Chapter 34: From Post Modernism and Beyond - Art of the Later 20th Century

World War II, with the global devastation it unleashed, psychological,
political, physical, and economic, set the stage for the second half of the
20th century. The dropping of the bomb on Japan signaled a turning point.
As a result the rest of the 20th century has been one of upheaval, change,
and conflict. The constant presence of conflict throughout the world in
the later 20th century resulted in wide spread disruption and dislocation.
The Hindu Muslim conflict that resulted when the British left India in
1947, the Israeli Arab conflict, the Communist rise to power in China after
a momentous war, the conflict in Korea, the brutal spread of Communism
through much violence, Vietnam, the Cold War between the US and Russia, the
conflicts in Africa and Central and South America, and the rise of radical
Islam, all characterize these troubles.

These great events had tremendous effect on the world. The US was less
affected when compared to Europe, but was still not immune. In the post
war years, Americans began to question the status quo. There was the rise
of the counterculture in the late 50's, the 60's, 70's, 80's, 90's, through
today. The resistance to established authority, power structures, and the
traditional family, was characterized by rebellion and the rejection of
racism and sexism.

The Dynamics of Power

The central issue that fueled these changes was power. Individual groups,
such as feminists, various ethnic groups, gay and lesbians, and others have
sought recognition, respect and legal protection through political and
legal action. These groups today have a powerful influence in the
educational institutions, political institutions, and in media. As a
result of this concern for the dynamics of power, identity (both individual
and group), has emerged as a potent arena for discussion and action. This
quest and struggle has fueled the content of much of the art of the late
20th and early 21st century.

The Art World's Focus Shifts West

The period's emphasis on change carried over into the art world. The
relative economic stability of the United States was a major factor in the
shifting center of Western art from Paris to New York. This helps to
explain the predominance of American artists in the world art markets.
Only in the closing decades of the twentieth century, with the rising
interest in multiculturalism and global economies, have countries outside
the United States begun to exhibit art more broadly.

Modernism, Formalism, and Clement Greenberg

Modernism, so integral to the art of the later 19th century, shifted course
in conjunction with the changing historical conditions and demands, and in
the post war years it became increasingly identified with strict formalism.
Formalism is an emphasis on an artwork's visual elements rather than its
subject - due largely to the prominence of the American Clement Greenberg
(1909-1994). As an art critic who wielded considerable influence from the
1940's through the 1970's, Greenberg was instrumental in redefining the
parameters of modernism.

For Greenberg, late 20th century modernist artists were those who refined
the critical stance of the late 19th and early 20th century modernists.
This critical stance involved rejecting illusionism and exploring the
properties of each artistic medium. So dominant was Greenberg that
scholars often refer to the general modernist tenets during this period as
Greenbergian Formalism. Though he modified his stance over the years,
Greenberg retained certain basic concepts. In particular Greenberg
promoted the idea of purity in art. He explained, "Purity in art consists
of acceptance, willing acceptance, of the limitations of the medium of a
specific art." I other words, he believed artists should strive for a more
explicit focus on the properties exclusive to each medium - for example two
dimensionality or flatness in painting, and three dimensionality in
sculpture. To achieve this, artists had to eliminate illusion and embrace
Greenberg elaborated:

"It follows that a modernist work of art must try, in principle, to
avoid communication with any order of experience not inherent in the most
literally and essentially construed nature of its medium. Among other
things, this means renouncing illusionism and explicit subject matter.
These arts are to achieve concreteness, "purity," by dealing solely with
their respective selves - that is, by becoming "abstract" or

Greenberg avidly promoted the avant-garde, which he viewed as synonymous
with modernism in the postwar years. Generally speaking, the spirit of
rebellion and disdain for convention central to the historical avant-garde
flourished in the social political upheaval and counterculture of the
1960's and 1970's. However the acute social political dimension inherent
in the avant-garde's early development had