The Postmodern ParadoxJohn Haber
in New York City
Baudelaire the Postmodern
Start with a poet, a tireless defender of avant-garde painting: This life, this modern life, is a hospital where each patient is obsessed with the desire to change beds. Charles Baudelaire preceded Modernism, but he did not require the gift of prophecy. It is not just his love of Edouard Manet's generation and a new French taste. No, he breathed the modern condition and its artistic form in the night air of the city.
If there is a postmodern condition, it cannot even be stated consistently much less cured. Like a right-wing fantasies of the welfare state, Postmodernism is a hospital where the beds must remain empty.
Modernism demanded one thing: make it new. If I discard it, I have to find something else, something new. And so I am modernist. If I discard the aim of making it new, then I must do something other than Modernism. But that means something new. Instead of the postmodern condition, one ought to speak of a postmodern paradox.
Reasons and reasons why
A cornerstone of modern philosophy was laid by a mathematician, Kurt Gödel. He saw disaster lurking wherever logicians build a system, even so innocuous a game as arithmetic. Eventually, the system produces a statement with the irritating shape of "This is not true!" If it is true, it can only be false; if it is false, then it is true. And it will never cease to recur, as long as one has the power to think and to construct.
Postmodernism too can no more exist than it can be avoided. As my analogies to Gödel's place in intellectual history make clear, that is precisely what makes it modern. More than any condition or any arts that Baudelaire could foresee, Postmodernism is "anywhere out of this world."
No wonder that proponents of a new cultural era sound so otherworldly. They might be fierce post-cold war ideologues reveling in The End of Ideology or J.-F. Lyotard, the lively philosopher of the French left, announcing The Postmodern Condition. They might be glossy AT&T commercials, basking in products that no one today sells, or pamphlet-like books by Jean Baudrillard, who has traced an "objective profile of America" in Disneyland. No matter, for they are full of prophecies of an era without a past—the end of history or the information age.
Postmodernism has even turned Baudelaire back into a prophet: the next, and last, poem in that book is "Assomons les pauvres!" Beat up on the poor! It sounds much like the demand of politicians today. If not all postmodernists echo it, at least they can hope to describe it.
If one cannot define Postmodernism, one can at least ask why it has to be invoked. One has to find what makes many so uneasy with the label modern—or nostalgic for it. One has to talk not about Postmodernism at all, but rather about how Modernism is perceived at the millenium.
Suddenly, modernity means, say, urban life in the 1940s—or Republican values in some nameless other culture—rather than life today. "Modern times" are around now only as the title of a wistful best-seller, and forget about Baudelaire's deserted streets. Paris at night calls up endless rebroadcasts of Gigi. I'm glad I'm not modern anymore.
Modernism's missing heritage
If Modernism no longer fits, for art or society, then why? If it is dead, then who had means, motive, and opportunity? The deed must have taken place during a struggle. As the postmodern paradox directs, people are fighting over the missing heritage of Modernism.
Postmodernism is thus inherently nostalgic and political. Today an art critic, T. J. Clark, can write that Abstract Expressionism may not be all bad, provided one recognizes that its finest exponent is . . . Asger Jorn. (Half of me hopes you said, "Who?" Either way, you get the joke.) The fight is still on, but the fighters are exhausted or reeling.
So what was modernity, and how does it reemerge each time it is placed in the dead past? Begin with its critics and what they think has been going on for the last century or so. I shall take "fine art" as my example because, a little like modern times were supposed to be, I sometimes pretend to miss it.
First, modern art became an institution, like that hospital again. It began with more than enough commitments—to the newly independent art market, to the male psyche. In any event, it had to answer to academic politics and the growing dominance of American culture. It had to serve the practical needs of its students. It had to take on the factory standards of Minimalism and the profound influence of its greatest writers.
Second, modern art therefore became identified with formalism, the painted edge with the cutting edge, even as the limiting definition paradoxically suggests only a moment in time. For Clement Greenberg, the best work reflected on the making of art and on art's place in society. To many, that came to mean an art turned back onto itself. In the 1970s, as many artists rebelled against color-field abstraction, they appeared to be denying modern art itself.
Third, the avant-garde started to carry around the baggage of a promise, like George Bush on taxes. To Brecht, art remade society; to futurism, it was the soul of a new machine; to one side of Surrealism, the unconscious liberates. Griselda Pollock, the feminist critic, has called it all "a subculture . . . a gamble." Yet utopia was not arriving. As modern art became accepted into great museums, it stayed excluded by nearly everyone else. Modernism seemed in trouble.
Fourth, Modernism gave credence to the creative individual forced to be in an avant-garde. It might sustain a Vincent van Gogh in his passion for drawing—or allow an Abstract Expressionist an existential crisis. Yet Minimalism and Andy Warhol left art eerily impersonal, reproducible, even hypothetical. Meanwhile, the heros of Modernism, such as Picasso or indeed Andy Warhol, looked more and more like a sad train of white men fixated on high art. Their dedication was now taken as an emblem of privilege; their obsession made their art a fetish, a token of their sexual conquests.
Fifth, Modernism loved irony and self-reflection. It saw contradictions lurking in every gesture, in the words of every poem. Now irony was losing its edge, like the rounded corners of a TV screen, and talk of the contradictions in capitalism grew quaint. Poets may still juxtapose opposites, but not to release fresh, ironic meanings. Rather, they suggest the limitations of meaning altogether. At best, like trees in a poem by John Ashbery, "Arranging by chance / To meet . . . / their merely being there / Means something."
Sixth, a century after Baudelaire, Modernism calls to mind struggling masses and urban streets. It brought an explosion of American power and creativity. Its stunning concentrations of wealth, machinery, and energy were matched by equally penetrating images. Yet, somewhere, society lost its center. Modernism may now be defeated by a suburban sprawl and the anonymous bytes of computer networks.
Modernity fights back
As part of the paradox, who can say when Postmodernism began? It may have come more than thirty years ago in performance art, or maybe it held off longer. It might have taken the media fling with Neo-Expressionism a decade later. Or it might have taken the pop-culture appropriations and political dogmatism of the last gallery you visited. Maybe it still awaits technological change as a triumphant end to the crises of capitalism
In any case, fans say, Postmodernism hits my six points hard. It distrusts art institutions and formalism. It will not try to escape from society. It multiplies values, without fear of the contradictions in an old culture. It takes its vocabulary from movies, television, the computer, the Internet, and the Xerox machine.
Yet again, if Modernism was basically about one thing—make it new!—how can artists have outgrown it? Consider how little they have learned from their criticism of modernity and how hard it is for them to stop. Take each of their points in turn.
First, Modernism largely preceded the institutions that it created. Its supposed dominance came in face of barriers that are unthinkable today. One no longer can imagine a division between gallery and museum, between loft district and shopping mall. Now a critical trend such as cultural studies or The Anti-Esthetic earns a spacious shelf in profitable bookstores. On the other hand, the modernist distrust of institutions lives on. Only in neoconservative fantasies does a scholarly avant-garde control the minds and purses of America.
Second, formalism should be seen as just part of a lively culture. This century was big enough to contain Dada, and the newest art has well been termed neo-Dada. (It sometimes looks more like a neo-WPA.) Besides, art will continue to cherish its means. As Nancy Fraser points out with regard to language-centered art and philosophy, to focus on a process is to draw attention to norms, to values. Art will thus always draw content from its formal devices. Creators who cannot are simply glib.
Third, utopias were scary enough in an age of Hitler and Stalin faced with abstraction, long before "the end of history." Conversely, they are still relevant. They amount simply to visions of the future, which often must precede change in the present—even when the visions, like the TWA terminal by Eero Saarinen, are abandoned. Some artists expand by visions, some work quite well without them (thank you), and plenty simply capitulate to the mass market.
Fourth, Modernism already probed the individual to death—but hardly as a repeat of Romanticism's inward gaze, as it has appeared to such historians as Robert Rosenblum. In it, impersonal imagery, personal creativity, and social criticism collided productively. Baudelaire already felt caught amid two muses—la muse vénale and la muse moine—venal or monastic. He could find health in neither one, which is why he precedes them both with la muse malade. Some artists have always been celebrities and misogynists, but only now is art supposed to be about star status.
Fifth, the distinctions that Postmodernism demands are too theoretical for words. Just try to remember when a work embodies irony or ridicule, contradiction or juxtaposition. Try to decide when art gave up the Bible for the movies: at the time, just which of the two was popular culture? Despite the rebellion against institutions, these arguments have the air of celebrating academic jargon. Even worse, they may turn out to be prophetic—Wayne's World as a model for art and society.
Finally, modern art always acknowledged strange mass media, as in Picasso's first newsprint collage. Besides, technoculture does not necessarily sound liberating—or even new. It may just mark a further, incremental concentration of corporate influence, as Fredric Jameson has argued. You may indeed be able to read this essay again next year online—depending on how the Justice Department settles accounts with Microsoft.
Lost causes and found values
My defenses of Modernism may even convince me, but they only seem to escape the postmodern paradox. They are an odd jumble. Some of them really agree that Postmodernism is new. They just add a protest against its insincerity.
My other arguments trace every crisis, compromise, and strategy back to Modernism. But that places the whole idea of the new doubly in doubt. Even Jameson effectively removes the promise of revolutionary change.
In other words, Modernism is over, and newness is glib; Modernism is still around, but it has lost its novelty. It is hard to know which admission is most damaging to a modernist. Yet both sides of the paradox give the modernist critique renewed value. It becomes the lost cause that refuses to crawl away in defeat.
Deconstruction, the first great impetus for a shift from philosophy to cultural studies, shows the perplexity. It tried to outsmart the paradox by undermining sure conclusions. It struck a harsh blow against the great modern systems, like an official greeter of the apocalypse. Before long, however, it came to seem burdened with the discourse of Modernism.
Its roots were in structuralism, and it rebelled against that theory's tidy methods. It exploited postmodern eclecticism, in gaudy architecture and dizzying play with philosophy's metaphors. Yet it remained mostly a formal analysis of literature.
And, just as surely, it became a lasting bogey with a vibrant, enduring vocabulary. Artists who have never read Jacques Derrida can talk loosely about deconstructing their craft. Stephen Greenblatt and Andrew Ross, the star of New Historicism and the editor of Social Text, may be fine critics, but when was the last time you "new historicized" or "culturally studied" your best friend?
For innovators, a boom in postmodern "culture studies" soon relegated it to the sidelines. For conservatives, it symbolizes academic arrogance. Both camps are nevertheless more than happy to exploit the postmodern age it helped to create. Meanwhile, Derrida keeps at it, psychoanalyzing Marx and touring America.
For crying out loud
So are we there yet? The kids are crying in the back seat. Have artists entered a new age, and should they be happy about it? I think of "modern" and "postmodern" as handles for grappling with life, and they crumble if I press either of them too hard. If one opposes them as artistic generations, as at least one museum has tried, one has done little more than try to stop the flow of time. One has returned to Modernism.
I cannot lose the ability to think within Modernism. If I do, I lose the ability to reflect intelligently and critically on myself, on traditions, and on power. I lose even what it means to reflect intelligently and critically. Yet if I fail to enter Postmodernism, I cling to the past like a blanket, even while it no longer exists. Living with the postmodern paradox is easy, really. I always wish I had taken my post dox.
Neither Modernism nor Postmodernism is valid—and neither one is dispensable. Both have gone into the puzzling mix of what I call Generation X art. Postmodernism is about an old world dying and a new world unable to be born. At least it cannot just sit there to be oohed and aahed over, and indeed a new era can never be born without contradiction, cynicism, and despair.
Baudelaire's prose poem was in a book sometimes called Le Spleen de Paris. A spleen can be an organ, suffering in life's contagious hospital. It can be righteous anger. Take your pick, but strategically.
All that one can do, whether in art or in politics, is to keep crying. When exhausted, I just cry ever more softly. The best writers, like many that I have cited, are those who laugh the loudest and cry most insistently. If the kids fall asleep until they get there, they will be in big trouble.