Postmodernism is an art of the surface; but so were the Gothics

Forrest ChristianTheory Leave a Comment

Postmodern art, like Neoclassical art, is above all an art of the surface: an art of reflections rather than visions. It has thrived in the depthless world of high-speed offset printing and digital design, where modernism starves. But the world of the sribes, in which the craft of type design is rooted, was a depthless world too. It was the world of the Gothic painters, in which everything is present on one plane. [From Robert Bringhurst’s excellent The Elements of Typographic Style (2nd Ed.), p. 136]

The comparison goes deeper. My wife has a PhD in medieval art and has written about the “continuous narration” that goes in medieval imagery, where a figure gets repeated throughout a scene to show time lapsing. A hero might be seen approaching a door,  then seen inside the room talking, then farther in fighting some foes. Religious stories worked very well in this.

Postmodernist imagery is similar, often pulling time apart. The issue of linearity is pushed or even destroyed. At it’s best timelines for multiple characters are completely different as they all move through the timestream differently, popping in and out, back and forth, each at his own. Not surprisingly, the earliest and still best examples come from ephemera like comics. Walter Simonson’s battle of Doctor Doom and Mister Fantastic in The Fantastic Four about 15 years ago comes easily to mind.

For my ancient forebearers the basis was their understanding of an omnipotent God. Today it is more likely to be quantum physics. Still, it is interesting to see connections that are all too often missing from ancient-future discussions about art.

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