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The Art Issue

The Afterlives of Modernism

Siobhan Lyons argues that modernist artistic values of sincere self-expression are culturally reasserting themselves.

A spectre is haunting philosophy: the spectre of modernism. Constantly, philosophers eager to associate themselves with a defining era have tried to produce a new literary school, movement, or cultural condition, and often succeed only in heading back towards modernism. For instance, in recent years theorists have worked their way out of postmodernism the only way they know how: back towards modernism. We are confronted with the apparent reality that we cannot theorise away from modernism.

Modernism was a tendency in art, architecture and literature which emphasised sincerity, rationality and a desire to break the shackles of tradition. In the late twentieth century it was largely displaced by postmodernism, a tendency characterised by irony, playfulness and a claim that there is not one single truth but many competing perspectives of equal validity. In an enjoyable undergraduate unit I once took, ‘Modernism, Postmodernism, and Beyond’, an essay question asked: ‘Is post modernism dead? If so, how can this new cultural condition be described? Have we entered a post-postmodern age?’ This is actually an inquiry into the mentality of contemporary society. Attempting to define the current cultural climate is difficult at best, but it also raises concerns about society’s aspirations. Having journeyed through modernism and postmodernism, we wish to travel to the theory beyond, before this elusive new culture has even had time to solidify. In fact, today’s ism, if indeed there is one, appears to be an amalgamation of previous theories.

Philips Koninck Dutch Panorama Landscape with a Distant View of Haarlem
A traditional Dutch landscape, courtesy of Philips Koninck, 1654

Yesterday’s Cultural Philosophy

Many thinkers have for instance noted that the movement of Romanticism did not completely die. For instance, in Contributions to Philosophy (1936), Martin Heidegger wrote “Romanticism has not yet come to its end” (p.349). In The Romantic Manifesto (1962), Ayn Rand argued that “Some remnants of Romanticism may still be found in the popular media – but in such a mangled, disfigured form that they achieve the opposite of Romanticism’s original purpose… The last remnants of Romanticism are sneaking apologetically on the outskirts of our culture, wearing the masks of a plastic surgery operation which has been partially successful.” (p.85). Edward Larrissy meanwhile argues that postmodernism replicates characteristics of Romanticism: “The persistence of Romantic thought and literary practice into the late twentieth century is evident in many contexts, from the philosophical and ideological abstractions of literary theory to the thematic and formal preoccupations of contemporary fiction and poetry” (Romanticism and Postmodernism, 1999, p.1).

History boasts a succession of defining epochs, each with its own idiosyncratic collection of writers, subcultural movements, and enduring metaphors. It is no surprise that enthusiasts for postmodernism should wish to define its own period, and identify and isolate its writers and artists in order that it may take its place in the stately procession of history. This self-definition seems to stem from a psychological and cultural desire for both individual and collective creative significance. But Brian McHale thinks that an essential flaw of postmodernism is exactly that it attempts to locate itself as a historical period. He writes, “From the very outset, postmodernism was self-conscious about its identity as a period, conscious of its own historicity, because it conceived of itself as historical” (What Was Postmodernism?, 2007). The problem invariably became that the postmodernists attempted to prematurely characterise themselves, interfering with the natural unfolding of a historical social perspective. The argument is that the ultimate failure of postmodernism is its eagerness to historicise itself before it has really finished, perhaps due to what I call a sense of ‘historical envy’. The act of hastily pre-historicising one’s present illustrates Zygmunt Bauman’s notion that contemporary ideas and ideologies “are unlikely to be given enough time to solidify, and cannot serve as frames of reference for human actions” (Liquid Times, 2007, p.1). As Frederic Jameson writes, postmodernism became fundamentally concerned with the ‘perpetual present’ (Postmodernism and Consumer Society, 1998, p.119): postmodernism, by its very name, labelled itself the thing that followed all else significant, effectively problematizing its relationship with history, but also cementing modernism as the place from which all theory extended. History could be divided as either pre- or post-modernism.

Postmodernism was also the theory that engaged with past artefacts – that could produce nothing completely innovative, but could only appropriate and use pre-existing cultural creations. As a result, postmodernism arose with the dreaded notion of ‘the end’ – of genius; of consequential theories; of literature; and of art. For instance, John Ralston Saul observes that Marcel Proust and James Joyce, both modernist writers, seemed to have been the last writers of genius:

“The two most dramatic assertions of the death of literate, universal communications came early in the twentieth century with Marcel Proust and James Joyce. Once they had been adopted as the reigning geniuses of the modern revolution in literature, the novel was effectively dead as the leading linguistic tool for asking essential questions and changing society”
(Voltaire’s Bastards, 1992, p.558).

Since the end of modernism is constantly aligned with the death of literature and the death of inquiry of great consequence, it is perhaps no surprise that society has been unable to wholly relinquish modernism’s ghost.

The Afterlives of Modernism

Following on from postmodernism was the less articulate post-postmodernism. That is, various ‘post-postmodern’ theories have emerged, none of which have been as influential or enduring as the Twentieth Century’s philosophical offspring. Yet they continue to proliferate in various manifestations.

In one of Philosophy Now’s most popular articles online, Alan Kirby theorises about ‘The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond’ (Issue 58, 2006). In its place he discusses what he calls ‘pseudo-modernism’. Kirby describes pseudo-modernist culture as being dependent on the individual and on individual action, such as through the internet. He writes, “pseudo-modern cultural products cannot and do not exist unless the individual intervenes physically in them.”

In 1999, Brit Art icon Tracy Emin had a row with her ex-boyfriend, Billy Childish, telling him: “Your paintings are stuck, you are stuck! Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!” As any self-respecting artist probably would, Childish promptly turned the insult into the name of an international artistic movement, the Stuckists. He, Charlie Thomson and others developed the manifesto of ‘Remodernism’, both as a criticism of postmodernism and a revival, of sorts, of modernism. The Stuckists considered themselves anti-anti-art: that is, they reemphasised the importance of figurative painting, and criticised postmodernism for its purported lack of appreciation of beauty and originality. Claiming postmodernism to be “lost in the cul-de-sac of idiocy” they argued:

“The idiocy of postmodernism is its claim to be the apex of art history – whilst simultaneously denying the values that make art worth having in the first place. It purports to address significant issues but actually has no meaning beyond the convoluted dialogue it holds with itself… If there is any innovation and vision in postmodernism, it is in the field of art marketing… postmodernism is destined for the dustbin of history.” (cited in Alan Kirby’s Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure our Culture, 2009, p.25).

Meanwhile, remodernism characterises itself as the movement that reapplies modernist thinking to contemporary society:

“The Remodernist takes the original principles of modernism and reapplies them, highlighting vision as opposed to formalism… Remodernism discards and replaces postmodernism because of its failures to answer or address any important issues of being a human being… Remodernism embodies a spiritual depth and meaning, and brings to an end an age of scientific materialism, nihilism and spiritual bankruptcy.” (ibid).

Remodernism can be seen as the precursor to the New Sincerity movement that would emerge in the present decade.

As well as all this, in 2011, Luke Turner and Hollywood actor Shia LaBeouf published The Metamodernist Manifesto, disavowing both modernism and postmodernism, and proclaiming: “We must liberate ourselves from the inertia resulting from a century of modernist ideological naïvety and the cynical insincerity of its antonymous bastard child.” Yet like many other self-invented cultural movements, metamodernism has not succeeded in dominating social thought.

Vincent Van Gogh Wheat Fields with Cypresses
A modernist Dutch landscape, courtesy of Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

Today’s Cultural Philosophy

In response to postmodernism’s nihilistic tendencies, more sincere movements have since emerged that reflect the genuine artistic concerns of modernism. Yet just as these vestiges of modernism have appeared in recent years, openly criticising postmodernism’s lack of any perceived beliefs, sincerity, or appreciation of art’s history, various reactionaries have started to criticise the new wave of ‘sincerity movements’ and the artists they produce.

In contrast to the modernist artist – who was an impassioned, expressive figure – Pop Art idol Andy Warhol saw the artist’s persona as mechanistic and hollow, able to be easily appropriated into his art. Warhol confirmed this when he sent his double, Allen Midgette, to give speeches for him – cementing his theory that anybody could, in fact, do what he did. In this way Warhol deliberately distanced himself from the modernist genius found in the sincere figures of Joyce, Proust, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf. This trend against personal genius really took off in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, with artists such as photographer Cindy Sherman attempting to portray the artistic self (herself) as hollow and chameleon-like, bereft of any true, unchanging substance.

But in a recent article called ‘Sincerity, Not Irony, Is Our Age’s Ethos’ (The Atlantic, 2012), Jonathan D. Fitzgerald argues that in place of postmodernism’s lack of belief structures – lack of what Jean-François Lyotard called ‘grand metanarratives’ – the New Sincerity movement reemphasises genuine issues and beliefs. He writes, “All across the pop culture spectrum, the emphasis on sincerity and authenticity that has arisen has made it unironically cool to care about spirituality, family, neighbours, the environment, and the country.” Thus the postmodern novels of the 70s and 80s – Thomas Pynchon’s complex pop cultural works, or the metafiction of Salman Rushdie and Italo Calvino – gave way in the 90s and 00s to the more sincere novels of New Sincerity: Dave Eggers’ books, particularly A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Zeitoun, The Circle, etc, or the works of David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith, which deliberately turn their attention to more spiritual, or at least more human-centred stories. The shift from postmodernism to New Sincerity can be witnessed in television as well: the irony present in Seinfeld, The Sopranos and The Simpsons gave way to greater sincerity in Madmen, The Wire, and Game of Thrones. A greater emphasis is now being paid to stories closer to candour and human emotions and the reality of life from which there is no ironic respite. All of these programs particularly prioritised the family dynamic and represent the family with brutal honesty, not with the bright and even camp representations of the family that were seen in 60s and 70s television.

Elements of sincerity were present in postmodern television and literature; yet the irony that defined the era faded out considerably with the move to New Sincerity, which tired of excessive irony. The New Sincerity movement seeks to move toward a more impassioned sensibility, with much the same ideals as the modernists. Yet as the late David Foster Wallace argued, these Sincerity artists were unlikely to be wholly embraced by a culture that is used to postmodern irony. As he put it before the movement surfaced:

“The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal’” (E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction, 1993, pp.192-193).

As Wallace predicted, these new rebels were indeed ridiculed. To take a random example, in a 2011 blog on the Powell’s Books website, one of the staff members criticises Dave Eggers for his sincerity thus: “Literary contributions and accomplishments aside, Eggers’ excessive sincerity, excruciating self-consciousness, and obsession with minutia, his effort to elevate digression to a form of art and to make cleverness an end in itself, just don’t interest us.”

Tomorrow’s Cultural Philosophies

When Jacques Derrida died in 2004, The New York Times declared that his death signalled the end of ‘big ideas’; and in recent years, instead of one theory or philosophy dominating, contemporary culture has indeed seen a notable blend of fragments of various ideas, styles and motivations, becoming a smorgasbord of theories and philosophies. Perhaps this chaos is why cultural theorists seem so eager to affix a particular label to the current cultural matrix. But where previous social and political changes instituted new dominant ideologies, the proliferation of voices and schemes has today fractured the stable ground upon which overriding ideas might be formed and cemented in place.

Yet the ongoing trend of nostalgia – the act of perpetually looking backwards to modernism – has created an Orpheus-type society. In mythology, Orpheus looked back at his lover whilst rescuing her from Hades, and in doing so lost her. So the Gaze of Orpheus is a metaphor for society’s continual act of looking back towards the past, though the past is always already lost in the act of looking back. As Sigmund Freud discusses in his Mourning and Melancholia (1919), melancholia occurs once ordinary mourning fails, and manifests itself as a pathological attachment to a lost object. The past, however, is the ultimate lost object: it is absolutely inaccessible, and the attempts to replicate modernism ignore the fact that modernism emerged under specific historical, political and social conditions. Therefore however similar the new concepts may appear to be to modernism, modernism as it was cannot be replicated. However close we come to injecting culture with significant doses of sincerity, it does not act as a mirror to modernism. Yet it seems as though many people are anxious to return to tradition, and to do so are creating their own theories of the resulting culture before that culture has even had time to take form.

Hegel gave us the most memorable take on the issue of historicising a culture. He argued that genuine philosophy is developed or understood in hindsight: that is, that a cultural movement can only be philosophically understood at its ending – in retrospect. As he put it, “When philosophy paints its gloomy picture then a form of life has grown old. It cannot be rejuvenated by the gloomy picture, but only understood. Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly” (Philosophy of Right, 1820, p.12).

Perhaps we are too fixated on the afterlives of previous theories, and too eager to clumsily and hopelessly create new theories. Perhaps we fear that we have reached the end of history and so our own era will not be suitably defined. Yet out of all the theories currently floating around, can we truly tell which ones will solidify long enough to define the current and upcoming era? In a culture that has become defined by instantaneousness and fragmentation, we have become too brash with ideologies, giving credit to Bauman’s idea that we are living in a ‘liquid time’ where nothing solidifies long enough to become a dominant ideology. Derrida had a powerful metaphor for contemporary society’s grasping at whatever theories it can find. Describing the process of reading, he wrote, “I see … a sort of dredging machine. From the dissimulated, small, closed, glassed-in cabin of a crane… I plunge a mouth of steel in the water. And I scrape the bottom, hook onto stones and algae there that I lift up in order to set them down on the ground while the water quickly falls back from the mouth. And I begin to scrape, to scratch, to dredge the bottom of the sea [mer], the mother [mère]… The toothed matrix only withdraws what it can… But the remains pass between its teeth, between its lips. You do not catch the sea. She always reforms herself.” (Glas, 1986, pp.204-205). So too does culture function in this manner: just as Derrida argues that you can’t catch the sea, one cannot adequately capture culture while it is still liquid, before it has had time to solidify. Rather, a culture and its philosophy can be expected to form itself in its own time.

© Siobhan Lyons 2015

Siobhan Lyons is completing a PhD at Macquarie University, Sydney.

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