Somebody Please Explain What “Post-modernism” Is: Interview with Gretchen Holmes

A while ago, Chicago Art Magazine Founder and Publisher Kathryn Born sat down with friend of the magazine, artist Gretchen Holmes to ask her a few questions about contemporary art terminology, in particular, the usage of “post-modernism” in both an art historical context, as well as colloquial and stylistic contexts. What follows is an abridged version of that interview:

Kathryn's friend in college in "Post-modern Elvis" Halloween costume.

Kathryn: Somebody please explain what the fuck Post-modernism is. I need help, because, thank you Art Now for having a two-sentence explanation of Post-modernism: “Post-modernism advocates an irreverent, playful treatment of ones own identity in a liberal society.”

I know a guy named Chris who was Post-modern Elvis for Halloween. He’s got this leather jacket, and he’s got his hair sort of in a bouffant, he’s got the green makeup on. I don’t get it. What’s Post-modern about it?  Why does Post-modernism mean playful?

Gretchen: I feel like that term is so meaningless now because it’s assumed that you look at something and it’s not what it appears to be.

Kathryn: So, what you’re saying Post-modern means all bets are off with style?

Gretchen: There’s now a disconnect between the way things appear to be and the way things really are. And that’s sort of friction that can be played with, and can become a new source of identity or a new source of meaning. And instead of it just being this lie that things look one way but are actually another way, the tension between them is actually what becomes the identity.

When you look at a David Salle painting or something, where it’s all of this crazy shit that doesn’t belong together, and you’re like “why are there dishes, and this weird silhouette slapped together in this painting, they don’t make any sense together?” It’s the process of actually negotiating why these things don’t make sense together, and all of these failed attempts at making meaning from it that actually make that painting interesting and meaningful.

Kathryn: But that’s why I’m confused, because surrealism was always supposed to be the juxtaposition of unlike things. I sort of feel like this is a non-term. So you’ve got the David Salle example. What’s another?

Gretchen: Celebrities, like Madonna- there’s another really good 80s example. And all the good examples are from the 80s, because I think Post-modernism is so soul-crushing; the idea that there’s no inherent meaning in anything and that meaning is just an effect of the tension between unlike things and between things that aren’t what they appear to be is so depressing. I like that people are becoming fatigued by that absence of meaning, and in a sense trying to find sincerity and rebel against it.

Kathryn: What’s Post-post-modern?

Gretchen: I think relational aesthetics are Post-post-modern. Because that’s taking what’s departing from the Modernist vision of art as an autonomous object and saying, no art is contingent.

It can actually be redemptive and it can mean different things to different people, but there’s this sort of optimism that it will actually mean something to the people who experienced it.

Kathryn: So that’s what this whole ‘sincerity’ thing’s about. Somebody said, “Sincere is the new Irony.”

David Salle's "Angels in the Rain"

Gretchen: It’s so true! And what I really love though is the flirtation with sincerity. Because people still aren’t sure if it’s ok to be sincere.

My husband has been working on this character for a while, where he performs as this karaoke DJ, who looks down-and-out, like you found him at the American Legion, and he hosts karaoke now. And he’ll do karaoke at a dive bar where they would normally have karaoke but for him, it’s art, it’s his work.

But he really wants to be a good karaoke DJ for the people who really go there for karaoke. At the same time, he’s inviting this other audience, who are seeing it as spectacle and the entire karaoke bar as ‘appropriated’ and all the regular people who go there as part of his spectacle. I think for that part of the audience, there’s sort of an ironic engagement with it because they’re not really going there for karaoke.

His goal is to trick these people to coming for this ironic dive bar experience.

Kathryn: ‘I came to heckle and I stayed to pray.’

Gretchen: Yes. You have to get people comfortable and invite them to something that still has this cool cache of irony. You don’t have to think about whether it’s ok to be ironic. And then you let them know that it’s also ok to be sincere.

Kathryn: What about environmental art? That seems sincere… or art actions that are supposed to be changed in the world. It seems like these art actions are so determined to make a difference by sitting in the snow, that they’re sincere.

Gretchen Holmes (left)

Gretchen: Just because it’s sincere doesn’t mean it’s good.

Kathryn: I recall a piece, Snow Chair* I believe it was called. It seems like they’re not being ironic about environmentalism. Or eco art.

Gretchen: I think what’s a more powerful kind of sincerity is the belief not just that it can make a difference but that it can be meaningful and it can provide a valuable experience for the people who see it. And that it can actually be a way for people to communicate and exchange and challenge each other. Whereas if Post-modernism is just meaning endlessly differed, then you know the only thing you’re going to get out of that experience is heartbreak. It’s like, “yeah I want to go to the MCA and get slapped in the face over and over and over again.” That’s not what happens when you go to the MCA, but that overarching attitude of Post-modernism, that’s what you expect when you go to the MCA. And then it doesn’t happen because art’s not like that. But let’s start making art that acknowledges that art isn’t like that.



*Snow Chair looked something like this.