How We Became Post-Modern
Notes on Das Altern der Moderne1 by Peter Bürger. Peter Bürger, Professor emeritus for literature and aesthtic theory, author of the Theory of the Avant-Garde2, a seminal text in art theory of the 20th century, in this collection of articles written between 1983 and 2000, re-examines some of the main concepts already at the heart of his earlier work, such as the difference between Modernism and the avant-garde, the historic avant-garde's often repeated ambition of bringing art and life together, and what constitutes the failure as well as the success of those movements. While the hopes of the historic avant-garde of permanent transformations of the social world were not rewarded, avant-garde ideas, slogans, strategies and aesthetic methodologies of the Futurists, dadaists and Surrealists have found a permanent place in the cultural 'history' by having entered the endless recycling relationships of contemporary culture via popular culture. Slightly different the case, then with Modernism, because it never had, or purpoted not to have, such a strong social agenda, yet here the name of the art movement is identical with the name of an age: modernity. In this respect, Bürger asks the fascinating question about the aging of modernity and how we became postmodern (or not).
In the Foreword, Bürger states:
"Die Durchsetzung der künstlerischen Moderne ist bei uns eng mit dem Demokratisierungsprozess des Landes nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg verbunden. Das hat zur Folge, dass man hinter jeder Befragung der Moderne nicht ganz zu Unrecht die Gefahr wittert, dadurch könnten auch demokratiefeindliche politische Einstellungen, die bösen Geister der Vergangenheit, wieder zu neuem Leben erweckt werden." p.7
He says that the assertion of artistic modernity was in Western Germany closely linked to the process of democratisation. Therefore, whenever Modern Art gets questioned, it is usually right to assume that this very same impetus is linked to anti-democratic political forces, i.e., a regression into Germany's past. Yet Bürger says, that during the 1990s this had started to change, and a more critical tone had taken hold. Modern Art had won, but had it lost together with its adversaries also its edges? (paraphrased, p. 7, own translation)
Bürger is interesting for my PhD as he asks the right questions at the right level.His work contributes to the theoretic framework, which includes the question of modernity, Modernism, Modern Art and the historic avant-garde - which are all separate things and have a specific function in my thesis. Now is not the time and space to go into much detail, yet what this comes down to is a rewrite of the associated chapters in the introduction.It has also to do with times and timelines, an advise given by one of the assessors at the transfer meeting.
Modernity is important, because modernity is probably one of the top layer categories from which to understand the function of art in society, and the intersections of art, technology and social change. Bürger, I think it is in theory of the avantgarde, places the beginning of artistic modernity right at the beginning of accelerating industrial progress at the end of the 18th century. Bürger asks, on a theoretical level, how did art first become "autonomous" and the answer is it could only be in parallel with the beginning of rapid industrialisation and the rise of bourgeois society. His periodisation of art is not analogue to styles, but looks at the social emergence of the category of art as an autonomous sphere in society. What sounds simple will actually become very complex, because this institutionalisation of art as an autonomous sphere will restrict what will be possible and what not.
This periodisation is not without problems of its own. Bürger does not go through the painstaking process of providing sociological or other historic evidence for the formation of this autonomos sphere of art. If the beginning of modernity as a term that describes industrial and social relationships is also the crucial moment for the function and institutionalisation of art in society to change, then this would merit an in depth investigation to give more merit to this claim.
In terms of styles and genres there is also much that speaks against it. In literature it marks the transition from classicism to romanticism, yet with equal rights it could be said that some of the classics or writers of the early enlightenment period where of primary importance for modernity - such as Diderot for example. In painting I am not art historically trained enough to say if this period exactly around 1800 was marked by sharp stylistic changes, matching the changing role of the artists in society. Yet I think with some merit it can be said that all painting and sculpture at least since the renaissance belongs to 'modern' art, as it formed new ways of perceiving the world without which Modern Art could never have happened.
Thus, the only way this method of periodisation can make sense is that Bürger is talking about the autonomy of art as a social category. He is following an interpretation of materialism which is inspired by Marx and also the Frankfurt School. For all those authors it can be rightly claimed that their theories are 'materialist' in that sense that they see the history of ideas rooted in the relationships of the forces of production, yet they interpret these relationships in different ways. Bürger goes into a particular close reading of Adorno's aesthetic theory and uses Benjamin to show the weaknesses. Through all this we are guided by his own sharp wit. What is particularly enlightening is that Bürger never tries to find final answers but poses those difficult questions which allow no easy answer and thereby opens the view on the sometimes clashing driving forces of (art) history. The thinking is historic and dialectical, it questions its own result and so cannot stand still.
In the Aging of Modernity, p. 10 - 30, Bürger wrote about Postmodernism asserting that it was not clear if there was really an epochal change of that magnitude to use any term that implied an end to modernity. And he added that artistic Postmodernism shared this weakness. This article was written during the first euphoric tide of Pomo-ism in 1983. A handful of irritating contradictions emerges from here. Even so some would say with hindsight, that those sceptics against 'Pomo' had always been right, Postmodernism has lasted long enough to be a reality. In 1984 (FIXME) Habermas in Die Neue Unübersichtlichkeit, ranted against Postmodernism in Architecture, declaring it a blip on the window of time compared to Modernism. In a way that seems to have become confirmed as we now have, for instance in architecture, new Modernist as well as Postmodernist buildings but with the latter firmly in retreat. Postmodernism as an era, a new epoch, is viewed as a period that lasted roughly from the end of the 1970s to the beginning of the 2000s (FIXME, sources confirming this assertion). Since then increasingly the view has taken hold that we rather live in a phase of hypermodernity, characterised by the hyperactualisation of many of modernity's cief characteristica, plus some new one, rather than anything competely different.
What has been subsumed under Postmodernism is, in the field of theory, concurrent with Poststrtucturalism. An interesting question to be asked would be inhowfar parallels can be drawn between the intellectual hegemony of poststructuralism in theory and the rise of economic neoliberalism.
This does not mean to say that the postmodern "theory bubble" was not incredibly successful and did not provide many useful clues to understand this hyperactive media age we live in. What I summarise loosely as Postmodernist as well as Postsructuralist theories can be thrown together so easily because of one major issue, the turn to media as the new agent of history (as in the McLuhanist interpretation) or media as an aprioiri to Erkenntnis, something that lies before meaning but gives structure to meaning and therefore essentially is meaningful. As media theories postmodern theories provides some of the patterns how to understand a world increasingly pervaded by technological media. Concepts of the virtual, immateriality or Baudrillard's simulation, as well as fears of a surveillance society or cybernetic control society offer a rich field of ideas to draw from when trying to come to terms with the new media world. The point is that since those texts were written the world has moved on in ways which the grand old elite of PoMo theory could not foresee anymore. Rather than postmodernism, we have a Modernism 2.0. This new modernism, after the post-1968 cultural revolution, is a modernism suffering a deep crisis of all categories central to modernity. Yet it is not the same old Euro-Imperial-Expansionist model of modernity but a global phenomenon with much of the energy coming from new media such as the internet and new places such as Asia and the Americas. What Postmodernism and Poststructuralism have achieved is a certain pluralism of ideas. From here, there is no way back to Eurocentric modernity. However, the bigger movement of modernity continuates, as large parts of the world are still in dire need of basic achievements such as health care. Therefore the reexamination of modernity's categories are so urgent urgent. According to some, modernity has been in serious crisis as long as since 1918, yet its concepts have also had astonishing longevity. This longevity should give us something to think about. The relativism of some followers of Postmodern/Poststructuralist ideas is just not good enough.
Our age is probably not one that follows on to modernity, which would justify the 'post',
Its failure is also a marker of its success. In the same way as dadaist and Surrealist slogans made it into mass cosncsiousness via May 1968 some of the radical ideas were used by cultural entrepreneurs behind British Punk.In a similar way, a world in which everyone has a mobile phone, a laptop, where genetically engineered products have entered the market, and the fever pitch in economic and industrial competition never ceases - which also leads to occasional outbreaks of mass epidemies in media such as swine flu - in such a world everybody understands the Excess of Communications (Baudrillard) and the Society of Control (Deleuze) without ever having read the masters of the just bygone age.
To come to grips with Modern Art, I also use the framework of Bourdieu to understand art as a relational field, that is also as a sociological category. The meaning of art is worked out by those involved with it, the relational field of art producers, buyers, critics, audiences, etc. The rules in the art world are often different from those in bourgeoise society, as material wealth and symbolic capital not necessarily go together.
The artistic Material
Bürger often uses Adorno's aesthetic theory of modernism as a starting point. According to Bürger, Adorno's ideas about Modernism were directed both against traditionalists and the first raising of the head of the postmodernist spectre. Adorno, so Bürger, "stuck to the idea that the artistic material mirrors the state of the art of social development, without producers necessarily having an insight into this relationship" (p.14-15, own translation). Based on such an understanding, there could only ever be one material which represents the most advanced stage of socio-historic development (p. 15). Bürger detects an anti-avantgardism in Adorno who did not like the montage and the stylistic breaks in Strawinsky's Histoire du soldat, as Adorno has a very specific understanding of the role of the artistic material. There is only one artistic material which is the expression of the essence of a time.
This concept of the material in Bürger and Adorno, is of extreme importance also for my PhD. The material is both the concrete material which the artist uses, this or that pigment mixed with oil, etc., yet at the same time it is also an art historical, philosophical category.
The Aging of Modern Art is partly the fault of its own objective tendency. Because of the primacy that it accords to the artistic material, it tends towards fetishising the material. At any point, the artistic material is at the centre of Adorno's investigation into the development of art.
"Als sedimendierter Gehalt korrespondiert es unterirdisch der Totalität der Epoche." p. 18 That means that the material is a sediment, a destillate which corresponds under the surface with the totality of an era. The artist's task was to work through the material in all possible ways, yet guided by rationality. Adorno promoted, without any compromise, artistic production as a highly rational act. He opposed art to become "that natural reserve of that what is inalienably human and what is a well preserved authenticity from the process of enlightenment" (Adorno quoted by Bürger, p. 18, own translation). Adorno was well capable of seeing the problems of this approach, especially as it was becoming increasingly canonical, and visibly lost its newness. Yet, according to Bürger he saw the problems but did not draw the consequences for his aesthetic theory.
Of lasting importance is that also Adorno saw the development of art in Bourgoise society linked with the process of modernisation as such. No way for art to become a refuge for the irrational within a rationalised world. (Auf keinen Fall soll die Kunst zum Refugium des Irrationalen in einer rationalisierten Welt werden. p. 21) Only if art matches the latest technological developments of the forces of production, it can be an instrument for gaining new knowledge and also a potential for critical interventions (p. 21). Bürger critcisises Adorno's fascination with 'turnovers' in a dialectic sense. Rationality reaches its goal by providing conditions which allow to lift oppression by organisation (p. 22). Bürger writes that such hopes on the possibilities of rationalisation playing themselves out that way would be hard to share nowadays. (p. 16 own translation) But the bigger factor is the fear of reggression. Here, Adorno is engaged with a bitter battle with George Lukacs and the latters theory of socialist realism and the decadence of bourgeoise art. (FIXME, need to read Lukacs, also Gramsci, on the "realism" debate).
Thus, in relation to Adorno and the question, if the notion of postmodernism is justified, this could firstly mean an anti-modern interpretation. Using Adorno against his intentions, it could lead to an academism. Secondly, the alternative view is that there is a widespread recognition of a pluralism of the materials, there is no more need to claim one material as the most advanced. Yet there is also a problem with this anything goes approach as it indeed leads to total relativism.What if there is no connection between a historic epoch and the artistic material? If all materials were really equally well equipped to be a mirror of the times? (p. 26 - 27). Bürger suggests a 3rd possibility, which he describes as a "contemporary aesthetics" (in French) p. 26 It would keep some of the categories of Modernism, yet free it from being frozen in formalism.
Bürger differentiates between formalism and form. He highlights that form will never go away. Yet what modern literature did in the 19th century, was to extend autonomy into the aesthetic sphere. Aestheticism found the perfect unity of form and content, yet did so within a schizophrenic society. The artist reaches symbolic unity while everything else gets increasingly fragmented through progressing techno-civilisation. Still the best solution to address this problem comes, so Bürger, from the historic avant-garde. It solves the problem by lifting it onto another layer, by asking that art should be reunited with the praxis of life, by ending the autonomy of art. The artist-subject revolts against form which confronts him as something alien. P. 28
Thus, what some describe as postmodernism, also constitutes the re-introduction of materials that had been expelled by Modernism, such as narrative forms in literature, realism, folk art, simple rhyming, etc., Bürger prefers to see as a dialectic development of Modernism, not an end to it. What remains is a heightened perception for forms of all kind (p. 29) that 'training in Modernism' has afforded us. We have learned to see the Brillo boxes as art as well as a monochrome screen.
This (everything together) leads me to think that I need to examine the term material more for my research. Only now I recognise that this is a central term for my work.
Der Anti-Avantgardismus in der Ästhetik Adornos. p. 31 - 47
Bürger differentiates strictly between Modernism and the Avant-Garde. Modernism is linked to the revolution of 1789, while the avant-garde, in a way he compares to the 1793 revolution, radicalised the intentions and also contradictions of the previous revolution. While Modern Art is autonomous art, based on the existence of boundaries around art and the notion of the work of art, the historic avant-garde would radically question both. The Surrealists wanted to live poetry, not just write it.
The new artistic practices also challenged the notion of the work of art, as existing seperated and imbued with intrinsic aesthetic values. The avant-garde transgressed those borders, and caused the shock of the new when it proposed atypical forms of reception, i.e. not contemplation but confrontation of the audience. It attacked art in order to turn it into a tool for social change. Enters Benjamin into the debate who had a completely different interpretation of mass culture from Adorno's. Where the latter saw the decline of artistic values through Fordist type assembly line production, Benjamin saw new possibilities through the technique of montage. Dadaist artists and surrealists, by sticking buttons or tram tickets onto their images, they "achieved an unscrupullous removal of the aura of its productioon" (Benjamin quoted by Bürger, p. 39 own translation).
Bürger compares Adorno's critique of aesthetic apparition with Benjamin's concept of the 'loss of the aura'.
There is another chapter, which goes into more detail about this,
Kunst und Rationalität. Zur Dialektik von symbolischer und allegorischer Form 48 - 63, in particular pages 52 - 56 much about the aura).
Der Einheit von Zeichen und Bedeutung, Besonderem und Allgemeinem im Symbol steht mit der Allegorie ein Formbegriff gegenüber, dem gerade die Trennung von Zeichen und Bedeutung zugrunde liegt. Angesichts der Tatsache, dass die moderne Gesellschaft auf dem Prinzip der Entzweiung beruht, liegt der Gedanke nahe, in der Allegorie die moderne Form par excellence, im Symbol dagegen nur den Überrest einer vormodernen Einstellung zu sehen. p.49
Introducing Brecht as someone who had used the allegorical form masterfully, as part of his effort to make art a didactic discipline (p. 52) Brecht did not enter into a critique of a metaphysical concept of art, but relied on the transformative power of the commodity. This leads to a central question addressed in Dreigroschenoper, where the idea of an inviolable phenomenon of art is confronted with the profit interests of capital. In both cases wrong, argues Bürger, as the commidtity character of the art work is not in contradiction to art's autonomy, it helps to bring it out (FIXME, keines wegs zerstört sondern sie viel mehr erst hervortreibt.)
Radicalising Brecht's ideas, Walter Benjamin wrote Das Kunstwerk ... which presents as its main argument the capacity of technical media to destroy the aura of the artwork and therefore emancipate art from "its parasitical co-existence with ritual" and for once and all rid art of its links with religion.
"Die technische Reproduzierbarkeit des Kunstwerks emanzipiert dieses zum ersten Mal in der Weltgeschichte von seinem parasitären dasein am Ritual." Benjamin 1972 zitiert in Bürger 2001, p 54)
"The main idea to have repercussions here is not the technical emancipation through new media, but that art shows, in the way it is institutionalised, structural similarities with religion. Benjamin's materialist viewpoint is that the character of experiences changes in history." p. 54
Bürger points out that Benjamin was ambivalent about the loss of the aura. He welcomes it in the Kunstwerk Essay because it drives out the religious legacy art is burdoned with, but struggles with it, as collegue J Habermas found out, in Bewußtmachende oder rettende Kritik, die Aktualität Walter Benjamins. Frankfurt/M: Unseld. 1972 pp 173-223, p. 196
In his Baudelaire studies, also written at the end of the 1930s, Benjamin sees that it is photography, which plays a significant part in the phenomenon of the loss of the aura. Benjamin redefines aura as making the experience that an object has the ability to open the eyes and gaze back. As Baudelaire condemned photography in very harsh words, to discuss photography along the lines of this conflict must be exciting (FIXME find Baudelaire Benjamin text). Habermas offers a solution. The functions of the aura, as on one hand being a sort of mystical veil, and on the other hand referring to the ability of looking back, those should be separated from each other. pp 54-55
Bürger points out the astonishing longevity of those two things opposed by Benjamin and Brecht, the idealistic notion of the unity of form and content, sign and meaning, and the function of the aura as a necessary ingredient in viewing and engaging with an artwork. Through the examples of Tapies and Japanese art, Bürger argues that a certain ceremonial way of dealing with art, a respectfully kept distance towards a mystery, by, in the Tapies example, referring to the Japanes praxis of covering art works for instance, can not be completely done without with.Even if that, very ironically means that this exposes the fact that the auratic way of dealing with art is empty, humbug.
This admission is no detriment as it points towards a fundamentally modern attitude of anti-substantialism. Art does not need a truly holy core to have these functions in society. Like religion, priests and shamans alike, artists rely on makebelieve. The art work is nothing in itself, its value is only created by the institutionalist ways of how it is treated and dealt with. (p.59) therefore this Bodenlosigkeit (groundlessness) of art is to be understood positively. Even in a secularised understanding the artist will also share something with the swindler, the trickster, the charlatan, as the emptyness at the core of art's system is exposed. (FIXME see also Klinger and Mueller-Funk 2004 reference to Nietzsche and Zaratustra).
Note: Something on art and presentation
This tension between symbol and allegory can not be resolved. While the symbol can be understood in a moments time through an opening up of unmediated access to its meaning, the meaning of an allegory can become abstract when we try to realign it with reality. Wether can we only rely on immedeacy, revelation, epiphany, nor can we forever rest on an abstract truth gained from the artwork. If only one modus operandi prevails, this either leads to a fetishisation of the object or to its negation by abstraction. Modern Art, Bürger concludes, is an institutionalised practice which brings the objects whose irreconcilability has been defined by modernity, into an open ended process of mutual negation. Those are experiences which are not happening to us but made by us, Bürger concludes p. 63
Not done yet: Duchamp 1987
- 1. .
2001. Das Altern der Moderne : Schriften zur bildenden Kunst.
- 2. .
1984. Theory of the avant-garde.