Great Artists of Late 20th and Early 21st Century

women artists,” feminists have reflexively responded by trying to find great women artists from the past who were undiscovered or to emphasize little-regarded female artists from past artistic movements dominated by men. However, this can create the impression of feminists being ‘desperate’ to find examples of female greatness and over-inflating the reputation of relatively minor artists. Other feminist art historians have criticized the notion of what constitutes ‘greatness’ as overly masculine in quality and tried to create a new, specifically female-centric notions of artistic greatness. Feminist critic Linda Nochlin sees this as problematic given that there is no clear feminine principle uniting women artists through the ages: in fact, women artists and writers are more apt to resemble males of their respective periods than they are of all women throughout the ages.

Instead, Nochlin asserts that the absence of great female artists is similar to the reason why there are no great Eskimo tennis players: women have simply lacked opportunities to develop their greatness, based upon institutional discrimination. The ‘woman problem’ arises from the fact that it has been easier to gain access to the tools necessary to produce greatness if one is white, middle-class, and male. The very concept of ‘greatness’ or the tracing of an unbroken line of greatness from Michelangelo to Van Gogh and beyond is “romantic, elitist, and individual-glorifying” (Nochlin 4). This concept of greatness, in other words, is very much the product of our peculiar Western culture and by engaging in the debate feminists are subverting themselves by accepting such concepts uncritically. Art in this narrow modality is conceptualized as innate, predetermined, and ahistorical, despite the fact that in many other cultural contexts art is a communal and a social rather than a personally-generated artistic product. And even in the West, financial and institutional support has had a profound influence in making art come into being.

Nochlin does not deny that male artists may have exhibited singular gifts that may have been legitimately called extraordinary. However, she notes that if the female contemporaries of these male artists had shown similar prowess, they might not have been recognized, nurtured, and supported. Being labeled a genius early in life begets genius while the potential of young women is often ignored. It is also noteworthy that many painters and artists came from families where art was the family ‘trade.’ They thus had familial support and role models that encouraged them to thrive in the profession while others did not. Nochlin also notes that other categories of persons who are underrepresented in the arts such as the aristocracy do not have the question ‘why do they not make great’ asked of them: only women must justify their ‘right’ to make art.

Still, the feminist artists of the 1960s and 1970s felt a clear need to respond to the question of ‘what is great female art,’ given that despite the legitimate objections raised by critics such as Nochlin, they inevitably felt pressure placed upon them by the hegemonic culture to parse the ‘woman question.’ To create what they considered innately female art they often used the physical representation of their bodies in a way that no man could, making the female genitalia and gynocentric images critical to their works. Their works were less in the ‘great artist’ tradition discussed by Nochlin and more along the lines of works specifically designed to liberate the artist as a member of an oppressed population from social repression: a good example of this is Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, a three-dimension banquet for great women of history with place settings to represent their accomplishments that have a distinctly physical, female appearance. The work simultaneously celebrates the ‘greatness’ of women by elevating women of the past in a manner that would not doubt be criticized by Nochlin but uses highly suggestive images of the female anatomy on the plates to question the celebration of maleness and power.

Q2. How does postmodernism differ from modernism?

Modernism is often called a celebration of rationalism. In contrast to previous eras, modernism emphasized the ability to seek the knowledge of absolute truth. “Two new approaches to knowing became dominant in the modern period. The first was empiricism (knowing through the senses) which gradually evolved into scientific empiricism or modern science with the development of modernist methodology. The second epistemological approach of this period was reason or logic” (Hoffman 1). Superstition was shunned and there was an attempt to create purely functional designs in art and architecture that reduced objects to their purest essences. During the modernist period, as the shift in power moved away from the church, politics (governments, kings, etc.) and universities (scholars, professors) took over as the primary sources of authority” (Hoffman 1). Modernism is often called the age of bureaucracy and standardization.

Postmodernism, in contrast, questioned the ability of people to know things in an absolute and unquestioning fashion. “Postmodernism brought with it a questioning of the previous approaches to knowing. Instead of relying on one approach to knowing, they [postmodernists] advocate for an epistemological pluralism which utilizes multiple ways of knowing. This can include the premodern ways (revelation) and modern ways (science & reason), along with many other ways of knowing such as intuition, relational, and spiritual” (Hoffman 1). Sources of power in the postmodern mindset are not institutional in nature because postmodernism questions the existence of a single, over-arching authority that can pass definitive judgment upon aesthetic standards.

While modern artists still believed that art had inherent, static meanings that were significant and unchanging, postmodern artists tend to take both a more nihilistic and also a more playful attitude to the process of creating art and to popular culture in general. A good example can be seen in Andy Warhol’s Pop Art representations which depict images of commercialism such as his famous, silk-screened Campbell’s soup cans which are endlessly replicated to create numbness rather than beauty in the mind of the gazer. “Faced with a new nonsensical world, the postmodernist response has been: Okay, let’s play around with this nonsense. We accept that life and art no longer have any obvious intrinsic meaning, but so what? Let’s experiment, make art more interesting, and see where it leads. Who knows, maybe we can be famous for 15 minutes!” (“Postmodernist art,” Art Encyclopedia). Warhol’s contemporary Ray Lichtenstein created works of art that looked like giant cartoon panels and satirized the concept of romance depicted in very sincere terms in traditional newspaper and magazine art. The purpose of the art was not to elevate but to question, deflate, and render uncertain the viewer’s ideas of what was meaningful and appropriate subjects for art.

Inherent in much of postmodern art is a satire of the art world in general. Postmodernism has often been criticized as primarily appropriating past works of art (versus modernism which shunned them) and not creating anything new, merely parodying the old. It has also been criticized as coming up with idea or ‘stunt’ art, versus paying attention to craft. “Thus for example in Britain, in 2002, when the prestigious Turner Prize was won by Keith Tyson for his creation of a large black monolithic block filled with discarded computers, not a single painter had been considered as a possible recipient of the prize” (“Postmodernist art,” Art Encyclopedia). However, despite these criticisms and its emphasis on appropriation and ‘found’ art in the text of popular culture, some critics have praised postmodernism for providing a necessary, vital critique of the humorlessness and the minimalism of modernism. The two movements are very much in dialogue, with postmodernism clearly functioning as a reply to modernism and subverting the previous movement’s dearest tropes.

Q3. Three artists from three different cultures

One predominant philosophy which has affected world art is the concept of post-colonialism. In the wake of the dissolution of the colonial empires of Europe, many artists within the former colonies have created art that is a direct reply to the Western tradition. Such art criticizes and challenges notions of stable, consistent authority, beauty, and the dominance of Eurocentric models of art. For example, “in his work Hidden Prisoner (1993), the Iraq-born photographer Halim Al-Karim takes ancient Oriental portraits that watch him in the museum and morphs them in order to express his disapproval of the fact that he encounters his cultural ancestors there. The works presented in this section show that the old organizational term ‘world art’ always served modern interest and is rejected for this reason in the field of postcolonial art production” (“World Art,” ZKM). Al-Karim’s work thus underlines the fact that the museum is very much a Westernized construction. Before, art was a product of the community and had a functional, ritualistic dimension that was not separate from its existence as a work of art. However, Al-Karim, rather than viewing this as purely tragic, takes a playful attitude in the way that his ancestors regard him. He is, after all, a photographer and not working in traditional media.

This postcolonial protest to the appropriation of indigenous art by the West can also be seen in the Australian artist Richard Bell’s works, which has a distinctly political quality. “In his opposition to the usurpation of Aboriginal imagery and its commercial use in advertising campaigns, tourism promotion, etc. Bell appropriates styles and forms of Western Modernism, its painterly expression and iconography. The colorful, gridded patterns of Scientia E. Metaphysica (Bell’s Theorem) are reminiscent both of Pop art and the styles evolved by Indigenous artists” (“World Art,” ZKM). Bell’s work is highly abstract, in contrast to Al-Karim’s, and it is less deliberately ironic, although its colorful nature and use of words clearly shows the postmodern aesthetic of pastiche and contrast. Many of Bell’s works look like reconfigurations of advertising campaigns to make an ironic point in regards to Bell’s critique of how aborigines are viewed as ‘the other’ in Australian society and how their culture is rendered into an artifact. However, some might argue that there is an aspect of modernism to Bell’s output given that he does have a clear and serious ‘point’ he is wishing to express, versus merely striving to create a generalized impression upon the viewer or trying to provoke the viewer in a humorous fashion.

Finally, many post-colonial artists eschew identifying themselves with any specific medium entirely like paint or sculpture and instead create performance-based works that attempt to reclaim ancient spoken word traditions as well as ancient art. For example, “Angolan artist and slam poet Nastio Mosquito is a multimedia artist whose works include music, performance, the spoken word, photography, film, television, and video. Combining entertainment and performance, Mosquito comments on the current globalized present and analyzes questions of identity and the effects of imperialism, postcolonialism” (“World Art,” ZKM). In his work entitled Europe, Mosquito speaks directly to the viewer: “I bought Europe. Your pride of a Europe that no longer belongs to you” (“World Art,” ZKM). Like Al-Karim, Mosquito renders himself into an object in his art as well as acts as an artistic creator: as a former colonized subject, he strives to re-appropriate himself into a work of art and inscribe new meaning onto his own image, given that people of colonialized lands have long been used to represent ‘the other’ or ‘the Orient’ in Western art.

Works Cited

Hoffman, Lewis. “Premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism.” Postmodern Psychology.

2008. 24 May 2014.

“Postmodernist art.” Art Encyclopedia. 24 May 2014.

“World Art. The Curiosity Cabinet from a Postcolonial Perspective.” ZKM. 2012.

24 May 2014.

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