Judith Wilson, 1992

A Postmortem On Postmodernism?

By Judith Wilson, 1992

Postmodernism has been especially problematic for artists of color, at the same time that it has gained them greater visibility than ever before. A few examples:

(SLIDE 1L) Adrian Piper is one of the artists whom I have long considered a pioneer African-American post-modernist. Yet, Piper, a philosophy professor deeply enamoured of Kantian metaphysics, firmly rejects postmodernism’s anti-rationalist philosophical premises.

(SLIDE 1R) Similarly, but for quite different reasons, Carrie Mae Weems has taken me to task for characterizing her work as “postmodern.” To Weems, such labels smack of Eurocentrism.

(SLIDE 2L) With Lorna Simpson, we have yet another wrinkle–an African-American photographer whose work gained immediate acceptance as “postmodern” by mainstream critics and curators, while the race and gender-specificity of her images, though frequently praised, went largely unexamined–except by critics of color, such as Kellie Jones, Yasmin Ramirez and Coco Fusco.

To the extent that postmodernism has been a privileged discourse within the artworld for the past decade or so, these artists’ ambivalence toward and their ambiguous status with respect to that discourse can be seen as the simple consequence of a long history of denial, insult and exclusion. In the tendency of someone like Piper to reject a theoretical program that celebrates difference and radically critiques the interface of political and cultural power, I am reminded of the self-defeating rigidity and caution that the legal scholar Patricia J. Williams has described in The Alchemy of Race and Rights. Contrasting her own behavior with that of a white colleague, Williams writes:

Peter . . . appeared to be extremely self-conscious of his power potential . . . as white or male or lawyer authority figure. He therefore seemed to go to some lengths to overcome the wall that image might impose. The logical ways of establishing some measure of trust between strangers were an avoidance of power and a preference for informal processes generally.

On the other hand, I was raised to be acutely ( . . . )

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