IX. The Loss of Reality: The End of Modernism
1. A Historical Overview
Called post-modernist, the artistic developments of the 1980s mirror the advanced and ever more rapid dissolution of received artistic values and criteria. Before we turn to this art, I wish to attempt to show the structure and dynamics of the social crisis that forms its background. We shall therefore take a brief look at the economic, political, and cultural developments during the postwar period1-in the course of which, at the end of the 1960s, the guiding social ideals of modernism began to lose their credibility and persuasiveness.
In Europe, Japan and the Soviet Union, all kinds of developments seemed to
have come to a standstill with the end of the war. The war had cost 50 million
people their lives and left behind massive material destruction. Transportation
systems were in a state of collapse, the land lay fallow, there was a severe
shortage of housing; everywhere hunger and desperation reigned. Only the United
States had survived the Second World War almost unscathed and, in the years
immediately after the war, became the richest and mightiest nation on earth.
Thanks to its assistance, Western Europe and Japan-despite their ravaged
state-also subsequently experienced an astonishingly swift economic recovery.
Cheap energy, a plentiful supply of industrial raw materials, the use of the technological innovations spurred by the war, an enormous pent-up demand for consumer goods of every kind, an urgent need for housing and the creation of a new infrastructure raised the growth rates of the European economies to unprecedented levels. With the development of the modern social state and the growing share of blue and white collar workers in the economic recovery, the Western industrial countries saw the spread of a growing optimism and faith in the future tempered only by the political situation-by the tensions between the two major power blocs and the fear of a nuclear war.
The insurmountable contradictions between the Communist and the capitalist
systems of economy and government had led, soon after the end of the Second
World War, to the disintegration of the Russian-American alliance, and to the
division of the world into two hostile power blocs. In 1946, in his famous
speech in Fulton, Missouri, the former British prime minister Winston Churchill
first spoke of an "Iron Curtain" that had descended along a line from Stettin on
the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic-behind which Communism strove for
totalitarian control over its subjugated peoples. Soon thereafter the U.S.
president, Harry S. Truman, declared the containment of Communism as the highest
goal of American foreign policy. A new enemy had arisen to challenge the
American ideal of freedom: world communism had taken the place of fascism.
The communist danger assumed an ominous dimension for the West in 1949, when the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb, breaking the Americans' nuclear monopoly. In the same year, after his victory over the U.S.-supported troops of Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Tsetung declared China a communist People's Republic. The related undermining of the Western front in Asia became obvious (among other things) in the invasion, on 25 June 1950, by North Korean troops of South Korea. The attackers, equipped by the Soviets with the most modern weaponry, were repelled by American and allied forces, at a great loss of life, but not defeated. The cease-fire signed after three years of bitter fighting did no more than to draw again the earlier line of demarcation at the 38th parallel as the border between North and South Korea, reinstating the status quo. The Korean War not only revealed the limits of American military power but also destroyed the last hopes of sustained world peace. In all the regions of the world around the Eastern Bloc, the U.S. began to build military bases and conclude defense alliances. As a result of the parallel start of the arms race, by the end of the 1950s the two superpowers already possessed enough nuclear warheads that these, should they ever be used, could destroy all life on earth.
Next to the rise of the Soviet Union and the spread of communism, the fall of
the European colonial empires in Asia, the Middle East and Africa represented
one of the most momentous consequences of the Second World War. While Great
Britain more or less voluntarily accepted independence for India and a large
number of its remaining colonies, most of the other European colonial powers
lacked the necessary foresight to deal constructively with the demands of
nationalist independence movements. In nearly all colonial countries armed
uprisings ensued, which grew into actual wars of liberation in Indonesia,
Indochina, Malaysia, Algeria, Kenya, Angola, Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo.
Most of these lasted several years, and were waged with extreme cruelty on both
The Soviet Union reaped an enormous propaganda advantage from these developments. It demonstratively championed the "suppressed and exploited peoples of the Third World," represented their concerns before the United Nations, and supported the nationalist liberation movements with money, arms, and military advisors. With its easily understood theory of exploitation, Communism appealed to the politically unsophisticated people of the former colonial countries, and with its authoritarian form of government to their power-hungry elites. It thus developed into the leading liberation ideology of the Third World, while the United States, in its alliance with the European powers, was forced into the role of the defender of colonialism.
With their policy in South America, which they insultingly referred to as
"our backyard," the Americans in no small way contributed towards confirming
this unflattering image. The policies of the United States were dominated by a
fear of communism bordering on the hysterical, and took on increasingly
reactionary and imperialist characteristics. Thus Truman and Eisenhower
maintained excellent relations to dictators and corrupt military regimes, and
supported them unreservedly only as long as these pursued anti-communist
policies and stopped any and all attempts at social or economic reform. That was
above all in the interests of American corporations such as the United Fruit
Company, which generated huge banana-growing profits in many South American
countries and exercised a correspondingly decisive political influence in these
so-called "banana republics."
To prevent or reverse the nationalization of U.S. companies, the Americans did not hesitate to topple even democratically elected leftist governments, with help from the CIA, by way of open or covert military intervention. Endeavors of this kind in the Philippines (1950), in Iran (1953) and in
Guatemala (1953), as well as the anti-communist witch-hunt that the
Republican senator, Joseph R. McCarthy, got underway in the United States in the early 1950s, confirmed the warning by George Kennan. In a comprehensive report on the politics of the Soviet Union, as early as 1946 the farsighted American ambassador to Moscow had already expressed the
reservation that: The greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet Communism is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.2
In the late 1950s the rigid fronts of the Cold War suddenly began to show signs of movement. In the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev's critique of the political system and the personality cult associated with Stalin, introduced
a degree of domestic liberalization. Internationally, his thesis of "peaceful coexistence," implemented a policy of largely easing the tensions with the United States, causing a break with the People's Republic of China and thus splitting the Communist bloc.
In the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the youngest U.S. president in history, succeeded in infusing the crumbling ideals of freedom and democracy with a new credibility, and in liberating American politics from its exclusive fixation on the East-West conflict. His call for political reorientation and his vision of a "New Frontier," where important advances were to be made, captured the imagination of his generation and mobilized the Americans' latent idealism. During his short term in office, lasting just three years, he initiated programs towards improving the educational system, social insurance and health care, lent impetus to the integration of blacks into white society, and declared the war on poverty as a national priority. With the foundation of the Peace Corps, an organization that sent young Americans as volunteer workers to the countries of the Third World, he broke new ground in development aid. Finally he called to life the Apollo project, which would reach its goal nine years later, on 20 July 1969, with the first manned landing on the moon. Internationally, Kennedy mounted a successful defense against Soviet encroachments in Berlin and Cuba, at the same time making efforts to overcome the Cold War by negotiating the first nuclear test-stop treaty with the Russians. Possibly more than any other American president before him, Kennedy embodied the hopes of humanity for a better, fairer world. On 22 November 1963, when he fell victim to an assassination, the details of which are still not fully resolved, his death shocked and saddened the entire world.
After Kennedy's murder his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, continued to implement the existing reform policies. But the realization of Johnson's ambitious plans, from which a new America, the so-called "Great Society," was supposed to emerge, required a flourishing economy with full employment, high growth rates, and a broad consensus on the tasks and goals of the nation. It failed because these preconditions were undermined by the war that had meanwhile started in Vietnam and was now escalating out of control.
The American involvement in Vietnam went back to the French defeat in the Indochina War. At the Geneva peace conference of 1954, the two parties agreed to a provisional division of Vietnam into a northern half, ruled by the communist Viet Minh, and a southern, pro-Western half. Free elections were to be held in the year 1956, to decide on the future government of a united Vietnam. The withdrawal of the French, who were not ready to invest further funds in their former colony, left a power vacuum in South Vietnam-which the Americans attempted to fill with the appointment of a marionette regime under the Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem, with the creation of a powerful, modern army, and with massive economic aid. Expecting that the North Vietnamese president, Ho Chi Minh, would come away in the planned elections with an overwhelming victory, the Americans blocked them. This treaty violation, the corruption of the Diem government, and the brutality and ruthlessness with which the South Vietnamese army proceeded against its own population led to the outbreak of isolated revolts, which in 1960 spread into an armed rebellion of the Vietcong guerrillas, with North Vietnamese support, against the Diem regime.
By the time Johnson assumed the office of the presidency in 1963, the U.S. was already maintaining 17,000 military advisers in Vietnam; they were trying to coordinate the fight against the communist threat. In view of the evident inefficiency of the South Vietnamese armed forces and the growing success of the communists, in 1965 Johnson ordered the landing of U.S. troops in South Vietnam and the bombing of enemy positions and supply lines in the north. Although the U.S. expeditionary force had already grown to 460,000 by 1966, and was supported by massive air-power and a further 670,000 South Vietnamese soldiers, this huge army was unable to break its opponents' will to fight.
Television brought the suffering, the pain, and the injustice inflicted by both sides upon a helpless people into every American household. The pictures of defoliated forests, destroyed villages and carbonized corpses, the speechless horror in the eyes of children who had survived a napalm attack, the daily lining up of coffins with fallen Americans, and the growing understanding that the war could never be won cast increasing doubt on the point and on the justification of the United States' continued involvement. Mary McCarthy's Vietnam Report, in which she describes the devastating influence of the American presence on the social structure of the country, attacks the corruption of the South Vietnamese elites, and reveals the mistakes and blunders of American policy, became an overnight international best-seller.
In Europe the American's waging of the war met with ever more serious criticism, and in the U.S. the number of mostly youthful opponents of the war rose by the day. Through the increasing intellectual convergence of their postulates with those of the Black civil rights movement, their protests against the Vietnam war finally turned into the protest of a whole generation against their parents' world. In 1968 the slogan "Make Love Not War!" led to a global revolt that leapt from California and New York to Western and Central Europe. Charismatic leaders, like Herbert Marcuse in the United States, Daniel Cohn-Bendit in France and Rudi Dutschke in Germany, called upon students in American and European universities to undertake a fundamental renewal of Western society. This "New Left" invoked Marx and Lenin, Sartre and Camus, and sought to combine psychoanalysis and Marxism into a new social theory. Their militant supporters occupied universities and academies, forced changes in course contents and admissions policies, organized demonstrations, erected barricades in the cities, and engaged in real street battles against the police.
They were, however, not the only opponents of the old order. The validity of received values and views was at the same time also questioned by a growing number of social drop-outs, the so-called hippies. With their calls for sexual liberation, their propagation of consciousness-altering drugs like marijuana, hashish and LSD, and their dissemination of Eastern wisdoms, they threatened to undermine the existing self-concept of those young people who still conformed to the rules. The best evidence of the extent of this danger, as seen by the older generation, was provided in August 1969 by the more than 500,000 young people who came together for the subsequently famous Woodstock festival at a farm in Bethel, New York. For several days and nights beneath the open sky, they abandoned themselves to the music of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane, to hemp and to a feeling of unlimited freedom.3
The dual revolt of the younger generation, with the New Left on the one side and the drop-outs on the other-which occurred at the same time as the breakthrough of Pop Art, Minimal Art and the Happenings of Joseph Beuys-seemed to be the beginning of a fundamental transformation of society. Events had sparked off a new, burning passion for the old revolutionary maxims of freedom, equality and fraternity; under the motto "L'imagination au pouvoir" ("Power to the Imagination') authorities were questioned everywhere, boundaries were lifted, rules were broken, and abuses of power
were fought (see pp. 446ff. and 503). The continuing international easing
of tensions and the economic boom also played their part in promulgating
a euphoric notion of new beginnings that spread in the late 1960s from the militant youth to the entire population.
This new optimism was of short duration. After the withdrawal of the Americans from Vietnam,4 the optimism and the self-perception of the West was shaken by a confluence of events that radically altered the political and economic balance of the world.
In 1972 a report by an international group of scientists, tellingly entitled "The Limits of Growth," questioned vital aspects of the development that had brought unprecedented prosperity to the Western industrialized nations. Citing comprehensive factual evidence and corresponding statistical data, the authors warned against the devastating effects of uncontrolled economic growth and the unbroken increase in global population: together these would lead to higher levels of environmental pollution, the worldwide production and dispersal of toxins, and the reckless exploitation of non-regenerative raw materials. The report roused attention worldwide by seriously qualifying the optimism of the growth-oriented economy. It concluded with a demand to the governments of the developed countries to commit themselves to a future-oriented, common course of action, to forestall these dangers, and to save the threatened ecological balance of our planet.
The possible effects of the crises of which the "Club of Rome" had warned
became suddenly apparent to the Western industrial nations when the Arab oil
producers, following the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War in 1973,
cut off oil production and canceled earlier price controls. This attempt to
exert pressure on the pro-Israeli governments of the West set off a worldwide
emergency. Long lines at the gas stations and conservation measures such as
speed limits and Sunday driving bans for passenger cars demonstrated to everyone
the enormous dependence of the West on the petroleum-producing states. Within a
matter of months, the price of oil rose by a factor of ten and the annual energy
costs of the Western world jumped from a previous 15 billion to 150 billion
The immediate effect of this abrupt rise in oil prices was to stoke inflation in the United States, Europe, and most of the countries of the Third World. The giant profits of the oil producers (which reached annual levels of over 500 billion dollars in 1980) flooded the international money and capital markets, and threatened to undermine their stability. One part of these "petrodollars" flowed in the form of loans to the countries of Asia, Latin America and Africa, whose total debts rose from 100 billion dollars in the year 1971 to 400 billion in 1979, and reached the incredible sum of 1.2 trillion dollars in 1990. Hundreds of billions were invested by the oil producers in Europe as well as in the United States, where they made an important contribution towards financing the growing American national debt.
The oil producing countries put the greatest part of their new wealth into
expensive prestige projects, into developing their own infrastructures and
industries, and into the modernization of their armed forces. Iran and the Arab
states of the Persian Gulf acquired an insatiable appetite for the most advanced
jet fighters, bombers and weapons systems-a taste readily catered to by the
large American and European arms makers.5
The worldwide interconnection of military and economic interests-the power of the "military-industrial complex," of which Eisenhower had already warned-and the attempt of the two hostile superpowers to forge binding ties with former colonial countries through large weapons shipments were also crucial to the escalation in the international arms race. The military power potential of industrially underdeveloped and dictatorial states took on a dangerous dimension, despite the technological backwardness of these countries. The long-term effects of this fateful realpolitik are still entirely unpredictable today. Combined worldwide military expenditures in the late 1980s reached an annual total of 900 billion dollars, swallowing the funds which might have allowed the fulfillment of the demands put forward by the Club of Rome.
With gigantic commissions paid in these business deals to agents and middlemen, growing corruption spread within the arms trade and soon intruded upon other economic sectors. In the press and on television there were more and more reports of bribery affairs and scandals, in which even some of the largest and most renowned American companies were implicated. The most famous case of this kind involved the aircraft maker Lockheed Corporation-which was found guilty, in a series of spectacular court cases in Japan, Italy and Turkey, of bribing high government officials. It was not long before these fraudulent business practices, defended by American industry as a normal practice abroad, and even described as a necessary condition of international competitiveness, were also put to use at home. Step by step, the business morals of the great economic enterprises and the integrity of various government offices were undermined. The consequences of this development, initiated by the flood of money in the 1970s, would become obvious in the next decade, as countless corruption scandals shook the governments of nearly all Western democracies, largely destroying the faith of the people in the democratic process.
But for the moment the Western world continued to enjoy its constantly growing prosperity. The spectacular results of modern commerce and technology, the overwhelming supply of consumer goods of all kinds, the development of transport and housing, progress in medicine, improvements in public services and educational systems, generous social regulations and widespread respect for civil rights and freedoms conveyed to the great majority the feeling of living in the best of all possible worlds. The philosopher Karl R. Popper gave voice to a widespread conviction when he declared in 1981: I believe that our western civilization is, in spite of all the faults that can quite justifiably be found with it, the most free, the most just, the most humanitarian and the best of all those we have ever known throughout the history of mankind. It is the best because it has the greatest capacity for improvement.6
The material basis of this self-concept began to break down when, with the development of an open, multiply networked world market, the economic predominance of the West was challenged by growing competition from Japan and the new industrial nations of Asia. Under the pressure of this competition, ever greater numbers of Western or multinational corporations began to move their production plants to countries with lower taxes and lower wages and social benefits, which was a major factor in intensifying the unemployment that had by then taken hold in Europe and the United States.7 In the United States the effects of economic mismanagement, excessive and unproductive military expenditures, and gigantic debts became apparent. The U.S. budget deficit and the overvaluation of the dollar led to a dramatic collapse, on 19 October 1987, in prices on the New York stock exchange: the electronic communications systems that were by now operating in the money markets meant that the impact of this collapse was immediately felt internationally. "Black Monday" in New York, when shareholders lost over 500 billion dollars in a single day, set off an economic crisis that continued into the mid-90s, and which also caused the art market to suffer.
The future expectations of the new generation were dimmed by an increasing deterioration of the general quality of life. Daily reports about contaminated rivers and seas, air pollution and dying forests, thinning ozone and the greenhouse effect, nuclear waste, overbuilt landscapes, felled woods and endangered species made the deficiencies of the environmental policies followed by Western governments ever more obvious. Although in all Western countries citizens' initiatives, environmental parties and internationally active ecological organizations worked to reduce these burdens, the reinstatement of a balanced global ecosystem still seems to pose intractable problems.
Broad groups among the people began to lose their faith in the moral integrity of their leading elites and role-models, and in the sense and validity of their ideals and values. The decline of collective ideals and the absence of common goals reduced society to a mass of egoistic groups who pursued only their own interests and completely ignored the common good. The growing corruption of political and economic circles, as well as the inability of governments and parties to master social and economic problems, undermined faith in democracy and led to widespread disillusionment. The guiding ideals of the modernist era were no longer capable of conveying to their adherents persuasive and inspiring ideas of the future.
The Soviet Union followed a similar course, if under different conditions and
on a lower economic level. While the period between 1954 and 1974 was marked by
a progressive improvement in general living conditions, problems began to
accumulate around the mid-1970s. Health care, education, housing, and the supply
of consumer goods and food all left more and more to be desired; crime and
alcoholism were on the rise. In the course of a decade, corruption, bureaucracy,
incompetence, excessive armaments expenditures, and a repressive domestic policy
that suffocated all forms of individual
initiative drove the Soviet Union and the states associated with it into a social and economic crisis of extreme magnitude.
In the face of these deplorable conditions, Mikhail Gorbachev, who had become the new general secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR on 11 March 1985, raised the banner of perestroika (reformation) and glasnost (transparency and opening) and initiated a process of reform that was unprecedented in the history of the Soviet Union-but that was doomed to fail because of its inherent contradictions.
With a series of liberal measures such as the relaxation of censorship and the release of political prisoners, with the tentative introduction of communes organized under private ownership, the restructuring of the state apparatus, and the formation of a Congress of People's Deputies with two-thirds of the members elected by the people, Gorbachev hoped to renew the Soviet system, without infringing upon its cornerstones, namely the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, the Communist Party's monopoly on power, and the socialist planned economy. But glasnost and perestroika developed a dynamic of their own that confounded his expectations.
The sessions of the newly elected congress were broadcast across the nation on live television. This view into the debates-in the course of which individual deputies criticized the government and the KGB, the Soviet secret service, explored nationality issues, and launched attacks on nepotism, inefficiency and the privileges of the party elite-revealed the break between progressive and conservative forces within the party, and set off a public political discussion that questioned everyone and everything.
With its loss of control over the media, the party also lost its claim to infallibility, its political and intellectual authority. The collapse of the 'official truth' and the absence of a united opposition created a spiritual and political vacuum in which religions and nationalisms, as a means of individual and collective orientation, experienced a marked resurgence. In 1988 the first national upheavals broke out in the Caucasus and in Lithuania. In the following year Moscow's leading role was also undermined in the satellite states. Hungary opened its border to the West and thus allowed tens of thousands of East German citizens to flee through Austria to the Federal Republic. The subsequent mass demonstrations in the big cities of the GDR, which would lead to the resignation of the Honecker government and, in the following year, to the reunification of Germany, set off a chain reaction that also engulfed those Eastern Bloc states that had until then still kept order. Under the pressure of events, the various communist parties had to vacate one position of power after the next, until they finally dissolved themselves, and submitted under new names and with new programs to the people's verdict in democratic elections. Within a few months the transition from dictatorship to democracy was under way in all of the Warsaw Pact states.
In the republics of the Soviet Union, resistance against the economic and political controls applied by the administration in Moscow also increased day by day. The March 1990 elections to the parliaments of the republics returned majorities who supported political independence in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Moldavia, Ukraine, Armenia and even Russia. In June the elected parliamentary president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, declared the sovereignty of the largest republic within the Soviet Union.
When more and more voices within the republics in 1991 called for independent armies, a group of conservative ministers undertook a putsch attempt, which was, however, quelled by the determined intervention of Yeltsin. Yeltsin was celebrated throughout the land as a hero of the people. His hour had arrived. Yeltsin used the returning Gorbachev's first appearance before the Russian parliament to expose him to humiliation before millions of television viewers. Gorbachev thereupon signed the famous decree by which the Communist Party was banned in Russia.
On 24 August 1991, Gorbachev resigned as general secretary, the party was
dissolved, its properties confiscated. With the amalgamation of eleven former
Soviet republics into a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the USSR was
buried. The experiment of a classless society begun in 1917 had finally failed.
The collapse of the Soviet Union makes all the more obvious the spiritual crisis in the Western democracies. With the end of the communist threat, Western governments lost their former political orientation and thus the last remnants of a shared value system. For decades the struggle against the common enemy had defined the politics of the 'free world' and consumed the intellectual, moral, and economic energies the Western countries in fact needed for solving their own societal problems and for coming effectively to terms on a political level with the approaching transformation, the transition to a new world order. Largely unnoticed by the powers that be, the technological, economic and social transformations of the 1980s and early 1990s have largely destroyed the preconditions and the foundations of the modern nation-state and of liberal democracy. With the twentieth century the era of modernism also approaches its end.
Certainly the most momentous development in the 1970s and 1980s was in the
spectacular progress of modern communications methods and the mass media. The
global social effects of this technological revolution, in which the dawn of a
new era is signaled, cannot be covered in depth here. In this connection it must
suffice to indicate that the societal self-concept of the Western democracies
was undermined not only by political and economic problems, but also by the
constantly growing flood of information that poured out on a daily basis over an
unprepared population through the press, radio and television.
Most important in this regard was television. The subversive effect of this medium is not due so much to its dissemination of particular items of news, but primarily to its conveyance of a completely new reality of experience, one independent of previous temporal and spatial conditions, within which the borders between fiction and reality are constantly shifted and blurred. The persistent simultaneity of reporting, entertainment and advertising and the constant change in the setting and levels of reality-from the crime thriller to the news, then on to sports reporting or an art exhibition-undermined any real response on the part of the viewer, robbed events of their relevancy, and contributed to ever greater fragmentation of the collective realm of experience.
In material terms the people of the Western world have never had it as good
as in the last decades of the twentieth century; but from a psychic perspective
they find themselves in a actual state of distress.
When Freud in his famous study on Civilization and Its Discontents attempted to trace social appearances back to their psychological determinants, he understood discontent as a consequence of the drive denial that human social life demanded from each individual. But the psychic privation of the 1970s and 1980s is of a different kind. Nowadays people suffer less from the frustration of drive satisfaction than from the experience of its alienation, which is expressed in an inner emptiness and in the feeling that existence is meaningless and pointless.
The same development that brought unprecedented prosperity to the West also undermined the social conditions for sustaining a stable feeling of self-esteem. Day after day the interplay of science, technology, and industry opens to the collective consciousness new realms of things unknown and hitherto considered impossible. Existing standards are invalidated. Everything seems technically possible and achievable. This constant expansion of the possible not only does away with previous limitations; it also robs people of the orientation that these limitations had until then offered.
Despite the pathbreaking progress of scientific research, the extremely specialist nature of that research also is leading to a growing sense of intellectual powerlessness. With increasing knowledge the modern person is ever more pungently aware of the immeasurable breadth of all that is unknown. He or she knows very little of everything one could know, and even this very little seems uncertain. The situation is similar with human values. As soon as an individual is aware of the multiplicity of possible values and social orders, and of their fleeting and relative nature, it is difficult to accept any particular values as given and binding and to advocate them as such.
This also reveals an important insufficiency in rational scientific thought. One of the advantages of thinking based on observation, calculation and experiment consists in its consensus-securing objectivity. By virtue of their objective confirmability, scientific findings and concepts become facts, enter the realm of the real. But the more a scientific approach monopolizes the criteria for making decisions, the more the essential insufficiency of that approach is revealed. Its sober and factual, objective view leads to a complete exclusion of any question of value or meaning. Science explores the rules that the universe and life obey. But it cannot determine the meaning of their existence. Even psychoanalysis-the newest and most central science devoted to the study of human beings-describes the human mind as the battlefield on which the drives, the various psychic agencies and the demands of the external world wage their struggle, but as yet it has not discovered a meaning in this drama.8 Although state and society officially continue to profess Christianity, Christian maxims, as history and the everyday experience of every individual demonstrate, long ago lost their binding force. Rational scientific thought attempts to answer objectively-that means in a generally valid fashion-the questions of meaning and value once covered by myth and religion. These answers must consequently come from the given, be immanent to life and its natural laws. This invariably raises the demand for a concept of the human being that is based on rational knowledge but can also cover the irrational realm of life. Science and rational thinking are not yet up to this task. They are unable to specify the value of the 'good'. A vacuum of this kind, the absence of an integrated idealized structure, represents an inner loss of reality for both the individual and for the collective.
The possibilities offered within the collective to satisfy the narcissistic
needs of the exhibitionist or idealized pole are constantly being reduced. The
general organization of work and the administration of nearly all social
relations by means of a gigantic bureaucratic apparatus hardly leave any room
for personal development and initiatives; individuals have fewer opportunities
to experience their uniqueness and to see themselves reflected as individuals in
the reactions of their environment. The most important social values are
represented by institutions whose anonymity and coldness make any identification
or internalization impossible. The practice of a double morality in polity and
in the economy (two areas in which, as Christopher Lasch says,9 the public lie
has become habit) leads to a deep-seated mistrust of the administrators of power
and the representatives of moral authority. This makes it ever more difficult
for the individual to form or maintain idealizations.
This manner of alienation is manifested in the increasing spread of narcissistic personality disorders. The majority of people who today seek psychotherapeutic help suffer from a general, hard to localize feeling of insufficiency and dissatisfaction, from a deep-seated difficulty in upholding lasting and meaningful interpersonal relationships, from an intense feeling of inner emptiness, and from the impression of not being real and whole in a meaningful sense. The 'grandiose self' of these people disintegrates into countless weak, loosely bound strivings and ambitions that are basically alien to the self and that do not relate to any central interest. Analogously the 'idealized structures', the certainties of these people, also disintegrate into countless views and principles, into half-truths no longer connected to any central truth.
This psychic disruption of many individuals corresponds to the compartmentalization of various realms of existence, the interests, goals, values and ideas that make up the life of the societal organism.
The individual at the end of the twentieth century reacts to this extreme destabilization of their own and society's self-esteem by attempting to restore their former equilibrium or by becoming defensive, i.e. trying to cover up or deny the threatening disturbance within their own being.
In art as in life, most narcissist attempts at restoration or healing consist
in efforts to strengthen one of the two poles of the disturbed self in order to
compensate for the weakness of the other pole. Such endeavors lead to a stable
restoration only when the contents of the strengthened pole can be integrated
into the self. They fail when these contents remain split-off and alienated.
Examples of two typical, widespread attempts of this kind should suffice to
briefly indicate the potentials and the limits of any attempted restoration of
The first example concerns the general striving, not actually bound up with a specific personal ambition, for material success, for power, fame and honor, which one finds today in countless forms. This behavior, typical of the so-called yuppies of the 1980s, mostly represents an attempt to compensate for the weakness of the idealized pole by strengthening the exhibitionist pole. Although the narcissistically disturbed person in this way often succeeds somewhat in alleviating his or her despair, the attempt usually fails due to the one-sidedness of its orientation.
Only through the connection of the exhibitionist strivings to personal ambitions with which the individual deeply identifies, can the 'love' or libido focused on such strivings also accrue to the self. And it is only when these strivings are intended in their expression to match up to the individual's own values and ideals that the resulting behaviour relates to the 'whole' person and thereby strengthens the individual's inner cohesion.
The second example concerns participation in political or ideologically defined religious movements with the goal of "improving our world." This behavior often attempts precisely the opposite: it tries, by strengthening the idealized pole, to compensate for the weakness in the exhibitionist pole. All too many of these efforts, however, never get any further than an expression of one's 'own' ideals, which in itself consists of no more than a series of accusations leveled at certain individuals or groups who defy these ideals with their behavior. The idealized notions of the accusers need not be formulated concretely, in the sense of generally binding maxims, for their main point is the simple rejection of given behaviors or goals. Nor do these notions need to be tried out, respected or pursued in the practice of everyday life, through a person's own actions; for normally their standards are applicable only to the beliefs and behaviors of others.
An ideal that does not receive expression and form in one's own daily behavior, in the corresponding modification of one's own grandiose-exhibitionist strivings; an ideal that is simply held out to 'the others' as a demand and merely proclaims how 'they' should behave, is no ideal in the actual sense, because it cannot be fulfilled through one's own actions and thus poses no personal challenge. Furthermore, this attempt at restoration or healing can only ever go beyond mere self-delusion when the intended reinforcement of the idealized pole remains bound to one's own behavior and to the realm of one's own authority and responsibility, and pursues its ends within that framework. Only then does the love bound up with the 'ideal' also flow to the self, otherwise it remains bound to a utopian fantasy, split off and alienated from the self, in a word: outside.10
Despite possible self-delusional tendencies, these compensatory healing
attempts11 are actually far more effective in at least partly strengthening a
weakened sense of self than the many purely defensive attempts to cover up this
weakness through excessive stimulation, or through the artificially induced and
rapidly subsiding illusion of one's own omnipotence and perfection.
Along with hectic activity, sexual excesses, a leaning towards violence and the desire to court danger, addiction in all its many forms represents one of the most widespread defense strategies of our times. Kohut attributes it to the need to achieve, through physical stimulation or consumption, an awareness of one's own reality and inner vitality. Just like actual drug addiction, the many socially integrated forms of addiction may be traced back to the need either (as in the case of workaholism) to replace the absent feeling of one's wholeness and grandiosity through excessive activity and physical and intellectual stimulation, or (as in the case of addictive shopping, eating, or television watching) to conceal and counteract through consumption an inner emptiness, the absence of affirmative internalized ideals.12
The dual need to find one's own identity and for stimulation is satisfied by
the great majority of the population through consumption. In the highly
developed industrial countries, an overwhelming supply of material and cultural
goods attracts the potential customer with the two most important sales pitches
of an affluent society: first, with the prospect of standing out from the gray,
anonymous mass through the possession of something exclusive; but also with the
promise of unusual experiences, passionate feelings, surprising pleasures. The
products that promise all this have an ever shorter life span, their success
depends ever more on their novelty, on their fashionable attributes, on the
image built for them through omnipresent advertising.
Art is not immune to these developments. It is increasingly and in many different ways being integrated into the economy as a special kind of consumer goods, it is becoming ever more obviously a part of the entertainment industry, and it is consequently losing the status it held until now.
3. The Art of the Post-Modern Era
In the field of culture, the developments described in the previous chapter
are reflected in the peerless popularity of modern and contemporary art.
Everywhere in Europe, Japan and the USA, there are new museums and art
galleries, putting on exhibitions that attract increasingly large crowds.
The art trade is flourishing. Year after year, dozens of international
art fairs are held, their turnover constantly growing. Each season brings
a new record price. In 1987, a Japanese company purchased van Gogh's Sunflowers
at auction for 26 million dollars. A few months later another painting
by the same artist, who sold just one single work during his own lifetime,
went under the hammer for 55 million. Works by living artists such as
Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and Frank Stella are sold
for millions, while paintings by the young stars of the Italian Transavanguardia,
unknown a few years ago, make five-figure dollar prices.
It is not only the rich who have embarked on this manic spending spree. Increasingly, people in the middle income bracket are beginning to spend money not only on new cars, cameras and video recorders, stereos, designer furniture, expensive clothes and exotic holidays, but also on paintings and sculptures; for besides being a good capital investment, art also lends its owner an aura of social prestige. Successful artists can expect a considerable income, even in their youth, and some become almost as famous as show business stars. This changes not only the material situation of the artist, but also the way contemporary artists see themselves. They no longer feel like outsiders on the fringes of society, but have become largely integrated. The notion of the starving genius who remains true to his ideals and ideas, even though success eludes him, has finally become a thing of the past. Not to put too fine a point on it, virtually every aspiring artist sees him or herself as a potential millionaire.
The path to this goal leads through the public presentation, interpretation and critique of art, in which a crucial role is played by a new type of literary art expert; these specialists discover talents, inform their gallerist friends of these discoveries, advise important collectors and museums, establish connections, organize exhibitions, sit on juries, write books and articles and, in doing so, eagerly promote the artists who correspond to their own views of art and with whom they themselves can best identify. The more prolific art production becomes and the more 'open' the works of art-that is to say, the more indeterminate and in need of interpretation-the more indispensable these art experts become. The average consumer is no longer able to relate what he sees to his own experience, let alone interpret it and find a meaning in it. It is thus the task of art critics to select from the flood of artistic production the work that seems to them significant and worthy of attention, to interpret it and explain it, and to make it palatable to a confused and disoriented public that has lost all confidence in its own powers of judgment.
The art expert thus becomes a second-rate demiurge. In the words of Catherine Krahmer, he uses the intuition of an artist, the new gaze he casts upon the world, to spin the yarn for a net in which his own fame will be caught together with the success of the artist he promotes.13
Year after year, the 'art scene'-artists, critics, art dealers, gallery owners, museum directors and collectors-produces new stars who act as trendsetters, making their own mark on the abundant, ever-changing production of art. For the most part, this art reflects the fundamental invalidation of the previous paradigm and thus heralds the end of modernism.
Today, we have yet to gain the distance we need to interpret the latest
artistic developments or to classify them in art historical terms, that is, to
locate them plausibly in relation to the past and to what the future may hold
for them. Nevertheless, I shall attempt to speculate on this.
The magical symbolism of Arte Povera and Land Art represents the last significant and truly innovative art movements in modernism. Notwithstanding, the 1980s see the emergence of a whole number of new artists and art groupings who-despite the emphatic independence of different nationalities-in fact correspond to one another to a large degree in essential aspects of their basic intellectual and artistic approach.
In my view the designation 'post-modern painting' embraces all of these new directions and trends-Italian Transavanguardia, German Neue Wilde, Neo-Expressionism and New Figuration, Pattern and Decoration, Graffiti Art, Neo-Geo and all the other as yet unnamed variations on this art.14 The buzzword post-modern, which I shall discuss in detail later, indicates the essential characteristic of an art that is no longer attributable to modernism (whose leading maxims it rejects), but which does not represent a new start either, for it does not establish new values or lend form and expression to any new paradigm. For this reason, it can only be defined and described in relation to what has gone before, as an intermezzo between the past and final phase of modernism and the amorphous initial phase of a new era, in which a new artistic awareness will emerge.
Robert Hughes interprets this phenomenon as follows: […] when one speaks of 'the end of modernism' (and the idea of a 'post-modernist' culture, however ill-defined, has been a commonplace since the mid-seventies), one does not invoke a sudden historical terminus. Histories do not break off clean, like a glass rod; they fray, stretch, and come undone, like rope; and some strands never part. There was no specific year in which the Renaissance ended, but it did end, although culture is still permeated with the remnants of Renaissance thought. So it is with modernism, only more so, because we are that much closer to it. Its reflexes still work, its limbs move, the parts are mostly there, but they no longer seem to function as a live organic whole. The modernist achievement will continue to affect culture for decades to come, because it was so large, so imposing, and so irrefutably convincing. But our relation to its hopes has become nostalgic. The age of the New, like that of Pericles, has entered history.15
The varied and extremely different stylistic directions of post-modernist art that claim to represent the artistic present in post-modernism, have in common the unwillingness of their representatives to submit to the demands of some idealized structure any longer. Both ideationally and compositionally, this art not only violates the last remaining taboos, but also gives up most
of the hitherto idealized aims. The exhibitionist ambitions of these artists
forswear all objective orientation. Their own uniqueness and grandiosity is taken for granted. It is not open to debate and need not be founded in a
structured manner that is accessible and comprehensible to one's powers of appraisal and judgment. In this respect, though this art is new compared
to the previous movements in modernism, it does not constitute a renewal. Instead of developing an artistic language of their own, the representatives
of post-modernism adopt the stylistic forms, themes and visual material of their art from the boundless treasure trove of art history so readily accessible today.
This dependence on existing creations, on what has already been formulated, goes hand in hand with a total disrespect for the adopted 'material'. The underlying tone of this post-modernist art consists of a blend of irony, cynicism and mockery that serves to flaunt an unparalleled sense of superiority and grandiose self-confidence. Seen in this light, these artists, like Beuys and Klein before them, correspond to the psychological type of the charismatic personality (see the description on pp. 513ff).
Their attitude however, is determined not only by individual psychology, but also by history. They look back upon a cultural cycle of development that is more or less concluded. The essential underlying idea of modernism-the notion of the invisible reality and the basic unity of all Being, the comprehensive and universal order of physical, biological, psychological and intellectual powers-has, during the course of its development, been elucidated, varied, consolidated and confronted with reality according to both rational (that is to say realist and structural) and irrational (that is to say romantic and symbolist) points of view. The aim to lend artistic expression to this basic idea in a unique and comprehensive way has led to configurations that are-conceptually-clearer, intenser, purer and increasingly unequivocal, and which can no longer be surpassed or heightened in terms of their innovation, persuasion and succinctness. The outer limits and the final logical conclusions of the development initiated a hundred years ago by Seurat, Cézanne, van Gogh and Gauguin have finally been reached.
The art of modernism strove in all its forms for a universal truth. It sought to capture Being in its supposed essence. Each generation wanted to discover this truth anew-or at least a specific aspect of it-in order to experience it as their own truth, as their own yardstick, in order to be able to integrate it into their own Self as the essence of the idealized structure. This wish has been a crucial motor of artistic development. Its fulfillment, however, would appear to elude the new generation of artists-in their opinion, all possible aspects of the 'truth' of modernism, have already been given form and expression.
Artists who orient themselves primarily towards the highly cathected
ambitions of their grandiose self-artists, that is to say, whose prime
concern is to show their own uniqueness-find themselves faced with the
question that Mario Merz has written on the wall or added in neon writing
to a number of his installations: Che fare? (What is to be done?)
Their response-not unlike the response of 16th and 20th century Mannerists
to the triumph of classical art-is one of refusal or exaggeration; they
refuse to pander to the demands for innovation, style and integrity that
had hitherto shaped the artistic developments of modernism, but which
can no longer be fulfilled, while at the same time they work themselves
up to a grandiose self-image of artistic omnipotence.
By abandoning previous ideational objectives, these artists can simultaneously process and correlate the many different and occasionally contradictory contents of consciousness, compositional means and stylistic forms of past development phases (several linguistic models) without having to take into account the restrictions these involve, that is to say, their idealized demands. The demise of these demands permits carefree, playful creation and thus acts as a stimulant: the energies liberated from the previous compulsion to innovate and from the demand for quality and evaluation are channeled into frenzied productivity.
The ideational and stylistic fragments of earlier artistic creations are not used and cited in their original purity, but are blended with other, often contradictory forms in such a way that they lose their previous credo-like character. Often, the same artist creates both figurative and non-figurative works, or merges a variety of disciplines (painting, photography, sculpture, performance, architecture and design) to form a multi-media gesamtkunstwerk. From the value-free mix of unconnected fragments and the unprejudiced adoption of their stimulating expressive potential, there arises a baroque, escapist 'entertainment art' whose form and expression are determined first and foremost by the quest to satisfy a latent hunger for stimulus. In other words, it is determined by faddish considerations. Though most of these works also evoke deeper contexts of meaning and can thus be regarded as a continuation of modern Symbolism, they lack the earnestness that is necessarily associated with the question of meaning. As their composition is not subject to an idealized structure or binding canon, it cannot invest the respective message with the 'dignity of permanence.'
The works generated in this way have no model character, neither conveying a certain idea, nor embodying a deeper meaning, but together creating a bewildering fun-fair whose side-shows parade the most varied achievements of modernism, stripped of their former significance and mixed in all manner of combinations with stylistic elements and images from the popular media-advertising, television and comics. This art has abandoned any claim to universal validity. It is interested only in the here and now of immediate, direct and intense stimulation.
The confusing pluralism of this production can hardly be structured according to artistic tenets any more, but according to the countries of origin instead. I shall restrict my inquiry here to the three most important countries in this respect: Italy, Germany and the USA.
In 1979, in the magazine Flash Art,16 under the heading "La
Transavanguardia Italiana," Achille Bonito Oliva presented Sandro Chia,
Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Mimmo Paladino, Nicola de Maria and Remo
Salvadori as representatives of a new artistic vision. With them, he claimed,
art freed itself from the moralistic and masochistic constraints of Minimal
Art and Arte Povera, in order to return to its inner purposes, its true
methods and its true place-to the labyrinth as the metaphor of a constant
yet ever changing attempt at orientation. Oliva's text, written in the
style of an avant-garde manifesto, proposes "totally liberated art," art
that finds its way without aiming for a specific goal. This demand is
fulfilled by the individual Transavanguardia artists in different ways,
though all of them call upon the traditional media of painting and drawing,
a figurative approach and the expressive power of free brushwork.
Sandro Chia creates luxuriant works of sumptuous opulence that evoke a baroque theatrical world in which the themes of Western art from classical antiquity to the neo-classicism of the 19th century celebrate their own checkered past. These paintings combine a naive clumsiness with a claim to overwhelming and grandiose impact. Chia himself is said to have stated that he sought to achieve the painterly qualities of Rubens and Tintoretto.17 This promise is never kept by his pictures yet the gulf between them and their high aims lends them an air of innocence and naiveté that is an essential part of their charm (fig. 382).
The discrepancy between grandiose claim and modest result is one of the most striking characteristics of Transavanguardia and post-modern art in general. Clemente, too, (especially in his large figurative paintings) seems barely capable of solving the pictorial problems posed by his representational objectives. This inability is re-styled into an intentional and deliberately flaunted dilettantism. Most of his works are symbolist, highly eroticized self-portrayals, which radiate an exaggerated narcissism and an extreme over-cathexis of his own grandiose self. The fascinating effect of this self-infatuation can, in some cases, conceal the otherwise unmistakable shortcomings of his creations (fig. 383).
The same applies to Enzo Cucchi, born in 1950. His self-image, too, merges seamlessly with the ambitions of his exhibitionist pole, with his own grandiose self. In Cucchi's art this is represented more strongly than in the work of his colleagues through the archetypal images and irrational fantasies of the collective unconscious. According to Cucchi, his work is rooted in a tradition that goes back thousands of years, which we carry with us: the sign that history bears within it, the sign that marks, borne by the boundlessness of things […] [borne] by peoples.18 In the spirit of Surrealist automatism, he seeks access to an archaic plane of experience and attempts to transpose its images and ideas to paper and canvas as directly and as unadulterated as possible.
In his many, mostly small drawings,19 Cucchi succeeds in creating works of powerful intensity in which his 'inner visions' are so persuasively expressed that one might believe them to be the works of a 'genuinely' mentally ill person (fig. 384). However, in the large-scale works, this authenticity of expression is lost. The direct rendering of a spontaneous idea, the expressive power and unmistakable distinctiveness of any handwriting are linked to the arc described by the movement of the hand, and can thus barely be transferred to a larger scale.
Cucchi's paintings, however, are not governed by this same restriction. In these much larger works, the lyricism of 'pre-verbal consciousness', that lent his drawings their fascinating effect, turns into a bombastic, ridiculously pathos-laden vision of horror. The inspiration of the unconscious turns to kitsch (fig. 385).
Mimmo Paladino also pays homage to a somewhat vague notion of symbolism. With his references to Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, the Italian Romantics and African tribal art, he creates decorative yet confusing and bewildering combinations of long-familiar visual languages (fig. 386).
Whereas the Italians, for all their shortcomings, succeed in imbuing their
works with the cultural heritage of a glorious past, as well as a certain degree
of intellectual and aesthetic sophistication, the artists of German
post-modernism (with few exceptions) betray all the blunt primitivism and
portentous sense of mission that has characterized the artistic production of
that country since Kirchner and the artists of Die Brücke.
The loud and often presumptuous-seeming behaviour of these artists does not, however, aim to disguise the poor quality of their work. Their openly flaunted dilettantism would seem instead to be intended to underline its defects-and may be seen as a kind of self-assertion, a proclamation of their own inadequacy. Thus, the term 'bad painting' in respect of this movement is also applied by art critics in a distinctly affirmative and adulatory sense.
The open violence of these paintings, their seeming or genuine artlessness and undisguised sexuality clearly support the material side of existence, thus spitting against the idealistic wind of respectable art,20 writes Klaus Honnef, an enthusiastic proponent of new German painting. He also writes: The paintings are full of copulating couples, masturbation, crapping, puking, strangling and beating, torturing and beheading. By showing the world as distorted, fragmented, battered, and usually inhabited by grimacing figures, these artist re-invent it with a physical impact. Dahn and Dokoupil have been splitting the skulls of robots as well as those of their own self-portraits. But it is irrelevant whether it is a robot or a human being who is being maltreated in such a way; the pain has an immediate effect on the viewer. The scenes in the paintings are garishly illuminated, the subjects are roughly painted, the paintings are dominated by caricature and the grotesque, and one can feel the penetrating, shrill sound of rock music. The beautiful, cool world of Minimal and Concept Art seems to have been bombed by this sort of art.21
Dahn and Dokoupil (fig. 387) belong, like Georg Baselitz (fig. 388), Salomé, Rainer Fetting, Karl Horst Hödicke, Elvira Bach, Albert Oehlen and many others, to that group of German artists dubbed Neue Wilde because of their affinities to Fauvism.
The big international stars of the German art scene such as Jörg Immendorff, Markus Lüpertz, Anselm Kiefer and A. R. Penck-unlike the more lightweight Neue Wilde artists-represent a symbolist, heavily charged tendency in German post-modernism that addresses the country's political background and the fate of the nation.
Penck adopts the main stylistic characteristics of the mentally-ill artist Louis Soutter, magnifying Soutter's emblematic figures to gigantic proportions (fig. 392). In doing so, he comes up against the same boundaries as Cucchi. In this new dimension, the 'matchstick men' lose their authenticity. Soutter's figures draw their expressive force and visual succinctness from his own inner urge, that persistently, impatiently and uncompromisingly demands expression. In the case of Penck, this motivation is replaced by pragmatic calculation. He skillfully exploits the artistic achievements of his famous colleague for his own ends: though he does indeed suggest deeper levels of meaning with these archaic images, all he is really doing is turning the existential statement of his predecessor into the readily recognizable and effective hallmark of his own spectacular and easily marketable wall decorations.
More sophisticated and inventive by far are the works of Sigmar Polke. This former student of Beuys pushes the principle of style-lessness to its limits. He paints both figuratively and non-figuratively, experiments with ever new materials, techniques and media, and creates complex montages reminiscent of Picabia in the 1920s and early 1930s, in which a variety of different levels of composition and meaning permeate and overlap.
In Art magazine, Katharina Hegewisch describes Polke soaking his canvases-spread out on the floor-for weeks and even months, with a variety of solutions in order to have the pictures emerge from within themselves as it were. How the chemicals will react to one another, how they will change and perhaps self-destruct, is something Polke cannot usually predict. Each support is an experimental stage on which Chance plays a leading role, with results that can rarely be repeated.22 Polke is fully aware of the problems this entails. In 1976, in an exhibition catalogue, he puts the crucial question: Does the meaning generate the relationships or do the relationships generate the meaning?23
The enigmatic ambiguity of his works certainly pays off-leading art critics and mediators are full of praise for him. As Harald Szeemann writes: Polke is universal: revolutionary, sensitive and merciless, a man with vision and very human. He paints for museums and galleries, while at the same time despising them. He paints religious scenes and black magic nightmares with the same expressiveness. His obstinacy and passionate feelings are quite untypical of a German and-like all great geniuses-he combines universal experiences, such as the elegance of English portrait painters, the glowing colors and gracefulness of Venetian genre-paintings, the intensity and popular appeal of the Flemish, the mysterious and unexpected chiaroscuro of oriental prints.24
However much one may wonder at the uncritical enthusiasm of this pre-eminent interpreter, his words reflect the way in which international critics address the works of their protégés. Just as artists refuse to submit their compositions to the binding values of an idealized structure, so, too, post-modern art criticism omits to formulate and justify the criteria according to which it makes its value judgments and according to which it selects its stars from the unrelenting flood of contemporary production.
In the USA, too, post-modernist art covers a broad range. The Pattern and
Decoration Art produced by such figures as Julian Schnabel and Robert Kushner is
the American equivalent of Italian Transavanguardia, and generally makes no
secret of the influence of its European precursors (figs. 395, 396). By
comparison, the works of the late graffiti artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and
Keith Haring (figs. 397, 398) seem far more independent and more
Basquiat, celebrated as a star (by the name of Samo) among the sprayers of the New York subway, is in my opinion the most talented of the new American artists. With enormous skill and a sure sense of visual effect, he combines the aesthetic appeal of anonymous scribblings-reminiscent of Twombly and Dubuffet-with stylistic elements of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art to create huge, aggressive yet extremely decorative paintings that ensure him an important place in the American art scene of the eighties. Unlike Basquiat, Haring (1958-1990) underwent traditional art training. However, because of his sci-fi iconography and his provocatively primitive schematism, he is also counted among the graffiti artists.
David Salle and Eric Fischl, with their sexually explicit portrayals, represent the erotic wing of American post-modernism (figs. 399, 400).
In addition to these figurative examples of the post-modern mindset, there is also a movement of abstract artists in Europe and the USA, dubbed Neo-Geo, who adopt the look of Post-painterly Abstraction with the same opportunism (fig. 401).
The movements and tendencies listed here are merely the most striking and
best known examples of a bewilderingly pluralistic output in which it would seem
that every conceivable combination of the stylistic and pictorial components of
modernism, earlier epochs and foreign cultures is explored.
Pluralism, non-commitment and a manipulatory attitude to the public are not only found in the international art scene; since the eighties corresponding tendencies are evident in virtually every field of cultural life.
Following the publication in 1975 of the article "The Rise of Post-Modern
Architecture" by the American architect Charles Jencks, the term post-modernism
begins to take hold in the field of architectural criticism, later finding its
way into other disciplines as a designation for the cultural movements I have
This is by no means uncontroversial. The difficulty involved in pinning down the essence of post-modernism and distinguishing it clearly from modernism proper lies in the fact that there are also several different and often contradictory notions of what modernism is. There is a similar lack of clarity or coherence with regard to the attitude that has found form and expression in the culture of our age. For some, modernism tends towards uniformity and leveling, while others see in it the expression of an increasing differentiation that must necessarily lead ultimately to fragmentation and cultural chaos. Post-modernism, whose radical pluralism is beyond doubt, appears, depending on one's interpretation of modernism, either as a fundamental turning-point, as the germ of a new departure, or as the ultimate consequence and realization of the pluralistic principles that have always constituted the very essence of modernism.25
Both these attitudes are based on a mistakenly one-sided and static image of modernism. A deeper understanding of its cultural development calls for an awareness of the respective interaction between its constant and variable factors or quantities. Like every era, the modern era, too, is governed by a prevailing and historically unique paradigm. This forms the constant philosophical core of its collective conscious and is reflected in all its cultural expressions, especially its art, though each one of these artistic expressions is shaped at the same time by variables in its underlying attitudes, and by developmental history and the psychological structures of the respective artist. The art of modernism cannot be forced into the pattern of unity versus plurality-it is both of these at one and the same time. In the course of its cyclical and, as I see it, four-track development, its guiding paradigm has undergone a number of different interpretations and forms. In this respect the art of modernism links constant and variable factors, unity and plurality, to form a complex relational structure.
In his 1988 study Unsere postmoderne Moderne (Our post-modern modernism), Wolfgang Welsch propounds a different view of modernism. He divides it into two opposing phases. Welsch distinguishes between the early modern era of the 17th to 19th centuries (Neuzeit), the beginnings of modernism in the last half of the 19th century (neuzeitliche Moderne), 20th century modernism from the turn of the century to the 1960s (Moderne), and post-modernism (Postmoderne). In doing so, he ascribes to the first two phases a unifying groundswell and to the latter two phases a pluralistic undercurrent. He sees post-modernism as fulfilling the postulates put forward by 20th century modernism and characterizes them in the apodictic and ambiguous aphorism: Die Postmoderne beginnt dort, wo das Ganze aufhört (Post-modernism begins where the 'whole' ends).26
Unfortunately, Welsch never makes it quite clear what reality or which particular artistic manifestations or creations are meant. He distinguishes, for instance, between the superficial arbitrariness of what he describes as a diffuse post-modernism and a precise post-modernism that propounds, upholds and develops a real plurality, but he does not provide specific examples to illustrate his claims, leaving the reader to flesh out these terms for himself. His ultimately abstract and ideological claims restrict themselves to elucidating and presenting, as the only worthwhile stance, the general attitude that he so evidently idealizes and ascribes to the unnamed exponents of post-modernism.
Welsch underpins his theses with the writings of Jean-François Lyotard, one of the leading exponents of so-called post-modern philosophy. Lyotard, too, distinguishes between a lesser post-modernism characterized by the cynical eclecticism of "anything goes" and a worthy post-modernism that strives for "real confrontation." In contrast to a simple epochal notion of
periodicity Lyotard describes this post-modernism as a feeling, or state of mind.27
According to Welsch, a post-modern person is someone who is capable of looking beyond the obsessive tendency towards uniformity and leveling and who is conscious instead of the plurality of forms of speech, thought and life and how to address them. This does not require them to live at the end of the twentieth century. Such thinkers have borne the names Wittgenstein, Kant, Diderot, Pascal and Aristotle.28 In other words, post-modern thinkers are those who possess the elementary faculty of grasping contemporary life. The militant tone in which he propounds these sweeping generalizations can be explained by the fact that Welsch, like most post-modern theoreticians, identifies with the development he is examining. In other words, he sees himself as post-modern. Much of his treatise reads like a call to arms. He himself is the Party. He is interested less in understanding the essence of the latest cultural development-its conditions and prerequisites-than in vindicating this development and creating the intellectual climate in which it can be idealized.
From his point of view, the word post-modernism does not designate a specific cultural phenomenon that has yet to be interpreted, but stands solely for a specific interpretation of this phenomenon, that is, it stands for the ideology with which Welsch underpins it. In this way, the outlines of the topic also become blurred in temporal terms. Welsch's theories no longer apply to the cultural development of the last ten or fifteen years, but to the essence of modernism (by which he means 20th century modernism) and the ultimate valediction of the modern age (Neuzeit) that preceded it. The immanent significance of the word post-modernism is so utterly ignored that one is tempted to ask why Welsch bothers to use the prefix 'post' at all.
Welsch states: Post-modernism is by no means what its name suggests and what it is so often erroneously thought to describe-a trans-modernism or anti-modernism. Its basic content-plurality-has already been propagated by twentieth century modernism, especially in such leading fields as science and art. In post-modernism this desideratum of modernism is redeemed across the board of reality. For this reason, post-modernism is by no means anti-modern and its form is not simply trans-modern. It is the exoteric form of redemption of the formerly esoteric twentieth century modernism. One might also say: it is in fact radically modern rather than post-modern. […] Strictly speaking, our post-modern modernism is post-modern only in comparison to other forms of modernism, but not in comparison to the last and still largely valid modernism of the twentieth century; in short, it is post-modern in comparison to the oldest and most antiquated modernism, that of the modern age (Neuzeit). Post-modernism takes leave of the modern era's fundamental obsessions: the dream of unity, the concept of Mathesis universalis ranging from the projects of global philosophies of history to the global designs of social utopias. Radical post-modern plurality breaks away from the clutches of this uniformity that hopes for a totality that can never be achieved without totalitarianism.
Admittedly, it does differ in one crucial aspect from the radical tendencies of twentieth century modernism. It is a continuation of modernism, but it is a valediction of modernism. It leaves behind the ideology of potency, of innovation, of progress and conquest, it leaves behind the dynamics of the "isms" and their acceleration. For this reason, the view that post-modernism might simply replace or overcome modernism is, at most, one of its (self-generated) misunderstandings.29
The extent to which Welsch's views differ from my own is clear. Like most proponents of the new tendency, he portrays the pluralism of post-modernism and its rejection of modernistic 'innovation ideology' as the result of
affirmative objectives and corresponding decisions. I regard post-modernism's pluralism and eschewal of innovation as a reaction rather than an action-as an expression of loss that is not desired but passively borne. Post-modern pluralism is not an expression of inner fulfillment, but of need and inner emptiness. If post-modern artists are not innovative, it is not a matter of their own choosing, but by force of circumstance.
The causes of this creative impotence can be explained by the interaction of two poles of the self and the divergent significance accorded to them in terms of the creative process (and especially in terms of its innovative aspects). In his essay "Creativeness, Charisma, Group Psychology," Kohut underlines the different functions of the two poles: No doubt all creative and productive work depends on the employment of both grandiose and idealizing narcissistic energies, but I think that truly original thought, i.e. creativity, is energized
predominantly from the grandiose self, while the work of more tradition-bound scientific and artistic activities, i.e. productivity, is performed with idealizing cathexes.30
In its endeavor to present its own uniqueness, the grandiose self strives to create something new that has never been before. If the corresponding possibilities are exhausted within the framework of an existing and collectively accepted idealized structure, the artist has to emancipate him or herself from this structure, that is, the artist either has to re-interpret and thereby amend its guiding principles or has to jettison them entirely.
In the former case, the artist will expand the framework of the given scale of values by discovering and focusing upon hitherto unnoted aspects of its demands and ideals, that can be fulfilled in such a way as to allow him or her to exhibit his or her own uniqueness. From Van Gogh and Matisse, Cézanne and Braque, to Johns and Newman, all the innovative artists of modernism have extended its idealized structure in this sense. The sequence of countless steps of this kind, large and small, is what makes up the course of any cultural cycle. The cycle comes to an end when the possibilities of varying and extending its scale of values have been exhausted, that is to say, when its guiding paradigms can no longer be seen with new eyes, and when its ideals can no longer be fulfilled in a new and hitherto unknown way. It is then that the artist motivated by his grandiose self can no longer present his own uniqueness within the existing framework. If he is not prepared to forego the realization of his exhibitionist ambitions, there is only one way out for him: he has to leave the framework, abandon the guiding paradigm of his era and free himself from its ties. This step has been taken by post-modernism-it is through this, rather than through the pluralism so frequently evoked and never clearly defined-that it differs from modernism so far. It has not lost its unity in the sense of the sameness of its formulations, but in the sense of the psychological, spiritual and intellectual wholeness that is the essence of all great art.
Together, the exhibitionist pole and the idealized pole form the two constitutive and indispensable components of an individual self. If-whether through repression or being split off-the endeavors of one of the two poles are denied access to consciousness and the possibility of realization, the corresponding artistic creation will suffer an obvious loss of substance. In other words, the endeavors of both poles can only be realized within the scope of their reciprocal dialectical confrontation. For example, although the scale of values of the idealized pole can be portrayed symbolically in itself, it can only be grasped as a spiritual and intellectual reality on grounds of the expressions of exhibitionist ambitions that accommodate the corresponding idealized demands. By contrast, the uniqueness and grandiosity of these expressions can be recognized only in relation to a general scale of values, for only such a scale of values can provide, in the sense of a fixed quantity, the necessary basis for comparison.
If the claims of one pole no longer have to accommodate the demands of its respective opposite pole, its expressions lose their spiritual and intellectual relevance, that is, their relationship to an inner reality, and with that, any truly individual, i.e. indivisible significance. They become arbitrary and fragmentary. It is in this sense, and only in this sense, that the post-modern 'renunciation of unity' is to be understood. With its pluralism, post-modernism does not evade the claims of a 'totalitarian order' as its defendants so often maintain (after all, the canon of modernism can hardly be described as totalitarian), but it withdraws instead from the confrontation with its own psychological reality, with its 'other self'. In other words, it evades the confrontation between the two poles of a whole self. It is this that strips the artistic creations of post-modernism of their earnestness-robbing them of what might be termed the serious side of life-and lends them their scintillating, hedonistic and escapist character. It is this that creates the impression of the fictive, the irreal and the artificial that they convey.
Finally, we must address the crucial question of the meaning and value of
this art. Or, to put it simply: what is the reason for the unparalleled success
of such artists as Chia, Clemente, Kiefer, Polke, Schnabel and Basquiat? What is
the yardstick by which these artists, who reject all hierarchical orders, count
among the best of their kind? It is interesting to note that the proponents of
post-modernism tend to avoid the issue. Is the answer so obvious?
Though the art of post-modernism no longer subjects itself to the canon of modernism, it can only be understood and evaluated in relation to that same canon. Uniqueness and grandiosity can no longer be attained through the fulfillment of its idealized demands-for these demands have already been fulfilled far too often, in far too many and in far too magnificent ways.
Yet these values can also be inverted: not in the sense of a goal to be reached, as a measure of perfection, but in the sense of a demand to be ignored, a border to be crossed, as the measure of an illusionary and overtly flaunted liberty.
Modernist artists so far have endeavored to fulfill the demands of their idealized structure in the most perfect and most individual manner possible. Whereas many of them continue to fulfill their ambitions within the scope of the existing paradigm, this is not an option for post-modernist artists. They can neither accept the previous demands and requirements, nor do they feel capable of setting new standards and putting forward new demands. Thus their main aim is to disregard, as provocatively as possible, some or even all the demands of the previous canon. This seems to them the only possible way to express their own uniqueness and greatness.
This negative approach (this lack of respect) requires two things: a degree of self-confidence verging on megalomania, and artistic fantasy. These are the two decisive qualities to which the stars of the contemporary art scene owe their pre-eminence. In these artists' seemingly audacious dismissal of the 'existing order' any viewers thus inclined can enjoy an ersatz fulfillment of their own un-lived fantasies of omnipotence. In the endless inventiveness with which these manifestations of grandiose disrespect are altered and varied, viewers can admire the exhibitionist potency that would appear to justify such disregard for traditional expectations, and can participate in it, by identifying with it.
The art of post-modernism, like the salon art of the 19th century, is imbued with the sense of an era coming to an end. Its social significance does not go beyond the endeavor to deflect the anxieties connected with the progressive loss of meaning in our cultural life, and-through every possible form of wish-fulfillment, stimulation and narcissistic affirmation-to convey to an uncertain and disoriented elite an illusion of their own greatness and inner vitality. The content of this art consists in wishful thinking. Its boldness is fictitious in the sense that its protagonists are not challenged by any form of censorship, be it internal or external. Within the cultural framework of the late 20th century, anything goes; and within themselves, in doing away with the demands of the other pole of the self, these artists have also done away with all censorship and possible opposition. As Kohut notes, the messianic leader figure has no need to measure itself against the ideals of its superego-its self and the idealized structure have become one.
Clearly, the current generation of artists finds itself in a cultural cul-de-sac where the prevailing structures make it impossible for them to fulfill any holistic aspirations-hence their denial and repression. Within the scope of previous structures, there is no artistic drive towards discovering and conquering new territories on the horizon of the unknown. Every region is charted and the last blank spaces have disappeared from the map. Outside this framework, on the other hand, there is no scale of values by which post-modernist artists might orient themselves and whose standards they might take as the touchstone for their own uniqueness and individual greatness. This, of course, does not mean, as is so often claimed, the end of art-but merely the end of an era, the end of 'our' modernism.
The disintegration of past values and structures that finds expression in the
art of post-modernism is not an isolated development affecting art alone, but is
part of an epochal change involving the entire world as the 20th century draws
to a close.
I think there are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended. Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble.1 With these words, spoken on 4 July 1994, Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic, expressed a widely held opinion, and one apparently shared not only by art mediators and philosophers, but by also politicians, sociologists and economists. The only disagreement would appear to be the question of what is actually coming to an end with the end of modernism, and what will take its place.
There are a number of facts of which there can be little doubt. In Western democracies, with the increasing corruption of the democratic process, and with politics and business undermined by organized crime, unemployment, criminality and drug addiction, the fragmentation and disintegration of the idealized structures of the prevailing paradigm is evident. At the same time, with the increasing westernization of the world, the cultural achievements of modernism-the results of scientific research, modern technology and the principles of the free market economy-are spreading across the globe and leading almost inevitably to a global technological civilization that transcends all national and cultural boundaries.
The peoples of this worldwide civilization form an agglomeration of subcultures-some of them disintegrating-which lack any overarching intellectual consensus. They are not linked by any cultural paradigm, but by three functional networks instead: a free market involving all the countries and regions of the world, an ever closer-knit network of electronic communications, and the worldwide spread of satellite television.
This political, economic and cultural situation is the theme of a number of books and articles published in the early nineties, with strikingly evocative titles: The End of History (Francis Fukuyama), The Clash of Civilizations (Samuel P. Huntington), The Ends of the Earth (Robert D. Kaplan), The End of the Nation-State (Jean-Marie Guéhenno), The Westernization of the World (Serge Latouche), and History That Never Happened (Alexander Demandt).2
All these authors agree that the age of the nation-state and liberal democracy is coming to an end. With increasing mobility, with the spread of the multinationals and the electronic networking of all areas of life, the possibility of defining political and economic power in territorial terms is decreasing. The society of the future will be regulated less by political and national structures than by economic structures. Fundamental decision-making is being replaced by a staking out of particular interests. Law is being reduced to no more than procedures by which the activities of individuals are regulated according to purely functional considerations. Politics thus loses its previous moral and philosophical basis. According to Jean-Marie Guéhenno, It becomes effectively just as incongruous to pose the question of legitimacy as to question whether a computer program is "just" or "unjust."3 Guéhenno goes on to state that What is coming into being is not a global political body but an apparently seamless fabric, an indefinite accretion of interdependent elements.4
While the developed industrial nations are entering an age described by Fukuyama as 'post-historical', substantial parts of the Third World remain entrapped in history. The internal structures of these countries are disintegrating under the pressure of poverty, hunger, disease, criminality, civil war, refugees, and population growth. In these anarchistic situations, Kaplan sees the advent of a world in which the distinctions between war and crime merge imperceptibly, just as we have seen in Lebanon, El Salvador, Peru, Columbia and Rwanda.
This ideational fragmentation finds its correspondence in contemporary art
production, whose eclecticism and disregard for supra-individual intellectual
and/or spiritual values also recalls in some ways the Salon art of the late 19th
century. It is difficult to see in these works the germ of a new vision, or a
new aesthetic order, though this does not mean that artistic development has
come to a standstill. Indeed, it is to be expected that it will continue in a
variety of directions. Established names and new talents, artists from the Third
World, the creative output of marginal groups and the ongoing processing of
humankind's artistic heritage will continue to result in new concepts and
aesthetic surprises. Yet this alone is not enough to generate a fundamentally
new artistic direction comparable to that taken by Seurat, Cézanne, van Gogh and
Gauguin. As long as this art production does not mirror any
intellectual/spiritual canon or comprehensive values and structures, it does not
stand for a new beginning, nor for modernism so far, but merely for the
ideational void that is spreading ever wider in this period of both termination
and transition. Whatever their seeming originality and innovation such works
would still have to be described as post-modern.
The same is true of electronic data-processing whose potential for art has hardly been explored and is far from being exhausted. These media, too, open up a variety of new creative possibilities, which-like photography and film-will probably influence future artistic developments and may even lead to the formation of new and hitherto unknown types of art. Yet even then it remains uncertain whether the aesthetic exploitation of the new media will be a continuation of post-modernism, whether it will herald a renaissance of modernism, or whether it will lay the foundations of an artistic language that will express the way people see themselves and the world they live in, and reflect the ideals and ambitions of future generations.
It is simply not possible to make prognoses regarding art or the timing of any truly fundamental artistic changes. Cultures develop, like other living systems, without any pre-existent plan-the future of society cannot be predicted. The same is true of the development of art. And so, if we want to answer the question as to what will follow on from post-modernism, we shall have to wait at least until the first distant outlines of a new cultural paradigm begin to emerge on the horizon.