally aesthetic business of creating works of art. Some years ago, to keep us all in line, Nicholas Serota created a new post at the Tate - a Curator of Interpretation. …