Rebirth of Reason

The Free Radical

Pandora's Box Part I
by Michael Newberry

In treating any disease it is important to identify the problem at its root. It is also important to find classic cases of the problem to illustrate clearly the results of the disease. Some of the cases here are not pretty and might be offensive. It will take some courage to follow me through the following series of articles as we investigate the nature of Postmodern Art. We may even have to challenge its host, the art establishment. Fortunately the cure for this type of disease exists but, as with all treatments, we will have to act to eradicate this plague from our world. Come with me as we enter into the aftermath of the Greek daughter's blunder...

There are two versions of the legend of Pandora's Box. One version tells us that box contained all kinds of misery. When Pandora opened the box a plague dispersed and doomed humanity to suffer ruin, insanity, and despair. She hastily closed the box to stop the plague but, pathetically, only Hope remained inside. In the other version the box held all of humanity's glories. When she opened the box progress, knowledge, and exaltation vanished into oblivion, forever lost to humanity.

Today, in the here and now, both versions of the legend of Pandora's Box are tragically true.

Our civilization's humanities, the branches of knowledge such as philosophy and art, have contracted Postmodernism. In the contemporary arts it has spread like an unchecked virus, literally and figuratively defacing painting and sculpture beyond recognition.

Let us examine a few of Postmodernism's sorriest growths.

Documented by modern art historians and therefore considered a historically significant piece is Erased De Kooning by Rauschenberg, 1953. Rauschenberg had bought a pencil drawing by one of America's leading Abstract Expressionists, De Kooning. He then erased the De Kooning image, signed it himself and exhibited the artwork as his own. Normally, great artworks have had longevity because of their power to communicate over generations and because of their uniqueness. By this act of vandalism Rauschenberg spat on the aesthetic concepts of longevity and the sacredness of an original artwork and consequently gained serious academic acclaim. Specifically, Erased De Kooning established a historical precedent that the destruction of an artwork is important aesthetically. Generally, it marked a place in the postmodern continuum in which the theme of shock is an absolute good.

Christo, America's leading conceptual artist, raised and spent 26 million dollars on his Umbrellas, 1991 project. Over 3,000 industrial-sized umbrellas were placed simultaneously over large tracts of land in California and Japan. The project took years of methodical planning, required 1000's of volunteers, and supporters from both the private and public sectors. The visual impact of the project was monumental; the huge umbrellas spread out as far as the eye could see. The actual work was only presented for 18 days and then it was dismantled and carted away. That's it. Gone. Imagine creating a 26 million-dollar project with tons enthusiastic support and then wiping it off the face of the planet. The end result was a statement of nihilism on an epic scale. Actually the piece could be called Beyond Nihilism because what was left was not nothing but an absence of what was there before. Ah, the nuances of postmodern metaphysics.

Incidentally, this project spectacularly illustrates several of Kant's aesthetic concepts of the sublime: mathematical enormity, the formlessness of the final outcome, mass acceptance, and the violation of our ability to comprehend the total.

McCarthy, the current darling of the art world, is captured on a video which documents his performance piece, Sailor's Meat, 1975. The video lasts about an hour and shows the naked artist flagellating, raping, and gagging himself with hotdogs. The particular aspect of this piece to note is that he is actually doing these things to himself; it is real life, in contrast to say the art of acting.

Postmodernists have been praised for their ability to push the boundaries. To a real artist and to a postmodern artist, pushing the boundaries means two completely opposite things: to a real artist it means to advance art by creating new developments that add to the long line of accomplished artists through history. To a postmodern artist it means to shock us even if that involves destroying the very nature of art; if it is a painting, let's knife it; if it is the artist's hand, let's cut it off. Aptly, McCarthy has stylistically enacted these concepts as performance pieces.

Related to McCarthy in spirit are a host of postmodern artists, one of whom stabbed himself and bled before an audience in a museum performance. Another had himself literally crucified to a car. The gross nature of these postmodern artists and their desperate need to affect us negatively is again a clear indication of the premise of shock as the standard of postmodern art, even if it is suicidal.

Some of you might consider these projects as harmless jokes or examples of insanity. But the facts are that these postmodern artists have devoted their entire careers to making exactly these kinds of works and that the highest reaches of the art establishment esteem them.

Continuing our diagnosis let us take an inventory of the significant postmodern standards we have uncovered:

  • A theme of shock is present in all these variations of postmodern art.
  • Destruction of artwork is applauded even if it is someone else's work.
  • The use of methodical planning and mass voluntary help towards the outcome of tremendous financial waste that ultimately results in absence.
  • Real-life debasement and violence are postmodern art forms.
  • The postmodern art community rewards expressions of suicidal tendencies for the cause of art.

  • What does the combination of shock, destruction of art, methodical planning, financial and material waste, and suicidal participants remind you of? September 11 or bin Laden perhaps?

    The destruction of the World Trade Center is the most brilliant example of the furthest reaches of what is possible to a postmodernist. The enormity of the project is gigantic: the methodical planning, the support of volunteers, the huge waste of money, the real violence of the act, and the end result of nihilism on scale that would make Christo jealous, Hitler smile, and poor Pandora freak out. Beyond obliteration the consequential absence of the Twin Towers is the crowning glory of postmodern art. I hail bin Laden as the greatest postmodern artist since Marcel Duchamp.

    Stay tuned to part II of Pandora's Box in which I will address the following: What is the point of postmodern aesthetics? Where did this phenomenon originate? Why does it continue to thrive? Don't despair, we will have well begun the treatment and a prescription for a flourishing arts culture will follow.

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