Another Bullshit Postmoderist

If there’s anything that I, or anyone else for that matter, hate in art, it’s postmodernism. It’s a depraved form of art, characterized by a desire so strong to be original, that it ceases to care whether it is any good. The post-modernist will replace beauty with shock, and mistake weirdness for profundity.

Perhaps a bit of history is needed. So for a very long time, art was art, and we had a lot of interesting great painters such as Raphael and Reubens, and uninteresting great painters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. At some point, and I might argue that the point is at the invention of photography but that is a topic for another post, artists stop painting things the way they look, and start doing something else.

At first you have the realists, whose change was more in content than in presentation, followed by the Impressionists, who eschewed things like form and contour to focus on color. This gave rise to the Impressionists, who are called post-impressionists because it wasn’t impressionism, and it certainly wasn’t a return to pre-impressionism, instead it continued to break form and you have even weirder things. Van Gogh is an example of a post-impressionist.

Eventually, this gives rise to the expressionists, the Cubists, the futurists, and all matter of weird art. This may seem like progress, but it was really just a race to the bottom,  as it was all just an inevitable run up to some yahoo picking up a urinal, signing it, and calling it art. From the scattered remains of this decay, we’re left with contemporary art filled with nothing but blank canvases, surrealistic figures, and the occasional prog rock album cover:

every prog rock album cover

(figure one: typical prog rock album cover)

So with this background, I want to briefly comment on Giuseppe Arcimboldo; whose brilliant idea was to paint people as grouping of fruits or other common objects. Also, its past time that this blog started having pictures; so without further ado, a guy made of vegetables.


(figure 2:  A man made of vegetables)

What is the point? Are we supposed to have our bourgeois sensibilities shocked? I will admit that there is a certainly a level of skill associated with this which elevates it above the lowest levels of postmodernism, so I suppose that it has some merit. But the fact remains that these paintings are a perfect embodiment of that postmodernist drive to be original no matter what, to have something unique regardless of whether that uniqueness actually serves a purpose.

I think at this point, it is fair to say that Arcimboldo was nothing more than another bullshit postmodernist, expect perhaps for one modern detail.

That detail (and I’d like take the time now to apologize to those readers who may actually know something about art history for the whole preceding part of this essay), is that Arcimboldo lived almost 400 years before postmodernism was a thing.

While his contemporaries were all painting scenes from Greek mythology or Bilblical history, he was, for reasons beyond me, creating works centuries ahead of his time in the medium of painting arranged fruit.  (He also did a large amount of “normal” art as well).

Also, that “prog rock album cover” I showed you earlier?  Painted around the year 1500. (this really strikes me as amazing, the more I study any of the works by Heironymous Bosch, the more I think they could only have been produced between 1967 and 1979).

Now what is my point? Why go through this exercise of setting up this little distraction which I’m sure quite a few of you saw through anyway? I guess my point is this, that its impossible to expect art to be seen out of context.

When I was younger and more naive, I thought that all art should stand entirely on its own, that we shouldn’t be expected to bring anything to the art, that if there was anything which a piece of art needed to be interpreted, it should be included in the art. The clearest refutation I can bring to that is my above example, the way we view Arcimboldo is not just influenced but perhaps totally defined by his place in art history. An artist making people of fruit in the 1960s could be interpreted as an attempt at false originality, at trying so hard to be unique that he is defined by what he’s trying to rebel against. But the same works, made in the mid 1500’s, are an entirely different matter.   It revolutionized my understanding and interpretation of the his works when I learned when Arcimboldo lived.

I guess one could argue that there is still merit in looking at art with the least amount of perspective possible, and in many ways I would agree with that.  You can look at art as a blank slate once, but once you have perspective it is very hard to get rid of it.  But I can’t help but think that, in knowing something about the circumstances which gave rise, or which didn’t give rise, to a particular piece of art, that one’s understanding can be enlarged incredibly.

Or to put it another way: one of the actual misgivings I have about contemporary art is that I don’t know if I’m being had.  I often feel that the artist of a particular piece is trying too hard to break convention, to stress his or her own individuality that I can’t trust the piece.  (ok ,that sounded not only bad, but almost like I’m becoming the thing that I’m trying to criticize.  Let me try again:)  People have a tendency to get caught up in things.  They start developing opinions, surround themselves with people who share those opinions and then they start to outdo each other over who can have the strongest opinions, and end up in a type of arms race, where, by attempting to non-conform, they become conformists.  I think that this can be especially true with artists, that attempts at non-conformity in art actually become horribly conformist.

When we look at the circumstances in which art is created, we can peer past that shroud of conformity and attempt to ascertain the underlying quality of art.  To me, somebody creating a picture of a man made out of vegetables is infinitely more interesting if the motivation is simply that the artist wanted to paint it, than if there were some sort of external drive behind it, in order to impress people with its originality, perhaps.  It can go the other way as well, perhaps a  piece is more interesting because of the social forces which shaped it, recognizing a work as not just the creation of the artist, but of the community the artist is working within and the pressures the artist is facing.  Perhaps a work is more interesting to you if it is driven by an originality arms race.   All of this is impossible unless one has that outside knowledge, the basic facts of when and where and why the art was created.