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Fragments of Post-modern Times: A Collage

Author(s): Stuart Thompson


Source: Visual Arts Research, Vol. 28, No. 1 (2002), pp. 109-114
Published by: University of Illinois Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20716053
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Fragments of Post-modern Times: A Collage


Stuart Thompson

Seton Hill College

Abstract
For art teachers at all age levels how best to
reconcile issues of Modernist vs. Post-Modernist

art within the classroom must be continually


revisited. How the significant issues of difference

between the two major approaches to visual


thinking are treated will either positively or
negatively affect the thinking skills of the students

within those classrooms. A balanced approach


will intellectually empower students; an approach
proselytizing toward any single visual art world

view can only handicap students. Currently


fashionable, of course, is post-modernist thinking.

What follows, presented as a verbal collage,


having related and overlapping but not rigidly

integrated discussions, will look at levels of


conceptual meaning. By intent, the very format
of the article can be viewed as either the collage

strategy of many post-modernists or as the


impressionistic approach of a modernist. Or as

both.

Footprints. From time to time fossil hunt

ers find, in the now solidified clay of an

back of a sign on the glass entrance door


to the college clay studio, the message: "IS

CLAY THE MEANING?" I cannot be sure


who wrote the message. An art student?
An art faculty member? A philosophy stu
dent? Could have been any of those folks.
My money is on an art faculty member.
Why on an art faculty member? As is the
case, I'm sure, with most college art facul
ties, the faculty at the institution surround
ing the clay studio is fairly clearly divided
between those who view visual/plastic art

as a vehicle for some profound message,


and those who view visual/plastic art as one
of a variety of mediums capable of impart
ing its own meaning, along with, possibly,

though not necessarily, some profound


socio-political message. These camps are
predominantly populated by post-modern
ists and modernists, respectively. Perhaps
better said, these camps are populated by
post-modernists and neo-modernists. Might
one say populated by post-modernists and

ancient riverbed or swamp edge, the sev

post-post-modernists?
On the public broadcasting television
network last night was an interview,

great creatures of the Triassic and other


ages past have left a rare trace of their

wherein the orchestra conductor being in

enty million or one hundred and fifty mil


lion-year-old footprints of monsters. The

passing. For all of our exposure to the size


and nature of these giants through natural

terviewed waxed effusive and poetic on


how music can teach us all to behave in

history museums, educational television


programs, publications and the odd com

terribly decent ways, that such music can


treat racism, sexism, and all the other ills
of modern times.

mercial film, we still have some difficulty


understanding and grasping the full mean
ing of the prints. For us, to see the foot

for many years, found its way to the clay


studio as it has to the painting studio, video

prints, to know of their origin, is of itself not

enough to fully comprehend, more than


vast distances of time, the radically non
human essence of that world, of any world.
The nature of that prior time is so at odds,
so other to our current human presence.
I found, just a few days ago, written in

pencil lightly but with some care on the

Post-modernism has, to be sure, and

studio and, apparently, music hall. The


post-modernist, of course, sees him/her
self on the cutting edge of visual expres

sion. Their art, unlike "elitist" modernist art,

deals with serious social, political, environ


mental and psychological issues, or so they
insist. For the post-modernist the medium
is often only incidentally the message. The

VISUAL ARTS RESEARCH ? 2003 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois 109

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medium, for some post-modernists, is rel

egated to a function not unlike that of a


sheet of paper: It's the words on the paper
that count, not the paper itself. In parallel
fashion it is the reproduction of a recog

nizable object and its context, fashioned


in clay, that is the meaning and not the clay
itself. It is the reproduction of the frog that

counts: That the frog was made from clay


is almost incidental, since the frog could

sages: The more confrontational, shock


ing, political, and generally sociologically

instructional your message the more are

you a real artist. Oh, and use lots of words."

The student, armed with the formula,


moves down the institutional-yellow con
crete block hallway and into the painting

studio.
Well, so, OK, maybe the above event
never took place. The give-away is that,

have been made from carved wood, plas

while the remainder of the scenario is un

ter or wax or exist as painted cast bronze,


not to mention slip-cast in porcelain by the
identical thousands. It is the underglaze or

doubtedly conceptually correct, even if the


action is not fully plausible, the notion of
"pirated post-modern art" is likely an onto
logica! impossibility. That the student now
has the formula for correct art, for post

slip painting on the thrown vessel that


counts, educating us as to some societal

evil: The wheel thrown vessel itself is little

modern art, on the other hand, is, more

more than a clever format, theatre-in-the


round if you will. The underglaze or slip
image on the vessel could just as well have
been executed in enamels on a stovepipe,
graffiti-like on a water tower, or in wax-re

than possible, a certainty. We all have the


formula. And, it isa formula.
"Now, in Postmodernism, the new inte
gration of art and craft is post-revolution
ary, if not exactly reactionary. The avant

sisted dyes on an Easter egg. Same socio

garde revolution in art has become old

political message, different location.


Lurking in the shadows of the corridor

news to the extent of becoming completely


institutionalized, and nobody expects art to

cloaked figure, an ideological pusher. Pull


ing back the black overcoat just slightly the
dark figure teases the passing undergradu

(Kuspit, 1996, p. 15).

dissecting table. And if you have an elec

modern art. "Pssst. Hey kid. Want to know

trical probe and you hit the right nerve the


frog will jump, even though it's dead, it will

outside the college painting studio a

ate with a partial view of pirated post


how to be a REAL artist, a POST-MOD
ERN artist?" Money exchanges hands.

"First, use lots of words in your images.


Lots of words in your images is a sure sign
that you are a real artist. Second, borrow
image material from everywhere?the near
past, the distant past?and, well, just kind
of throw it together. Don't worry if it seems

not to make sense; the people looking at


your stuff will think that you're a really deep

thinker and they'll make it make sense.


Third, extend; never be confined within the
edges of a modernist canvas. Fourth, avoid

any conscious attempt at modernist com


position: If your image ends up 'balanced,'
well that was just an unfortunate accident.
Fifth, assert that Post-Modernism renders
all previous art, and all current non-post
modernist art, as pass?, irrelevant, or, at
best, tedious. Above all, avoid upbeat mes

revolutionize?radically change?life"
"I imagine society is like a frog on the

react. "And I think that's what the role of

the artist is, to hit that nerve."

"I'm not expecting to change the world,

to change anybody... " (Geers, 1999).


Back in the clay studio, perhaps un
aware of the political maelstrom swirling

about them?the "IS CLAY THE MEAN

ING?" message was written quite lightly


and has perhaps evaded notice by the un

suspecting students?the folks at the

wheels continue to pull vase, bottle and


teacup. Shouldn't someone warn them?
Shouldn't someone alert the dutiful young
potters to the fact that they might be pass?,

or at least that their attempts at "art" are


pass?, irrelevant, not up to snuff?
Naaa. Let them throw.
An instructor might let the potter con
tinue to bend over her work not because
the instructor is uncaring of the intellectual

110 Stuart Thompson

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or spiritual development of their charge, but


because the student w/'//find meaning, and,

paradigms, a first level understanding of

given enough time and enough personal


struggle, deep meaning. How so?

method, followed by a desire to contribute


to the intellectual life of the planet by "say

At the entry level the neophyte potter

struggles to master mechanics and mate

rial, with the conscious or unconscious em


phasis often settling on mechanics. This is
natural. Slowly, as some comfort is found
in throwing abilities and in hand building
techniques, the new potter shifts attention
more and more to the material. Where be
fore one was urged to achieve a twelve inch
cylinder no more than six inches in diam
eter, with walls no more than a quarter inch

thick, where one was urged to achieve

the inherent meaning of material and

ing something," by assuming a role as


messenger, as point man/woman on jungle

patrol against the enemies of reason,

against the enemies of civility and human


ity itself. We admire those on point. It is a
dangerous position. It takes courage.
Regrettably, this is where the vision of

some post-modernists ends. For there is


at least one more level of meaning to which
the clay artist, or any artist, might ascend,
a level which, for the moment, might be

called "IS CLAY THE MEANING??yes,

welds of uniformity and thoroughness, the


new potter now begins to notice how the

Part II." Advancing into this level of intel

clay, pushed from the reverse of a slab,


achieves an interesting weathered-skin
texture, how colored slip, applied freely,
achieves vitality through its now drippy,
now spattered energy.
An initial level of meaning has been dis

artist, the potter, revisits an old friend, a


co-creator in the decades of the individual

covered. But only an initial level. This level

of paper, as paper that vitrifies in the fire


rather than burning. Now, the clay is rec
ognized for what it is, and that is, as some
thing which can trace the path of a force
quite other. Sure, this clay is still the very

would be the "IS CLAY THE MEANING??


yes, Part I" level. The clay artist, no longer
a beginner, and with mechanics obtaining
to some level of mastery (in a lifetime, of
course, the potter never fully masters me
chanics), and with an emerging respect for

material consciously broached, moves,

when they are ready, to a still higher level

of meaning. So choosing, the clay artist


might now, using their mechanical facility

and using their developing sensitivity to


material, intend to "say" something. What

lectual and spiritual awareness, the clay

potter's life?clay. The co-creator is now


seen, however, in terms very different from

the days when clay was seen, first, as stuff


to be dealt with and, then, as the first cousin

same alumina, silica and water (and per


haps the odd cigarette butt or piece of
sponge that fell into the mixer) that it was
years or decades past. But its primal func
tion, and its primordial power, is at last rec
ognized. In stage one, at the entry level of

meaning, the potter saw clay in very hu


man terms, as something that he or she

would he/she say? Oh, they might offer

willed into submission. In stage two, in the

something humorous. Or, they might speak


to women's issues. Or, they might remind

Tve-gotta-say-something" level of mean

us of the ugliness of war, racism, or op

ing, the potter again saw clay in very hu


man terms, as the piece of paper on which

pression of every sort?economic, political,


religious, ideological. And this is important
stuff to talk about. This is all very impor
tant stuff to talk about. It is, again, natural
for an aware clay artist?for most any artist

to write?sometimes literally?the socio


political message. Both of these early lev
els of meaning can be characterized as
personally and then culturally egocentric.
The human is the measure of all things.

?to want to "say" something about these


issues. So, many do. And we listen. And
we are often moved.
At this point the potter has advanced
through two significant creative/conceptual

Human industry, human intentions, human

ethical and moral failings determine all


meaning. Or so it is supposed.
At, now, this still higher level of mean
ing what is radically not-human, what is

Fragments of Post-modern Times: A Collage 111

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simply other, is consciously glimpsed. At


last, the clay artist reaches the very edge
of humanity. There, the artist peers, in fleet

ing glimpses, beyond. The issue at this


point is not simply another measure of man,

An attempt at an answer to that question


must lie with another paper. For now it is
enough to contemplate the potential for an
extra-verbal level or realm of meaning. Or
perhaps this is simply another expression

except in the harshest and most radical

of that third level of meaning just described.

terms. Give this glimpse a term if you must:

That is, "meaning," as we use the term, re

The Other, The Way, Fate? Use of such


terms is hazardous, however. They are
more likely to obscure the glimpse rather
than facilitate it. The very employment of
words is myopically human. It's the glimpse
that counts. And it can only be had in those

rare moments when we still our human

sides only in human consciousness, is in


fact a product of an individual conscious
ness. Meaning is constructed?and then
imposed. Perhaps the wish to create work

without meaning, naive as some may ad


vise that intent is, reflects that desire to es

babble, when we still our human insistence,

cape the babble of everydayness and to


approach an awareness neither ego- nor

when we are truly silent, when words them


selves fall away impotent.

culturally centric. Perhaps we can never fully


exit meaning but can, with profound silence,

Silence was meaningful with the Lakota,

stand at the very edge of meaning.


Post-Modernism may be seen, in many

and his granting a space of silence be


fore talking was done in the practice of
true politeness and regardful of the rule
that "thought comes before speech."
And in the midst of sorrow, sickness,
death, or misfortune of any kind, and in
the presence of the notable and great, si
lence was the mark of respect. More pow

erful than words was silence with the

instances, as an educational package.

Walker Percy, in "The Loss of the Crea

ture" (1975), notes an odd discrepancy ob


taining between the intent of the educator
and formal educational structure on the one

hand and what happens with and to the

student on the other:

Lakota.

A young Falkland Islander walking along

Chief Luther Standing Bear, Teton Sioux


(Nerburn & Megelkoch, 1991, p.8)

going to work on it with his jackknife has,

We note, moments ago, that there is at


least a third level of meaning, above that

of delivering a socio-political message via

a beach and spying a dead dogfish and

in a fashion wholly unprovided in mod


ern educational theory, a great advantage
over the Scarsdale high-school pupil who
finds the dogfish on his laboratory desk.

the symbolic complex that is much of Post

Similarly the citizen of Huxley's Brave


New World who stumbles across a vol

higher level of meaning exists and is in fact

ume of Shakespeare in some vine-grown


ruins and squats on a pot-sherd to read

Modern art. Perhaps still a fourth and

an ultimate attempt to leave meaning be


hind. Recently (2001), Frank Goryl, an art

therapist colleague and fellow potter, re


marked in an unpublished essay:
My work as a potter needs to remain
simple. Without meaning. Without inter
pretation. Without metaphor. My work
needs to remain in that place where my
literary art therapy heroes have tried to
safeguard images. A place kept sacred in
the sanctuary of soul.

Now, it might reasonably be asked, can one

create art?visual imagery?without mean


ing? That is, perhaps the desire to create
work "without meaning" is quite impossible.

it is in a fairer way of getting at a sonnet

than the Harvard sophomore taking En


glish Poetry II.
The educator whose business it is to
teach students biology or poetry is un
aware of a whole ensemble of relations
which exist between the student and the
dogfish and between the student and the
Shakespeare sonnet. To put it bluntly: A
student who has the desire to get at a dog

fish or a Shakespeare sonnet may have

the greatest difficulty in salvaging the crea

ture itself from the educational package


in which it is presented, (pp. 572-573)

What is it we wish to get at, to use


Percy's term, when image makers (artists)

112 Stuart Thompson

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present images determinedly socio-politi


cally instructive? Is the image maker try
ing to get at the ugliness of violence, the

enough time to struggle with the basics of


throwing but for most are far from proficient.

Understandably, when first introduced to


the exercise, students are skeptical of their
abilities to pull it off?"No way" is a not un
common reaction. As it turns out, however,

ugliness of racism, of intolerance gener


ally? Does the very packaging of this,
sometimes strident, instruction have the

paradoxical effect of distancing us from real

and personal confrontation?


Western society is, of course, heavily
vision dependent. Vision, unlike touch, al

and with rare exception, the students typi


cally achieve better results throwing blind?

at this point in their development?than


they did previously with sight.

lows the perceiver to view, and possibly ex


perience, from a safe distance. The eyes,

Why? Simply put, being heavily vision


dependent we tend to override other sen

along with video cameras, still cameras,


computers, television, and video games,

sory input, particularly touch, with what we

become to an extent, experiential filters.

our fingertips are providing is in conflict with

Confusion can arise if, by seeing some


thing, we assume we thereby know and
understand it. Western society consumes
images in a way not unlike its consump

what our eyes are telling us we dismiss ki

"know" by our eyes. When the truth that

tion of fast food. Consumption should not


be mistaken for understanding, with the

greater the consumption the greater the


understanding. When, therefore, the image

maker collages societal flotsam to tell us


of violence, abuse, waste, and neglect, are

we given an open window (implying the


simplest of framing) through which we
might freely move toward the subject, or
are we given an experiential filter, allowing

us to view at a safe distance, packaging

ing their eyes. The beginner cannot yet do


that.
The safe distance of vision, then, brings
with it the potential for misperception or
non-perception. Touch avoids this. An anal
ogy might be the phenomenon of viewing

a fish at an angle as it rests beneath the


surface: sight holds the fish in one posi
tion; its actual position is elsewhere. Were
one able to reach under the water surface

and with a good positional guess actually


grasp the fish, there would be no confu

for us how it is we might feel toward a so

cietal shortcoming?

Touch, on the other hand, does not per


mit a safe distance. In the course of teach

sion as to where the fish truly was. Such is


the absolute truth of touch.

ing beginning ceramics to college under


graduates I have been in the habit the past

Is clay the meaning? The fingers, and


by extension the whole person, would say

"yes."

several years of engaging my students

Still the young potters bend over the

early on in what, at first blush, seems to

them to be a challenging exercise. Three

or four weeks into the semester I ask my


students, in coaching/helper teams of three

or four, to throw on the potters wheel


"blind." With their eyes closed at all times

the student must center, open, pull the

wheels. The studio door opens. "Hey,

Laura," leans in a friend, "let's go to the


courtyard for a smoke." Laura pulls back
on the throttle of her wheel, bringing the
spinning mud-skinned hollowness to a
stop. With wet hands and a delighted heart,

Laura gets up from the wheel, exits, un

walls and needle trim the lip of a cylinder,


and specifically a cylinder. The only assis

tance provided by the student's helper


group is that of checking bottom thickness
immediately after opening. This exercise
is presented at this three to four week pe

riod because the students have had

nesthetic truth in favor of visual falsehoods.

By severing vision the truth will out. Expe


rienced potters, of course, are able to box
at will vision in favor of touch without clos

aware, past the "IS CLAY THE MEANING?"


intellectual graffiti, and into the sunshine
of the courtyard and her friend. Dust from
the studio floor leaves progressively fainter

traces across the grass.


Footprints.

Fragments of Post-modern Times: A Collage 113

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References
Geers, . (1999). Invited South African artist, in
terviewed in Teens and contemporary art: The

Percy, W. (1975). The loss of the creature. In D.

Bartholome & A. Petrosky (Eds.), Ways of


reading: An anthology for writers (pp. 572
573). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.

1999 Carnegie International [Video]. Pitts


burgh: Carnegie Museum of Art.
Kuspit, D. (1996, April). Craft in art, art as craft.

The New Art Examiner, 53, pp. 14-19.

Nerburn, K., & Mengelkoch, L. (Eds.), (1991).


Native American wisdom. San Rafael, CA:

Stuart Thompson
Seton Hall College
Latrobe, PA

New World Library.

114 Stuart Thompson

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