Monday, April 18, 2011

The Optimistic Schizophrenic, Critical Essay #2

In the late fifties and early sixties, as modernist paintings sat locked away inside the pristine fortresses of the gallery, the age of the post-modern was just beginning and a new crop of subversive art movements began to take shape. In 1959, a performative art movement, coined by Allan Kaprow as “Happenings”, sought to create art that could not be co-opted by the gallery. These spontaneous performances echoed the discordant activities of Dada and featured many traits that would come to define the postmodern. In this paper I will take a closer look at some these early divergences from modern art in America, and examine broader postmodern phenomena by discussing Fredric Jameson’s ideas about “pastiche and schizophrenia” in postmodernism.

In 1961 Allan Kaprow wrote an essay in Art News titled “’Happenings’ in the New York Scene”, that chronicled a small group of artists and spectators involved in planned acts of randomness. Kaprow describes one of these events at the start of his essay: “Everybody is crowded into a downtown loft, milling about, like at an opening. It’s hot. There are lots of big cartons sitting all over the place. One by one they start to move, sliding and careening drunkenly in every direction, lunging into one another, accompanied by loud breathing sounds over four loud speakers”(85). There are other examples of “Happenings” that Kaprow describes, and in each example the audience always becomes an integral part of the overall performance. In these works the artist becomes part of the collective, a radical shift away from the modernist view of the tortured genius as sole creator. Kaprow goes on to say that “happenings are events that, put simply, happen. Though the best of them have a decided impact—that is we feel, ‘here is something important’—they appear to go nowhere and do not make any particular literary point. In contrast to the arts of the past, they have no structured beginning, middle, or end. Their form is open-ended and fluid; nothing obvious is sought and therefore nothing is won, except the certainty of a number of occurrences to which we are more than normally attentive”(85). The fact that the “happenings” “go nowhere”, are not “structured” and do not seek anything “obvious” speaks to the emerging generation of post modernists’ artistic existential response to post WWII / Cold War existence. This attitude towards the absurd or inconsequential seems symptomatic of the postmodern.

Kaprow acknowledges the dilemma that the modern artist faced after becoming embraced by major galleries, art institutions, and academia, stating, “The old daring and the charged atmosphere of the precarious discovery that marked every hour of the lives of modern artists, even when they were not working at art, vanishes”(87). He also predicts that a similar fate will fall upon some of the artists involved with “Happenings”, stating, “Some of us will become famous, and will have proven once again that the only success occurred when there was a lack of it”(88). He acknowledges success as an inevitability and asserts that the fleeting nature of pure creative freedom and expression is not ultimately negative, but rather part of a cycle. Kaprow’s foresight is interesting and different from high modern idealism in that he has no false hopes that this art form will transform society or become the ultimate existential experience. Rather it will burn bright for a moment, decay, then finally lay to rest within the imaginative memory of those who witnessed the experience.

According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms “…where a modernist artist or writer would try to wrest a meaning from the world through myth, symbol, or formal complexity, the postmodernist greets the absurd or meaningless confusion of contemporary existence with a certain numbed or flippant indifference, favouring self-consciously ‘depthless’ works of fabulation, pastiche, bricolage, or aleatory disconnection”(174). This description also works well to describe some sentiments expressed by early punk rock culture of the mid to late 70’s. The term “self-conscious”, ties together the philosophies of both “Happenings” and early punk rock, in that both performances appear to project “flippant indifference” or chance “disconnection”, but are in reality, acts of self-conscious expression. However, I feel that this self-conscious disconnection has been the great flaw of post-modernism, in that what was once self-conscious has become un-conscience. While pop-artists such as Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein clearly understood how their images played with the ideas and power dynamics of popular culture, hyper capitalism, and mass media, subsequent art often merely regurgitated the aesthetics of past styles deemed hip or fashionable in the present moment.

In Fredric Jameson’s essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”, the postmodern can be characterized by two of its significant features, what he calls “pastiche and schizophrenia”(129). Jameson defines pastiche as, “…blank parody, parody that has lost its sense of humor”(131). The pastiche is rampant in postmodern art. Pastiche artists seek to produce work that satisfies a certain aesthetic, which is borrowed from aesthetics of the past, be it the art of pointillism, expressionism, abstraction, minimalism, surrealism, pop, or photo-realism. However, the problem arises when context and philosophical understanding is lost, and historical amnesia takes its place. To Jameson this is akin to wearing a “stylistic mask”, a “neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic” (131). Going back to punk rock for a moment, one can see this in later punk music of the 80’s, 90’s, and especially 00’s, when the style and sounds of early punk is reinterpreted by later generations, the potency, vibrancy, and original intent is lost. What you are left with is a weak aesthetic shell of what was once powerful.

The idea of “schizophrenia” as applied to the postmodern by Jameson, is disintegration between the relationships of signifiers. Jameson states, “the schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence” (137). The schizophrenic experience is one of a temporally perpetual present. Without a connection to past or future, the notion of “I” or “me” in a diachronic scheme is lost, replaced by a heightened sense of presence. Jameson states that, “as temporal continuities break down, the experience of the present becomes powerfully, overwhelmingly vivid and ‘material’” (138). He then goes on to say that the isolation of the signifier often gives the signifier a more literal or material translation. The way I see this literal translation affect postmodern art, is that when a postmodern artist copies, unconsciously or not, art from movements past, that artist is more likely to take a literal translation of those works and in doing so, the artist also propagates the pastiche.

Another element of the postmodern is that the distinction between high art and commercial art begins to blur. Jameson, states, “The second feature of this list of postmodernisms is the effacement in it of some key boundaries or separations, most notably the erosion of the older distinction between high culture and so-called mass or popular culture” (128). This erosion could be seen as positive, even from the stand point of anti-capitalist artists involved with “Happenings”, in that culture and art could be found outside the gallery walls, and become accessible by all. However, I fear this view is overly optimistic as ultimately this loss of distinction has led to an over fetishized, schizophrenic, and empty cultural experience. My hope is that the current age of the post-postmodern seeks to use proliferation of communication technology as a tool to move past the pastiche, towards the more informed. I include myself in this, as I have probably misunderstood most of the concepts I just laid out, I only hope to gain something back in the post-millennia.

Works Cited

Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press,

1990. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on

Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. New York: The New Press, 1998. Print.

Kaprow, Allan. “’Happenings’ in the New York Scene”. The New Media Reader.

Ed. Noah-Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort. Google Books. 29 March

2011. Web.