On Postmodernism (1984)
Arts, February 1984, p. 69. Originally a paper entitled "Excellence vs. Postexcellence" given at the MLA Convention, December, 1983.
Us verbal types have a language problem. We invest too much in it. We give language high credentials and then it leads us around by the nose. Words look nice lying out there on paper - so clear, so palpable. Words like Modernism and Postmodernism. We forget their tenuous connection to the things they purport to describe. Like the blind men feeling the elephant, we pick out parts of a phenomenon and then let it walk away so we can stew over our imperfect definitions. I'm not sure what Modernism is. I'm less sure what Postmodernism is. I'm not at all sure I want them precisely defined. After all, language did not evolve to be perfect, it evolved to be useful. I'll try to stick to the elephant, or my end of it, at least, and let the words shift and adapt.
Something is happening in the arts which we all see and recognize. We call it Postmodernism. In architecture it is overt and specific. In art, which is what I know about, and in photography, it is less clear-cut but endlessly talked about. It may come up in literature in the comic fantasy of some novels and in the new romanticism of serious music. If Modernism and Postmodernism are unitary enough to characterize, I would suggest that it will he useful to see them as working attitudes. Modernism uses self-criticism to aim at and maintain high standards. Postmodernism asserts that these things are unnecessary for art. In spirit, Modernism is aspiring, authoritarian, hierarchical, self-critical, exclusive, vertically structured, and aims for the best. Postmodernism is aimless, anarchic, amorphous, self-indulgent, inclusive, horizontally structured and aims for the popular. Modernism is idealistic; Postmodernism is political. Each proceeds from and represents a side of human nature.
The current situation has arisen from the confluence of two factors. One is the enormous growth of the art market in the last thirty years. The other is the widespread recognition that artistic "revolution" lies at the origin of great art in our time. The market is the driving force; the embodiment of the concept is the rationalization for it.
The market's problem is that there never is very much good art. As the market grows there is proportionally less good art and it becomes harder to convince the art public that the art on hand amounts to much. Therefore the market welcomes any attack on high standards which can be sufficiently rationalized. The current rationalization appropriates and cynically abuses the now popular misconception that artistic revolution violently rejects all previous art and the values which accompanied it, and the logically illegitimate corollary that any art which takes that pose must be pretty good and we had better get on the right side of it to be straight with history.
Of course, any sensitive student of art history knows that the so called artistic revolutions of the past were always conservative, their radicalness striking not at the core, not at the best in art, but at the encrustations of art which has degraded itself to obtain a larger immediate acceptance. When Manet cried out against the "stews and gravies" in the paintings of his contemporaries, he cried out against the decadence of majority taste; when he painted Olympia he brought art out of it. Manet's "shock of the new" was really the "shock of the old," the shock of the imperishable, the shock of artistic excellence, of human excellence. Very good art, like very good anything, subverts entrenched and corrupt habit. That's why, when it is new, it is hated and reviled. That's why it doesn't sell.
Postmodernism has no interest in emulating Manet. Its very popularity gives away its intent to vulgarize and its success at it. The only thing new about it is its use of the far-out as a weapon of intimidation, a weapon whose "cutting edge" is the favorite cliche of the Postmodernist. By demeaning high standards and anyone or anything which adheres to them, or even invokes them, and by reducing the Modernist from paragon to pariah, Postmodernism hands the market what it wants and needs. What a relief not to have to worry about what's good! With that out of the way the market can get down to the serious business of selling lots of very bad art for very high prices. When the structure shifts from artistic to political, hype and promotion come into their own, free to play out a publicist's dream "revolution," unencumbered by outdated notions of artistic excellence, giving us the inane spectacle of a fat, rich, and powerful establishment affecting mightily to despise itself as it clambers and wheezes its way up the cozy barricades of radical chic.
In the meantime, as always, the really unpopular art, the subversive art, the art which, by its very nature, criticizes and threatens this market, is the old-fashioned elitist, high-standard stuff which clings to the proposition that art must aim for the very best, and holds that great art is inherently personal, very rare, and incorrigibly opposed to debasement. This the market cannot abide.
Postmodernism, or the working attitude which we call Postmodernism, is neither the first nor the last assault on the best in art. It is just the latest. How successful it will be, and how much our dereliction will cost us, remains to be seen.
This essay was initially presented at a panel on Postmodernism at the Modern Languages Association annual meeting in New York on December 28, 1983.