Postmodern Feminism & Multiculturalism

by Φ

Eleanor Heartney

p. 22

In the United States, the emergence of Neo-expressionism {Basquiat, Schnabel} coincided with the onset of the Reagan era, and the two phenomena were often linked in critical discourse. For its supporters, the new movement spoke to a hunger for feeling after twenty years of carefully cultivated irony and aesthetic distance. But detractors suggested that Neo-expressionists were bourgeois rebels, cultivating an aura of raw feeling and unbridled expression while looking over their shoulders at the newly invigorated art market, which was eager to snap up their works.

p. 27

Neo-expressionism was seen as frivolously collaborationist by the austere group of postmodernists who rallied around the banner of the ‘anti-aesthetic’. They rejected painting as hopelessly corrupted by its historic dependence on the art market and the mythology of heroic individualism. Moving instead from ‘production to reproduction’, they embraced text, photography and film as the proper tools for late 20th-century art. Through these they could explore the one legitimate subject left for art in the wake of the death of modernism. This was representation — a postmodern buzzword that referred to the influx of media and marketing messages out of which our illusory sense of self and reality are composed.
They issued a call for ‘a postmodernism of resistance’. Their mandate was to deconstruct the insidious representations that that have depoliticized the citizenry by making oppressive ideological positions seem natural and hence incontestable. They adopted the critique of Roland Barthes, who gave the name ‘myth’ to this fallacy: “Myth organizes a world which is without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves.”
Clarity being the enemy of ‘postmodern resistance’, the anti-aesthetes married poststructuralism to postmodernism in order to unearth contradictions hidden in ideological constructs. To convert the art object into text, in order to make it amenable to deconstruction. This had already been partly accompised by the Conceptual movement in the late 1960’s who had begun to move from the realm of objects to the realm of ideas.

p. 33

A quest to subvert painting from within, ‘They are dead, inert representations of the impossibility of passion in a culture that has institutionalized self-expression.’ Critical postmodernists take the mediation of reality as the central fact of contemporary life and they take photography as the central exemplar of mediation. Photography is quintessentially postmodern for a number of reasons. Because any number of equally distinct prints can be made from a single photographic negative, there is no ‘original’, a condition that meshes perfectly with the postmodern negation of uniqueness & originality. Because photography, however manipulated lies at the heart of most advertising & mass media, it provides the most pervasive conduit for ideology, making it ripe for deconstruction. And because photography is based on visual illusion — even the most abstract photograph is still a photograph of something — it wreaks havoc on efforts to remove all external reference from art. As a result, photography provides postmodernists both with the perfect tool and the perfect target.

‘Every bread winner deserves to be toasted.’

Hence it associated its product with beauty,
economic success & family harmony.

Moaist soldier learns
it is more important to
perform mundane tasks
required by the community
than to seek personal glory.

Stresses the sublimation of the self for the sake of the collective,
runs exactly counter to the celebration of individualism above.

An academic commentary on the semiotic
relationship of text & image
the arbitrary nature
of the link between
signifier & sign.

A caution against uncritical assumption of any mass-culture representation.

Extreme formulations of postmodern theory
do away with the artist altogether
leave the task of constructing the meaning of an image solely with the viewer.

Purloin already existing images and recontextualize them.

p. 37

Sherrie Levine ignited a minor controversy in the early 1980’s with a series that was simply unretouched photographs of works by illustrious photographers. From an old-fashioned perspective, these works were simply plagiarism. But in postmodern terms they were the purest examples of appropriation, which was shorthand for the widespread practice of plundering art-historical & mass-media images for use in contemporary artworks. [postform; recycling]
Levine carfeully included the name of the original photographer in each work, titling them After Walker Evans or After Edward Weston.  She insisted these became new works through her act of claiming them. She echoed the assertions of Borges’ story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote‘ (1939), a droll conceit that briefly became required reading in art schools thanks to Levine’s use of it to justify her attack on authorship. The point of insistence being that the meaning of a book changes when the reader imagines a different author. Thus it presents the notion that ‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author’.
Interestingly, Levine’s jeremiad against originality was itself not original. After her radical gesture became cocktail-party chatter, commentators began circulating an essay from an anthology of Conceptual art entitled Idea Art from 1973. It purported to be a review of the one & only show of an artist name Hank Herron, who created exact copies of paintings by Frank Stella. Its analysis struck a chord with a later generation, author Cheryl Bernstein averred, ‘Mr. Herron’s work, by reproducing the exact appearance of Frank Stella’s entire oeuvre , nevertheless introduces a new content and a new context… that is precluded in the work of Frank Stella, the denial of originality’.  However,  both Hank Herron & Cheryl Bernstein were inventions of a pseudonymous art historian and the essay itself was written as a parody satire of the logical consequences of Conceptualism. Ten years later, Conceptualist satire became postmodern reality, and few who eagerly brandished the essay as support for the postmodern position realized that it was written as a joke.

p. 42

Commodity Critics.

The postmodern object was decked out with a gleaming new theoretical raiment and sparkled with impressively obscure terms like ‘simulacrum’, ‘hyperreality’, ‘critical complicity’ and ‘commodity critique’.

Duchamp & Warhol were dusted off as spiritual ancestors.

The anti-aesthetes had been interested in the negation of aesthetics implied by Duchamp’s famous presentation of an ordinary urinal as a work of art. The commodity critics believed that Duchamp’s gesture, rather than deflating hight art, had conferred Walter Benjamin’s famous aura upon a lowly implement of plumbing. Similarly, the Warhol who interested this new group was not the Warhol of appropriated mass-culture images, but Warhol the creator of Brillo Box, a carefully painted replica of the packaging box for a ubiquitous cleaning product.
This is the same work that inspired Arthur Danto’s epiphany about the ‘end of art’. For Danto, Warhol’s Brillo Box was the end of the modernist line — art became self-conscious in a Hegelian way by raising the paramount question about its ontological status — why is this art and not simply a Brillo box? With Brillo Box, Danto believed, ‘Art had raised, from within and in its definitive form, the question of the philosophical nature of art’. Art had completed a line of questioning that had begun when photography stole its earlier justification as an imitation of reality. Now that the ultimate question had been asked, there was nothing more for art to do but splinter into different varieties of art-making — pluralistic creation.
If Brillo Box represented the end of modernism, for commodity critics it marked the beginning of postmodernism. its key element was the recognition of the identity of artworks as consumer products. It was a short leap from a particularly defeatist interpretation of poststructuralism, to the conclusion that we live in a soulless, empty society in which the selection of running shoes or a tee-shirt has become the most complex form of self-expression. Pop art had proffered a buoyant vision of consumer culture as a garden of earthly delights. The commodity critics, by contrast, were mired in a technological dystopia in which people only sustain the illusion of individuality and choice by cultivating their relationship with mass-produced objects. The department store as the cathedral of postmodern desire and the act of shopping as the postmodern version of democratic choice. This was, in part, a response to what the artists saw as the takeover of individual consciousness by mass-media & advertising.

Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism,
whereby objects divorced from the labor
that created them become independent
beings endowed with life.

Mixed with poststructuralist rhetoric about the illusory nature of the self, free will & reality, this created a distorted, looking-glass Marxism. Bereft of a concept of the ‘real’, Marx’s economic base and dependent superstructure simply collapsed into each other. All that remained were empty signifiers of value and meaning which no long belonged to any larger social or economic system. This created the reign of the ‘simulacra’. A copy without a model. The cannibalized look of modernist abstraction without grounding it in any specific historic moment or artist. This made them ‘simulations’. This term owes everything to Jean Baudrillard, who briefly became the guru of this new movement until he publicly disavowed the whole thing.

p. 51

The ‘Other’.

Like postmodernism itself, the Other is a thing that only exists in relation to something else. It has no independent essence. Modernism assumed the universality of its forms and its definition of art. However, this ‘universality’ left out the experiences and the creations of women, non-whites and non-Western cultures. More socially oriented versions of postmodernism bring these Others back into focus. However, by its very nature, the Other cannot simply dethrone modernism, replacing one false universality with another. Rather, the Other must operate as saboteur, continually undermining the effort to install any group or philosophy as the privileged purveyor of truth & reality.
It may be easier to follow the logic of the argument through the evolution of feminism and multiculturalism, postmodernism’s favorite Others. Marxist critic John Berger suggested: in art, as in advertising, ‘Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Western art replicated an unequal relationship already embedded in Western culture.
The evolution of feminist art follows a similar trajectory. 1970’s women artists began to explore the idea that there were essential differences in the experiences of men and women and that these could be discerned in their approach to art. Feminist critics discerned recurring motifs they believed suggested a female sensibility: the abstracted sexuality inherent in circles, domes, eggs, spheres, boxes & biomorphic shapes; a preoccupation with the body & body-like materials; a fragmentary, non-linear approach in the work of women that set it off from their male counterparts. Such dissimilarities reflected the different ways in which women organise their experience of the world. In what became known as First Wave Feminism, women artists immersed themselves in female experience — reveling in the hitherto forbidden territory represented by vaginal imagery and menstrual blood, posing themselves naked as goddess figures, defiantly recuperating ‘low’ art forms like embroidery and ceramics.
Absorbing the lessons of postmodernism, another group of feminist artists argued that First Wave Feminism was guilty of ‘essentialism’, of perpetuating the futil search for female essence. Worse, they claimed to reach this essence by embracing the designations imposed on women by patriarchal culture [Zing!] — women as nature, women as body, woman as emotion — and changing them from negative to positive qualities.
By contrast the postmodern feminists insisted that art should not try to provide positive images of female experience, as these inevitably ended up serving one ideology or another. Rather, they believed their job was to reveal ways in which all our ideas of womanhood and femininity are socially constructed. They pursued the idea of femininity as a masquerade — that it is a set of poses adopted by women in order to conform to societal expectations about womanhood. They maintained there is no female essence — woman is only an internalized set of representations. Feminist theory insisted it should not escape notice that this whole scenario focuses on the formation of male desire. In an enormously influential essay entitled ‘Visual Pleasure & Narrative Cinema‘, feminist theory applies the notion of fetish to film theory. The argument that Hollywood cinema is structured around the male gaze. The essay ends with the pronouncement: ‘It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this essay.’ Many feminist artists shared her discomfort with an aesthetic that linked visual pleasure with the objectification of women. Other feminists pointed out, there were limitations to such an approach: its blindspot with respect to female psychology being that like the Freudian system on which it was based, Lacanian theory made male experience the center of the Oedipal drama. As a result, it had little to say about the psychic structures underlying female desire. The theory even seemed to posit desire as a purely male phenomenon. There was a male gaze, but evidently no complementary female gaze? Pleasure was bad because it reinforced male supremacy? What about female pleasure? Was it really just a misguided identification with the male position?
At its extremes, Second Wave ‘postmodern’ Feminism assumed a puritanical tone. First Wave Feminists who had celebrated female sexuality and publicly exposed their own, often voluptuous, naked bodies were criticized for playing into patriarchal power structures. Postmodern feminists sought to destroy the aesthetic pleasure that satisfied men at the expense of women by often pursuing a form of iconoclasm, choosing to work with media images of women in a way that undercut their seductiveness. or they opted to avoid representing the female body altogether on the theory that any form or representation perpetuates the objectification of women.
Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills, photographs in which Sherman costumed herself to suggest a range of female types available in Hollywood movies — the femme fatale, rural naif, career girl — were embraced by feminist theorists who saw in it an exposition of the idea of femininity as masquerade. From one fictive pose to another, never betraying any sense of essential selfhood, they hailed her work as a critique of the objectifying operations of the male gaze. Others put it in a media context, that her Film Stills demonstrate how our contemporary sense of self is a commercial creation subject to the whims of the film industry. Others took a more deconstructive stance, seeing in her work a representation of the postmodern world’s decentered self, a fictional creature composed of fictions.
What all these interpretations have in common was a tendency to see Cindy Sherman as a stern polemicist taking on the evils of patriarchy, consumerism & late capitalist fragmentation. But they missed the obvious pleasure Sherman took in making these images and which the spectator feel in viewing them. Sherman assumed a series of media-based roles, but she did so as a form of play, embracing the human capacity for fantasy without linking it to a negation of selfhood. Her Film Stills can be read as critiques of the male gaze & the mass-media’s tendency to objectify women. But they also are permeated with Sherman’s own enjoyment of the time-honored adolescent girl’s game of dress up. They are powerful reminders that there is a feminine form of pleasure that cannot be theorized out of existence.
By the 1990’s feminists began to broaden their agenda to deal with larger social issues, among them the art world’s abysmal record of racial and ethnic inclusion. In this, feminism merged with the other great Other of postmodernism, which came to be referred to as ‘multiculturalism’.

According to feminist & multiculturalist analysis, the notion of the Other inevitably implies a hierarchy. To be an Other is to be considered less than the male and less than the individual of white european heritage. The Other is viewed as marginal, a sideshow in the grand narrative of world history. They condemned a ‘eurocentric’ bias and called fora  different approach to art outside the Western tradition. Critics, curators and artists began to espouse the ideal fo multiculturalism as opposed to modernism’s exhausted monoculturalism. Like feminism, such explorations assumed a variety of forms. One of the most pervasive paralleled feminist essentialism, and sought authentic expressions of racial and ethnic identity; [a process of discovery of] native traditions that had resisted the homogenization of modernism. However, in the scramble for usable traditions, some strange things began to happen. It appeared only certain traditions were culturally acceptable. As artists came to be categorized by race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, an unspoken demand arose that they must speak for their group and for a certain vision of anti-modernism. Critics of multiculturalism were quick to point out, these expectations merely reinforced the differences that modernism had had asserted to justify the West’s dominant postion. Liket he essentialist position that embraced women’s designation as representative of nature, emotion and body, multiculturalism presented non-Western cultures as purveyors of spirituality, instinct and the irrational.
There were other difficulties. The search for authentic identity ignored the realities of migration and immigration. Was an artist of African descent whose family had lived in Britain or the United States for four generations closer to their African heritage or their Western one? In this, a different version of multiculturalism was proposed: there came the argument that the key issue was not identity, but representation. IN a world where images govern reality, the important questions were: who represents whom? How and why are images of the Other created? Can marginal groups regain control of their own representations?
By focusing on representation rather than identity, postmodern multiculturalists found themselves wrestling a different set of questions. Can a member of a dominant group represent the marginal group, or only analyse himself? Can a member of a marginal group speak for herself, or have her responses been too contaminated by the ruling ideology? Do restrictions on who can speak for whom ultimately lead to a situation in which no one can speak for anyone? The results of artistic attempts to grapple with these questions were controversial. Critics on both sides of the political spectrum questioned an exclusive focus on negative stereotypes. While many artists intended to deconstruct and discredit various stereotypes, the absence of any alternative view more often than not brought them closer to reinforcing the racist cliches they were meant to dispel.
Thus postmodern multiculturalism butts up against some of the same difficulties that beset postmodern feminism. An exclusive focus on representation offers little in the way of a map for positive change. More nuanced views came about, proposing that authenticity be reconceived as an ongoing creative activity in which elements of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ cultures collide, meld and restructure into something new. This more optimistic view spurred an interest in hybridity — the idea of cultures and individual identity continually being remade through their contact with each other. Hybridity takes us on beyond postmodernism to a world remade by globalism.

Postmodernism provided a much-needed corrective to the exclusionary and falsely universal worldview of modernism. Yet  it also set in motion a series of negations that ultimately led to unacceptable consequences. At its most radical, postmodernism espoused a relativistic view of history that makes it impossible to refute absurd and dangerous ideas like historical revisionism or recovered memory. Its obsession with representation led to an embrace of media that does nothing to counter the narcotic effect of film and television on the public at large. Its reduction of politics to a game of shifting signifiers displaced political activism from the streets to the ivory tower. And finally, the fashionable denunciations of the commodification of art, far from leading to the withering away of the art object, instead coincided with the most heated art market in history. Have we reached the post-postmodern era? There is evidence everywhere of the return of the real. A close look reveals the landscape has subtly changed. The real has returned in forms that reveal a shift of consciousness enacted by postmodernism. It is no longer possible to imagine that history takes a single course, or that the reader is not an essential component of any text, or that our sense of self is not deeply implicated in relationships to power and authority. For all its contradictions and occasional absurdities, it is clear that postmodernism has remade the world in [finding its own way].