adventures in dysthymia

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

THE MODERN SYNTHESIS
some thoughts on Modernism, Post-Modernism and What Comes Next

We live in the Modern Era, a period of time that starts around 1910. I am speaking of broad cultural movements that span centuries; these 'modern times' certainly have some steam left in them.

Indeed, previous such eras have lasted, in general, over a hundred and fifty years. We have the Romantic Era -- which includes Romanticism, the Neo-Classical, and the proto-modernism of the late 19th Century -- lasting from somewhere around 1750 to about 1910.

Before that, came the Baroque (enveloping the so-called Enlightenment), which began circa 1580, give or take a decade, and the Rennaisance starting somewhere in the period between 1400 and 1420 -- ideas moved a little slower when we go further back, though the actual eras seem to last about the same length of time. I suspect the human lifespan, which has never varied that much from the biblical three score and ten, is a factor there.

So, similarly, there is the Gothic period of the late Middle Ages, lasting through the 13th and 14th Centuries, and before that the Romanesque (to use the name art historians would apply) starting almost at the turn of the first millenia.

Now, as I have implied, there are always movements within these eras. Often, these can be seen as a dialectic, e.g. the thesis of Classicism reacting with the antithesis of Romanticism within the Romantic Era and eventually resulting in a synthesis toward the middle of the 19th Century. Then comes the inevitable 'what next' question, the 'mannerism,' the searching for a new direction until the new Era is born.

It should be noted that, although the Classical and Romantic would seem to be worlds apart, they truly shared a common outlook. Neo-Classicism took a nostalgic and idealized view of antiquity; as with the Romantics, the Classicists prized sentiment.

Could one see Modernism and Post-Modernism similarly as the thesis-antithesis of the Modern Era? I would come to just such a conclusion. Naturally, there are such dialectics being worked out on a smaller scale constantly in the movement of the culture. The push and pull between abstraction and surrealism in Modernism is an example -- which perhaps reached its own synthesis in the Abstract Expressionist movement.

What is Post-Modernism? It is, among other things, another facet of the Modern, rather than a break with it. Most would date the beginning of the P-M period to around the early 60s; Pop Art and 'confessional' poetry are pretty much Post-Modern. The Beats might be seen as the last 'big thing' in Modernism or even as a transitional phase. The major difference is in the attitude taken toward the world, the environment, the cosmos for that matter.

It is implicit in Modernism that we are in control. We can understand and define the world. We can seek the perfection of ideas, expressed in austere architecture and theory-driven art. We are born as tabla rasa and can be what we wish. Psychoanalysis will free us of all our hang-ups.

Nope, says the Post-Modern world. It's all too complex to ever truly understand. We carry a billion years of hereditary baggage around with us. Our attempts to control fate are laughable. So let's laugh! Or cry or whatever; the thing is to recognize that there are other roads to reaching a personal understanding of life.

Here we are then with about fifty years of Modernism and a similar amount of Post-Modernism. Have we reached the point of synthesis? Have we already gone by it without noticing?

The one defining characteristic of the Modern -- like the sentimentalism of the Romantic -- is its embrace of the conceptual. In this respect, it is more truly 'classical' than the Neo-Classists of two centuries ago and harks back more to the attitudes of the Rennaisance. This will likewise be a trait of whatever synthesis, whatever Modern nexus, is developing.

Post-Modernism has sometimes tried to throw the Modernist out with the bath water, but the ideas survive. Indeed, they underlie what P-M has accomplished, even while trying to break with its past. Have we gone as far as we can in turning Modernism topsy-turvy in search of new insight? I suspect so; the time is here for rebuilding.

Nothing more than some simple thoughts on a complex subject that I decided to jot down. Notes, perhaps, toward a more ambitious essay down the line. Occasionally I have to let my inner art historian out to play.

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