You are on page 1of 7

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:
Accessed: 22-05-2016 22:26 UTC
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted
digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about
JSTOR, please contact

University of Illinois Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Visual
Arts Research

This content downloaded from on Sun, 22 May 2016 22:26:01 UTC
All use subject to

Fragments of Post-modern Times: A Collage

Stuart Thompson

Seton Hill College

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


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

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

This content downloaded from on Sun, 22 May 2016 22:26:01 UTC
All use subject to

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

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

This content downloaded from on Sun, 22 May 2016 22:26:01 UTC
All use subject to

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

This content downloaded from on Sun, 22 May 2016 22:26:01 UTC
All use subject to

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:


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

This content downloaded from on Sun, 22 May 2016 22:26:01 UTC
All use subject to

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

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


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.


Fragments of Post-modern Times: A Collage 113

This content downloaded from on Sun, 22 May 2016 22:26:01 UTC
All use subject to

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

This content downloaded from on Sun, 22 May 2016 22:26:01 UTC
All use subject to