The Postmodern Manifesto / by Chris Hall

When Jacques Derrida (the father of deconstructionist theory) died in Paris in 2004, found among his effects, on a desk next to his deathbed, was an unpublished manuscript entitled “The Postmodern Manifesto.”  It was signed by two other Postmodern champions, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault.  Below are the thirteen points of Derrida's “Manifesto,” with my response to each point in italics.  

1. The art of the past is past. What was true of art yesterday is false today.  This is not true.  If it were, the art of the past would not be so viciously attacked and deconstructed by Postmodernists.  If the art of the past (Modern Art is most often attacked) is false, then it could be safely ignored.  Modern Art, however, still has power and relevance today.

2. The Postmodern art of today is defined and determined, not by artists, but by a new generation of curators, philosophers and intellectuals ignorant of the past and able to ignore it.  Curators, philosophers, and intellectuals ignorant or able to ignore the past?!  Is the past that dangerous to the Postmodern vision?  There has always been strong historical parallels between world affairs and art affairs.  To purposefully ignore the past is to doom the world to a repetition of our mistakes! Purposeful ignorance on the part of curators, philosophers, and intellectuals has got to be THE MOST ASININE THING I'VE EVER READ.  And another thing:  Art is created by artists, not curators, philosophers, and intellectuals!  Since the dawn of time, Art has always come before philosophy, art has always been primary.  We can live without the critic, but we can not live without Art.  Nietzsche tells us that Art is most true when it is a raw expression of life's essence, when it bears the tension and tragedy of our predicament.  When art becomes too heady, when it becomes co-opted by curators, philosophers, and intellectuals, poetry takes a back seat – and the work loses power.  When curators, philosophers, and intellectuals take hold of art, they inevitably destroy it.  Not poets by nature, they make the art in their own image – with the result being too heady, too heavy in theory.  Here I am reminded of Oskar Kokoschka, when he said, “the enlightenment will come to a bad end – the head is much too heavy and the pelvis way too frivolous.”  And how do curators, philosophers, and intellectuals plan to take away what rightly belongs to artists?  See points 12 and 13 below.

3. Postmodernism is a political undertaking, Marxist and Freudian.  Political art is necessary and great, but art needed always be political.  There is still a place for beauty and spirituality in art.  Marx and Freud were concerned with the surface of things, not depth and compassion.  For compassionate politics and psychology, I'll take the original Jesus (as portrayed in the Bible – not by neo-con preachers) and Jung (he added spiritual depth to Freud's work) over Marx and Freud any day.

4. Postmodernism is a new cultural condition.  Despite what some may think, Postmodernism is a cultural climate invented by Postmodernists, not a cultural climate which Postmodernists seek to mirror or subvert.  And I believe, for the most part, that Postmodernists are nihilists at heart, and are not concerned with humanity's best interests.

5. Postmodernism is democratic and allied to popular culture.  While it is allied to popular culture (and often the worst aspects of it) Postmodernism is NOT democratic.  Points 11 and 13 prove this. Postmodernism is actually a perfect mirror of our political state of affairs, in that it has the appearance of democracy (even mob rule at times), but in fact, it is an enterprise run by a few monied and elite power brokers behind the scenes, who are more concerned with themselves than with the interests of humanity.  Is it a nefarious conspiracy?  Possibly.

6. Postmodernism denies the possibility of High Art.  High Art is something noble, something an artist should aspire to.  We might not always get there, but we should at least try.  To deny the possibility of High Art is to settle for mediocrity, filth, and defeat.

7. Postmodernism deconstructs works of High Art to undermine them.  Postmodernists are not content with shaping present and future culture trends, they also work hard at dismantling the past as well! Why?  Because they know High Art still has the power to challenge and inspire. As a result, Postmodernists feel they have to cheat and “sweep the leg” of their Modernist predecessors in order to put themselves in a better light.

8. Postmodernism is subversive, seditiously resembling the precedents it mimics.  I can support Debordian tactics of detournement.  It is a useful tool for combating institutions of power.  Guy Debord originally used detournement to subvert the French Government during their attempt at revolution in 1968.  It almost worked.   Perhaps angry at the failure of art to inspire and effect revolution, Postmodernists began using the tactic in a self-destructive way, to deconstruct and undermine Modern and High Art.  Perhaps today's artists should consider using this tactic to undermine those who currently hold power in academic institutions – the now aging Postmodernists themselves.  Alan Sokal used it to great effect in 1996 when his fake essay, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” was published in an academic journal.

9. Postmodern art is pastiche, parody, irony, ironic conflict and paradox.  Like detournement, irony, paradox, parody, etc. are great tools for attacking institutions of power – but it has lead to a glut of “clever art.”  Today it is used primarily by artists who only want to take a shortcut to their 15 minutes of fame, and who are not concerned with humanity's best interests.  In this climate, art has become a youth cult for the cool, a quick fix, and a flavor of the week.  Slow and timeless art with depth is often ignored and sacrificed in favor of what is immediate and now.

10. Postmodern art is self-consciously shallow, stylistically hybrid, ambiguous, provocative and endlessly repeatable.  Self-consciously shallow?  I insist on depth!  Why would any true artist want to aspire to shallowness, to vulgar cheapness?!  This is what you get when you purposefully pander to the lowest common denominator:  the popular culture waste product that is Reality TV!  I ask, is that a good thing?  Does the world need more of this?  I can see how attempting to appeal to the masses and using methods of mass production to make “repeatable” art are great tools when you want to effect societal and political change, but we need not be “shallow” about it.  And besides, most of what I see coming out of Postmodern practice seems nihilist and defeatist in nature – just how is this going to change anything?

11. Postmodern art is anti-elitist, but must protect its own elitism.  I've always said that for all its so called inclusive pluralism, Postmodernism is in fact VERY elitist.  This point is the proof!  And how does it protect its own elitism?  See point 13.

12. To the Postmodernist every work of art is a text, even if it employs no words and has no title, to be curatorially interpreted.  Art cannot exist before it is interpreted.  It is perhaps true that art can not exist without a viewer – but it can live without the interpretation suggested by the Postmodernists, which is dissecting and deconstructionist in nature.  Good art can operate independently of text.  Bad art relies on text as a crutch to support it's thesis.  Postmodern point 12 is what curators and critics have used to bullishly elbow their way to the front of the line in the Art-World – at the expense of the artist.

13. Postmodernist interpretation depends on coining new words unknown and unknowable to the masses, on developing a critical jargon of impenetrable profundity, and on a quagmire of theory with which to reinforce endowed significance. Vive le Néologisme!  And here it is – proof that Post-Modern International Art English critical jargon was purposefully invented not to clarify, but to beguile!