Published January 9, 2020 in Warp & Woof
What Is Post-Postmodernism, Anyway?
Time for Something New
Those of us introduced to art and aesthetics through a mid-century lens thought all things modern were products of the twentieth century – especially, the early twentieth century. They included dadaism, surrealism, and theatre of the absurd. These were protesting a tyrannical art establishment controlled by an elite art school aristocracy. The Avant-Gardeemerged, spelling the end of modernism. Thanks to new technologies of art reproduction (cinema, wax recordings, radio), art was becoming more accessible to a wider audience. The old elites were losing their power. Cultural relativism replaced scientific determinism, absolutism, in art. Soon, the conceits of late modernism, including cubism and abstract expressionism, also became old-fashioned and conventional.
The twentieth century was awful in many ways. Despite tremendous technological progress and greater egalitarianism, there were those horrible wars, and growing insecurity afterwards. The brittleness of capitalism became apparent with the Great Depression, and nuclear annihilation haunted us throughout the post-WWII Cold War. What’s more, prosperous societies of the global north (North America and Western Europe) were struck by the folly of imperialism – the global south (all other cultures) were recognized as the struggling majority in the world, kept down largely by our heavy boot.
Multi-cultural diversity was now a goal. Variety of cultural experiences, sometimes expressed as moral relativism, became a dominant theme in western art. “Postmodernism” was the name given to this new sensibility.
Like modernism before it, postmodernism, too, eventually got old. A new art establishment now set the standards, after changing a few rules. Postmodern art may have been more “woke,” but was no more open, thanks to a patronage system that still controlled exhibiting and distribution.
In political culture as well, postmodernism began to show strain. Tribalism made a depressing comeback. Critics saw cultural relativism as ultimately leading to “post-truth” politicsin our public discourse.
For young artists, the pressure to conform to standards clearly created by elites who benefit from them is unacceptable. Yet, being anchorless with respect to cultural norms exacerbates the growing depression, anomie, felt by many young people. The retreat into tribalism offers some solace.
In the 21st century, we are now confronted by the specter of climate change destroying civilization – much as we feared the bomb in the Cold War years. What have we done? Is there a way out? What is the role of art, anyway, regardless of how much time we have left?
Moral relativism does not make us feel better. Our political culture must be more than sheer will to power. We want universal truths. We want to experience them through art. We want unity, not division. I turn to art when I want to discover those universal truths inside me. I know that the world is bigger than my tribe. When I create – when I write for this blog – I want to think I’m giving something to others. And, art is pervasive throughout life. Artistic expression depends only upon the medium chosen by the artist, and the depth of feelings expressed.
Over the last decade, there has emerged a debate among some cultural theorists and philosophers of aesthetics about the contours of whatever new aesthetic will replace postmodernism. Timotheus Vermuelen, Robin Van den Akker and Luke Turner have each used the term “metamodernism” to describe a pendulum-like movement swinging between modernism, through the space of postmodernism, and into something beyond. This sticky pendulum picks up concepts, styles, and subject matter as it swings. It has been doing this for a hundred years, encompassing the whole epoch of modernism and postmodernism together, depositing what it scoops up at the doorstep (or studio) of today’s young artist. It gives them the material they will work with. It is sincere, more than ironic, experiential more than abstract, and ultimately humane and idealistic as well. Ethics becomes a primary concern. It’s okay to believe in things. In its oscillation, the pendulum becomes acutely sensitive to the demands of the moment. It’s okay to search for meaning. Intellectual exploration remains a noble pursuit.
Students pursuing metamodern truths will study the past, pay attention to their surroundings in the present, and talk with others about the future.
They will recognize nihilism as the most negative product of both modernism and postmodernism. Creativity is not destruction. It is certainly not true that there are no values. The artist’s role is to crystalize and depict those values.
Common experiences should be the primary source material for metamodern art. Cross-cultural (even cross-species?) and very basic – perhaps neurological.
As in the past, when social constraints interfere with art, there will be an avant-garde ready to deal with the situation. Smashing those constraints, and overthrowing the establishment which enforced them, was thoroughly rehearsed when it was time for modernism to be overthrown by postmodernism. And the pendulum of metamodernism will not ignore that avant-garde as it swings past into the post-postmodern future. Revolution is in the air once again in the 2020s.
While still speculative, some of the characteristics of the new post-postmodern sensibility might be found in recent works of visual arts, urban planning, theater and film, music, and politics.
In the visual arts, a new school of painters have called themselves “Stuckists,” after a poem written by one of them about being “stuck” on their art. The group celebrates figurative painting and photography, as opposed to abstract, or “conceptual.” They also have coined the term “remodernism” to denote their dedication to rediscovery of some of the fundamental principles of modernism, lost to the postmodernists of the last half-century. Their main aim seems to be dethroning what they call “ego-art,” which springs only from the mind of the artist, without context in real life experience.
Tom Turner, landscape designer and urban planner, has embraced the term post-postmodernism to describe his approach to design of public spaces. He relies on fundamental geometric patterns and Jungian archetypesto create spaces which convey comfort and familiarity to the occupants.
Although cinema is often suborned to the profit incentive, some recent activity in the same direction has been observed by critics. Simple human stories are ascendant over deeply ironic, nihilistic fantasies and dystopias. Despite the need to appeal to a mass audience, indie films and TV are beginning to show signs of change. The new economy of streaming services has enabled much more creative work in television.
One recent big-screen offering, Knives Out, illustrates a complex metamodern relationship to popular detective fiction. It’s a story familiar to fans of the modernist Agatha Christie, or the board game Clue. A famous mystery writer dies unexpectedly following a family gathering at his gothic home. The family is immediately suspected of foul play by an improbable private detective brought in by local police as a consultant. The police favor ruling the death a suicide. Although its script contains much postmodern irony, the basic layout of the story is strictly Agatha Christie modern. Each intuitive hunch of detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is fully explained in concrete real-world context. The overall effect is: “well, of course, that’s what happened.” It’s a fundamentally post-postmodern plot development with characters being slightly exaggerated versions of real-world people we all know.
Metamodernism is also heard in today’s popular music. The current vogue of country, or “roots,” music is indicative of what some critics call the New Sincerity. Folk has replaced rock as a favorite style of the young. The British band Mumford and Sons began life early in the decade with an uplifting folk-rock style, highlighting banjo and vaguely Christian-inspired lyrics. Their hit song “I Will Wait” demonstrated they were onto something. However, by the time they released their fourth studio album, the banjo disappeared, and the Jungian archetypes became deeper than the admittedly fuzzy religious references in their earlier work. If Delta Blues-inspired rock-and-roll was the harbinger of postmodernism (with punk and metal its pinnacle), then Mumford and Sons Delta album should be a prime example of post-postmodern popular music.
In politics, as in other artistic representations of culture, we now have politicians basing their election campaigns on “genuineness” – they are judged by the media, and voters, on how convincing they are about their ideals and beliefs. Both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are experts at this. So was Donald Trump in 2016. Simple human stories, and how well we can relate to them, are presumed decisive. Regardless of the election’s outcome, the continuing drama of the campaign illustrates that metamodernist pendulum swing.
Can We Please Think of a Better Name?
New Sincerity? Remodernism? Metamodernism? Is there any utility in naming schools of art anyway? Labeling the new sensibility in aesthetics may have to wait for another generation, but names give some indication of the direction art is moving. “Post-postmodernism” is clumsy, but here’s what we know: real experience, concrete observable reality, and commonality of all humanity – or even all sentient beings, if you’re a vegan – is a new emphasis in art.
Beliefs can be real and justified. But continuous exploration and study help inform them. Nobody need be left out.