05 October 2021

Heigh Ho, Pomo

Gerald Graff
"The Myth of Postmodern Breakthrough" (orig. 1979)
in Critical Essays on American Postmodernism (1994)
ed. Stanley Trachtenberg
pp. 69-80
In an essay that asks the question, "What Was Modernism?" Harry Levin identifies the "ultimate quality" pervading the work of the moderns as "its uncompromising intellectuality." The conventions of postmodern art systematically invert this modernist intellectuality by parodying its respect for truth and significance. ... It appears that the term "meaning" itself, as applied not only to art but to more general experience, has joined "truth" and "reality" in the class of words which can no longer be written unless apologized for by inverted commas.

Thus it is tempting to agree with Leslie Fiedler's conclusion that "the Culture Religion of Modernism" is now dead. The most advanced art and criticism of the last twenty years seem to have abandoned the modernist respect for artistic meaning. The religion of art has been "demythologized." A number of considerations, however, render this statement of the case misleading. Examined more closely, both the modernist faith in literary meanings and the postmodern repudiation of these meanings prove to be highly ambivalent attitudes, much closer to one another than may at first appear. The equation of modernism with "uncompromising intellectuality" overlooks how much of this intellectuality devoted itself to calling its own authority into question. . . .

(pp. 70-71)

With no scruples whatseover about repeating myself, I must say that following my trip to art school the ultimate archetype of these "highly ambivalent attitudes" and of the "deliberate avoidance of interpretability ha[ving] moved from the arts into styles of personal behavior" (71) will always be, for me, the radical conceptual art grad student who drives a gas-guzzling motor vehicle and listens exclusively to top-40 radio.

My unconsidered gut reaction to Graff's final sentence above is that "modernist" musicians tended more towards reasserting/recovering/recreating some lost "authority" and were usually not too interested in questioning themselves. Also that the principals of the eventual postmodern backlash are quite comfortable slipping into the tattered robes of "authority" whenever they think they can get away with it. Hence this whole question of exposing shams of undue authority is what inclines me toward a positive self-identification as a "postmodernist." I can't really say so in casual conversation, however, because there are too many other associations with the term which don't fit me at all.

Conspicuous among them: I do believe that rational, just authority exists. It's just that, in music, I am typically most skeptical about its possibility on the level of "meaning;" and yes, those scare-quotes are so totally necessary anytime that warhorse word is trotted out of the stable.

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