Is postmodernism in the visual arts up to the task of challenging neoliberalism?



Since the 1980s a postmodernist sensibility has been predominant in critical discourse on Western art and culture as both an ally and foe of a neoliberalism that has also grown in influence. As a particularly insidious form of capitalism is tightening its grip on societies around the world, and using the arts to do so, is postmodernism in the visual arts up to the task of challenging neoliberalism? Is it now characterised as exhausted by media proliferation and subsumed into the market with its demise a consequence of its apparent inability to meaningfully challenge the status quo? I will argue that what will come after postmodernism in culture is already being imagined, and, just as art criticism of the social and political landscape eventually coalesced under the banner of postmodernism, some manifestations of a distinctly non-postmodernist art are already evident in contemporary works. I’ll demonstrate that this turn, driven by internet-enabled postmodernism, retains some of what remains useful in previous thinking, but in responding to new trends becomes non-postmodern. In order to evaluate the extent of any nascent move away it is necessary to briefly define and contextualise both postmodern art and that which signals this transition.  My necessarily limited review of the literature on the subject has constrained my analysis to a summary of the ideas of a few influential thinkers – Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson, Nicolas Bourriaud, and Hal Foster. I have applied  some of the terms they have used to recent artworks to describe both the postmodern sensibility and that which is emerging: they have variously described postmodern works as: fragmentary, anti-narrative, hybridised, rule-breaking, appropriated, hyperreal, schizophrenic, pastiche, cynical, playful, ironic, intertextual, participatory, multidisciplinary. Non-postmodern works retain some of these features, but are also additionally labelled: relational, altermodern, posthuman and postnational. In order to evaluate the extent of the shift, I’ve considered these epithets in relation to the works of some contemporary artists whose work has been made accessible to me via the internet: Banksy, Assemble and Will Kendrick. They were selected because their work attempts to address specific local and global concerns that are symptoms of neoliberal policies and market forces. The ‘non-postmodernism’ of their work has been evaluated in relation to the markers identified above and the scale and extent of the counter they present to the status quo.

Image #: 38872357 A killer whale jumping out of a toilet piece by Banksy, during the press view for the artistâ??s biggest show to date, entitled 'Dismaland', at Tropicana in Western-super-Mare, Somerset. PA PHOTOS /LANDOV

Francois Lyotard’s disenchantment with Marxism contributed to his mistrust of ‘grand narratives’, legitimating myths about society that are peddled to serve hegemonic interests. Their inability to deliver the ‘Idea’ of progress and freedom was a factor in his pessimistic view of the postmodern condition, and he identified a disconnect between language and cognition that led to totalitarian societies. For him, art had lost its ability to present reality because capitalism had ‘derealised’ reality to such an extent that it was pointless to try.   Artists, he felt, had a central role in healing communities. For him, boundaries between disciplines were meaningless and hybridity a necessary consequence (Lyotard, 1992). His ‘war on totality’ (Harrison, Wood, 1992) led to a strand in postmodern thinking that is manifested in works that resist unified presentation and are therefore experienced as fragmentary, difficult and anti-narrative. The artists I’ve selected each fit Lyotard’s definition in part: Banksy, the anonymous graffiti artist, exposes hypocrisy in myths; Assemble, a collective of architects, heals communities by improving the local environment; Kendrick, a recent Glasgow School of Art graduate, produces work multidisciplinary work and references derealised images.

This chimes with the thinking of Jean Baudrillard on the hyperreal: each image is a simulacrum of an appropriated previous image, which is an image of a previous image, and so on. He saw the primary function of capitalism as consumption, which led to irrational relationships between objects. In the era of simulation, the process of representation breaks down distinctions between the real and the non-real. Certainly, both Banksy and Kendrick play on paradoxical relationships between memes from popular culture and what we perceive as ‘real’. For instance, Banksy’s Dismaland logo is a simulacrum of the Disney logo, which is a simulacrum of an image of a castle.dismaHow far though, do images like this go towards changing people’s attitude towards the hyper-consumerism that is represented by a multinational company like Disney? Is it non-postmodern, relational enough (to society) to make the point about cultural consumption and postindustrial decline, or does the logo reduce his installation to such a small point of focus online that it has no real impact?

This possibility is articulated by Frederic Jameson, who described postmodernism as ‘the cultural logic of late capitalism’ (Jameson, 1982). This has become a catchy slogan that treats as a fact a terrible, rational inevitability about our descent into a state of impotence against the forces of neoliberalism. For him, culture itself had become a product in the central commodification process. Influenced by Freud’s ideas, he portrayed postmodern culture as schizophrenic, the present alienated from the past, leading to fragmented works. The very term postmodernism is a commodity, coined as if part of a corporate merger. He identifies parody and quotation as symptoms of our inability to represent our actual, present experiences. The lived experience of late capitalism is disjointed, unhistorical, dysfunctional.

Based on this, it is likely that he would see Dismaland as an ineffectual parody.

Ben Davis, however, turns Jameson’s slogan on its head and suggests that in fact ‘postmodernism is the cultural ideology of neoliberalism’ (Davis, 2015). He identifies the potential for art to become cynical to the point that it demotivates action and preserves the status quo. This even more sinister interpretation of creative interventions raises questions about the unintended political uses to which some of the works I’ve reviewed could be put in the guise of anti-establishment art. The successful blueprint for Assemble’s projects, for instance, could legitimise less well-intentioned, profit-driven pojects.

So, is there any sign that contemporary art is slipping free from the ‘rules’ of postmodernism and articulating a new antagonism to the status quo?  Nicolas Bourriaud, the curator behind the term relational aesthetics and an altermodern manifesto, is often cited as offering a new approach.  Relational aesthetics is a potentially appealing idea which situates human relations in social contexts and facilitates audience power. In 2009 he declared that postmodernism was coming to an end and being superseded by a ‘new modernity’ that is emerging in response to a ‘profound evolution’ in our globalized world.  Like Jameson, he incites artists to stand against the Right and the mass culture they thrive on.  The ‘new’ idea needs new words, so he refers to ‘transpassing’ a territory of all dimensions.  Sounds impressive, but are the weapons of altermodernism any more powerful than those of the passing discourse it seeks to alter, and are his ideas translated into transformative art? Or is he extending international art into an expanded marketplace, further depleting shrinking resources as it does?

The work of Will Kendrick, a recent graduate from Glasgow School of Art’s MLitt, can be reviewed in relation to Bourriaud’s manifesto (Bourriaud, 2009). His biography sells him as altermodern and cites the illuminations of Blackpool and the neo pop aesthetic of today’s digitally connected world as influences on his style. He is a prolific artist who produces marketable work. Its sellability doesn’t, however, devalue its ability to comment on our culture. His graduate show sculpture Between Love and Madness Lies Obsession is a multimedia sculpture which appropriates classical visual and aural culture: hyperreal statues are rendered in ‘hyper-saturated’ moving image and plaster, plastic debris is discarded and muzak pervades the earspace. The presentation of elements is fragmentary but there is a unity in tone; an atmosphere of bright, ersatz promise holds the disparate elements together.


The GI 2016 show The Edge of a Continent, in which he is a co-exhibitor questions our ‘pursuit of technology’. His hacks of Grand Theft Auto V remove the characters and foreground the surprising tranquility of backdrops to violent action. A huge print of a screensaver, similarly decontextualized, references Romanticism, becoming kitsch in the process and critiquing ‘the beautiful image’.  This familiar, postmodern eclecticism challenges cultural high brow/popular hierarchies, but altermodern chimes are to be heard in his statement on the ‘collapse and parallels’ of time in the internet age. Here, and more widely, Kendrick’s skillful manipulation of digital media enables him to foreshadow a posthuman world. But does he challenge neoliberalism? Yes and no. Although he has subverted the media market by grabbing the content for free, it has become attractive to and subsumed into the art market. His works are mesmerizing and imply the danger presented by digital culture that engenders passive acceptance of the kind of world played out in GTAV. However, in non-postmodern culture, artists like Kendrick, with their understanding of digital manipulation, will be crucial in articulating a strategy to the online gang war between the elite and the rest of us.

Hal Foster’s analysis is more convincing than Bourriaud’s. In Bad New Day (Foster, 2015), he guides us through the terminology that dominates critical debate. In critiquing postmodern art as having privileged the textual and the visual and being overly concerned about representation, he plots a shift towards artworks which: explores the real without treating it as an effect of trauma or representation; considers where we are now in relation to historical concerns about lost people and places; is mimetic and responds to 9/11; starts from a place of insecurity in order to address precariousness; and is anti-critical. Critical discourse is central to the development of art, and he opens many areas for discussion defining neoliberalism as an ‘assault on the social contract’, and he still believes that an avant-garde can ‘trace’ and exploit ‘fractures’ in the system. This is an appealing idea and I have found some evidence that a contemporary avant-garde is finding ways to deliver blows outwith the constraints of the market.

For example, Banksy and Assemble seem to be motivated by something other than financial gain. Banksy’s anonymity enables him to intervene around the world using art. He controls to some extent the release of his message via his official page without tying into merchandise or advertising . Kitsch, a staple component of postmodernism, is described by Foster as critically charged (Foster, 2015), and Banksy’s recent work in Palestine plays on the meme of the cute cat video and mawkish Victorian paintings. It feels securely postmodern in its use of parody. Sentimentalisation of the scene condemns the West’s ability to mutate uncomfortable truths. However, this palimpsest lends a more affecting level of irony to the photo below, which includes a Palestinian girl also playing with the tangled ball of metal wool.


In an official statement, Banksy stated that the only way to get people to pay attention to an issue is to post a cat; the irony that people wouldn’t notice the girl without the cat is clear (Artnet, 2015). It’s not difficult to work out the point of the work, but the short video he released to complement it reveals a context that perhaps justifies his apparent contempt for the uncritical masses. In order to reach the location, he had to sneak through underground tunnels constructed to avoid the Israeli blockade. A Palestinian man, genuinely moved (it seems), mourns the fact that children play in rubble while Israel bans supplies of concrete (Artnet, 2015). The kitten can be viewed as a still trailer for the video, in which a man watches a girl play in a war zone, heard only because a foreign artist has found, and exploited, a gap, a route into Palestine. Banksy’s postmodern irony connects him to a global audience that is well-versed in decoding his images. His non-postmodernity is contextual: he is able to adopt the increasingly homogenous language of the internet and transcend geographical and cultural boundaries. His work can be described as postnational.

In contrast, Assemble take a localized approach to tackling environmental deprivation and the projects they are best known for are community-oriented, relational. They work with communities to transform stalled and neglected spaces into functional environments. Their Baltic Street playground project presents an open challenge to the misappropriation and dereliction of public space under capitalism. The playground presents interesting contradictions – a recovered space which encourages free, but supervised play in a carefully managed zone.   On the Baltic Street Adventure Playground website, the ‘before’ image of the derelict space contrasts with those of kids exploring their environment, happily engaged, deploying tools or messing around in a landscape of mud and planks (Baltic, 2016)


Here, and in Palestine, play is political.   Observation, responses to it in its contexts, documentation, condemnation, praise, all generate a plethora of images, videos, links, memes and meanings that extend beyond its direct participants. The children, the participants in the art, become content which can be appropriated: for funding, media distribution, portfolios, satire, politics.   Here, as with Bansky’s kitten, it is the extension of related artefacts into the world beyond the original context where both the hope for transformation and its destruction lies. When these are redistributed, losing resolution with every copy, they become open to parody, pastiche and become disconnected from any radical intention. This renders them meaningless, and open to reappropriation by reactionary forces. Such a postmodern implosion can lead, for instance, to David Cameron declaring The Jam’s Eton Rifles his favourite single in order to gain political capital. The children pictured here, though, are not mere simulacra – they exist in real time and space – and a visit to the playground soon clarifies the need for communities and planners to utilize art and distribute it online to motivate politicians. Assemble do present a worthy vision of citizenship, but in the end, Dalmarnock remains chronically deprived, and there is little systemic change. Their response appears to be grounded in a relational approach; human beings, these children, are situated in their social context. This fits the non-postmodern bill, but on its own its power to transform is limited. The addition of the Turner Prize 2015 to their portfolio, and the attendant internet publicity, is what gives the collective the potential to transform lives beyond the communities in which their work is grounded, and extend their philosophy to other communities in similarly constrained contexts. The local model becomes global, non-ironically relational, non-postmodern.

I conclude that the sample I have selected shows that art continues to critique politics and culture using a largely postmodernist discourse. However, the context has changed radically over the last decade, with the internet opening up new ways to challenge the status quo. The artists I’ve selected accept digital culture as the norm, are aware of how it is manipulated by those in power, but can use its forms and platforms to comment on society. They are living in a world where, as has always been the case, territory equals money and power; but a new space has become available and has not yet been entirely developed. The artists I’ve studied challenge by stimulating debate about this new internet-driven phase of globalisation both online and in real life. Even where art is local, ephemeral, installed, it can be documented and distributed within minutes far beyond its context. This is crucial. Neoliberalism, which has the accumulation of wealth for its elites at its centre, simultaneously ignores and exploits both local community values and international boundaries and artists are fighting back. Postmodern discourse alone, as manifested since the 1980s, is no longer sufficiently antagonistic but the artists I’ve studied are having a go using a range of strategies to fit our time and space: they are exploiting technology, collectivising, staying under the radar, winning prizes. What makes their response non-postmodern is the reach into global territory it covers, and the posthuman, postnational world it anticipates.   This as yet unnamed sensibility retains those aspects of postmodernism which continue to resonate with the wider population. Its practitioners find gaps in the system, and exploit them to galvanise real-world and online action in both local and global communities.




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Glasgow School of Art Graduate Show, Glasgow, McLellan Galleries. Attended on: 11/09/16

On the Edge of a Continent, Glasgow, Skypark. Attended on: 24/04/16



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Assemble collective website. Available at: [Accessed on: 14/04/16]

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Banksy website. Available at:   [Accessed on 15/04/16]

Will Kendrick profile on Saatchi website. Available at: [Accessed on: 14/04/16]