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The Institution of the Neo-Avant-Garde, the End of Art and the New Postpsychological Rethorics

Peter Tzanev

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In 2004 Cambridge University Press published the book ‘The End of Art’[1] by the American art history professor Donald Kuspit which can be described as conservative, old-fashioned and elitist as far as it is fraught with open hostility towards the strategies of the neo-avant-garde art and postmodern art discourses. Actually Kuspit’s book is rather a book about the psychological end of art, the fall of the psychological art and psychological aspects in art at the expense of the social aspects.

According to Kuspit in postmodernism the artist loses the integrity of his alienation and art becomes an instrument of social integration and thus losing its aesthetic power. In the paradoxical social appropriation of art Kuspit sees an unconscious attempt for neutralization of the aesthetic potential of art.

In the part of the book with the most intense romantic pathos, which is entitled ‘The Decline of the Cult of the Unconscious’, Kuspit points out that modern art begins with the discovery of the unconscious, and then in the second half of the 20 century the postart[2] and the anti-aesthetic try to reduce unconscious to an ideology. The unconscious perceives the things in their unknown mystical essence, while the ideology uses the ‘objective’ non-magic nature of reality with the assumption that this objective nature can be controlled in reality.

According to Kuspit postart turns everything into a social spectacle, while in modern art with its cult of the unconscious, the external reality is not as exciting as the inner reality.

The main objective of modern artists is to exhibit and express their inner reality. For example, Kandinsky regards his art as a spiritual activity, and the Suprematist paintings of Malevich are as sacred icons. According to Kuspit Mondrian undergoes an agonizing transition from the external to the internal reality hoping that the sacred geometry will save him from his own internal reality. [3]

The most important thing in this case, according to Kuspit, is that to modern artists the inner reality has entirely different dynamics from the external reality, which arises a need for new creative methods and a new art form which is able to describe this inner reality. It is this new radical subjectivity and individuality that generate interest in originality, hypersensitivity and the supernatural.

For Kandinsky art is the last bastion of the spiritual against materialism as well for the most modern artists who have taken art as a spiritual religion.      

Analyzing the theory and practice of Allan Kaprow who in his happenings tries to dismiss the fact that life has unconscious transcendental and aesthetic dimensions, Kuspit comments that postart not only tends to demystify art, but entirely turns its back to the spiritual aspects at the expense of its social and economic importance in the consumer society. It could be said that if modern art attempts to become a religion, postart is obsessed with the desire to become a social science.

According to Kuspit the most characteristic feature of postart is that it marks the end of the cult of the unconscious. Symptoms for this conclusion Kuspit sees in the fact that in modern art the regression to the psychotic and unconscious is in service of creativity, while in postmodern art that regression becomes an entertaining show and a game, and the function of this spectacle is constantly to keep us on the surface of our psyche.

Kuspit defines postart as ‘pseudo-unconscious' or ‘postunconscious’ and fully adheres to the romantic idea of modern art and its heroic psychological subject, opposing it to the weak and cynical subject in postmodernism.

It is not a coincidence that in his book Kuspit subjects to criticism Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol who resurrect the deprived of emotions and existential depth infantile subject of Dadaism. [4]

On his side, the American art critic Hal Foster consideres the neo-avant-garde use of the Dadaist nihilism in the second half of the 20 century as a strategy which aims to present a panic subject behind the figures of the missing subjectivity. [5]

Foster shows that in Pop art and Minimalism the absence of psychological parameters is only ostensible. He argues, based on the Lacan’s ideas, that Pop art refers to Surrealism as traumatic realism.

Also according to him the art of Minimalism re-introduces the psychological interest in the body, but not in the form of an anthropomorphic image or by suggesting one illusory space of the mind, but by the mere presence of objects, which causes new interest in perception and new interest in the subject.

According to Foster Minimalism plays a key role in the genealogy of art from the 1960's until today with its dialectical participation in both the neo-avant-garde art and postmodern practices of late modernism.

At the same time Minimalism includes psychological model of art, which is based on the phenomenological psychology, which offers no criticism of the subject. This is the circumstance in which Foster sees the historical and ideological boundaries of Minimalism.

Regarding the development of contemporary art Foster argues that the repressed reality of poststructural postmodernism returns as the traumatic. The dissatisfaction of the textualist model of culture, and also from the conventional view on reality gives rise to interest in the traumatic subject in art.

In the late 20th century the poststructural criticism of the subject is related to the cultural policy of the different subjectivities and if the author is the great protagonist in modernism, the institutions and the public are the major protagonists in postmodernism.

The ignored subjectivism raises tension in the postpsychological models of art which are rhetorical and are imposed most often through the figures of absence and non-presentation.

Foster displays two main trends in the development of art in the 1990's, one of which refers to the problematization of the body as a psychological terrain associated with the strategies of ‘abject’, and the other – with the new dimensions of the social, updated by the ‘site-specific‘. Both trends are most clearly manifested in the development of the installation as an art form that is now not so much about arranging objects, but about combining different activities.

Up to present day, more and more researchers engage with the idea that namely the installationism is the dominant form of art in the late 20 and early 21 century.


[1] Kuspit, D. The End of Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

[2] The term 'postart' is coined by American artist Allan Kaprow as an attempt to describe the situation in which contemporary art becomes a commentary on the boundary between art and life (Kaprow, A. Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). Kuspit interprets postart as a category which rises the trivial at the expense of the enigmatic, the scatological at the expense of the sacred and wit at the expense of originality. According to Kuspit postart is a completely banal art that is neither kitsch nor high art, but an in-between art that glamorizes everyday reality pretending to analyze it '(Kuspit, 2004, 91).

[3] Kuspit, 2004, 102.

[4] Kuspit, 2004.

[5] Foster, H. The Return of the Real. The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996.

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