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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Keith Martin-SmithKeith Martin-Smith worked for Integral Institute from July 2006 until August 2007, when he left to pursue his own work. His collection of 12 short stories the Mysterious Divination of Tea Leaves, and Other Tales, a collection of “Integral” fiction, has been published by O-Books and is available through Amazon. Keith currently lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he teaches Kung Fu and Qi Gong, and works as a freelance writer. You can learn more about him and his work at See also his essay "The Future of Art and Art Criticism" published on this site.

See also: The Future of Art and Art Criticism

Art, Postmodern Criticism,
and the Emerging
Integral Movement

Keith Martin-Smith

"Postmodern critics fail to see that just being ironic, different, and having impact isn't enough to make something art."

The question “what is art” is both more simple and more complex than it might seem at first glance. Andy Warhol once quipped, “Art is whatever you can get away with.” Is it? His observation raises some interesting questions: How does one go about judging a work of art as “good”, “bad”, or “better than” something else? What standards are used? Is something shocking, like a New York City artist who recently put vials filled with her menstrual fluids on display, art? Or is such a display really something else?

Art criticism and the fine arts in general have fallen on strange times, which is why so many of us end up going through museums of modern art with either a roll of our eyes or a confused expression on our faces. Poetry and literature have not faired much better, and the reasons lay in the adoption of a particular kind of postmodern approach to criticism, “deconstructive postmodernism”. Art and its critics, many of whom probably are not even familiar with postmodernism as a movement, have nevertheless been under the influence of deconstructive postmodern philosophy since the days of Marcel Duchamp's “Fountain”, an ordinary white porcelain urinal, signed by Duchamp, put on display in 1917 as “serious artwork”. Its display caused a sensation and critics, the public, and other artists argued strenuously about the work. But Duchamp was clearly onto something, for in 2004 five-hundred leaders in the art world voted it “the most influential work of modern art”, beating out Picasso's “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon” and “Guernica”. How is it that a signed toilet is viewed with such reverence, and without a knowing wink?

For those of you not familiar with “deconstructive postmodernism” a very short introduction might include tales of professors who debate not truth or beauty, but semantics (the study of language creation). Truth and beauty, in their world, are something merely constructed, bound by culture, hemmed in by psychology, framed by gender, driven by economics, warped by language, distorted by the powerful, tied to the patriarchy and the domination of nature, and totally relative always. Only the naïve or those who wish to dominate believe in any kind of cross-cultural (or inherent) truth, cross-cultural (or inherent) beauty, or a hierarchy of any kind. In other words, there are no cross-cultural truths outside of biological/physical ones (for example men cannot, in any culture, give biological birth). As an example of how far-reaching this worldview is, a deconstructive postmodernist would argue that gorillas are protected more passionately than reptiles only because they remind us of us. It is our own unconscious narcissism that makes us value them more than a shellfish or insect, not any inherent or innate value. Wanting to save gorillas instead of reptiles or insects or shellfish shows only your own bias towards things more “like you”, and not one thing more — for gorillas and people and gnats are all equally “evolved” in the sense all three have had 4.5 billion years or so to develop.

So in the world of the deconstructive postmodernist, truth and beauty in art are mere constructions, mere fabrications. They believe the very idea of truth and beauty imply a single standard of judgment, something that postmodernism rejects. Think of it this way: aesthetic beauty (the beauty of appearance) to an Australian Aborigine might be very different than a New York City playwright's which might be very different than a ranch hand's in southern Texas, which might be very different from yours. Postmodernism points out that any assumed standard for beauty is just that: an assumption that basically imposes its standards on everyone. And since art relies on aesthetic beauty at least in-part, that leaves the postmodernist with a real problem: what is attractive? What is art? Since art can no longer be judged on culturally-constructed ideas of beauty, what is left? For postmodernism, irony is one of the things most valued — to mock and shock are what great postmodern art primarily does. The vast majority of leading edge artists and critics have bought into this, which is why crucifixes in urine [Serrano's “Piss Christ”] and menstrual fluids in beakers nailed to a wall are passing as “art”.

"Fountain", Duchamp "Piss Christ", Serrano

For the critics who praise these things, value comes through the scale of irony in a postmodernist piece. They look to see how deeply this art pierces the collective consciousness and how much damage it does to the edifice of "established" culture. This helps to explain why “Fountain” is so highly praised — it went to the heart of the exaltation of art and, pun intended, pissed all over it. “Guernica”, on the other hand, is about Spain's experience during civil war under Franco as the Second World War closed in all around — something that is perhaps less relevant to a critic born in America when Jimmy Carter was in office.

"Irony and its scale of impact, then, are very important in postmodern art."

Irony and its scale of impact, then, are very important in postmodern art. Another measure of value the postmodern critic uses is that the work in question be different – so long as an artist is different than the establishment their work gains automatic points. Critics see it as “daring to” stand apart from the “dominating” culture — menstrual fluids in beakers nailed to a wall as a kind of feminist protest against patriarchy, or so I assume. Beauty and truth? For the postmodernist, beauty and truth really can't exist, so for them beauty becomes the irony itself. Most of us have been to modern museums of art, and seen the rather dull geometric shapes painted onto canvases that are, at best, mildly interesting. These museums bore or confuse most of us, which is why they struggle to continue to exist. Much of the work inside their walls speaks to the head, to the educated who “get” their irony and find it attractive. But most of us agree that a triangle painted on a black canvas, or ink blots thrown across a wall, have nothing whatsoever to say to the heart, to the person looking for an emotional or even…gasp…spiritual connection to the work.

Postmodern art's real power comes from forcing the receiver of the art to question their assumptions about what “art” is, about who and what and how art is created, and how it is received. Beauty and truth are left to antiquity, to the naïve who still believe in cross-cultural truths. In that sense “Fountain” can be said to have achieved success — it forced viewers to question, and often angrily dismiss, the work because it challenged their assumptions, destroyed their sacred cows, and in so doing influenced the next two generations of artists profoundly. And in this Duchamp's brilliance is simply without question. The question remains, though: is it art, or is it really something else?

Before we get to that, let us summarize: postmodern critics give points for irony, points for having a scale of impact, and points for coming from a different member of society (preferably no white heterosexual males, please). “Fountain” scores on irony and scale of impact; Serrano's “Piss Christ” scores on all three counts. Since the postmodernist finds irony itself beautiful they therefore consider these things “art”. And yet if we remove shock, neither “Piss Christ” nor “Fountain” offers any other evocative emotional response, because neither “Fountain” nor “Piss Christ” has any inherent beauty at all. The postmodern critic shrugs his shoulders at that observation and asks, “What is beauty, anyway? Whose beauty? Yours? Mine? Maybe this lack of so-called beauty is showing us an important point? What does beauty even mean…” And then comes the smug look: he gets it, and you, who even ask such naïve questions, clearly do not.

As Shakespeare said, therein lies the rub: postmodern critics fail to see that just being ironic, different, and having impact isn't enough to make something art. It is enough to make it social commentary, but not necessarily anything more unless you think irony itself if beautiful. And most of us do not think that, for very obvious reasons. People do not stand in front of triangles for hours on end, moved to tears as they draw in their sketchbooks, or tremble at the sight of a postmodern sculpture of entwined geometric shapes, giant clothespins, or stick figures holding hands.

And so art struggles in our postmodern world, where genius has been pronounced dead and mediocrity and irony congratulate one another on their empty existence. Art and literature have lost their power over our collective imaginations because they can no longer speak for us in any meaningful way. The proverbial head ate the heart in an attempt to understand it, so that avante garde art and literature have sadly been relegated to PhD's and ever-narrowing groups of intellectuals who “get it”, never bothering to ask if it's worthy of being gotten in the first place. Can anyone really say they understood, much less enjoyed, slogging through Joyce's Ulysses or Pynchon's Mason & Dixon? Brilliant in conception, yes, but in execution? Does anyone really enjoy looking at red squares painted onto black canvases, or blots of ink scattered across a wall? Wasn't art once more than just an intellectual slight-of-hand? Didn't art once speak to more than just the hyper-educated elite? Didn't Shakespeare labor mightily to make his works accessible to everyone, commoner and aristocrat alike? Do we really need to listen to postmodern critics, full of banal intellectual discourse and smug obfuscations, telling us why we should appreciate shit smeared across a wall? A crucifix sitting in a bowl of piss? The answer is no, we do not need to listen, which is why so many leading edge artistic institutions are seeing falling membership and declining interest — art has become an inside joke about an inside joke that fewer and fewer people are interested in hearing. What needs to happen is a distinction must be made, a distinction between social commentary and art. Sometimes, of course, a work can be both, but irony really only speaks to the former rather than the latter.

The Integral Artist and Critic

Let's look at the book, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini — American postmodern critics will value it automatically because it is from another culture and be reluctant to “judge” it based on our culture's values…but that begs the question: is the book any damn good? Is it art? How DO we judge it?

To answer this question we need to take a brief look at the newest kind of art entering popular culture, art that will become more and more prevalent in the coming decades: post-post modern, or integral, art and literature. This will be explored in much greater detail in Part II, "The Future of Art and Art Criticism", but a brief overview starts with the idea that integral art also challenges the receiver, it too forces her to question her assumptions and her beliefs about what art is. But in order for integral art to be understood, one must embrace not fragmentation, not deconstruction, but rather integration, a larger whole, a larger perspective than the viewer may currently hold. The reader/viewer must create a whole new context in which to hold the art, one which may truly challenge his belief structures, one which may force him, to make sense of what he is seeing, to hold a larger perspective than he currently has in place.

Postmodern art demands the reader deconstruct their habitual methods of analyzing art; Integral art does this first step as well, but then also demands the reader integrate the separate strands of information to form a whole new narrative in which a more true meaning of the story/artwork will rest. It does not rest on cultural “givens”, but it does rest on a larger truth. This “meta-narrative” isn't fixed in stone, it isn't “pre-given”, but it is tied directly to the demands the art makes on the receiver. Integral art requires more, not less, complexity to see the overarching “point” of the artwork. Integral art moves beyond irony and deconstruction and once again demands a larger perspective be put into place to analyze the artwork, not just to deconstruct the society in which it arose.

Postmodern Criticism of Established Art

As the American philosopher Ken Wilber once quipped, if you don't have the brains to build a building you can still burn one down. And postmodern criticism has, for too long, relied on burning down buildings, on deconstructing, as its primary tool. They have made their point. They have shown us a powerful truth. But the whole of art and literature, spanning thousands of years of human history, is more than fodder for a fire. The classics are studied, still, not just because they were written by dead white men and current living white men want to perpetuate that power base. It is true that most pre-19th Century forms of art assume a single point of view, a single truth that was tied to an often-pretty-horrible-reality for a marginalized group or groups. Yet there is often a hugely important insight and staggering genius in the “classics” — to not study them institutionally borders on the self-destructive. The fact that most cultures in the past gave certain kinds of people more privileges than others to engage in art is an important fact worth studying, but it is also largely beside the point — it does not detract from the insights and genius of pre-19th Century pieces anymore than calculus is any less true because a white man (actually two white men), who were part of the patriarchy, invented it.

So those of you paying attention might notice that I still haven't answered the rather thorny question, what is art? We've seen how postmodern art defines itself, and how Integral art defines itself, but both beg the question: what is art? The bottom line is that art is more than just irony, impact, and difference. Its “beauty” needs to rest on more than just those things. To become art and not be just social commentary, the work mustoffer more — it must offer something greater than mere criticism to land it somewhere closer to the soul, to the place where true art climbs inside of you and illuminates something within. True art leaves you breathless, amazed, wondering, perhaps even terrified or furious — you are brought somewhere miraculous within yourself — somewhere you might not have even known existed. So “Piss Christ” and “Fountain” could only be considered “art” if you believed that irony, and irony alone, is “beautiful”. Otherwise, it is merely social commentary in visual form.

Maybe Oscar Wilde said it best, for he anticipated postmodernism's insights decades before it arrived:

“Art can never really show us the exterior world. All that it shows us is our own soul, the one world of which we have any real cognizance…it is art, and art alone, that reveals us to ourselves.”

In Part II we'll unpack a new definition of art that can transcend and include all of the things discussed here. This definition may one day might explain why museums are once more packing in men and women from all walks of life and all educational backgrounds to marvel at that which hangs from their walls, something that once again touches the soul.


[1] There is, it's worth noting, a partial truth buried in such an observation, namely that humans do indeed tend to unconsciously value things more like themselves — but part of that is an intuitive understanding of the uniqueness of a human being.  Only we, as but a tiny example, have the ability to truly care for another species at all, and we as humans tend to feel greater empathy towards creatures that come closer to sharing our depth.

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