Postmodernism, value, and a diamond encrusted skull

I recently read an article by Edward Docx entitled, “Postmodernism is dead” where he argued that the deconstruction occurring through postmodern thought removed previous criteria of determining if something was of value.  So beauty, aesthetics, skill went out the window as criteria used to judge the worth of work, art, music, literature, philosophy and so forth.  The resulting vacuum quickly needed to be filled with some metric to determine value.  Why?  Because we as humans are wired to ascribe worth to something (this idea is based upon the Christian belief that we will worship something.  Worship is nothing more than ascribing worth to something).  So what became the determining criteria of worth?  Money.  Docx says:

In other words, increasingly, artistic success has become about nothing except money; and, increasingly, artists have come to judge their own success that way, too. This is the reason today that we feel the genre writer’s cry “I sold millions” so powerfully, even though in truth it can say little about the art form other than “it sold millions.” Changing disciplines, if we take this commoditisation of art to its natural limit, we arrive at Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull, For the Love of God (2007). Commoditisation has here become the only point. The work, such as it is, centres on its cost and value and comprises also (I would say mainly) the media storm surrounding it: the rumours that it was bought for £50m, or that Hirst himself bought it, or that he offset his tax bill by claiming diamonds as tax deductible artistic materials, or that he didn’t buy it at all, or that nobody has bought it… And so postmodernly on. The paradox being this: that by removing all criteria, we are left with nothing but the market. The opposite of what postmodernism originally intended.

Postmodern thought left us with only money and the market to determine the value of something.  “How much is it worth?  How much did it make?” are the questions hovering over art, literature and music.  The quality of music is no longer determined by the richness of its lyrics, or the use of melody, harmony and subtlety, rather it is esteemed on its ability to appeal to masses of people and bring in millions of dollars.  This valuation by earning power stems from a ubiquitous confusion as to who can assign value.  Postmodernism undermined any privilege a dominant discourse might have previously had in assigning value.  It also became politically wrong to claim the ability to assign value.  Thus, profits became the final arbitrator.

I can’t help but reflect on the financial meltdown of 2008.  After watching the documentary Inside Job, I felt sick to my stomach and wondered how anyone could be so greedy as to willfully risk company, economy and name in effort to make a quick dollar.  But it makes sense.  If money is the only thing of value, then pursing it is the highest good.  Integrity, concern for others, ethics, and reputation hold no value.  Thanks to postmodernist deconstruction, they are worthless.  Who give them value?  The individual can’t assign value because that would be conflict of interest.  Others might value ethics over reputation or vice versa.  How does one know?  They don’t.  They can’t.  And so value is evidenced by the bank account.

Perhaps the most insidious outcome of this removal of value is what it does to the person. If art, literature, music and philosophies have no criteria other than money to judge their value, then what about the person?  Can a person have intrinsic value?  How do they know their worth?  Who determines who is worth what?  Or is a person’s value tied to money, or the ability to earn money?  I fear we are becoming a culture so impacted by postmodernism’s devaluation of anything but money has crept in to how we treat one another.

To see the truth of this, one has to look no further than how we view the poor.  Many view the poor as the 50% who “have no skin in the game” in terms of paying taxes.  They are labeled as moochers, free riders, and lazy.  Why?  They contribute nothing to the economic system.  They would be more valuable if they paid taxes, if they contributed.  Value has been divorced from humanity and married to bank account.  A day after I initially wrote this, I came across this article “The New Resentment of the Poor.

Docx gives hope at the end of his article.

We desire to be redeemed from the grossness of our consumption, the sham of our attitudinizing, the teeming insecurities on which social networking sites were founded and now feed. . . . If the problem for the postmodernists was that the modernists had been telling them what to do, then the problem for the present generation is the opposite: nobody has been telling us what to do.

The Christian hope is that humans are valued because they are made in the Creator’s image.  Humanity, with all its flaws, short-comings, and brokenness has value because the “Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  The incarnation cries out to the universe that humanity has value.  That there is intrinsic worth.  And that worth is not tied to bank accounts, or buying power, or contribution, but worth is derived in being image bearer’s of God.

Perhaps the most inspiring thing about this idea: there need not be any confusion about who assigns value.  For it is not determined by other humans, but is assigned by the very one who created them.  Our worth comes from the one who is supremely worthy.


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