Assignment 1 Final Draft: Reflective Commentary

My initial response to the question “what is art?” was “something that engages people on an emotional (or perhaps intellectual) level”. (Hopkins, 2017a) One year on, I do not feel like my view has significantly changed. What particularly changed studying the Contemporary Art section of the course was the realisation that art and inspiration is all around us. I was surprised at the huge variety of media that can be employed for example I had never considered using sound in an artwork. I have also found that my view that there should be some aesthetic appeal to a work has been challenged slightly. I still feel that the artwork needs to intrigue the viewer enough for them to approach it however I was surprised that works such as Duchamp’s fountain (which I felt fairly dismissive of initially) become far more interesting when you take the time to research the context in which it was created. Continue reading “Assignment 1 Final Draft: Reflective Commentary”


Books: Art since 1900: Modernism Antimodernism Postmodernism

This book contains five introductions which each cover different conventions and methods of analysis. The topics of these essays are:

  1. Psychoanalysis in modernism and as method
  2. The social history of art: models and concepts
  3. Formalism and structuralism
  4. Poststructuralism and deconstruction
  5. Globalization, networks, and the aggregate as form

Psychoanalysis in modernism and as method

Psychoanalysis was developed by Sigmund Freud at the same time that modernist art arose and are many relationships between the two:

  • Artists have directly drawn on psychoanalysis
    • Surrealism explores its ideas visually.
    • Feminism critiqued ideas theoretically and politically.
  • Psychoanalysis and modernism share many interests
    • origins
    • dreams and fantasies
    • “the primitive”
    • the child
    • the insane
    • workings of subjectively
    • sexuality
  • Psychoanalytical terms have entered vocabulary of art and criticism (eg. repression, sublimation, fetishism, the gaze)

There are problems with eg Surrealism as a “psychic automatism”, either:

  • the connection between psyche and art is posited as too direct – the specificity of the work is lost
  • the connection is too conscious/calculated – the psyche is simply illustrated by the work.

The association between modernism and “primitives”/children/insane made the artists a target of Nazism.

Much art of the 60s was a reaction against Abstract Expressionism:

  • staunchly antipsychological
  • concerned with ready-made cultural images – Pop art
  • given geometric forms – minimalism
  • rise of feminist art (Freud associated femininity with passivity)

Levels of Freudian criticism (Who/what is to occupy the position of the patient? The work, artist, viewer, critic, or combination of all?) reduces to three levels:

  • symbolic – art work needs to be decoded in terms of latent message hidden behind the content. Similar to iconography. Here artist is ultimate source.
  • accounts of process – interested in the dynamics of process with understanding of “sexual energies and unconscious forces that operate in the making and viewing of art”
  • analogies in rhetoric – analysis of artwork in analogy with art visual productions of psyche such as dreams and fantasies.

The social history of art: models and concepts

Models were formulated to displace humanist (subjective) approach to criticism and interpretation.

  • Autonomy
    • Jürgen Habermas suggested that the bourgeois identity required the subject’s capacity to experience the autonomy of the aesthetic, to experience pleasure without interest.
    • Artist as self-determining and self-governing subject.
    • Aestheticism conceiving work of art as purely self-sufficient and self-reflexive experience.
    • Aesthetic autonomy fits into overarching philosophical framework of Enlightenment philosophy.
    • Liberated linguistic/artistic practices from mythical and religious thought. Emancipated artists from aristocratic/religious patronage.
    • Contributed to fundamental transformation from cult-value to exhibition-value. Paradox that artistic independence and aesthetic autonomy guaranteed only within commodity structure.
  • Antiaesthetic
    • Peter Bürger (Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974)) believed antiaesthetics inspired emergence of:
      • Cubism
      • Dadaism
      • Russian Constructivism
      • French Surrealism
    • Avant-garde strategies:
      • initiate fundamental changes in conception of audience
      • reverse bourgeois heirarchy of aesthetic exchange-value and use-value
      • conceive of cultural practices for proletarian public sphere within advanced industrial nation states.
    • Replaces originality with technological reproduction.
    • John Heartfield defines its artistic practices as:
      • temporary
      • geopolitically specific
      • participatory
      • utilitarian – assumes a variety of functions such as information, education or political enlightenment
  • Class, agency and activism
    • Marxism political theory – classes served as agents of historical, social and political change. (Marx defined class as a subject’s situation in relation to the means of production)
    • Hemogenic culture acts to sustain ruling class through cultural representation.
    • Oppositional cultural practices articulate
      • resistance to hierarchical thought
      • subvert privileged forms of experience
      • destabilise ruling regimes of vision and perception
    • Problem: should exclude all artists and production which lack commitment, class-consciousness and political correctness?
  • Ideology: reflection and mediation
    • Ideology has important role in aesthetics of György Lukács.
      • key concept was of reflection – mechanistic relationship between economic and political forces and ideological and institutional superstructure.
      • phenomena of cultural representation were secondary to phenomena of class politics and ideological interests of particular historical moment.
    •  Louis Althusser created a distinction between the totality of the ideological state apparatus and explicit exemption of artistic representations (and scientific knowledge) from totality of ideological representations.
  • Popular culture vs mass culture
    • Stuart Hall argued same dialectical movement detected in gradual shift of stylistic phenomenal from revolutionary and emancipatory to regressive and politically reactionary could be detected in production of mass culture
    • Specificity of audience address and experience should be posited above all claims.
  • Sublimation and desublimation
    • Desublimation for Adorno is “to dismantle the processes of self-determination and resistance, and ultimately to annihilate experience itself in order to become totally controlled by the demands of late capitalism.”
    • Herbert Marcuse conceived of desublimation by “arguing that the structure of aesthetic experience consisted of the desire to undermine the apparatus libidinal repression and to generate an anticipatory moment of an existence liberated from needs and instrumentalizing demands.”
  • The neo-avant-garde
    • American critics were eager to establish the first hegemonic avant-garde culture of the 20th century post World War II
    • Adorno claimed that politicized art would only serve as an alibi and prohibit actual political change.
    • Peter Bürger called American neomodernism neo-avant-garde and claimed they attempted to write history from the perspective of victorious interests, systematically disavowing the major transformations that had occurred within the conception of high art and avant-garde culture.

Formalism and structuralism

  • Roland Barthes – leading voice in structuralism
  • In 1971 Barthes pointed to the historical link between modernism and the awareness that language is a structure of signs.
  • Brecht believed a formalist was someone who “could not see that form was inseparable from content, who believed that form was a mere carrier”.
  • Lukács believed that “form even affected content”.
  • Antiformalism was prevalent in the 70s but can be explained by confusion between two kinds of formalism
    • one concerns itself with morphology (“restricted” formalism)
    • one envisions form as structural
  • Structuralism and art history
    • linguistic/semiological model (Saussure) inspired structuralist movement (1950-60) but art history had already developed structural methods by this time.
    • Cubism allowed Russian Formalists to develop their theories by underscoring gap between reference and meaning – required more sophisticated understanding of nature of signs.
    • Heinrich Wölfflin (1915) posited an anonymous art history which established a set of binary oppositions with a smooth transition between each:
      • linear/painterly
      • plane/recession
      • closed/open form
      • multiplicity/unity
      • clearness/unclearness
    • Riegel advanced this theory and he understood every artistic document as a monument to be analysed in relationship to others.
    • Riegel understood meaning as structured by set of oppositions.
  • A crisis of reference
    • Viktor Shklovsky
      • the main function of art is to defamiliarise our perception.
      • what characterised any work of art was set of “devices” through which it was reorganising “material” (referent), making it strange.
  • The arbitrary nature of the sign
    • For Saussure the arbitrariness of sign involved not only the relation between the sign (the word “tree”) and its referent (any actual tree) but also between the signifier (the sound when we say “tree”) and the signified (the concept of a tree).
  • Structuralism and the analysis of signs can be scaled from a single work to all works by and artist or all work within a style.
  • It is limited by presupposing the internal coherence of the corpus.

Poststructuralism and deconstruction

Throughout the 60s there was a backlash to those in authority, partly towards universities which were seen as an interested party in social engineering. This caused a reevaluation of the premises and suppositions of various academic disciplines (human sciences) and was termed post structuralism.

  • There is no “disinterest”
    • Structuralism had viewed any human activity as a rule-governed system.
    • Poststructuralism grew out of a refusal to grant structuralism its premise that each system is autonomous, with rules and operations that begin and end within the boundaries of that system.
  • Challenging the frame
    • Émile Benveniste divided verbal exchange into:
      • narrative – 3rd person past tense
      • discourse – present tense 1st and 2nd person (active transmission)
    • Benveniste applied the term “discourse” to what had always been understood as neutral communication of scholarly information contained within a given departmental discipline and confined to the transmission of “objective” information. Michel Foucault took up the position that “discourses” were always charged from within power relations.
    • French artist Daniel Buren exhibited his work Within and beyond the frame to challenge the value of the work asserted by the space of the gallery – rarity, authenticity, originality and uniqueness. See also Robert Smithson’s Non-sites for other acts of reframing.
    • Derrida’s double session
      • Structuralist model suggests that language is made up of uneven opposing binary pairs such as “young/old”. This inequality is between a marked and unmarked pair eg “John is as young as Mary” implies youth whereas “John is as old as Mary” does not imply anything about age. Unmarked terms have greater generality and it gives the term implicit power.
      • Derrida termed “deconstruction” as the marking of unmarked terms eg replacing he with she or says with writes (as more specific hence marked). simulacrum – a copy without an original “a false appearance of the present”
      • Art in the age of the simulacrum
        • See Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine and Louise Lawler
        • Argued representations, instead of imitating reality, preceded and constructed it.
        • Artists questioned the mechanics of image-culture
        • Led to questions on ‘appropriation’.

Globalization, networks, and the aggregate as form

  • Developed around 1980s when financial markets were deregulated – neoliberalism
  • Culturally led to two opposed conditions:
    • homogenization of life
    • greater diversity and heightened awareness of cultural difference due to increased contact between geographically distant regions.
  • Global chronology of modern art:
    • European avant-garde (early 20th century) – introduced in areas of Asia and Africa as belated, hegemonic neocolonial language rather than protest.
      • Cubism
      • Constructivism
      • Surrealism
  • Not one but many histories
    • eg Japan Meiji Dynasty (1868-1912) developed two opposing types of painting:
      • nihonga (Japanese-style painting) – sought to preserve Japanese materials and themes whilst adapting to contemporary conditions.
      • yōga (Western-style painting influenced by Impressionism and Postimpressionism) – Japanese artists at mid-century expressed different attitudes towards matter and art than American contemporaries.
    • Works from each country will have their own history.
  • A global art world?
    • Since late 60s artists from all continents have adapted the lexicon of Conceptual art.
    • Does a global art market require that art conforms for saleability rather than proliferation of ideas?
    • Some scholars prefer the term “translocal” rather than “global”
  • New networks, new models
    • Shift in global politics around 1989 eg collapse of the Cold War, Tiananmen Square protests etc
    • Rejection of histories based on the idea of the West transmitting its aesthetic forms, institutions and values.
    • Third Havana Biennial introduced three innovations:
      • new structure no longer based on competitive model of discrete nations as organising principle and prizes were abolished to reduce competitiveness
      • inclusion of folk/traditional arts
      • emphasis on live interaction between artists and between them and the general public (lectures, conferences, workshops).
    • The aggregate as idea and form
      • traditionally art history attempts to discover whether a particular timeframe generates its own aesthetic forms and practices.
      • David Joselit proposes “the aggregate” rather than being based on a unifying identity.
        • aggregate is filtered by shared social demand – is this just commercialisation of art?
        • Contemporary Art Daily and e-flux are major sources of art-world information
        • aggregates question how common ground can be established within discontinuous field.
        • example is work of Slavs and Tatars who are between Berlin Wall and Wall of China, Communism and Islam.


Foster, H., Krauss, R., Bois, Y.-A., Buchloh, B. H. D. and Joselit, D. (2016) Art since 1900: modernism anti modernism postmodernism  Third edition China:C&S Offset Printing Co. Ltd