The term “postmodern” originated in the latter half of the 20th Century. According to Jerome Mazzaro, author of “Postmodern American Poetry (1980), critic Randall Jarrell used the term in his 1946 review of Robert Lowell’s “Lord Weary’s Castle,” to characterize the writings of Lowell.

According to Charles Jencks, the first use of Post-Modern in architecture was in an article by Joseph Hudnut, “The Post-Modern House,” published in 1949. However, it was not until the late 1970s that the term took off, in articles in The New York Times and elsewhere.

In a 1978 article in The New York Times, architect Philip Johnson wrote: “ ‘Modern’ hated history, we love it. ‘Modern’ hated symbols, we love them…Maybe tradition, maybe things of the heart count.” An example of postmodern architecture would be the AT&T building in Manhattan, with its famous “Chippendale” roof. The School of Visual Arts, in Manhattan, held a symposium on postmodern art in the autumn of 1979.

In 1978 I created my own postmodern button. The size of a half dollar, it was dayglo green with “postmodern” in black Helvetica. I figured that if postmodernism brought back tradition in architecture, it might help me peddle my poems. I wore it on my coat as I walked the streets of New York, and sent one to Annie Dillard, who was young and approachable then. She wrote back that she stuck it in her hat. She mentioned the button in her 1982 book Living By Fiction.

Generally, postmodernism has been an attempt to move art and critical theory beyond the crushing weight of modernism and modernist theory that has dominated art and literature since the early 20th Century. The term “modern” derives from the Roman “modernus,” meaning “just now.” It is precisely this perpetual present that has given modernism its great strength and staying power. We live in the moment today, and we will live in the moment tomorrow.

As far as most people are concerned, we are still living in the Modern Age. Modern technology continues to drive our civilization. It is a moot point whether you consider your blackberry postmodern or not, or the laptop on which you compose your postmodern novel. The evolution of technology is clear: from Edison’s light bulb to today’s light emitting diodes. There is no postmodern branch of technology. The emerging “green” energy technology owes nothing to postmodern theory or debate.

Nonetheless, there is a strong representation in the culture that time past is time future, as for example, in the movie “Back To The Future.” From sword-and-sorcery epics to gory video games, writers and producers are using chunks of the past to make big profits from today’s audiences. The idea behind The Secret” is that the Law of Attraction has been operating down through history. “The Da Vinci Code” thrilled readers/audiences with ancient Church lore.

It is here, in the recognition that technical progress does not guarantee social progress, and that progressive theories in the arts do not guarantee a richer artistic experience, that Modernism stumbles. If Abstract Expressionism did not provide a richer, more advanced form of painting compared with figurative painting from the time of the Renaissance, what was it? Perhaps it was retrogressive, a denial of the figure in the face of challenges from photography.

It is my observation that in the fine arts like painting and sculpture, where technology is not so dominant, that the debate of modernism vs. postmodernism is most intense. Whereas, in the technology-driven arts like photography and cinema, all objects and dogmas find space and acceptance.

So, is a Renaissance fair postmodern or not? To those who participate in one, it probably doesn’t matter. What they know is that for a weekend they are thrusting aside the insistent now and reliving a piece of the past. Objects as unlikely as belt buckles have been called postmodern.

Postmodernism has about it the sense of a literal post-modern world, an apocalyptic wasteland without modern conveniences or hope. Which makes the term dangerous, as Modern once was, threatening the general public.

Maybe it will be some years before we can say with clarity what postmodernism was, is and isn’t. For now, you might ask yourself: will it be a lucky term for me?

By Hudson Owen

Advertisements