THE PAST IS PRESENT
Nostalgia and Retro Art
Postmodernism is a time period, beginning at a number of points, depending upon which criteria one is using. Noting the post-Duchampian works of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, one could select 1955 as a starting point or at least a gateway year. This date would suit if one were arguing that Postmodernism is a reaction against Modernism for that is the year that the traditional concept of the avant-garde began to wane. The new artists rejected the “purity” of abstraction and the assumption of “originality” for a re-presentation of that which was already said, already available in society. One could also argue that the Neo-Dada artists’ use of popular culture was also anti-Modernist. “Postmodernity” referred to a cultural mindset that indicated a global society, the “flat earth” where all things are both equal and possible. Postmodernity is a culture of despair and cynicism where political movements are used to maintain power and social activism is a mere recreational activity.
From a historical, rather than an art world, point of view, Modernism came to an end with the post-war disillusionment at the spectacle of the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the demonstration of inhumanity that defined the idealistic notion of “progress.” All hope of social reform was doomed with the world wide demonstrations of 1968: students in Paris and Mexico City and Chicago—all put down with police brutality sanctioned by a state determined to maintain the status quo. The Enlightenment was over. The result of this cultural disillusionment was decades of political unrest and uncertainty, expressed through a return to the past.
For many conservatives and traditionalists in the west, “the past” is a mythic country where rules were rules and boundaries were sacrosanct. The fact that this imagined history never existed does nothing to disturb its allure. Political and social conservatism emerged in Europe and America at precisely the same time as Postmodernism became the new trend in the art world—the 1980s. Postmodernism may have looked new because it was different, but it was an essentially conservative (non)movement in that it rejected “progress” as impossible. Postmodernism looked to an equally mythic past in art, a past composed of Old Masters, from Marcel Duchamp to Norman Rockwell, to whom the artists genuflected.
Compared to Modernism which always looked forward to the future while stubbornly clinging to the status quo, Postmodernism resisted the revolutions of the sixties through nostalgically revisiting the past. One of the more interesting studies of Postmodernism and the past was written in 1984 by Frederic Jameson. “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” is a summary of ideas about the Postmodern period that had been floating around for years, put forward succiently by Jameson. He noted the “waning” of Modernism and the avant-garde master works that were the result of a certain kind of ego: “the so-called centered subject.” Jameson explained, “The end of the bourgeois ego, or monad, no doubt brings with it the end of the psychopathologies of that ego — what I have been calling the waning of affect.”
With the order of the canon repudiated, the chaos of what Jameson called the “empirical, chaotic, and heterogeneous”—art forms, high and low, popular and commercial—without hierarchy. As Jameson wrote, “…aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally…” The lack of order and hierarchy during “Late Capitalism” extended to a “flattening” effect in which the border between the real and the simulacra was erased because once capitalism turns everything into a commodity, everything is equalized. The “flattening effect” is extended to emotions which can no longer be real and can only be simulated. Within the realm of capitalism, images make money or not and it makes no difference to the system whether the “art” commodity comes from Rachmoninoff or the Rolling Stones. The sub-text of Jameson’s work is one of regret at the passing of Modernism and a veiled condemnation of the Postmodern. The essay is elegiac, shot through with a sense of loss and longing for a legendary past.
Beyond the “waning” of the Modern and the “flattening” effect” of Postmodernism, Jameson used the concept of schizophrenia, borrowed from Jacques Lacan to explain the loss of meaning or “a breakdown in the signifying chain.” “Meaning effect,” as Jameson put it occurred with the movement from signifiers to the signified but once the connection between these links is broken, the signifiers begin, as Lacan put it, to “float,” a condition called schizophrenia. Without the anchoring of the chain of meaning, the ego cannot form and Jameson asserts that the Postmodern ego is ego-less or unformed and rootless in the face of a barrage of commercial and commodified images. As Jameson said, “…the cultural products of the postmodern era are utterly devoid of feeling, but rather that such feelings — which it may be better and more accurate, following J.-F. Lyotard, to call “intensities” — are now free-floating and impersonal.”
Left without a distinct or unifying “movement,” either in music or literature or the visual arts, Postmodernism was a non-style that occupied a period of about twenty years until 2001. Postmodernism had a number of identifiable characteristics, some of which were noted by Jameson: pastiche and parody. Postmodern art appropriated plurality through the realm of quotation in the new situation of historicism which gives access to all styles, all of which are of equal validity. The Postmodern situation is one of belatedness, similar to the condition of Mannerism coming after the High Renaissance. The Mannerist artists and architects pillaged the vocabulary of their predecessors, often employing elements out of context or exaggerating classicism to the point of parody or mockery.
Jameson explained the condition of the Postmodern as “Modernist styles thereby become postmodernist codes.” Jameson insisted that the “great collective project” (of Modernism) was over and that the language of Modernism was no longer “available.” Without a direct referent, parody is impossible and a “strange new thing pastiche slowly comes to take its place. Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language.” To put it another way, styles became commodified and lost their place in history and therefore their grip on reality. Jameson borrowed “…Plato’s conception of the “simulacrum,” the identical copy for which no original has ever existed. Appropriately enough, the culture of the simulacrum comes to life in a society where exchange value has been Generalized to the point at which the very memory of use value is effaced, a society of which Guy Debord has observed, in an extraordinary phrase, that in it “the image has become the final form of commodity reification.'”
As profound social and political changes disrupted Europe and America, the Postmodern decades were cut loose from history. A new generation of revolutionaries rejected the world of their parents and demanded a new order. The social movements of the sixties were in many ways classic revolutionary maneuvers which demand the older generation fulfill their promises: liberty and equality for all. Both generations felt betrayed and the result was what Margaret Mead called “the generation gap.” Faced with this frightening chasm, the reflexive position was that of nostalgia. As Jameson said, “Nostalgia films restructure the whole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past…the nostalgia film was never a matter of some old-fashioned “representation” of historical content, but instead approached the “past” through stylistic connotation, conveying “pastness” by the glossy qualities of the image, and “1930s-ness” or “1950s-ness” by the attributes of fashion…”
Frederic Jameson, termed these films “nostalgia films” created out of collages of drifting memories of past times and of past films pasted together into a pastiche. Depending heavily upon the adult audience’s cultural memory of Hollywood, movies such as Star Wars, Grease, Chinatown, and Body Heat became the leading examples of a trend of cinematic intertexuality that would become the foundation of later works, such as L. A. Confidential. These films of the seventies did not recreate the past, nor do they recreate the “look” of the films of the forties or fifties. They are not “historical” films. Chinatown and Body Heat were mash-ups of actual history and fragments of earlier films that the audience could recognize.
It is this ability to identity through a cultural memory that made those “nostalgia” film work for the audience. American Graffiti and Star Wars were pastiches in that the films bundled together shared collective memories of teen films of the fifties and American Bandstand and Saturday afternoon matinees of science fiction serials and Cold War paranoia movies. Found styles are left intact enough so as to be recognizable but are sufficiently manipulated to suggest a pseudo new aesthetic. There is no effort to assimilate the parts into a formal unity. Star Wars combined fairy tales, myths, cowboy movies, actual footage from the Second World War in a cacophony of references strung along the trail of what is a hero’s journey retold as a road story.
The late Craig Owens appropriated Walter Benjamin’s discussion of allegory from his The Orign of German Tragic Drama, relegating Benjamin to a footnote. “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism” was written in two parts and published in October. Owens understood allegory as a sort of reference to the past or a direct quotation from history and he suggested that the so-called “museum paintings” of Édouard Manet were examples of allegory. But bringing forward Manet, a prophet of Modernism, tended to confuse the issue and thirty years it is clear that Postmodernism in the art world was poorly understood in 1980. The concept of allegory—an impure excessive symbol—is better suited to Postmodern architecture, photography and film than to Realist art in the nineteenth century.
Walter Benjamin wrote of an obscure art form: the German tragic drama, a Baroque intervention into the Classical. The Baroque had long been explained as a falling off of the Classical or as a fall from grace, and Benjamin wrote powerfully of the building of the Baroque allegory out of the ruins of the classical. “That which lies here in ruins, the highly significant fragment, the remnant, is, in fact, the fines material in baroque creation. For it is common practice in the literature of the baroque to pile upo fragments ceaselessly without any strict idea of a goal…The legacy of antiquity constitutes, item of item, the elements from which the new whole is mixed. Or rather: is constructed. For the perfect vision of this new phenomenon was the ruin.”
Postmodern art speaks in dead languages found in the ruins of Modernism. These “dead” languages still exist but are no longer in active use and yet these codes can still be disinterred and activated by the artist. Well into the twenty first century, we can now see clearly that the public is completely comfortable with the allegorical fusion of past and present and the dystopic future that is the anticipated apocalypse. The “new” ways of making art are sampling and mashups and outright stealing, because, if all things are equal than nothing has any monetary value. What Frederic Jameson could not have predicted in 1984 is the appearance of commodities, such as Facebook, that defy monetization, and the simulacra of money, such as derivatives, that can be gambled and real money is actually lost. The current condition demonstrates the prime characteristic of the Postmodern: irony.
Reprinted by Heathwood Press
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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.