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Challenging “Postmodern” CriticismGo Back to Table of Contents
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The style, the disposition, the mentality of contemporary criticism is often termed “Postmodern.” So what does it mean to be Postmodern? After the fact of Modernism (in the shadow)? After the event (in a lull)? In reaction to (a knee-jerk response)? Many feel the term itself obscure, and the schools of criticism categorized under the heading lacking in any substantial contribution to the creation, dissemination, and appreciation of art. Esoteric schools of criticism such as “deconstruction” (language, form, and image measured in reflection and in relation to itself) and “semiotics” (the examination of images as signs) are thus perceived as criticism for criticism’s sake.

Harry I. Naar, a visual artist working at Rider University, believes that much of what has been termed “Postmodern” criticism is not particularly useful to visual artists: “When I ask myself, what does ‘deconstruction’ look like, what I envision is something of a ruin. The only thing left standing, when the dust of the critical rubble dissipates, is the critic himself. The artists, and their works, are often ‘deconstructed’ and nothing is left when the process is over except a vacuum. Semiotics, on the other hand, treats all appearances as signs. It looks away from the world rather than into it. What all this critical dissolution of art and appearances actually looks like to me is fragmentation--which is why, I believe, collage and the random association of images enjoys such popularity in our time. What is expressed is not actually art, but the fragmentation of art.” When asked if there are any critics or philosophers helpful to visual artists at present, Naar responds: “When I refer to some philosophic critical schools I do find informative, such as Merleau Ponty’s phenomenology, which was experimenting with variations of perceptual experience, the critics descend under a banner of credentials. I am told I am out of my territory-that I could not possibly understand Ponty without being a philosopher and could not extract any information from him, let alone know whether I should attack him or defend him. So in silence I read philosophers who may have some value - and accept the absurd inversion that those who practice different disciplines in our time are not to inform one another, but to exist in total departmentalized isolation.”

This isolation is a tragedy for Naar because it fails to in-form (to give the visual artist form from within), which Naar believes is vital to the process by which we understand, create, and negotiate reality: “When I see something from without, I am as well seeing it from within. The way the visual experience appears to me is consequently in-formed by an inner vision.”

Naar believes that even the term “Postmodern” creates an inner vision, a way of looking at time, defined by hindsight. Rather than “Postmodern,” Naar suggests the term “millennial.” This perception envisions time as an integration of the past in touch with an eternal future. The eternal is on a horizon that constantly recedes as we move towards it, even as it defines where we are in relation to it. Its essence, Naar believes, is distilled in still life. “Still life captures time as pure visual experience. Still life is pure form, held in a moment, as a glass of water is held and shaped by the glass, except what is holding life still in time is not the transparency of a glass, but light.” Thus within the past and the future, as within the moment, Naar sees the evolution, rather than deconstruction, of art as an ongoing experience of eternal possibilities.

Such a horizon of possibility is brought vividly to life in the work of Joanne Stryker, an artist working in Rhode Island and a Dean at the Rhode Island School of Design. Stryker’s work often depicts art examining art, one medium examining another, one time searching out the artifacts of another; and in her work, she manages to rearrange the whole notion of what criticism in our time is, and what it could be.

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