The Vanity of (Post)Modern Art: Some Critical Reflections | Chris Bolton

Not long ago, a friend of mine suggested that my contempt for (post)modern “art” might be misguided. Of course it doesn’t have anything to say about goodness or truth or beauty, but, she told me, “that’s the whole point. The (post)modernists left beauty behind.” In their phantasmagorical world, strictures built on purely aesthetic grounds inevitably collapse, and any would-be “artist” can claim victory over shortsighted squares like me.

Maybe it’s the ideologue in me, but I expect art to be just as beautiful as it is meaningful or emotionally stirring. The best of (post)modern art, however, is little more than egotism and unimagination turned sour, while the worst of it straddles the line between obscene and sinister.

These days, it doesn’t take much thought to fill space on a gallery floor; after all, the cult of self-expression has countless followers. Whether a piece of art is “good” no longer depends on skill, for art is no longer a vocation for masters. Instead, it’s used as a medium for amateur philosophers to tacitly communicate with each other. Often, since contemporary “art” is at once so deeply personal and completely nonrepresentational, its messages fall on deaf ears and blind eyes.

With beauty cast aside and philosophy carelessly conveyed, it becomes just another way for pretentious, high-society elites to discriminate between the enlightened and the uninitiate. In this cult, esoteric paint splotches and urine-drenched crucifixes are holy, while prattling on about what Heinlein called “pseudo-intellectual masturbation” assumes the role of sacrament. Once common to all men, art is now the perverse language of a few.

Now, I’ve visited my fair share of these “art galleries.” I’ve passed more hours gazing in disgust at piles of refuse and twisted metal than any man should have to in his lifetime. For some reason, I’m incessantly compelled back. I’m drawn to exhibitions that I’m sure will disappoint me. Naturally, you will ask “why?” Put simply, I enjoy the challenge that is cracking the code.

Most recently, I paid a visit to Columbia’s own Leroy Neiman Gallery to see an exhibition called Art of “Whose” People. I expected to find a scene resembling a cross between Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory and an adolescent boy’s bedroom, but I was pleasantly surprised. As I walked the perimeter of the small space, I could find nothing grotesque, nothing vile or even avant-garde. None of it was particularly beautiful, but it wasn’t hideous either. It was, at first glance, a modest assemblage of photographs, silkscreen prints, and installation pieces made by “young artists from around the world.” I was grateful to be so unmoved.

At first, I was even struck by a series of Shahzia Sikander prints. Her art has been rightly identified as the stuff of genius (earning her the coveted MacArthur Fellowship). In the three prints from her Embark/Disembark series on display, she recalls familiar Oriental iconography, layering suggestive animal and human forms in an otherwise blank space, defying authentic interpretation, yet leaving ample room for emotion and imagination to finish the story. Though she doesn’t convey anything sublime, she abstains from philosophizing and tries to render something at least aesthetically pleasing, which separates her from her peers.

Three Prints from Embark/Disembark

But if I thought the other exhibitions in the gallery would be just as evocative, I was sadly mistaken. In their note to patrons, the artists say that “each piece in the space is a focused exploration of the artists’ concerns regarding their own context.” Frankly, I find these “concerns” uninteresting and unworthy of my time. What each artist presents is deeply personal, unrelatable, appealing to neither the heart nor the mind of the viewer. This sort of self-indulgence is precisely the problem with contemporary art. Whereas a true artist simply does what all men are born to do—make sense out of reality and give mortal expression to immortal things—the (post)modern artist wraps himself in his own affairs and disregards the transcendent altogether.

I spent the rest of my time in the gallery trying to decipher whatever hidden message they left me. On one wall hung several photographs of plain-looking African women sharing postcolonial secrets and sorrows; on the wall opposite hung two photos featuring the ruins of a temple and a boulder, bearing the caption, “all creative effort—including the making of an omelette—is preceded by destruction.” Between these and other images whose subjects were indiscernible, I was stumped. Even the video installations with messages rooted firmly in critical theory failed to clue me in, but then I fixed my eyes on the twin centerpieces of the exhibition. From any point, at any angle, the small yet imposing balsa wood models, both entitled Proposal for a Panopticon, arrest the viewer’s attention. The use of such an iconic (post)modern symbol is subtle, but telling. What’s most disturbing, though, is not the sculpture itself but its positioning within the space.

Proposal for a Panopticon

I imagine that the gallery curator, Yasi Alipour, wanted me to feel some sort of tension. She tried to pull back the curtain on the invisible—indeed, imaginary—process of “recolonization under the politics of Global economy.” The artists affirm that there’s some sort of power structure, operating on a global scale, working to subdue and to subjugate anyone not included in “the people,” a “fabricated construct as political as it is social.” In fact, this power structure, whatever it is, is so sophisticated that it need not be observable. But that’s precisely what Adam Rose has done with the Panopticon; he’s given visible expression, albeit symbolic, to this illusive power dynamic. That it (supposedly) exists is enough to induce “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault, Discipline and Punish). With the rest of the pieces arranged around Rose’s Panopticon, the gallery becomes the scene of a melodramatic fantasy in which each artist is free to philosophize, provided every message is consistent with the overarching statement on power.

I have never witnessed the internalized oppression that Foucault describes, but I think I understand what Alipour is trying to show me. She put Rose’s Panopticon at the center of the gallery and the art of non-Westerners on the margins to draw attention to an “oppressive” status quo. Purportedly, it is the West, broadly conceived, and the intellectual and artistic residues left by the West that “subvert” the perspectives of non-Westerners. In the contemporary art sphere, as well as in the “post-89 Neo-liberal world” at large, she tells us, foreigners have been consistently marginalized and excluded. Here, we are supposed to feel sympathy; we’re asked to silently assure the foreign artists of the past and present that their perspectives matter, no matter how they’re presented to us; and we’re supposed to commiserate, to get a sense of the “deepest anxieties” that these artists share.

But we can’t. While I’m all for art as social commentary, the neo-Marxist world picture that’s been presented to us is wildly inaccurate. The artists’ preoccupation with their experiences and intuitions prevents them from identifying the actual mechanisms of “Western oppression.” In trying to be “true to themselves,” the artists make it impossible for the viewer to affirm the statement they’re making. Like most (post)modern art, this exhibition represents an outpouring of sentiment and fancy that has no foothold in reality. And even if it did, there’s still the problem of the artistic language barrier.

Since each piece is a product of the artist’s feelings and naive philosophical impressions, we’re shown things to which we cannot relate; we can’t even sympathize. Rather than a transportative or transformative experience, we get an expression of the artist’s ego, a projection of mere feeling. We get something particular, something that only really matters to the artist, rather than something universal. Ultimately, we get a political message imbued with nonsensical philosophies and hopeless delusions about a world that does not exist.

There’s plenty more to be said about why I find this kind of elaborate meta-art preposterous, but perhaps you’ll find my reasons wearisome—I sure do. The problem I’m getting at is much larger than this trifling exhibition in this little Columbia gallery. It’s the same problem Ovid identified in Narcissus. As these (post)modern artists waste away with self-love, chasing after bodiless dreams, they expect us to watch, to applaud, to Echo their lament, even to lay down and admire the putrid flowers that sprout from their conceit. I, for one, will have none of it; rather, I’ll hold fast to my faith in mankind and keep searching for beauty wherever it lies.

Chris Bolton is a Columbia College Junior studying Economics-Mathematics and what it means to be human. He is also the Beacon’s art-critic-at-large and managing editor, and he maintains a steadfast commitment to BREAKING THE CONDITIONING.


  1. “Ultimately, we get a political message imbued with nonsensical philosophies and hopeless delusions about a world that does not exist.”
    Couldn’t have said it better myself. Welcome to the modern world, dumbass.

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