Postmodern Vandals – by David Molesky
A review of James Mann’s Beyond Postmodernism – Manifesto of Vandalism
In my mailbox I received a book inscribed “For David Molesky, on the innovation frontier – James Mann.” I don’t recall meeting this author or know how he got the address to my studio. The back cover mentioned he had been a professor of literature and curator of the Las Vegas Art Museum. I immediately wondered, “Why has this book been sent to me and what could I possibly learn from it?”
The book presents a cohesive theory of the cultural phenomena driving shifts in art movements. Mann introduces several terms, some which have been used in academic settings and some of his own construction. He identifies two eras of historic approach to artistic culture: ‘synthesis’ of pre-1800s and ‘analysis’ after the onset of the Romantic era around 1800.
Synthesis refers to that way in which artists worked within the continuous tradition, synthesizing that with the wishes of their patrons as well as their own creative impulses. Caravaggio was an artist working within the cultural system of synthesis. For example, in his painting Judith Beheading Holofernes, x-rays show that it was originally painted with the breasts exposed. He had taken artistic license re-interpreting a biblical story in a way that suggests she ‘messed around’ with Holofernes before taking his head off. He did this despite the Bible explicitly stating otherwise, and the Catholic church was not going to have it. He painted over his own impulse in order to synthesize his vision with the demands of his patrons. (Howard Hibbard in his 1983 book Caravaggio under the heading “Revision and Rejection,” points out that Caravaggio had as many Roman altarpieces accepted as were rejected, which was quite an anomaly for the time – many of his now famous works were originally rejected.)
After about 1800, with the birth of Romanticism, we see a shift in artistic approach to culture. Romantic artists refused to find redemptive value in the dominating culture and sought to dismantle it. As a consequence of this intellectual behavior, artists made work in reaction to the philosophies of the movements proceeding it. This lead to an uninterrupted continuum for the past two centuries of eventually failed aesthetic and philosophical explanations of cultural value and nearly a complete depletion of technical knowledge and ‘Dematerialization’ of the art object.
From this arose Postmodernism, the final phase of the analytical dismantlement of the fine-arts tradition – essentially the ‘sidewalks end.’ By the mid 20th century artists could do no more than to respond even more narrowly to these preceding developments. Once figural content was removed there was little left to discard but technique itself. The evolution under synthesis seems a minor mutation compared to what has happened with a century and a half of analysis. Now after two centuries of dismantlement there is hardly anything left of tradition.
The art of this era is the phoenix rising from the ashes of this rubble. The inevitable work now confronting advanced innovators is to recover the discarded remnants of art forms and put these back together in unlimited new ways. A new cultural superstructure cannot be created without including vestiges from history.
The most effective reconstitution of the fine arts will be those works with the greatest breadth that take into account the entire spectrum of expressive and technical resources found in any level of culture – past and present, high and low. This includes, but is not exclusive to, the abandoned resources of execution which formerly existed in the dismantled fine-art disciplines. Skill, undertaken with the motive of fundamental utility, not tradition, will be essential in order to transcend the retarding force of Post-modernism’s impoverished condition. Contemporary artists are encouraged to explore and exploit all the artistic history preceding the birth of Romanticism.
Even as we forge into a new era of innovation, analysis and synthesis will live on as resources of intellectual approach. For example, an artist could dismember a resource found in any level or period of culture and lift this separate element to employ in his or her work. In the later chapters of the book, Mann begins to analyze the myriad of ways in which this blender of ideas and approaches is coming together to form new movements of contemporary art. Transmemberment is the term he offers to describe this process.
Transmemberment is an epochal term, and its first phase is a movement that Mann calls Vandalism, which like analytical dismantlement is culturally subversive and vandalistic. (The word vandalism was coined by Henri Grégoire from ‘Vandal’, the name of a Germanic barbarian people who sacked Rome in the year 455. He invented the term to apply to certain acts of public destruction, especially the ransacking of royal tombs during the French Revolution.)
This vandalism was meant to erase the most blatant cultural vestiges of a hated past, for the purpose of furthering the formation of a new society and civilization. Despite this explanation, I still cannot see the term moving away from its current connotation of the word. Nonetheless, I find his analysis of cultural approach to be interesting and perhaps useful. Mann further identifies four overlapping but distinct strategies of Vandalism being practiced in this “growing innovative frontier of art” – Radical, Compound, Manifold, and Fused Vandalism.
Radical Vandalism consists of an extensive recovery of technical resources and virtuosity equivalent to a style historically previous to the onset of the analytic dismantlement, but it is free from the limitations of that high culture milieu. Mann derives this term from Latin radicalis meaning ‘to have roots’. Compound Vandalism consists of distinct trans-membered elements which remain aesthetically separate except for their physical juxtaposition with no key to interpret their relationship. Manifold vandalism is like Compound vandalism except the disparate trans-membered parts are pulled together by aesthetic unity and are mutually catalytic – which produces more rewarding results thru contemplation. Fused Vandalism is the other side of the spectrum from Compound, with all the elements so thoroughly joined by consistent style that you would be hard pressed to recognize any distinction of the various elements throughout the piece. This form of Vandalism is therefore the most limited in its cultural capacities, while Manifold for example can accept a greater variety of cultural trans-memberment into a single vessel. Fused and Radical Vandalism also exhibit a consistent style, but Fused is special in that it is innovating a newly emergent style.
Vandalism sets out to reconstitute the artistic disciplines which have nearly completely disintegrated by offering a plausible alternative to the dead ends of late-dismantlement Postmodernism. Recovery of a significant amount of abandoned technique and subject is unavoidable if an artist wishes to have sufficient means of expression for innovative composition. The artist cannot participate in Vandalism’s emergent reconstitution of the fine arts without all past artistic resources being available for use, to choose from whenever advantageous, according to need at any particular creative juncture. Vandalism rises in the wake of Postmodernism as an entirely emergent aesthetic for incorporating many different kinds of artistic manifestation from the widest practical range of cultural levels and origins.