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PostmodernismReview - Postmodernism
Movements in Modern Art
by Eleanor Heartney
Cambridge University Press, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
May 10th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 19)

This excellent little book (80 pages, many filled with images) explains postmodernist art by setting out five movements: neo-expressionism, anti-aesthetes, commodity critics, postmodern feminism, and postmodern multiculturalism. The color paintings and photographs used as examples of artists' work are well-chosen, and the reproductions are of reasonable quality. The art is mostly from the last two decades of the twentieth century, and includes Baselitz, Kiefer, Basquiat, Longo, Koons, Kruger, Sherman, Mapplethorpe, and Gilbert & George.

We tend to think of expressionism and surrealism as the forms of art that more directly depict abnormal or extreme mental states such as despair, madness, perversion, and ecstasy. They are more personal statements of emotion, often cherished by people who are familiar with the experiences the art aims to express. The artists in these forms often are famous for their emotional problems and eccentricities (e.g., Rothko, Pollock, Dali) and the art is often thought to provide insight into the nature of mental illness. At their most radical, both expressionism and surrealism emphasize the value of passion and go hand-in-hand with one of the hallmarks of romanticism, that at the heart of genius lies madness, and that to be healthy requires at least a little neuroticism.

Postmodern art tends to be less overtly passionate, but nevertheless it has an obvious relevance to psychology and mental health, because it addresses issues of identity, normality, and the relation between individuals and society. By its very nature, it questions the separation of art from the rest of life, and is intent on breaking down boundaries between aesthetic approaches and other ways of understanding our lives. It is especially prone to political statements because it aims to destabilize conventional ways of understanding the world. In the end, postmodernism is more radical than expressionism and surrealism, because it leads to the questioning of the very categories of sanity and madness.

To be more specific, postmodernism is famous for its skepticism towards the idea of authorship and originality, and the ideal of individual autonomy through the exercise of cognitive skills and emotional self-control, which is central to our understanding of mental health. The postmodern condition, often associated with living in the media-age in a world where we are bombarded by messages, advertisements, and images, is at its simplest one of confusion, where rationality has broken down and language has ceased to function as a means of genuine communication, and is at most a means of manipulation. Often postmodern art is ironic, self-consciously clever, and apparently glib: it seems to have given up on the idea of communicating emotion, making a personal statement, or exploring the self, and instead prefers to take pleasure in annoying or perplexing the viewer through being uninterpretable, or resorts to taking pleasure in humor, bright colors, shiny surfaces, and even the excesses of consumerism. To the extent that such art can be interpreted, it seems to be making statements only about the possibility of art, rather than attempting to provide insight into life.

But Eleanor Heartney shows clearly how much postmodern art goes beyond such self-pleasuring silliness, and manages to pose serious questions about our society. It is preoccupied with the implications of mechanical reproduction, the effect of popular culture on our appreciation of the world, and the assumptions within mainstream art about sexuality, gender and race. Although her approach is obviously not exhaustive, she covers a surprising amount of ground while remaining sensitive to the philosophical sources of these approaches. Of course, in such a short book, her approach is inevitably simplistic, and there are plenty of worthy artists whom she does not mention. One important theoretical issue she barely touches on is how the artists in the book might decline to be classified as postmodernists, and how the labels we give different kinds of art are often not very useful.

Nevertheless, her writing is extremely clear and she manages to explain works of art which previously might just have seemed bizarre. So this Postmodernism is a great starting place for anyone wanting to understand the latest developments in the world of art. While there are few direct connections between postmodern art and postmodern ways of thinking about mental illness, there are similarities. Maybe the most productive connection is not in any particular shared belief, but rather in the stance or attitude that postmodernists take towards the world, and by getting a feel for this in art, one might get a better understanding for how it can be applied to mental health.

© 2001 Christian Perring


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