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From the Postmodern to the Pre-modern

From the Postmodern to the Pre-modern

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Published by: olfa_hanini on Jun 13, 2010
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ISSN 0258–0802. LITERATÛRA 2007 49(5)
Herbert Grabes
Proffesor, Justus-Liebig-Universität
That literature, art and theory have changedconsiderably since the early and more spectacularphase of postmodernity in the nineteen-sixties andseventies is too obvious to be overlooked. Thesechanges raise questions regarding their actual extentand quality, their presumable causes and their alreadydiscernible consequences – three aspects to whichI will be directing your attention in the followingremarks.First, then, the extent and quality of thechanges that can be observed in the domainsof literature, art and theory: in order to let youshare my observations, I will have to draw atleast a rough sketch of the situation then andnow: that is, of the state of play in thenineteen-sixties and seventies as against thesituation obtaining from the nineteen-eightiesonwards.In retrospect, the difference between thenew works of art and literature from thenineteen-sixties and those of the nineteen-fiftiesseems so great that it is no wonder observerssoon began speaking of a ‘postmodernism’,in the sense that ‘modernism’ seemed to beover. I would like to begin with the advent of postmodernism in the domain of the visualarts because it was especially here that thephenomenon was so unmistakably visible – noaccident, then, I might add, that the very term‘postmodernism’ should have enteredawareness via Charles Jencks’s lucubrationson contemporary architecture, an essentiallyvisual domain. Too great was the contrastbetween the stylish late modernist ColourField paintings of American AbstractExpressionism and the new presentation of banal objects of everyday use, such as JasperJohns’s “Two Beer Cans” (1960) or AndyWarhol’s “Brillo Box” (1964) as well as theforegrounding of the nature of such objectsas mass products of consumer culture inWarhol’s famously iconic “200 CampbellSoup Cans” (1962). What soon came to becalled “Pop Art” further included theintegration of the sexy images of advertising,as in the paintings of Tom Wesselman, thelarge-scale stylized imitations of comic-bookor cartoon-strip figures and objects andspeech- or thought-balloons as representedby Roy Lichtenstein, and Claes Oldenburg’smagnified plastic reproductions of icons of everyday consumable or utilitarian culture(just think of his “Two Cheeseburgers withEverything” from 1962).At the same time, the techniques of re-presentation were largely influenced by the use
and imitation of mechanical reproduction.Warhol, for instance, used acrylic paint and oilpaint to create the impression of silkscreen printsor newspaper reproductions of photographs,Rauschenberg imitated the look of TV images,Lichtenstein the raster screen appearance of comic-book frames as quotations from massculture, but they all emphasized the distancebetween that culture and their art by analienation effect that was achieved via theextreme magnification involved in their verylarge canvases. What nevertheless wassurprising was how well the ubiquitous andbanal images of mass culture were suited as
for works of art.The literary equivalent to Pop Art was theintegration and refinement of the structuralpatterns of popular genre literature and the wideuse of the clichés of everyday speech. Muchof the latter can be found, for instance, inworks like Donald Barthelme’s
Snow White
(1967), Richard Brautigan’s
Trout Fishing in America
(1967), or Stanley Elkin’s
The Dick Gibson Show
(1971), while the preferred genresranged from science fiction (as in KurtVonnegut’s
Cat’s Cradle
(1963) and fantasy(as in Richard Brautigan’s
 In WatermelonSugar 
, 1968) to the detective novel [eher:conspiracy thriller] (as in Thomas Pynchon’s
The Crying of Lot 49
, 1966) and crime fictionor ‘faction’ (Truman Capote,
 In Cold Blood 
,1966) as well as the western and the horrorstory (Richard Brautigan,
The Hawkline Monster 
, 1974). And I should not forget tomention that the popular pattern of the horrorstory was used in feminist works like MargaretAtwood’s
 Lady Oracle
(1976), Angela Carter’s
The Passion of New Eve
(1977), and incombination with science fiction in, forinstance, Ursula Le Guin’s
The Left Hand of  Darkness
(1975) and Marge Piercy’s
Womanon the Edge of Time
(1976).While in the domain of postmodern art andliterature Pop Art seemed so spectacular in itsmove beyond the previous limits of aesthetictaste that it appeared as another avant-gardemovement, in the domain of theory the re-placement of structuralism by poststructuralistideas and deconstruction meant a similarlyradical break with the previously dominanttrend. After 1977, when Jacques Derrida’s
 Dela Grammatologie
(1967) appeared in Englishtranslation, deconstruction became the neworthodoxy. Yet even if poststructuralist thoughtlooked like the theoretical base of postmodernliterature and art, it has to be said that artistsand writers had become postmodern evenearlier, or at least at the same time as thetheorists.This is borne out by works from thenineteen-sixties like Joseph Heller’s
(1961), Vladimir Nabokov’s
Pale Fire
(1962),and Thomas Pynchon’s
The Crying Lot of 49
(1966), novels with a clearly anti-foundationalist stance. And as to the free playof signifiers, where could one study it betterthan in Richard Brautigan’s
Trout Fishing in America
from 1967, a novel in whicharbitrariness reigns supreme? The exhibition of arbitrariness was quite obviously also one of theobjectives of the artists of the time, as canbe gathered from the ‘combines’ of RobertRauschenberg (for instance, his “Monogram”from 1959), the ‘environments’ of ClaesOldenburg (“Four Environments”, 1963) or the‘assemblages’ of James Rosenquist (“MixedMedia”, 1963), from ‘Earthworks’ and ‘LandArt’ like Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” orWalter de Maria’s “Lightning Field”, and, aboveall, from most of the works belonging to‘Concept Art’ – for instance, the series of randomphotographs by Vito Acconci or John Dribbet.The radical relativization of validity stressedin poststructuralist theory is also a strong
feature of earlier postmodern literature and art,where it takes the shape of irony and self-irony,parody, or travesty. I would just like to recallJohn Barth’s parody of Ebenezer Cooke’sverse satire
The Sot-Weed Factor 
(1708) inhis novel with the same title from 1960, orDonald Barthelme’s satirical travesty
(1967).That a relativizing ironical stance was alsoshared by postmodern artists is shown by theprovocative celebration of the banal and thecorresponding trivialization of the lofty anddignified, as in many of the paintings of SandroChia, Enzo Cucchi and Francesco Clemente,or the treatment of important German historicalmyths by Anselm Kiefer.As is well known, the integration of a self-ironical critical discourse in narrative becamesuch a typical feature of some postmodernfiction that one soon spoke of ‘metafiction’ asa new subgenre. Typical specimens are JohnBarth’s novel
 Lost in the Funhouse
and manyof the postmodern short stories and tales of Donald Barthelme, Gilbert Sorrentino andRobert Coover.Metafiction was, however, only oneparticular kind of the mixing of discourses,styles and genre patterns that stood inabsolute contrast to late modernist purism.Other examples include Kurt Vonnegut’s
(1969) with its combinationof historical war novel and science fiction andNorman Mailer’s
The Armies of the Night 
(1968) with its blending of documentary proseand novelistic narration.* * *All these reminders of earlier postmodern artand literature are meant only to help us seemore clearly how much different was mostof what came after.One of the most astounding events in thedomain of art was the appearance of the various“Neo”-movements from the late nineteen-seventies onwards. Starting with the neo-expressionist painting of the “Neue Wilde”, theresoon reappeared an abstract geometrical artunder the name of “Neo-Geo”, which in turnwas soon followed by “Neo-Conceptualism”.Such an open declaration of ‘new’ work as avariation and renovation of something alreadyexisting had been utterly impossible duringmodernism and actually been barred sinceabsolute novelty became a decisive criterionof aesthetic quality with the eighteenth-centuryconception of the original genius. Suddenly theminimal difference of mere variation becamenot only acceptable, but – with its obvious déja-vu effect – even desirable. It is, for instance,hard, when contemplating Roni Horn’spresentation of two parts of a severed beam(“Parted Mass”) from 1985 to tell it apart fromthe works of Carl Andre in the nineteen-sixties,and frequently we also find ‘quotations’ of earlier styles, as when Gerhard Richter’s“Strich (auf Rot)” from 1980 alludes to the
art informel
of the 1950s, or even of particularworks, for instance of Edvard Munch’s “TheScream” (1893) in Enzo Cucchi’s “PaesaggioBarbaro” (1983).What became visible in the nineteen-ninetieswas already the bewildering diversity of stylesthat still prevails to this day. There were somespectacular events like the covering of theReichstag in Berlin by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 1995, and a predilection for spatialarrangements showed also in the great varietyof ‘installations’. Regarding painting, newabstract art (to which even someone likeGeorg Baselitz contributed) competed with‘naive’ realism and the various other kinds of ‘realism’ that could be found, for instance, in

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