How Can we Define the Phenomenon of Meta Art ? A Dance between Philosophy and Art History

December 24, 2015

Let’s start today’s conversation by asking: how often do you hear the word meta in your daily conversations? How often do you see comments, even memes, on social networks that feature something like “oh, that is so meta”. Do these comments annoy you? Well, if you come from the academic background in humanities and you had to read all those irritating texts by some famous poststructuralists, often written in a manner that serves no other purpose than to confuse the already confused students, I guess you do get slightly annoyed. In our postmodern world or post-postmodern world, as some would argue, the prefix “meta” is added everywhere to mark practically any phenomenon that is self-referential, self-conscious or self-parodying. To some extent, the word itself became a parody. But it would never have happened if our culture didn’t reach that point of intellectual pretentiousness and skepticism that now influence our reception of arts, culture and most importantly art production.

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Adam Goldberg next to one of Wool's paintings contemplating meta art, film Untitled (2009)

The Phenomenon of Meta-Art

So, what is meta-art and how can we define it? Many of these meta-concepts that entered art history were born in relation to similar ones in philosophy and literary theory. For instance, the term metafiction was introduced by literary scholars to signify the narrative technique that was used self-consciously in order to draw attention to literature as an artifact and force readers to notice the fictionality of the work. Therefore, metafiction came to be the fiction about the fiction, text that reflects upon itself. Similar notions are explored in metacinematic works, presentational theater and all genres that challenge the notion of mimesis, emotional involvement of recipients, contemplating on their own nature rather than anything else. The same can be said for visual arts where the focus was placed on the artistic process and philosophy of art, rather than the subject matter. In various disciplines, art became the sole subject of art. Avant-garde movements like Dadaism and Suprematism, for instance, started this trend of self-reflective art practices. Once the traditional art objects were discarded, anything could become art and everything became art whether it was a urinal or a blank canvas. Art became a statement about itself and this is where the concept of meta-art was born.

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Marchel Duchamp - Fountain, 1917. One of the first artworks that has signified the shift in reception of traditional art objects

Meta-Art and Postmodernity

As French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard believed, postmodernism is defined by the lack of faith in metanarratives that have been essential in modernity. Along with other poststructuralist scholars, Lyotard argued that postmodern condition is characterized by the skepticism in grand narratives, which were created by the power structures and presented as universal, transcendental truths. After two World Wars, social revolutions, and the formation of totalitarian states, the totalizing nature of metanarratives became much clearer. In arts, the idea of universal aesthetics has been abandoned along with the idea that art can be an agent of change. Art turned towards itself and this shift is best embodied in Adorno’s famous quote: “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz”. The post-war years marked the birth of postmodernism in arts, the focus on micro-narratives, local histories, and skepticism about the big ideas. Meta-artistic, self-conscious practices flourished, and since there were no big ideas that could be explored, artists got manically engaged in self-referential aspects of artistic creations.

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Lawrence Weiner - Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole

The End of Art

When Marcel Duchamp introduced the philosophy of ready-mades to the world of art, his works were widely considered a joke. However, with the exhaustion of big modernist movements like Expressionism and Surrealism who were in search for transcendental truths and universal meanings, many artists started to abandon this notion that art has a greater purpose and adopted Duchamp’s view of the art objects. In a world where any object could become art, where art critics developed a discourse that can explain anything as art and make viewers perceive it as such everything indeed became art, even if it was invisible, until nothing was art anymore. This is basically how relativism works, and it is not unusual why in postmodernism the death or the end of art was proclaimed along with Foucault’s notion of “death of men” or Barthes’ idea of “death of the author”. Art died in its traditional sense to be reborn as something else that many now call meta-art for its level of abstraction that transgresses limits of traditional aesthetics. Art became an open-ended field, where the focus was not on the meaning of a particular work or the artist himself. Art became a statement about the physical process of the art making, the conceptual idea, interactive form. Postmodern artists became the catalyst rather than authors or creators and art centered on the idea of performativity. Conceptual art, the art of performance, process art, algorithmic art, new media art – all of those movements that marked the last decades were in a way more interested in questioning conditions of their own production rather than anything else. For many years now, art and theory were going hand in hand informing and supporting each other, and at the same time when theoreticians started questioning the whole idea of postmodernism, the artists got nostalgic about those nice times in art history when art actually wanted to say something else about the world that wasn’t conceptual or contextual. And this is where another term entered the scene, which we’ll discuss in the following paragraph.

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Tom Friedman - Untitled (A Curse), 1992. An 11 inch sphere of space floating 11 inch above the top of a pedestal cursed by a witch 133.4 x 28 x 28 cm

Metamodernism – What Is It All About?

I know we’re getting closer to the end of this article, but I wouldn’t judge you if decide to you leave this text now and do something more productive. I even recommend it cause things are about to get really complicated right now. But if you’re still here let’s try to untangle what metamodernism is supposed to be. Over the last five years, the term metamodernism became quite popular in the art world and among cultural theorists. It became popular because art and theory got tired of themselves, in my humble opinion, and another concept needed to be introduced which would keep people busy for a while, because contemporary art along with theory has struck a dead-end. The most influential essay on the subject is still the essay Notes on Metamodernism written by cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker in 2010. According to these two theorists, metamodernism is situated somewhere between modernism and postmodernism, between modern enthusiasm and postmodern irony. In their words: “If the modern thus expresses itself by way of a utopic syntaxis, and the postmodern expresses itself by means of a dystopic parataxis, the metamodern, it appears, exposes itself through a-topic metaxis.” So where is the art of metamodernism? Literally nowhere. It could be argued that metamodernism in art is another endeavor to reengage in modernism by keeping the postmodern self-conscious. These two theorists also argue that metamodernism is somewhat closer to neo-romanticism and nostalgic sensibility that is characteristic for the works of Olafur Eliasson, Charles Avery, Peter Doig and Kaye Donachie among others.

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Meta Art
Charles Avery -Untitled (It Means It Means; Bourgeois, Friedrich, LeWitt, Lichtenstein, Malevich, Morris, Polke, Stieglitz), 2013

Meta-Art and Metamodernism – Why Can’t We Just Enjoy and Appreciate Art?

As you can see, we did talk about art and history, but ultimately when it comes to the definition of meta-art I don’t think we truly answered the question. In the end, it all comes to simple linguistics. In the past the term "meta" was used to describe what goes beyond or comes after and meta-art was perceived as art that goes beyond the traditional aesthetics. Meta-art came to signify all those practices that were dealing with the nature of art in intellectual terms, something associated with the reflective stance as a typical feature of postmodernism. However, the debate about postmodernism is a big hit for quite some time and metamodernists would argue that the term “meta” should be examined as well, this time to mark something that is in between. Finally, the burden of postmodern theory is so heavy that many of these new concepts seem far-fetched but appealing to many who got tired of the hollowness and senselessness of everything nowadays. The world is complicated, it will not become simpler any time soon, and art has always been the catalyst of contemporaneity. The problem with our time is that we have lost the ability to enjoy art and became more focused on understanding it, inventing new theories and meta-theories that can help us in our intellectual endeavors. But let’s see, maybe things get better in the future. Or meta-future?

Editors’ Tip: The Metareferential Turn in Contemporary Arts and Media: Forms, Functions, Attempts at Explanation

Just as we discussed in the article, Western culture has become meta-culture, feeding on itself and its developments. Edited by Werner Wolf, The Metareferential Turn in Contemporary Arts and Media brings a collection of essays, which aim to explain these “meta” tendencies on a larger scale. From contemporary art to literary fiction, music, film and similar media, this book is a must-read for those interested in this phenomenon, as it provides a much-needed insight into the cultural turn that came with postmodernism. Coming from diverse disciplinary and methodological backgrounds, the contributors to this volume propose explanations of impressive subtlety, breadth and depth for the current situation in addition to exploring individual forms and functions of meta-reference which may be linked with particular explanations.

Featured image: Rene Magritte - The Two mysteries, 1966. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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