ATOA Transcription Archive

Post-Modernists Just Wanna Have Fun


Moderator: Peter "Blackhawk" von Brandenburg
Panelists: Edit deAk, Glenn O'Brien,
David Salle, Tim Wright

Artists Talk On Art, NYC; February 29, 1980

The moderator introduced himself and immediately set the tone of the evening:

Peter "Blackhawk" von Brandenburg: Post-modernism is almost impossible to talk about and I must have been out of my mind when I suggested this panel. . . . The only hard and fast technical use of the word is in architecture, but post-modern architecture is about the farthest thing from what we're talking about.

Four or five years ago something happened, first in the music world and then starting to turn up in art. One term for it is New Wave, but not what you think of now for New Wave, not punk rock, or anything like that, but the sets of conditions that gave New Wave the style it has, had and will have three years from now. Sets of criteria, assumptions, attitudes, poses, stances, perspectives. These are part of a system, and accessible to an artist working in a variety of media -- in art, painting, music, film -- not New Image painting or polystylism, which are expressions of symptoms. . . .

Ever since World War II there have been youth movements in this country in which a group of people with an indigenous style or culture discover the media structure which informs them. And likewise the media structure discovers them. As soon as the media find out there is something going on, they appropriate it -- a style, its attitudes, its vocabulary -- and so co-opt it, domesticate it. This happens time and time again, because the media doesn't invent anything itself.

Four or five years ago, there was a movement, or a set of conventions that allowed itself to be seen as a movement, but wasn't really a movement [that] planned for its own co-opting and commercialization. The process whereby it would be co-opted became part of its rhetoric, symbology, and mythology. . . . Think of punk rock, where it was four years ago. Now there's New Wave night one night a week at every bar in Long Island and New Jersey. . . .

What post-modernism is about, like I said, is the criteria for making the choices, for picking the styles, for figuring out what the rest of the world is going to pick up on, how to do it first, and when it does become appropriated, how the person who came up with it can maintain control. Having your language taken over, watered down, disseminated in the mass market, that becomes a vehicle for you to influence the whole culture -- which is trying to influence you.

In post-modernism, or New Wave . . . you take an attitude about an art-making process. If you take an attitude that would be pertinent to conceptual art, and then apply that back to a very traditional, standard, formal art product -- painting, sculpture, film or records -- then you may be engaging in a post-modern activity. . . . You treat a formal art product as if it were conceptual art, the same way one takes a progressive rock-and-roll mentality and applies it to the most simple and traditional music forms. [But] if you do to art what punk rock did to music, that art will be anything but punk, because you're dealing with the structure of the art world, which is real different.

So I took people [for this panel] who are not post-modernists necessarily, but were involved in the avant-garde before this stuff happened. And when it happened they got into the forefront. Original thinkers. This is all a function of people saying, "There's nothing new, there can never be anything new."

Von Brandenburg introduced Glenn O'Brien as "probably the closest thing to a post-modernist columnist and one of our foremost television personalities."

Glenn O'Brien: I've no idea what post-modern means. I know they talk a lot about it in England; it might be better to say "post-art." Maybe this is all about what people do after there's no more art.

Artists started to get like doctors, they all became specialists and pretty soon instead of being a sculptor and a painter, an artist was spending all his time baling hay, or cutting down trees to put in galleries, or making paintings that were readily identifiable by anyone who had ever seen one of his other paintings. And art became not art, but this sort of gesture.

There's been a moratorium on painting anyway -- there's enough paintings, just like there's enough buildings. We should have things that are disposable, like magazines and records. People just got so bored with Minimalism that they started getting interested in Maximalism. . . . The post-artist life style is what people want, like being an arty businessman. Who has the time to sit around and write a good book or do a really nice painting? I think the interest rates and the quality of painting are directly related.

von Brandenburg: We're used to thinking style is important. Now you're supposed to treat style as cliche, as a set of instantly identifiable moves or references. When people start talking about what style [post-modern art] is, they're in trouble, because they're dealing with people who don't have style and don't believe in style.

Von Brandenburg introduced the next speaker as "everyone‚s favorite editor and writer, Edit deAk."

Edit deAk: I danced with Johnny Rotten three nights ago and I was writing supposedly about art magazines for Artforum about a month ago. Nobody had any opinions, and I finally was thinking of this beautiful picture of Mayakovsky smoking a cigarette and I kept writing stuff like, "I used to write, but now I just smoke cigarettes." . . . I thought post-modernism was something kind of before me, like a dirty word I could just wash my hands and skip over. I think it's kind of like a messy, polluted, saturation principle, maybe in terms of aesthetic attitude, related to cynicism, related to a self-protective principle, or self-managed, or hype, no longer about quality as long as you can be hot, even beyond style, because you can't be hot with the same necktie for half a year.

In terms of artists and culture, it's an Heisenbergian whodunit, in which you affect a substance by your experiment. There are these downtown creatures around the art world, around the Lower East Side. They've been working with immediately understandable genres of mass culture, so they have a desire to cop certain aspects of the general culture and assimilate it. The product is marginal and esoteric, cultish and campy and underground. At the same time, the art world, not these people's art world, but the art world, has become a gigantic and well-kiiown machiiiery, such an iii-credible infra-structure that . . . artists would probably qualify in the top rank as top all-American middle-class high-ranking individuals, and that was all built up in the last 15 years. . . .

I finally found some function for the art world, which I was looking for for about 15 years -- dishing up pedigrees. Artists are kind of hot in the culture at large, because they represent "quality," or a kind of "kinkiness." So artists try to use formats which have been familiar to the general culture, sort of slumming among the mediums of general culture, and the general culture reaches out to artists.

Next, Brandenburg introduced "a painter and writer, David Salle."

David Salle: We seem to have come to a point where the relationship between object and meaning is no longer as fixed as it was thought to be. Criticism [once proceeded] as if there were in fact determinable meanings and objects created the meanings. Despite all the talk about context and pluralism and self-referentiality and mutual contiguous meanings, my experience in the art world was that there was this object that had a more or less assigned meaning and it didn't really matter if it was a formalist painting or a work of so-called poetic, irrational juxtaposition, or a conceptual piece, or an autobiographical or narrative piece. The form became unimportant, in a sense a metonym for itself. That is, it ceased to mean anything except that it as a form existed.

On the one hand, [modernism is a] celebration of the irrational: it's not what you think it is; and on the other hand, of the empirical: it's just what it is . . . After 20 or 30 or however many years of seeing successively encoded forms brought to attention, they become simply that -- that thing which has that attention. Post-modernism proceeds from a very deeply internalized recognition of that as a trap. . . . The post-modern sensibility, if there's a sense of opposition to modernism, has to do with the fact that meaning is literally beyond the grasp of the viewer, rather than the modernist or high-modernist position that meaning is linguistically or contextually arrived at.

Just one more "radical" notion: basically, modernism is about an art that is beyond the comprehension, because that's what art is supposed to be and how it's supposed to function - beyond one's comprehension. Much of the post-modernist sensibility tends to manifest itself in the use of images, [but] different from the early use of images, like the Surrealists used or Pop Art used. Instead of the viewer understanding or decoding the images, the viewer is understood by the images. It is the audience which is understood and decoded, rather than the other way around.

The last panelist, Tim Wright, was introduced as "a social archeo-musicologist."

Tim Wright: I confess that I'm quite bored most of the time and what I find most boring is what David was talking about, the track in time that most people seem to fall into [about] modernism - - because people like to decide what is modern and feel secure in identifying with it. And that sort of locks them into present standards of acceptability and present standards of what's new. . . . As an archeologist I find the past exciting, but people who live in the past I find boring. People who live in the future all the time are really boring. . . . Post-modernism seems to be implying movement, and that's kind of attractive. To be locked in any point of time tends to distort your point of view.

Audience: What do you do?

Wright: I'm a song writer. I'm in a band called DNA. I used to be in a band called Pere Ubu. I'm a free-lance archeologist. [Laughter, which continued.] A long time ago I became aware that time flies when you're having fun. I'm pretty bored by addiction to any frame of time, especially the present, which is more obvious than the past or the future, because you're getting hit with it every day. Like anything we constantly consume again and again, even if it was fun the first time, or the fifth time, after a while it's not fun any more. So, being a musician, for me to continue to have fun, I have to find adventurous new things. . . . Fun is the goal, at the same time that it's the source. Yes [answer to audience question], post-modernism is synonymous with fun.

Audience: That's the most sophomoric thing I ever heard.

von Brandenburg: That's what being an American is about -- life, liberty and the pursuit of fun. Whatever anybody says now about post-modernism (if anyone has the faintest idea of what we're talking about), if it's post-modernism now, in 5 years, it's going to be modernism, period.

Salle: Maybe post-futurism is more interesting. "Planet of the Apes" is retro-futurism. And so is "Battle Star Galactica," where you have the tribes of Israel wandering around all the planets. Because what else do they have to model the future on but the past?

In art like Pop Art, artists reached the greatest degree of success. They started selling art at the greatest price it would ever reach. I think we're going to have an art market crash pretty soon. I don't know very many rich people.

deAk: There's a bunch of things made which kind of don't have a vested interest in its material. [They could be a] product artists make or artist types make, not quite saleable, just a statement on 100 sheets of xerox paper, that looks like a piece of shit.

Audience: Will paintings ever become like the master race and communicate with each other directly?

von Brandenburg: A painting can't give a sperm sample.

Audience: Will the people continue to have fun?

von Brandenburg: The problem as I see it right now is that almost no one in the art world has fun. If you're having fun, you can't be serious.

Audience: The art world is like the stock market.

Audience: If there's anyone who's blown up out of proportion, like the stock market, a total facade, it's Andy Warhol.

von Brandenburg: I don't know -- I'd vote for Joseph Beuys.

Audience [to David Salle]: You said earlier that whoever makes Abstract Expressionism or Pop Art has these personal targets, the way they judge the work and they want to make it "work out." That means they're caught up in just making more stuff. . . .

Salle: I don't think it has anything to do with whether one makes things or not. I don't make a distinction. I wouldn't say for myself that inventiveness is no longer possible. My point is that, given the model of meaning most people in the art context have internalized, for better or worse, consciously or unconsciously, what gets made is made, and things not getting made are still getting made, like, "I'm not going to do this." That's still doing it. The image of meaning in that activity is hopelessly simplistic and inevitably superceded by just the nature of attention. If I pay attention to something I'm going to change it. And any work [should] incorporate that into its methodology, whether it‚s a 40-foot painting or a little piece of shit, whether it's Art Rite or Artforum.

von Brandenburg: The idea was, there was this incredible meaning out there and it was locked into this thing and who were you, you weren't going to get it out. That meaning and the truth this thing represented were just going to go on and on and on and you would turn into dust and ashes and this could be under glass in a temperature-controlled museum, like the Thousand-Year Reich.

This is what art is supposed to be, this great meaning, that no one understands, that you have to have some prior information to get at, and the sick thing is that as far as the [general public] is concerned, it's true. In recognition of this, a lot of artists now, given the opportunity to do formalist art, to make a painting or a sculpture, instead of going back and trying to legitimately recreate whatever that true creative divine spark is, and put that in the painting, would find it more honest to generate or recreate the mythology surrounding the painting that they heard of way back when and create something that exists like the popular myth exists, not something like the real painting during that period.

Post-modernism is not anti-modernism; it is modernism in a way. The values tend to be inverse. In formalist art, all those areas of the artwork that the artist is supposed to take real seriously and make the vehicle or the arena for their own individual stamp, talent, activiry, those places in post-modernist art are taken up with references, quotations, clichés -- like I said before, the things that are automatically identifiable, that you don't have to think twice about: subtitles, almost captions, thought balloons. Then it is usually all those other things, things taken for granted, like the economic structure the work's going to go into, like gallery marketing schemes, like choice of a particular kind of material, all these things that are supposed to be taken seriously are the things the artist starts screwing around with. You simply invert the ironies. All the places where you're supposed to have ironies, and original creativity in formalist art, those are the places in post-modernist art where you have references and where you define your own perception of history, and in so doing, define who you are. . . . You tell people where you are by telling them what you see.

Audience: Where does the meaning come from?

Salle: It's coming from a discourse which is simultaneously three things: It's internalized via culture; it's intuited via one's desires, hopes, dreams, etc., and it's worked out in some kind of moment-to-moment dialogue. Like speaking to a person, in a conversation, there are several things going on, memories, unstated kinds of things that will never be stated, and then what is stated at that particular moment.

deAk: You make me blush.

Audience: It's more a stream of consciousness?

Salle: Let's say it's situational. . . .

deAk: I think what we're talking about is some kind of meta-analytic Catch-22 which one has, a kind of circuitry which is infinite, because everything around us is so cluttered and saturated, and what he's talking about is an inversion. I mean an inversion is almost like no inversion. And meta-anything, it just makes my brain inside, I don't know, it almost tickles; I get nervous, I can't handle it. I'd say what is going on is a kind of para-production, not meta, but para, not inverted, but . . . All kinds of productions are just semi-productions; they intend to be like productions in real life, but what is real life? Meanwhile, you can have fun doing it, even though all you want to do is qualify.

That's what I heard from a bunch of people. I thought that was pretty good: "What do you want to do?" "I want to qualify." And that struck me as an incredible statement. . . . Just merely qualify. If you think of it, it's not easy, but it's an incredible attitude. They want to qualify as a musician, as a human being. . . . If you can handle qualifying in your own manner, you're O.K.

Audience: What are you guys doing, Dada?

deAk: I wouldn't mind being a Dadaist. . . .

Salle: I'm a Mama-ist.

Audience: Could you name any artists we know as an example of post-modernism? . . . I don't have a visual idea of post-modernism.

von Brandenburg: That's sort of a problem, because an artist who is a post-modernist, they'll almost never be known for that. They'll find a set of qualities and then get known for that thing. . . . But what allowed them to do that thing is a post-modernist style. Everybody's still looking for your style, they don't understand that you don't take that seriously.

Audience: Then you'd say post-modernism is the kind of art that recognizes that the particular thing called art at the moment is not in reality the fixed value of art, that no matter what kind of canvas it is, it's still something hanging by a nail. And the post-modernist hasn't got canvas, hasn't got the nail, but has the attitude that that canvas is already hanging on the wall.

deAk: Not even the nail.

von Brandenburg: The critical machinery, all the stuff surrounding that art, the words, the text, the shows, that's not what made it work, if it worked. Art is for all practical purposes completely subject to style, and stylistic mentality. That a post-modernist takes for granted. It's got to be relative, and if you recognize as relative what other people think is absolute then you might get some mileage out of really fucking with it. . . .

Wright: There's very little as self-conscious, or decadent, or self-aware as this art is.

Audience: What are your paintings about?

deAk: I can make two drawings -- a scarecrow with a bird on it and . . .

Audience: I think what we might be saying is that people around the world who do art, or create things, are trying to fill in the gap the military and the politicians are failing to do, for instance, in Europe in the environmentalist movement. We just had in Cooper Union a few weeks ago an artist from Germany; he said he's trying to do something to pull us out of the inevitable . . . massive destruction and mutual annihilation we're headed for.

Audience: Here in New York artists are meeting to do work related to a non-nuclear future. We're beginning to see artists emerging as leaders with a social conscience.

Wright: I'd say that was absolutely the opposite of post-modernism. The post-modernist artists' idea would be to hasten nuclear proliferation. . . . [But] that was a serious question, so I'll give you a serious answer. I think that if a problem in the world presents itself to an artist in terms other than art terms and they feel a personal responsibility to solve those problems, then they should solve those problems in the terms which they thought of them in. Which is to say, if they're worried about nuclear power, they should become an environmentalist or a politician or something else. The only direct effect art has on culture is to inform the media [about] a set of ideas or images or concerns which in five years will get picked up on and form a kind of stew, or basis for all the other commercial messages going on.

Audience: I gather you're saying post-modernism says anything can be art. But I thought that was modernism.

Wright: I think anybody who's really good now is making Magical Objects. . . . But most people would probably say that when they find an artwork that does for them what primitive art did for primitive man, the chances are it isn't a work of art. It's not fine art, not in a gallery, it's something they stumbled upon.

Salle: This isn't the first time people have said in serious or unserious company there's no more art, no more artists. It's a signal for something; perhaps it's intended literally, or perhaps intended to point to something else.

O'Brien: You said before, people used to make art; you'd go in and look at it and it would mean something. Now people go in and the art looks at them and it means something to the art, but not to the people. So therefore the artist has reversed his role.

von Brandenburg: How does art become informed by its viewers and can artists change that, depending on where they put their art to be looked at?

O'Brien: I have no idea.

deAk: I hope to completely agree with Glenn that there are no more artists and no more art, but at the same time I must admit I do get kicks here and there. I'm not necessarily calling those things or activities art, but they give me some kind of intense input, reaction, which could be some sort of art reaction.

Audience: You mean there are no artists and no art?

deAk: No, I take [Glenn O'Brien's] position full-heartedly; at the same time I find very talented people and good things in the world. Call it what you want, I'd take his position from an art-world argument. From my personal experience, I have experiences which are great.

Audience: [Inaudible.]

deAk: I don't object to anything at all. I have no objections even to the art world. I don't have any objections to not being able to write about anything. There's no time to write in the first place. . . .

von Brandenburg: When you say the word "art," you expect people to know what that means. What people really think art is is probably even more diverse than what they think post- modernism is. And in some ways, post-modernism is just a handy term to define a particular crop of avant-garde artists whose particular working styles have not been copped yet, so we're not all familiar with them and when we say avant-garde we don't naturally think of them.

Audience: You said in your opening talk that the central question of post-modernism is how to maintain control, how to use the fact that the media will co-opt whatever is created, how to incorporate into your art a knowledge of and resistance to that inevitabilility of being co-opted. That seems to me a political position.

Panel: It is.

Audience: We do have this lust for the example. If you can name some artists or talk about some strategy by which . . .

von Brandenburg: One concrete example -- this is a post-modernist tactic: A person identifies an attitude that would make certain choices among styles, a selector, an attitude which permeated a particular movement in formal modernism, in the '40s, in the '50s and in the '60s. You could do this with Expressionism, you could do this with Pop Art, you could do this with Hard-Edge painting. There will be a culturally induced stylistic criteria [sic] which is responsible for the aesthetic in the works of several artists working in these genres -- which were supposed to be just the individual artist's vision or metier. . . . You take such an attitude, or such a perception of style [after] we've had 20 years of perspective, and what looked like it was just ingenuous at the time, now appears to be more the result of certain factors in cuIture which showed up in the art world before they turned up in the general culture.

That mentality in those genres is probably expressed in a metaphor, through the medium of paint, by making paint do a particular thing or through a type of edge, or through a shaped canvas. You take that metaphor and translate it into a literal actuality. If you're dealing with Hard-Edge painting and the idea of light carrying color, for instance, then if you're a post- modernist artist, you make art where literally light carries color, where the art is made up of light, not of painting. You might be doing a Kenneth Noland or a Frank Stella, exactly the same painting, except you'd be doing it literally, for real, you'd not be working with metaphor.

Audience: Will a time come when there's a post-post modernism, when artists re-interpret the attitudes coming out of post-modernism?

von Brandenburg: Oh sure. That's when we're all innocent again.

O'Brien: There's something wrong when you place all the responsibility on the culture, all the blame for the draining away of meaning on the media.

von Brandenburg: Now we say "the media" the way people used to say "the establishment."

Audience: Can a post-modernist co-opt the way he's going to be co-opted?

Wright: He can think that he can.

O'Brien: I think the people in control of the media are the same ones who patronize certain forms of art alienating to the general public -- so when they have the news and the weather and the sports, then they can bring on the art report and show some ridiculous thing that someone's installed at great expense that means nothing. Then the people can say, "Yep, we're not missing anything. They call that art!" And they're right. The whole reason that art is there is just to make people think there's something wrong with art.

Audience: Would you comment on the relation between post-structuralism and post- modernism?

von Brandenburg: I think that would be a generally good note to end on.

(Edited from tape.)

Editor's note:

As we see here, post-modernism was not always the stern, moralistic post-modernism of Mary Kelly and company. It also becomes quickly clear that we're talking about something besides "pluralism," something that has, despite claims of no style, its own style. In other words, we are in yet another cave, with yet another crew, cultivating yet another attitude, and it has nothing to do with politics, "regular art" (that is, "face-value" art), or technology.

And yes, they did say, "artists want to have fun." Although frustrated by panelists' refusal to give definitions, name names, or cite particular works of art, the audience had fun too -- if gales of laughter are an indication. The free exchange between audience and panel was, as it often is, productive: speakers grew more cogent and forthright as questions or concepts engaged them. It may not have been Edit deAk's finest hour, but the others were subtle, knowing, and very sharp about the mindset claiming -- or being claimed by -- "post-modernism."

The evening, one of my all-time favorites, was too laid-back to be called a celebration: Let's call it a progress report - on art and artists departing the pure, ardent certainties of modernism.

-- Judy Seigel