Postmodernism in art

 

Against postmodernism.— If you want a simple criterion for artistic greatness, here it is: the artist who manifests longevity in both popular and critical approbation is truly great. -That excludes most avant-gardists and postmodernists, who don’t appeal even to educated popular audiences, only to super-educated, or super-indoctrinated, “critical” ones.

 

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After hearing Berio’s “Sinfonia.”— The problem with much (not all) postmodern and/or "avant-garde" art, whether in music, drama, literature or the plastic arts, is that its self-consciousness doesn’t extend far enough. This is all the more artistically damaging in that its chief merit, its most distinctive feature, is supposed to be its self-consciousness. From Beckett to Berio to Cage and beyond, postmodern (and many modernist) artists have set themselves in opposition to un-selfconscious artistic dogmas, to every un-selfconscious commonplace about art—such as the exaltation of naïve “beauty,” the idea that artists should work within traditional normative boundaries, even the idea that art itself constitutes a separate and lofty category of experience. These artists have taken as their starting-point the self-consciousness of modern society, its universal doubt and relativism, and have explored all its permutations through art. They have, therefore, prided themselves on two qualities: their artistic freedom (adventurousness) and their artistic self-consciousness.

 

It’s interesting to note that Romantic artists were, like their later antipodes the postmodernists, very self-conscious and concerned with artistic freedom. Art is self-expression, they thought, heroic and beautiful self-expression. Let the artistic genius go his own way, forge a path for others to follow! Life is tragic, full of suffering; the artist, though, creates out of his suffering, creates new worlds freely and spontaneously! He is the vanguard of humanity! –The problem with this creed was that it focused on the pathos in life and ignored the comic. It forgot the comic; life consisted only of pathos and tragedy. The Kierkegaardian and Nietzschean critiques of Romanticism can, perhaps, be distilled into that claim: the self-consciousness of the Romantics was not self-conscious enough, for it exaggerated one side of life at the expense of another equally important side. In other words, it criticized life but not itself.

 

Years ago I wrote this:

 

I read Chateaubriand’s Atala and René for my class. They were gorgeously written but exhausting to read. In fact, they were annoying. Such a shameless profusion of sentiment, such intemperate milking-of-sorrow-for-all-it’s-worth, such enraptured pessimism—yes, life is suffering, now get over it! I grew deadened to feeling, immune to all but impatience. Romanticism is self-defeating, self-caricaturing.

 

Postmodernism tends to be guilty of the same lack of self-consciousness and self-criticism, though in a different way. Rather than exaggerating the tragic in life, it exaggerates the absurd—the senseless and the commonplace, and the solipsistic. It rejects old aesthetic standards because of their supposed artificiality; it embraces life’s inherent contingency, the absolute freedom at its core. (It’s significant that existentialism was virtually contemporaneous with the beginnings of postmodernism.) And absolute freedom amounts, in this context, to absolute absurdity—chaos—and ordinariness, to the irrelevance of norms of reason and beauty. Hence: Duchamp’s Fountain, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Cage’s 4’33’’, Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, and Berio’s Sinfonia. The logical conclusion of this philosophy is something like Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, which was a 120-foot-long, 12-foot-high slab of rusted steel that reached across a popular plaza in Manhattan in the 1980s, obstructing the entrance to the federal building next to it and wrecking the public’s enjoyment of the plaza. Serra, like many other contemporary artists, wanted to challenge his audience, to make a philosophical statement. In this case, as he explained during the hearings that ended in the removal of his sculpture, he wanted to “create a behavioral space in which the viewer interacts with the sculpture in its context… The arc divides space against itself… We can learn more about ourselves, about the nature of our social relations, and about the nature of the spaces we inhabit and depend upon by keeping Tilted Arc.” A certain kind of artist has always tried to justify the ugliness or aesthetic unimpressiveness of his creations by means of such pseudo-philosophical arguments.

 

But the art is flawed in that it emphasizes one side of life—the nihilistic side—at the expense of another side, namely the rational and beautiful side. Franz Kafka’s art suffers from the same deficiency (though it is also more profound and finely crafted than the typical postmodernist creation). Rather than portraying life’s richness and thereby affirming life, it exaggerates the absurd and thereby denies life. Therefore, it is neither spiritually uplifting nor true to life.

 

Before I elaborate on that I want to point out another manifestation of postmodernism’s lack of self-consciousness: like Romanticism, it under-appreciates the comic element in life. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t laugh at life or make fun of it—for, indeed, this form of mockery is part of its raison d’être! However, it is far less adept at applying this mockery to itself—at recognizing that it itself is sometimes comical. It doesn’t see that it’s supremely pretentious, that, most of the time, it is a ridiculous self-parody. It takes itself far too seriously. For, in being defined by a rejection of conventional norms of beauty and rationality yet justifying itself through abstruse philosophical ideas (examples of which I gave above)—i.e., highly “rational” ideas—it contradicts itself. It justifies itself through reason, i.e., norms of reason, even as it rebels against all norms—i.e., as it proclaims its total freedom to do as it pleases. In short, there is a contradiction between its apparent simplicity, childishness, and its claims to sophistication (that is, its sophisticated self-justifications). This contradiction is essentially and necessarily comical, which is why people often laugh at postmodernism. They are laughing at its pretensions to sophistication, which are in such contrast to its often primitive or absurd appearance. By its very nature, such art cannot overcome this contradiction at its heart, and so it can never achieve the artistic dignity and merit of, say, Eugene O’Neill’s greatest plays, or Tolstoy’s novels, or Thomas Mann’s works.

 

So, like much Romantic art, though in a different way, postmodernism tends to be a self-parody.[1] In rebelling against what it considers the pretentiousness of traditional art, it succumbs to an even greater and more comical pretentiousness. This fact is damning enough, but, as I said above, postmodernism also tends to be guilty of exalting one aspect of experience (freedom, chaos, despair, confusion) and ignoring another aspect (reason, beauty, order, self-restraint). Unlike Romantic art, though, the aspect it ignores is the noble, uplifting, redeeming side of life, the humanistic side. So, while the Romantic artist is able to affirm life in spite of its tragedy, the postmodernist artist basically rejects life—mocks it, caricatures it, rebels against it (against the claims of taste, beauty, proportionality, reason, humanity, which are the most important and redeeming elements of life).

 

Another way of saying this is to say that postmodernism--or rather "avant-garde" art, including many works called postmodern--especially in its later manifestations, appeals overwhelmingly to the cognitive mode of experience, while neglecting the affective mode. Atonalism, for example, doesn’t “caress the emotions,” doesn’t soothe sadness or stimulate joy; it is mainly an intellectual exercise—an exalting of the intellect at the expense of the affective mode, which shudders and turns away from it. But an art that has contempt for the affective response in humans rejects one of the main functions of art—arguably the main function. We have philosophy and science to satisfy the cognitive sphere; if art, too, concerns itself mainly with the cognitive, then what is left for the affective? This side of life will shrivel, and the human being will become stunted. The situation is all the more lamentable in that the affective mode has far more to do with mental health than the cognitive mode does. Life is about affection more than cognition.

 

It’s ironic that, while the postmodern artist tends to pride himself on his appeal to the intellect over the emotions, his work is usually intellectually sterile. It is supposed to be a commentary on society or life or whatever, but its commentative value is nugatory. The commentary usually consists of vague, pseudo-philosophical trivialities, like Serra’s argument quoted above. Berio, for example, might say that the nonsensical, fragmentary verbal texts spoken simultaneously (in different languages) by the singers in his Sinfonia have a thematic significance, perhaps as a commentary on the social divisions during the 1960s, perhaps as implying that authentic communication between humans is impossible, perhaps as illustrating the fragmentary nature of the postmodern self. There is an indefinite number of possible “meanings.” But each of these meanings is a platitude, uninteresting and uninformative. So what the audience is confronted with is an incoherent mass of ugly sound and senseless verbal utterances with no redeeming thematic significance. The listener, therefore, is impatient, annoyed, bored, and the art fails to connect with its audience. In the end, it is merely a testament to the composer’s solipsistic self-indulgence.

 

In the third movement of the Sinfonia there are echoes of the scherzo from Mahler’s second symphony. “If I were asked to explain the presence of Mahler’s scherzo in Sinfonia,” Berio has said, “the image that would naturally spring to mind would be that of a river running through a constantly changing landscape, disappearing from time to time underground, only to emerge later totally transformed. Its course is at times perfectly transparent, at others hard to perceive, sometimes it takes on a totally recognizable form, at others it is made up of a multitude of tiny details lost in the surrounding forest of musical presences.” –Wow, that all sounds very lofty and philosophical. However, especially in contrast with the incoherent surface-structure of the piece, it is unbearably pretentious. And comical. An art that is in this way a self-parody fails as art.

 

In short, there are (or were) many problems with postmodernism. While it is indeed “art,” it is rarely great art, for great art appeals to both the affective and the cognitive modes, and doesn’t rely on philosophical clichés to justify its existence, and is true to life—it resonates with the average intelligent person’s experience, with his spiritual strivings and doubts—and it isn’t self-contradictory in such a way that it deteriorates into self-parody.

 

Nevertheless, it’s good that art went through its postmodernist period, for now it can return to its earlier grandeur but on a higher, more self-conscious level. For there is a kernel of truth in every historical movement, as Hegel saw. Modernism and postmodernism freed art from the naïve and dogmatic emphasis on beauty, pleasantness, conventionality. Postmodernism in particular remade art in the image of modern life, with its chaos, ugliness, self-doubt, exaggerations, thereby performing an invaluable historical service. That it amounted to a denial of most things that are good in life does not mitigate its importance. What is left to us now, though, is to transcend its implicit negativity—to synthesize (i.e., reconcile) the awareness of life’s absurdity with love of life, with affirmation.[2] This synthesis is indeed possible: just look at the ancient Greeks, who carried it out on a more naïve level. (They reconciled the affirmative attitude with awareness of life’s tragedy rather than absurdity. Admittedly, tragedy is, in a sense, less “tragic” than absurdity, for it still maintains the dignity of man, his worth, while absurdity denies even this. Still, it is possible both to appreciate absurdity and to affirm life.)

 

So it’s time we left creative impotence behind and started loving life again. It’s time we became humanists—by adhering to a self-conscious and rich humanism, richer than that of the Enlightenment.

 

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An artist who isn’t.— The typical postmodern artist (and critic) confuses greatness with the fostering of controversy. He seems to think that the purpose of art is to produce controversy—to be “original.” Originality, no matter how it’s manifested, is seen as an end in itself. In reality, though, it is only a means. Great artists have always understood this.

 

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Susan Sontag against herself.— It’s significant that even someone like Susan Sontag, who for a while was adamant in her support of postmodernism and formalism, finally admitted that the postmodernist attitude contains the seeds of cultural destruction. In her famous book Against Interpretation, and Other Essays, published originally in the 1960s, she defended contemporary art against criticisms by Marxist, humanistic critics like Georg Lukács, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno. But when she published a new edition of her book in 1996, she added an Afterword in which she admitted that the humanists were partly right after all. She had scolded them for being “insensitive to most of the interesting and creative features of contemporary culture in non-socialist countries”: they criticized most modern art as decadent, alienated, un-historical, allegorical, unrealistic, shallow, consumerist. They thought it was symptomatic of a culture in decline, while earlier realism was strong and vibrant, and morally uplifting. She argued, on the other hand, that they overemphasized the importance of “content” at the expense of “form.” But in the 1996 Afterword she admitted that “we live in a time which is experienced as the end—more exactly, just past the end—of every ideal. (And therefore of culture: there is no possibility of true culture without altruism.)… [Back in the Sixties, even, something was happening,] something that it would not be an exaggeration to call a sea-change in the whole culture, a transvaluation of values—for which there are many names. Barbarism is one name for what was taking over. Let’s use Nietzsche’s term: we had entered, really entered, the age of nihilism.” So in the end she agreed with the Marxist critics, who evidently had a keener sense of what was happening than she did. She even adopted their moralistic language, in direct opposition to her earlier self: “there is no possibility of true culture without altruism.”

 

 

[1] Notice I wrote “tends to…” At its best, postmodernism can be extremely thought-provoking. Duchamp’s Fountain, which at least anticipated postmodernism, is profound—not “in itself” but because of the social context in which it was produced. However, Minimalism in the 1970s or 1980s was not profound, because the social context had changed.

 

[2] Some postmodern artists might object that that is exactly what they saw themselves as doing. Many of them, after all, rejoiced in casting off old rules and effectively denying life’s meaningfulness. The nature of their work, however, belies their optimistic self-interpretation: insofar, e.g., as it exalts controversy for controversy’s sake, or is intentionally puerile and ridiculous, or is impenetrably solipsistic, the essence of their work is negative rather than positive. It bespeaks the despairing fragmentedness of its society.

NOTES OF AN UNDERGROUND HUMANIST

© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright