Post-Modernism – its Origins, Features and Relevance

‘A new world began in 1910’ said Roger Fry who organized the Post-Impressionist art exhibition at the Grafton Gallery in London that year. The new world in question was modernism in art, and the arts generally, which was effectively launched by that exhibition which included not only the work of Gauguin,Van Gogh, the Pont Aven School and the Fauvists but also artists such as Pablo Picasso in his early Cubist phase and George Braque.
Modernism in Anglo-American literature started a bit later, arguably with the publication in 1922 of both T.S. Eliot’s five-part poem The Wasteland (with its hyper-modern cut-and-paste techniques and parody of earlier work with simultaneous references to Buddhist religion and philosophy) and James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (with its pioneer stream-of-consciousness approach and rejection of narrative and characterisation) – later to be taken even further by Finnegan’s Wake (1939) a Post-Modernist novel combining stream of semi-unconsciousness in a dream-world with a new meta-language unintelligible except to polymathic multi-linguists). In architecture modernism came along even later with the Bauhaus school in the 1920’s curiously influential on modernist artists such as Kandinsky and Klee, then the brutalist architecture of the 1940’s to the 1960s regarding housing and office-space as machines for living and working in. In music modernism began shortly after the Post-Impressionist exhibition with Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) ridiculed in Vienna and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913) which was jeered and catcalled on its premier in Paris (at that time the home of the avant-garde in everything) and ridiculed by the uncomprehending critics. Such popular rejection has arguably become a touchstone of Modernism and Post-Modernism ever since.
Modernism has been such a dominant force right across the arts, fine and applied, literature and culture, over the past century with its rejection of tradition, rules and conventions accompanied by many successful experiments in form and language that some argue that Post-Modernism is itself a mythical concept without any real meaning and that Modernism is still an ongoing prevailing influence on the arts and society (Malcolm Bradbury in Modernism, contra Leslie Fielder who goes for the full Post-Modern pitch). However, starting with architecture it seems clear that Post-Modernism does have definable features and characteristics and is therefore a relevant concept to be used, with caution, in contemporary discourse on art, the arts and culture.

Staatsgallerie Stuttgart (First photo)

Modernist architecture emphasized functionality above artistic expression by the architect and demanded ultra-modern materials, notably glass, steel and concrete, while rejecting any kind of ornament and decoration. A classic example of modernist architecture was the Seagram Building (1954-58) in New York, a glass and steel tower designed by Mies van der Rohr, famous for his aphorism ‘Less is more’. Post-Modern architecture rejects the basic tenets of Modernism and aims to replace the severe functionality of Modernism with a dazzling mix of hybrid designs including reversions to Baroque and even classical elements, mingling columns with modern materials and the brightest colours. So pastiche, parody and playful references to the past became the new norm. James Stirling’s Staatsgallerie Stuttgart (1980-84) combines classical allusions with polychromatic marble and hi-tech details. It seems good and bad taste fly out of the window – a feature that will later become prevalent right across the arts. The architect Robert Venturi proposed Las Vegas as the archetypal modern – or rather Post-Modern- city as a place of signs and symbols, expressed in its illuminations, with no depth or meaning beyond what is visible. So in Post-Modern design form does not express function but positively undermines it.
In music Post-Modernism is expressed in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem and Philip Glass, whose musical epics seem to last an eternity if not actually expressing it, and combine modernist elements of atonality and twelve tone method with the capacity of free-form jazz and classical Indian sitar music to expand outwards without any concept of development or conclusion.
A classic piece of Post-Modern music is John Cage’s work ‘Silence’ ‘performed’ by an orchestra assembling, sitting and departing, for 4 minutes 33 seconds without playing a single note. Curiously the modernist composer Satie had his Post-Modern moment when his work ‘Vexations’ although composed in 1893 (to express his view that ‘Love is a sickness of the nerves’) was finally premiered by John Cage being performed 840 times at the piano for 18 hours in New York in 1963. A successor is Damon Albarn, a pop musician creating monumental works in this style such as ‘Marco Polo’. John Taverner composed post-modern music with throwbacks to Gregorian Chant and Greek Orthodox services of which he is a personal adherent.
As regards literature, Post-Modernism kicks in with such concepts as early as the mid-1950’s ‘nouveau roman’ in France pioneered by Camus with his novels of the absurd ‘The Outsider’ and ‘The Plague’ coinciding with the ‘New Wave’ in French cinema. Another is ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ where narrative is either distorted or abandoned altogether. Its European equivalents are the ‘anti-novel’ in such works as Samuel Beckett’s ‘Malloy’ and ‘Malone Dies’ and his play ‘Waiting for Godot’ which is actually a classic work of the Theatre of the Absurd. Harold Pinter’s whole dramatic output from ‘The Birthday Party’ (1959) to ‘The Homecoming’ and ‘Mountain Language’ (1993) involved Post-Modern distortions of language and manipulations of reality with attributional pastiche. Camus, Beckett and Pinter were of course Nobel Laureates. Other Post-Modern dramatic developments include ‘happenings’ where drama unfolds without any preconceived ideas or script or attempt at characterisation or planned denouement and ‘street theatre’ where organisations or communities can do their own thing with or without any audience and as part of a greater festival or otherwise. Whereas modernism had a formal and aesthetic constituent, it is arguable that Post-Modernism repudiates this and looks for a choric, community aspects, which, in a strange way, hark right back to Greek drama over 2,500 years ago. As a sixties leftish guru once said ‘Revolution is the festival of the oppressed.’
Post-Modern novel innovations included William Burroughs and his cut-outs (a fiction equivalent to collage in art) incorporated in his seminal work ‘The Naked Lunch’ (a viscerally explosive junkie memoir) and B.S. Johnson’s ‘Trawl’ which was loose-leafed for the readers to re-arrange as they would. Such gimmickry has not produced any kind of serious literature and the major American novelists of the Post-Modern era-Saul Bellow, John Updike, Gore Vidal, have not bothered with this stuff but stuck to the mainstream inhabited by their predecessors Faulkner and Hemingway.
In world literature terms, however, the ‘magical realism’ of South American novels such as ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ are loaded with Post-Modernist elements already highlighted. On the other hand, the Booker Prize for literature, which is a literary equivalent to the Turner Prize for art (both in prestige and in monetary value) has, unlike its art counterpart, a positive distaste for literary works outside the mainstream of narrative fiction. Nothing experimental has ever won it since its inception in 1970 (strangely coincidental with the birth-pangs of literary Poster-Modernism.)
Equivalents in poetry are ‘concrete poetry’ which has random shapes of letters without any kind of form or meaning, ‘light poetry’ where the words are spelled out in the dark to an audience who are kept in the dark once the performance ends and there is no permanent text of any sort. Performance poetry which emphasizes spontaneous improvisation without written text although rap poetry – by far the most successful and popular of performance poetry – actually has a Post-Modern ironic reversion to a fairly demanding rhyming pattern, albeit with irregular lines combined with completely streetwise urban patois and younger generation lingo, abbreviations and references. It is noteworthy that European poets who have won Nobel Prizes such as Derek Walcott (whose epic poem ‘Omeros’ celebrates two St.Lucia fishermen in a long narrative written entirely in terza rim), a the strict metre used by Dante in his Divine Comedy, and Seamus Heaney, whose work is mostly strictly structured in the tradition of his great predecessor W.B. Yeats who won the Nobel prize in 1923, have shied away from Post-Modernist poetic practice.
On the other hand such literary theories as phenomology, which tries to find intrinsic meaning apart from language and structuralism and post-structuralism which seeks to find meaning in the textual analysis alone-have not impacted on Post-Modernism in contemporary literature (Professor Terry Eagleton’s book on Literary Theory does not even mention Post-Modernism once.) Rather post-Modernism finds further justification in feminist, Marxist and neo-Marxist and psycho-analytical approaches to literature and literary interpretation. These purport to explain the barbarism and destructiveness of the twentieth century in the age of mass-media and multiculturalism with a strict relativism, deeming strict standards such as have been applied in the past impossible under such conditions. Such an attitude suggests poetry is impossible after Auschwitz ´(whereas Primo Levi’s work shows that poetry is possible even in Auschwitz) and rides on the back of Walter Benjamin’s dictum ‘There is no cultural document which is not also a document of barbarism,’ although again there are plenty of works to contradict this.
Post-Modernism in art and the fine arts looks rather different. It origins start with the institutionalism of art and the arts, the iconic event being the building of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929. The first Director Alfred Barr immediately set about creating a massive store of modern art value both publicly and privately funded. This (plus the massive upheavals of WWII) led to the replacement of Paris by New York as the centre of global art both in terms of monetary value and practitioner prestige. The results were Abstract Expressionism (Jackson Pollock’s spontaneous splashes and Mark Rothko’s Post Piet Mondrian vast monolithic and almost monochrome squares) in the 1905s and then 1960’s Pop Art (Andy Warhol’s Bake Bean Cans and Marilyn Monroe silkscreens and Roy Lichtenstein’s large-scale jazzy comic cartoon figures and couples complete with bubbles) set the Post-Modern stage as part of American cultural imperialism’s constantly expanding its boundaries reaching its present day domination of social media (Facebook’s 1.2 billion users, Twitter with its multi-million followers all addicted to the total trivia of the everyday lives of popular cultural celebrities and U-Tube where the public upload endless films and clips at the rate of at least 100000 a day).
Since then Post-Modernism’s new orthodoxies (replacing any concept of an artistic avant-garde as in early modernism) have created a vacuum filled mainly by curator-inspired concepts and Turner prize judges of what is important in art and fuelled by an auction-dominated art market which is once again in one of its periods of manic excess (as in the 1980s and 1990s before the dotcom crash and again in 2001-2007 before the financial meltdown). The top price for a work of art now exceeds $200m. and recently the record price for a Cubist Picasso nude reached $43m.
So the Turner prize has now been dominated for over 15 years by so-called installation and conceptual art. Relatively recent examples include the Iraq War installation near Westminster, a room with a light going on and off (the creator said ‘all I can say is the light goes on, the light goes off’), Boat-Shed-Boat which was a wooden boat which the next day reverted to a wooden shed and then back to a wooden boat again, a disposable small-scale ‘house’ and this year’s winner which was an architectural collective whose creation had for its centrepiece a wooden dining table and chairs. Another recent winner made a CD of her singing self-composed songs and another was a kind of community video. These are all evident examples of Post-Modernist irony at work. However, what is manifestly clear is that the Turner Prize has effectively relegated painting to the ‘dustbin of history’. Arguably the three greatest British post-war artists Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach never won it and no painter has in the current climate any chance whatsoever of winning it. The one bright light as far as painting is the BP Portrait Prize, as valuable if not as prestigious as the Turner Prize, which gives some social and monetary value to painters even if in only one area of their craft. While modernism in art between 1905-25 spawned dynamic movements from Fauvism, Cubism, Imagism and Vorticism to Constructivism, Futurism, Expressionism and Surrealism and at the same time produced an astonishing array of artists and body of work such as Cezanne, Matisse, Monet, Gauguin, Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian and Klee, Post-Modernism has not done this. If anything its biggest achievements have been outside the fine arts, notably in drama.
This leaves us with the Saatchi BritArt legacy from 1995 onwards, focussed particularly on Damien Hurst and Tracey Emin. Hirst was a pioneer installation artist. His pretentiously but Post-Modernly named ‘The impossibility of death in the mind of something living’ was in fact simply a monster full-size formaldehyded dead shark floated in a solid glass case. He followed this up with a mother and daughter take based on slaughterhouse products namely a bisected cow and calf housed in a glass box. He (the richest artist in the UK and possibly in the world) and Jeff Koons (who has made kitsch cool through his Post-Modern structures and ‘paintings’) are now evidently the most celebrated artists on the globe and pop-singer Madonna has been heralded as the most Post-Modern performer on the planet because of the way she dresses and presents herself on-stage. Consequently, as Donald Kuspit has suggested, ‘artistic creation’ is now increasingly replaced by ‘aesthetic management.’ Even Tracey Emin has moved from the world of BritArt with her Margate Beach Hut, her ‘Unmade Bed’ and her ‘Tent’ embroidered with the names of everybody she has ever slept with (127 names at the time) to Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy.
Generally supposed to originate from the aftermath of the totally unprecendented traumas of the two world wars (with total deaths in excess of more than 75 million and successions of other successive colonial and post-colonial wars. Post-Modernism is put forward (by Frank Kermode et al) as a consequence first of cultural attempts to come to terms with those catastrophes and then more latterly to express the twenty first century’s prevalent ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives’ i.e. a loss of belief in the great belief systems of the past including a failed Communist system in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and in history, progress and truth themselves apart from science and technology especially in the so-called civilised western world. It should be noted that there are still over 1 billion Catholics, 1.5 billion Moslems and 1 billion Hindus and Buddhists in the world who do not share such loss of belief.
This has coincided with exponential communications explosions such as the Internet and its associated social media. So we now have a hyper-real world of Marshall McLuhan’s ‘global village’ befuddled by a constant bombardment of images of dreams and fantasy fed by television, cinema, streaming channels, the universe of video-games, shopping malls and Disneyland. In this context Post-Modernism has an essential role to play in criticising and dissecting the extremes of mass-consumerist society and contemporary multi-cultural mass-media and putting forward the kind of art which can have lasting appeal and some relation to its predecessors in the great tradition (including the great Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist artists) and speak to the quintessentially human condition with form and content that is accessible and meaningful and does not require curatorial sponsorship, explanation or apology. Such art might even have a chance of reflecting something of beauty and truth in its expression and redemption in its outcome (the classical ideals revived by Renaissance artists) so as to stand ‘for all time’ as Ben Johnson, Shakespeare’s contemporary correctly foretold.

Roland Gurney

Roland Gurney is a Cambridge History Scholar and is a law graduate with 32 years experience as a financial adviser. He has a special interest in world literature and world history and is an award-winning poet.

Volume 30 number 6, July / August 2016 pp 24-28

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