Postmodern aesthetics & historicism

I am told by my more persnickety acquaintances that, because there was no year zero, I should not be calling this the Millennium and thereby encouraging "innumeracy." Well, our present numbering scheme did not even begin until the 200s, meaning that there was no year one either or even a year one hundred, so I cannot muster much interest in the innumeracy subject. We are about to flip all of the numbers in our calendar, a Christian calendar whose basis barely reflects the beliefs of contemporary society at all, yet there is tangible excitement in the air, and so I feel no guilt when stating that these are my final musings of some Millennium. What could be better than a look at historicism, then? And that means another look at postmodernism too. Leaving aside my previous remarks on the inherent silliness of postmodernism as a constructed actor, let me take it for what it is meant to mean, or rather as an icon for some of the ideas which impinge strongly on the world of art today.

I recently read a discussion where a few people agreed that "postmodern style" was about quoting popular material in art music. Although this simplistic definition is rather narrow, it does illustrate two pillars of postmodernism: Reduced emphasis on original material, and glorification of popular culture. The idea of history ending, of historicism as the only compass, of someone else's material deconstructed as an act of interpretation — fundamentally the idea that one must look elsewhere for new material, that we are worn out — is one of the guiding visions (né despairs) of postmodernism. It is found not only in a jazz riff containing a popular tune, a pure act which by its nature need not be any more postmodern than Ockeghem quoting the l'homme armé, but also in the idea of historically informed performance itself. What is more about quotation than attempting to perform someone else's music exactly as they did? Ultimately, what is more postmodern than the "composer's intent" as validator? A modernist can improve on what the composer did, not to mention seeing no need to dredge up old music in the first place. A postmodernist, one might say, has nothing better to do.

The act of bringing popular quotations into the realm of art music is not so much a means to elevate popular music, which is its own justification anyway, but to question & destabilize art music. The whole "up is down" / "black is white" sophistry angle is a big one today, as is the accompanying implication that anything is as good as anything else. Anyone in art understands that different things have different merits and that different aspects appeal to different people, but that does not mean one must abdicate judgement. After all, there are social forces which make some things more important than others. The "nyah nyah" people who glory in the simple realization that perspectives can be turned around may be a little more in touch with reality than the hard core "bigger is better" modernist who needs to know that one thing is better than another, but they are rather pathetic nonetheless. Ideas of the "noble peasant" are certainly not new, but the "belligerent peasant" is not about to be glorified. So a popular quotation reflects both a postmodernist need to find material elsewhere, as well as a realization that distinctions (or the lack thereof) between one kind of art and another are not as clear-cut as some might want to believe.

After early experiences of indignation at being called a postmodernist, I find that I increasingly defend postmodernism against what is not even an informed criticism. This seems like an odd turn of events. Of course, arguing from ignorance is a style facilitated by postmodernism itself. Not only does it support the turned-around "nyah nyah" argument, but it is a philosophy rather short on answers. That postmodernism is bashed relentlessly by so many people who seem to have adopted its underlying ideas enthusiastically makes it analogous to Marxism, in that Marx' main thesis on the economic motive dominating history is adopted at least as strongly by the people who most love to bash Marx. So, why historicism, then? It is because history already happened... it is all answers. This is a comforting fact in the face of disturbing uncertainty, but misses some of the more positive implications of postmodernism. In a scientific world, we are faced with demonstrable uncertainty in conspicuous examples such as Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem or Quantum mechanics (I would argue that the latter does not have these implications, but it does give people the impression; Gödel is who really ended the modernist dream of Hilbert et al.). For me, abandoning any pretense to a clockwork Universe is refreshing, and not an excuse for solipsism at all. There is no complete "truth" and to the cynical this suggests "Why bother?" but to the more informed postmodernist it suggests "So what?" We can get past an obsession with progress and move onward to an emphasis on creating art.

Such is one vision of both historicism and postmodernism: That art is a democracy, and that everyone is an artist. Historicism gives us the paradoxical perspective of past icons as superhuman, but of present artists as nonspecial poseurs. Art under such conditions is no longer transcendent, but simply a commodity to be sold in some manufactured context. It is in this combination of nostalgia, cynicism, and the fundamental idea of having "done it all" that historicism and I part ways. There can be no true relevance if we are only trudging along reinventing the past, nor can the duality of constraint & tradition flourish without actual growth. Popular culture is about entertainment first, and in that sense historicism is a reflection of fear that things may get out of hand. Perhaps it is healthy, and perhaps the passing of this Millennium will take some of the weight off all our shoulders. What historicism reflects more than anything else is the fact that one cannot force creation, and so people in a position to force things simply recycle old creation. It is less dangerous, especially with toadies ever-ready to assure us that truly new music is worthless anyway.

Consequently, as a society, we cannot have a bold historicism, but only a very bland one. We see this in the most widely hailed "authentic" music performances, of course. In terms of causality, society becomes more obsessed with history because it can be: Widespread literacy, video and audio reproduction, and especially television have meant that history is preserved in quantity. We can see images of this morning, last week, or last year whenever we want. The web is the latest step in this saturation, and of course the web is almost the ultimate "quotation vehicle" — most of the money is made from creating links to other sites, some of which may eventually have some content of their own. This is called leveraging content, and history (if usually of the "what happened five minutes ago" variety) provides both a good deal of the content as well as a variety of contexts against which to leverage. Historicism does present a great opportunity for those of us who believe that historical ideas are important & worthwhile, but the key to making it a truly integral component of a postmodern philosophy is not to cling to history (the "-ism" as I see it) but to embrace it. For one thing, this suggests that we not judge historical figures on whether they meet the ethical standards of our time rather than their own time. More than that, it means embracing postmodernism for what it inherently is, an aesthetic philosophy, and an aesthetic philosophy which systematically removes intellectual crutches. So even if I do not really embrace postmodernism, it does provide ammunition with which to deconstruct some of the negative historicism it has engendered.

Administrivia: Next column in five weeks. Enjoy the holiday. Let's hope this system continues to function next month! I don't honestly anticipate anything but minor tweaking being necessary, at least provided the infrastructure is working so that I can access it.

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Todd M. McComb