Previously, I wrote about why I’m more interested in active LDS artists who are seeking to build Zion. With this series, I’m approaching the same topic from a different angle.
PART III: WESTERN CULTURE — MODERNISM/POSTMODERNISM
At the turn of the 20th century, artists from a variety of disciplines sought to break free from the grip of Romanticism. They saw that realism was as much of an artificiality as what it was reacting against, and they saw that the original things that Romanticism had reacted against–cold rationalism, industrialization–had only gotten worse. What’s more Darwin and Nietzsche had showed (in very different ways that God really was dead; Freud that everybody was all messed up inside from repressing things (and because of our parents); and popular culture that Romanticism could take on virulent, sentimental, wildly successful, lucrative forms (the penny dreadful/dime novel, light opera, advertising, Beaux-Arts architecture, etc.).
Seeing all this groups of poets, painters, fiction writers, essayists, musicians and architects all cast about trying for something new–something that could express the modern condition. And, specifically, they wanted art that wasn’t tainted so much by nationalism and consumerism and Romanticism. And so we get wild formal experimentation. Taboo breaking. Manifestoes. All that jazz.
Where Romanticism looked to the rural and medieval, modernism looked to the urban and the primitive. Where Romanticism looked to elicit awe and deep feeling, modernism looked to elicit shock and confusion.
There were numerous forms that modernism took across a variety of disciplines: Cubism, Surrealism, Futurism, Brutalism, lost of other -isms–but they were all attempting the same thing: escape from the modern condition, especially the way in which Romanticism had fused with bourgeois notions of taste and propriety in attempt to paper over the horrors of the industrial age.
Many of the modernist artists were libertine, elitist, sexist, racist jerks. Some of those jerks were also major geniuses who combined craft and experimentation in unique, interesting, challenging ways.
The irony, of course, is that Romanticism (with help from postmodernism) absorbed them and turned them into Romantic heroes. Picasso, Rimbaud, Joyce–they and many others are now the stuff of biopics and museum retrospectives. Their iconoclasm has been gentrified into the broader culture. Not always fully digested–but the undigested lumps (Finnegan’s Wake, for example) can be safely ignored. The modernists have been tamed.
In the latter half of the 20th century, postmodernism reacted against modernism. It was responding to new philosophical movements in linguistics, anthropology, sociology, comparative literature, psychology, philosophy, etc. but also to a post-WWII world (some of those modernists were kinda fascist). Postmodernism distrusted the elitism of the modernists and (depending on your view) was either liberated or thrown into despair by the deconstruction of modernist values and experiments. The author was now dead. Popular culture was now worthy of attention. Culture was relative and situated in particular contexts. The ineffable or transcendent may or may not exist, but whatever the case it was unreachable.
All sorts of ills and attitudes have been ascribed to postmodernism. Most of it is wrong. But that doesn’t really matter. The wrong interpretations simply become part of the main cultural currents. More importantly, the techniques associated with postmodernism-play, collage, pastiche, fragmentation, self-performance, the use of technology, unreliable narration, meta-fiction/commentary, etc.–have not proven so radical that they have been able to resist being absorbed by Romanticism just like the modernists they were reacting against. They have their own undigested lumps (most of which, however, turn back in on their own incomprehensibility), but postmodernism turned out to not really be post anything. It’s all just part of the mix.
More disappointing for many, postmodernism made it all to easy to justify collaboration with the market, whether that is on a highbrow or pop level (or hilo or even middlebrow). The gaping hole created by unfulfillable consumer desire turned out to be hungry for whatever artists tried to feed it with.
MORMON CULTURE & MODERNISM/POSTMODERNISM
Mormon culture as a whole did not embrace either modernism or postmodernism even if individual artists did. Most of the Lost Generation of Mormon writers were at the tail-end of Modernism and participated in that conversation albeit more in the vein of regionalism than high modernist literature. And insofar as some of the techniques and principles of modernism carried into the post-WWII Raymond Carver MFA version of literary fiction, most of our writers of faithful realism reflect that influence. Postmodernism is a bit trickier to track, although also a bit more prevalent simply because more Mormon artists became active during its key decades. If we include those who don’t identify as LDS such as minimalist composer La Monte Young or dark/new weird/postmodern fiction writer Brian Evenson, then there’s quite a bit of representation. When it comes to active LDS, there’s work by Steve Peck and Theric Jepson and maybe a few other writers I’m not remembering. When it comes to other art forms, I’d argue that Jared and Jerusha Hess are genius postmodern filmmakers and also see this Mormon Artist interview with curator Laura Allred Hurtado for an excellent discussion of LDS visual artists who are in dialogue with postmodernism. But on the whole Mormons have a reflexive distrust of postmodernism which was created by the caricature of it presented during the culture wars of the 1980s/90s. And, of course, some of that caricature is true, especially since postmodernism as a theory or cluster of theories was usually quite hamfistedly taught and interpreted and embraced in the U.S. Therefore, Mormons shy away from deconstruction and fragmentation as techniques for art or criticism and dismiss anything that can be labeled as relativism.
I think we should distrust both modernism and postmodernism. Just like we should distrust Romanticism. We should especially distrust the way that modern and postmodern motifs and themes and techniques have been fused with advertising and popular culture and Romanticism to tear away at or tempt away from those identities and practices and relationships that bind us to Christ and the gospel.
I also think that we could learn from both. The energy and innovation of modernism, the grappling with the big issues of the day can be inspiring (even as it can be ponderous and insipid). And I’ve never had a problem with postmodern critique and art that’s done well because in my view it’s tearing away facades and highlighting the artificiality of the world. And some of what it has to say about the slipperiness and impossibility of communication via language seems correct to me. That’s why we need the Holy Ghost. Or to put it another way: I share much of its skepticism of the institutions and discourses and value systems of Western Culture. Of course, I lay that over a metaphysical belief that has many intersection points with the philosophical and theological underpinnings of Wester Culture (e.g. the Restored Gospel) and has turned towards other who seek to bolster that tradition (although, remember that Joseph Smith started out critiquing it quite strongly). So I’m not a good postmodernist. Nor do I want to be a good modernist or neo-Romanticist or post-postmodernist or new-sinceretist or whatever.
I want to be an artist of the Restoration.
In the final post in this series I will point towards some vague possibilities of what that might entail.