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Summer 2006

A Short Treatise on Postmodernism

A Hard Day's Night

They, and I do mean "they," say that the best historical painters paint their own time. What are the the big issues of our day? How should we spend our precious time on this Earth? Your average Joe uses his time to watch TV. No value judgment here, that's just what we do. So there you have it, a small watercolor of Everyman 2006. I used myself as the model for convenience. But look, Everyman's holding a VHS tape of an old Beatles movie...deep.

So why is that Postmodern? On the surface, just because it's representational and unapologetically executed in an established technique. One fundamental aspect of Modern art is that it needs to be original and the artist is expected to create his own style. Anything goes with the only taboo being traditional craftsmanship. Under these circumstances the only way the Postmodern artist could rebel against the Modern art establishment was to create old-fashioned paintings and drawings.

But that's just in art. In philosophy Modernism can be said to incorporate the range of ideas referred to as Existentialism. While Postmodernism is usually understood to be Deconstructionism and the various linguistic philosophies. This all ties back in with the painting as communication.

Modernism:

We are all alone and naked in a world we never made.

Postmodernism:

That depends on what the meaning of "is" is.

Ironically, as central to Postmodern philosophy the meaning of words is, the granddaddies of Postmodernism were terrible writers. Often they are accused of writing gibberish. The Moderns were often excellent writers. People still read Sartre and Camus for pleasure but few settle into a cozy hammock on a lazy Sunday afternoon with a tedious volume of Derrida or Foucault.

Almost all attempts at communication are so culturally dependent that true dialogue between different societies is difficult if not impossible. This is how multiculturalism fits into Postmodernism. If everyone is limited to the traditions and cliches of their own tribe, we can't superimpose the values of one group on another. Well, actually we can and do all the time.

People who believe that some cultures are "better" than others inevitably see themselves as belonging to the superior one.

Metaphysical words are worthless as are most value judgments. Getting into the minds of the arthurs of ancient manuscripts or historic figures is almost impossible.

An easy example of how difficult communication is between cultures is President Bush's use of the word Crusade during the lead up to the Battle of Baghdad. Similarly the word Jihad has had its problems. Some words, such as "cult," have so many meanings as to be useless for communicating with anyone outside of ones own demographic.

Think about the word "war." A war can be understood as an armed struggle between nations, but that's not what the War on Poverty was. Then there was the War on Drugs, some armed struggle but not between nations and not really a war at all. Now there's the War of Terrorism. Has the military been sent half-way around the world to fight an idea, an action? Maybe this new "war" is a war between the United States and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. In truth the United States went to war against Afghanistan and then Iraq. Both wars are over, easily won by the Yanks. Now what we have is occupied people rebelling against their conquerors.

Without the simple and obvious insight that language is relative, communication is futile. But it's been going on in a wildly inaccurate fashion for thousands of years and caused no end of trouble.

This is just my version of (Postmodernism, postmodernism, Post-Modernism, post-Modernism, post-modernism) and others my disagree.

Stephen Smith