The Integral Age Arises

"Postmodernism" is a terrible term. While it is certainly seen that cultures have a difficult if not impossible time defining its own Zeitgeist while it is still living and breathing, the problem of definition with "postmodernism" appears to be a particularly difficult one. Why do I say this? Well, pick up ten books that proclaim an understanding of "postmodernism", and you'll get 35 different definitions. To say it is a mess would be an understatement, and then to deconstruct its meaning, well...

One of the problems with the term is that is impossibly open-ended. "Postmodernism" is literally anything after modernism. It could be positive, negative, optimistic, pessimistic, critical, nihilistic, spiritual, eclectic, incoherant, conceptual, and so on and so forth. It could point towards the future, it could regress to the past. The only requirement is that it happens in a way not directly "modernistic", and (in the case of art) it was created in the last 100 years in a developed country. The philosopher Ken Wilber attempts clarity when he suggests that there is a broad usage of this term—postmodernity—which is a period of time in which various '-isms' arose, from deconstructionism, poststructuralism, and even, yes, postmodernism. But a distinction between postmodernity and postmodernism is too semantic for common usage. And in either case, you have a conceptual system which is based upon a reaction—a reaction to modernity/modernism.

So I question the assumptions about the era of "postmodernity", as it is known in virtually every disipline in highly developed countries around the world. I wonder if the confusion and to some degree chaos of culture, worldviews, morals has to do with the transitionary period we find ourselves in. James Elkins, in his Stories of Art suggests that postmodernism is not a period, but a state. Thus in this view, postmodernism does not qualify as a historical wave unto itself, but the muddled froth between major waves. It is a "pomo puddle". I find Elkin's argument persuasive, because he shows how characteristics we contemporary folk like to ascribe to postmodernism can be found in examples of much older artwork from other cultures.

I assert that the common genre of "postmodern art" known as "pop art" is a confluence of two discreet currents—one at its end and one at its earliest beginnings. The one at its end is a current where it is believed that there is only one way to look at art, in terms of its interpretation, meaning, and effects. Gombrich's seminal The Story of Art is the perfect example of the attempt to maintain a predominant meaning over the canon of artworks. Yet Pop Art, such as Andy Warhol's work, blows such a mindset to bits. For what could such work, as his Brillo Pads, mean except what the viewer personally finds, far distanced from a 'metanarrative'?

On the other hand, the current at its beginning is the realization (if relatively unconscious to many artists up to recently) that not only is there not one meaning or interpretation to art, but that meanings possibly meant by the author/artist are sometimes completely missed, and instead interpreted by viewers in a radically different way. Thus, and I think the various accounts of artists tackling this issue will bear this out, there is not a singular, monolithic "meaning" of any artifact, but instead a "spectrum of meaning" from the most fundamental to the most discreet. In today's art circles, we value the best art for its variety of meanings, held within various contexts. This means that we value art because it is polysemous—artwork has, literally, 'many signs'.

No mattter what the deconstructionists howl, it is literally impossible for a piece of art to not say something. Even if the artwork suggests, "there is nothing for art to say anymore", that in and of it self is a meaning conveyed by the art. Thus arises the contradiction in such art that aims towards non-meaning. It is beyond possibility for an artifact to be about nothing. Every artifact makes some sort of statement, and every "thing" has semiotic qualities, and thus has meaning installed. Some are more transparent than others, naturally. But a clouded or muddy statement is still a statement. Duchamp's famous porcelain toilet, even if deconstructionist in intent, still has both an intent, and a meaning. It is impossible for an artist to escape either of those in the artwork he or she produces. Humans find meaning in every moment of our lives, and especially in the moments that include absorption in artwork.

Of course many artists try to accomplish just that task of non-meaning. They try to remove themselves from the artistic process, or claim that in no way shape or form does an artist make meaning. All meaning, the thought goes, is created by viewers. That is fine. I see nothing wrong with that. But carried to its logical conclusion, the basic point emerges that the artist is a viewer, too. The artist witnesses the birth of an artifact (performance, song, poem, sculpture, and so on) in a more intimate and connected way than the other viewers. It is not that there is a huge distinction between artist and the lay viewers. The difference lies in the degree of distance from the creative process that produced the artifact, even if the artifact itself is meant to lay dormant until viewers come along to "create it". Potential art, in this sense, is still born in the awareness of the artist. And art with meaning unconscious to the artist at the time of conception provides opportunity for artists and viewers to share in the discovery.

If this assertion holds water—that "postmodernism" is actually "late modernism", and thus a subset of modernism— a great deal of contemporary art would be due for a reappraisal. Artworks that are nihilistic, deconstructionistic, and transgressive in intent are assessed by the test of polysemy. Simply, are there many meanings? We would have to flesh out the currents of the "postmodern" that align with the end of modernism, and those that are legitimately beyond modernism. And in fact, this "beyond modern", I suggest is simply "integral art". Thus in this sense, the history of art is that which has emerged from ancient to classical to medieval to renaissance to baroque to modern, and then to integral.

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