Philosophy  •  May 20, 2001

Postmodern Self

The aim of art originally was to represent beauty. That is to say it tried to reproduce the beauty that existed in nature. Abstract Expressionists came and changed that. Their works of art did not represent beauty, but were themselves the beauty. What did not change with the Abstract Expressionism was that it still expressed artists’ subjectivity, that is, it expressed their subjective sense of beauty, their human experiences, pain, sufferings, and joy, which appealed to the viewers’ emotions and feelings. We believed that art represented essence of the artists’ self. Then came Postmodernism where any style of art including those of Abstract Expressionists became a mere vehicle of representation. Pop Art, especially, treated every style and movement of art history to be a mere symbol, or an icon. Representation was back again, but this time, beauty is not in what it represents; it is in its use of representation. What we have lost in Postmodern art is the sense of self, or at least so it seems.

We have left commercial and popular artists with the responsibility of satisfying our needs for sharing our subjectivity. Armed with the styles and techniques of the entire history of art, they can convey any human feelings and emotions. Our basic human experiences have never changed. What Shakespeare dealt with in his literature still rings true today. Postmodern artists have moved on. Postmodern art is inherently interpretive, and fundamentally conceptual. Even in music, which is the most abstract form of art and therefore is the most effective in tapping into our emotions, the contemporary avant-garde composers are not concerned with making their audience cry. Even if the art deals with our feelings and emotions, they are deconstructed, never presented as they are. Postmodern art is a cultural commentary, or an objective analysis of our culture, where the true sense of self is lost.

Because of this trend of Postmodernism, we have a difficulty in seeing works of art in galleries and museums which deal primarily with subjective beauty. If we see a beautiful piece of painting or sculpture, we wonder what the difference is between that and decorative elements we find in trendy bars and restaurants which were designed by talented interior designers. If we see a beautiful moving art playing on a plasma screen on a wall of a museum, we wonder what the difference is between that and beautifully designed abstract background for TV commercials. If we see a beautiful interactive art, we wonder what the difference is between that and a numerous design experiments that web designers create. We can’t quite explain why one is high art and the other commercial. If the only thing that a piece of art does for us, is to touch our emotions and feelings, we can’t see the difference. The only way a truly Postmodern work of art can deal with subjectivity is to use it as a symbol, as we see it done in the works of Andy Warhol. A beautiful photograph of Marilyn Monroe would provoke our emotion, but an iconic silkscreen print of her face turns that subjectivity into a cultural symbol. The result is an objective analysis of our media culture. The same happens to a picture of a car crash or of an execution chair printed in a style of newspapers.

What does not change with Postmodernism is the implication of art as something meaningful, profound, or significant. However, the way Postmodern art achieves its signification is quite different. In subjective art, signification is a function built into the works of art themselves. One’s emotion can be moved by listening to a piece of song without knowing who wrote it. No additional efforts were required to clarify its significance. Many pieces of music from the past were written by unknown composers or songwriters, and we still enjoy them today. This is not possible with Postmodern art. No work of Postmodern art can be significant without its context, namely artist’s name and his/her career, as well as the institution that presents it. Duchamp made the institutions of art, like galleries, museums, and magazines, artistic mediums just like paints and canvases. Now no art is complete without its context of presentation. Taking a work that is ordinarily presented at a vanity gallery, to a museum would change the meaning of the work. For a conceptual video artist to paint a pretty picture of roses, has a different implication from for an artist who only paints pictures of roses, to paint yet another picture of roses. For an established artist who shows only at top galleries, to show her work at a street fair, could certainly be an artistic statement. In the Postmodern world, everything can be a signifier, and nothing by itself is significant.

Some artists complain about the “marketing” aspect, as opposed to the “creative” aspect, of their careers. In Postmodern art, “marketing” isn’t necessarily a separate aspect of artists’ careers. The PR stunts that Andy Warhol pulled were just as much part of his art as his paintings were. It is virtually impossible to separate “marketing” aspect from “creative” aspect. Postmodern works of art cannot signify anything by themselves. Their significance as art is legitimized only if they are endowed with the names of the artists and the contexts of presentation. This is marketing. Marketing in essence is an effort to associate a brand with products. In Postmodern art, marketing is part of the creative process. One cannot separate the two. In the end what retains value is the brand, not the products. A piece of art that has lost its connection to the name of the artist is worthless, whereas an established artist who has lost all of her works still holds value in her name. In this sense, marketing is a necessary creative process of today’s artists. Every Postmodern artist is a brand manager of his/her name.

Part of what troubles some artists is that marketing is taken negatively in our society. Marketing is seen ultimately as an effort to make money or to be famous. To view it negatively made sense in the days of subjective art. Art was about expression of true self, about sincerity, about sharing of true feelings and emotions. To make money or to strive to be famous contradicted these premises. In other words, you could not be a priest and a prostitute at the same time. Postmodern art on the other hand does not pretend to deal with these issues. Therefore, there is no apparent contradiction in marketing Postmodern art. It is not about yourself, therefore, you are not selling yourself. However, the negative sentiments are still left over from the old days.

A well-known story of Cary Grant where he remarked “I wish I was Cary Grant” illustrates very well his Postmodern understanding of self. Cary Grant is a brand which, in the images of the public, signifies something that is independent of what he understands of himself. Cary Grant is a handsome, sophisticated gentleman, but in his mind he is Archie Leach (his real name) from a poor family in Liverpool. He understands and admits the fact that the two are separate persons. This must have prevented him from losing the sense of self. The only way we can keep our sanity in our identities, is to understand how signs and symbols function. Our names are mere symbols, at least to the eyes of the public. They do not refer to anything real, any more than any signs and symbols refer to anything real. They only refer to other symbols, ad infinitum. Thanks to our Postmodern philosophers, we can sleep in peace that behind our names there is nothing real.

Managing your name as a symbol is your challenge as an artist. If you become famous, it’s not you who is famous; it’s your name that’s famous, just as Archie Leach was never famous. You need to be able to objectively understand your own name as a symbol. Identifying yourself with your name can eventually drive you insane. Your failure to understand your own Postmodern self will eventually result in a loss of grip in reality, and you will be lost in the infinite web of symbols that do nothing more than to refer to themselves. The next thing you know, you have no idea who you are.

The well-known online brand Pets.com went out of business and found themselves having only one thing of any value: their brand that they built with their sock puppet. Their brand has value regardless of any real entity it supposed to refer to. Fashion designers like Georgio Armani have created brands out of their names that are truly independent of the designers as a person. Often their names are sold to corporations where they would have no control over what would happen to the names. The company name “IBM” was originally created to refer to a group of people. The group came first, the name second. Once “IBM” was a well-recognized brand, it took on a life of its own. It is no longer the group of people who gives meaning to the name “IBM”: It is the brand “IBM” that gives meaning to the people who work there. In fact, the people who work there come and go including the management. There is no consistent entity that is IBM.

There is nothing consistent in us either. Yesterday’s me, isn’t the same me today, biologically, intellectually, or otherwise. There isn’t a single molecule in my body that remained from the day I was born. What remains consistent however, is my name. Our lives are in essence life-long pursuits of brand building. Whatever we do in our lives can be viewed as branding efforts for our names. After all, if it weren’t for our names, we could not build careers, reputations, or trust. We won’t be accountable for anything, be given credit, nor make history. If we didn’t have names, a lot of what we do everyday would be meaningless. It is our names that give meaning to what we do. This is why we fight over credits, recognitions, and acknowledgements. It may seem petty to fight over them, but ultimately you are not fighting for yourself; you are fighting for your name. You are simply protecting your brand, just as any brand manager of a corporation would do.

Postmodernism often connotes cynicism and insincerity. This stems from the assumption that Postmodern artists do not express their true self, therefore, their works represent their false self. But this is a false deductive logic. If you approach art with the understanding that your name is a symbol that is independent of your true self, then there is nothing false about your art. That is, it does not represent your false self, any more than it represents your true self. It only becomes insincere if you assume or pretend that your name refers to your true self. In a sense, your name as an artist is a fictional character that you create, just as Archie Leach created his own hero, Cary Grant. To accuse Postmodern artists of being false, is like accusing actors of presenting a false self.

It is true that most Postmodern works of art have been infused with irony and cynicism. Some even make use of insincerity as part of their artistic vocabulary. I am with the opinion that we should elect two separate individuals to be the president of the United States: one who has the looks and the skills of talking to the public, the actor, and the other who has the intelligence and the knowledge to make the right decisions, the brain. My opinion is sincere. I believe that we should face and accept our superficial reality. Take it as given, and move on. The next step in Postmodernism is to accept and embrace the way symbols and signs function, and to make the best of it. There is no need to be cynical. Every Postmodern self has two entities, if not more: semiotic self and subjective self. We can get over it, and move forward with it. After all, one can only take so much cynicism in one’s life.