Postmodernism is an old concept used to indicate what follows the modern age but it has been associated with so many different ideas that the concept ended up being foggy and perceived as some kind of metaphysical rareness. I'm using the concept "postmodern" in its narrow sense of "what follows the modern age". Another denomination shall eventually impose itself out of the practice of what comes after modernism but only the future will tell.
My vision about what comes next in visual arts is grounded in the following premises that I developed in detail earlier:
1.1. About what is art and what is not art.
I expanded at length earlier on the fact that visual art is about the illustration of the worldview of the men of knowledge of the day at the attention of all the members of their society. Human history witnesses 3 distinctive worldviews succeeding one another: animism (primitive arts), the gods (religious art) and the modern age (private ownership, individualism and the rationality of the logic of capital). We are nowadays in the late stages of "late modernism" or in the early stages of "early postmodernism". The postmodern worldview has still not taken form it is only starting to shape and the modern worldview is rapidly waning falling into insignificance..
This is a time of much uncertainties and partisanship for sure but what is certain is that the visual signs of earlier times do not qualify any longer as art subjects nowadays.
What constitutes visual art today is the expression in visual signs of the worldview of the postmodern age or to be more accurate the rendering of visual signs about the perception of the men of knowledge relating to the shaping of the postmodern worldview.
It should thus be accepted that portraits, landscapes and depictions of religious stories do not, in the 21st century, constitute valid subjects of visual art any longer. This does not imply that such works have no place in our societies. I only mean to say that, they can't be considered as works of art any longer, they are crafters' products, sometimes industrial products, at the attention of the interior decoration market. The modern age gave us markets and among them the interior decoration, interior design markets. Those thrived on satisfying one narrow aspect of what has been the traditional function of visual arts throughout our cultural history, the usage functionality versus the more encompassing artistic and societal functionality. In other words visual signs of the worldview of the men of knowledge of the day were incorporated into objects of daily usage like pots and pans in animist times, wall coverings in religious times and interior decoration in modern times. The offers of the "interior decor" mass market let go the artistic and societal functionality and concentrated instead on the possibility to give affordable goods to all citizens that would satisfy the narrow functionality of usage that had been initiated by the aristocracy and the new rich bourgeois since "early modern" times.
1.2. About knowledge, knowings and rationality.
My vision relates to the long haul history. I mean that I look at history from the perspective of the long waves that traversed our societies over long spans of time and for some continue to swirl into the future. My subject is visual art and I posit that art is related to the rendering in visual signs of the worldview of the day or to be more accurate the worldview of the men of knowledge of the day.
Art and worldviews are thus my subjects.
For sure there are an infinity of ways to approach those subjects. One can, for example, take a microscope and plunge into the infinitesimal or a telescope and plunge into the infinite. After much research this approach leads to some conclusions about the workings of the different components of the subjects being studied but it does not give us any clue about the meaning of our subjects into their global environment. Here is the difference between the scientific approach and the philosophic approach. Scientists accumulate knowings in the narrow field of their vertical focus on the constitutive particles, or components, of their subject. Philosophers focus on the horizontal linkages between all subjects and their linkage to vaster constitutive ensembles. Philosophers use the available scientific knowings to gain a better understanding of the inner working of the subjects so as to have a better understanding of the impact their inner working has on the linkage of that subject with the other subjects. Vertically gained knowledge is thus put in good use to gain visibility in the horizontal linkages.
The scientific approach has been derived as an extension of the rationality that seeps out of the logic of capital. The logic of capital is pragmatic and nothing else. It induces the holders of capital (1) to preserve and increase the capital that they invest and over time they develop methods and systems helping them to maximize the preservation and increase of their capital base that's what is called the rationality of the logic of capital. Over time, after centuries of practice of that rationality, capital holders instinctively came to know when an innovation in ideas or techniques would help them to increase their capital base and they automatically invested in the development of such ideas and techniques. It should thus not come as a surprise that capital holders were often the ones who studied a problem and came up with a solution that helped them to generate higher returns for their investments. A better understanding of the impact of ideas and techniques gradually shaped a general attitude of respect for knowledge and the capital holders started to finance institutions that would specialize in the teaching of available knowledge and develop new ideas and techniques. Science as a system to understand reality was born but it was a flawed system for it was subservient to the rationality of the logic of capital. Science was born as a function of that rationality and it is still a slave of the finality that lay at the heart of the logic of capital, it has to serve the preservation and increase of the capital base. Not fulfilling its obligation, as a slave, results in the sanctioning of science through a cut of its financing. Scientists have to eat, as do their families, and they comply with the orders.
But capital forgot or could simply not have thought about the fact that knowledge would eventually develop its own internal logic: "our understanding of what we don't understand" is more and more becoming the motor of our intellectual endeavors. Software developers impulsed the "open source software" trend and today we hear about "open source nano-technology", "open source biotechnologies", and the "commons copyrights movement". Hope is on the way!
Let me reassure you I do not reject the scientific approach, I'm well too aware of the fact that Its knowings are directly enriching the philosophical approach. But it should nevertheless be noted that modern societies cultivated the scientific approach into what appears now more and more as a plague of human intelligence. Time has come for a critical observation, of what knowledge is all about, an observation that should be free of any interference by the logic of capital.
1.3. About the role of the artist.
Starting with Modernity (around 1900) the role of the visual artist was fundamentally altered. In every earlier periods in history the artist's role was to illustrate the given worldview of the men of knowledge and power of the day, the shaman in animist times, the priest in religious times and the bourgeois in early modern times. What I mean to say is that the artist was imposed a message to illustrate that he could not circumvent.
Modernism starts with the rejection of past models of interpretation of reality by some artists following the 1st world war. (Duchamp, Breton, Masson, Miro, ..., Constant, Hundertwasser). Let's not be confused here, from Van Gogh to Picasso the earlier model of interpretation of reality had remained what it was before what I mean to say here is that the first degree image that projects on the retina was what Van Gogh and Picasso tried to render albeit in an evolving style. Form was changing but content remained identical. Starting with Dada and the surrealists artists were after a different content, they did not really care about form. Read Duchamp, Breton, Masson, Miro, Kandinsky and the others there can be no doubt that for them content was the essence of an art work.
But what would content look like, now, that no models of interpretation of reality were imposed, or should I say, no longer accepted? This is the story of visual arts from 1918 till today. Everyone is naturally free to produce his own views. I personally wrote extensively about the culmination of modernism into confusion, into the "whatever" principle that our "all-knowing art bureaucratic word machine" will expand so lavishingly in so many incomprehensible treatises and articles that I confess I don't understand. Let me be clear, I understand the words and the sentences that they write but I don't see where the logic that they express leads us to. After living a decade and a half in China I learned something about pragmatism and the idea that change is our reality. I must say that I just don't see how all the present discourse about reality, about art will resist the tide of globalization and our changing tomorrows.
I personally think that visual artists have no other alternatives but to follow in the footsteps of Duchamp, Kandinsky, Masson and the others who made content the central story of art. Knowledge about "perception", about "worldviews and civilizations" about "societal systems", about "systemic complexity" and about so many other concepts was not available to the artists living in the first part of the 20th century and their understanding of what "artistic content" was all about could thus only be very limited.
In a1946 interview Duchamp told "... until the last hundred years all painting had been literary or religious; it had been at the service of the mind. This characteristic was lost little by little during the last century. ... Dada was very serviceable as a purgative. ... I felt that as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter." There was a good reason why Duchamp preferred to be influenced by a writer than by a painter for as he was saying: "I'm sick of the expression 'bete comme un peintre' -stupid as a painter". Had he gone one step further Duchamp might have understood why painters were seen to be so stupid. Painters had never been given the freedom to come up with their own content, on the contrary, they had always been imposed a message, a script and their role had thus always been limited to the craft of an image technician. Thinking was thus not their strength.
But with the rejection after the first world war of the traditional model of reality as being the first degree image that projects on the retina, a question imposed itself to all: "what are we to represent as content from now on?" Not trained to have a cultural and scientific baggage painters were at a loss. They tried all kinds of approaches but in the end all those approaches floundered and here is where sets in the responsibility of the "all-knowing art bureaucratic word machine" in the ensuing degradation of the visual arts into "whatever" and total confusion. Our "all-knowing art bureaucratic word machine" was being corrupted by the gold of the merchants and speculators who succeeding to making astronomical bucks from Duchamp's "ready-made" and other absurdities. They were ordered by the merchants and speculators to impose the stamp of their societally recognized authority on "whatever" so that substantial benefits could be subtracted from the wallets of innocents.
The 20th century artists should thus not be blamed for the confusion where visual arts landed in late modernity, the blame should squarely be laid at the feet of our "all-knowing art bureaucratic word machine". Is this machine not composed of high flying intellectuals? If the individuals representing the machine are intellectuals then they should have known better their comments could indeed have avoided the artists falling into such a low. But visual artists have no excuses any longer. When the nature of visual art has been debunked, when its societal functionality has been restored in our understanding, the time has come for the artist community to recognize what art is all about and to search for the constitutive elements of the worldview that is shaping under our eyes in the present.
So where are the men of knowledge in the 21st century that artists could borrow from to illustrate their worldview? I must recognize that the fog of this late modern confusion is so intense that the knowledge visibility is approximately nil. Are the scientists our men of knowledge? Well if some scientists, taken individually, might satisfy the criteria of knowledge this surely can't be extended to the scientific community as a whole. So where to search for knowledge? I guess that I'm going to disappoint you all. There is no such group in the 21st century that is composed of men recognized as being the holders of the knowledge of our day. So our century is definitely vastly different from all previous centuries. After searching and thinking for decades about this state of affairs the only valid conclusion that I could arrive at was that if knowledge, recognized by all, was not readily available any longer in our times then the only available option was for the artists to participate themselves in the process of knowledge creation that means accumulating knowledge and developing one's own conclusions.
Whow, ... man, what a program. I know, I know but do you have another and better alternative? Was Duchamp not already implying the same conclusion long ago?
(1) Capital: money that is accumulated is sleeping until it is put into use or in consumption or in investment. Money used to consume vanishes while money that is invested transforms into capital.