By Turner, Frederick
The Wilson Quarterly , Vol. 20, No. 1
The artists, poets, composers, and dramatists now reaching their maturity have lived through a time of crisis for the arts. Some of us are questioning the whole 200-year-old tradition of the avantgarde and rethinking our aesthetics from the ground up.
The moment we realized we had crossed the invisible boundary from one cultural era to another was surely different in each case; it was, especially at the beginning when we did not know that others were going through the same thing, an intensely individual and sometimes lonely experience. For some of us, it came when we first began asking the awkward questions; for others, it was when we saw with a shock that we had already been asking them for some time; for others, it was when we first recognized an alternative view of the world; and for yet others, it was when we met somebody else who shared the same heterodox opinions.
The late modernist inheritance we came into in the 1950s end '60s, despite its seductive surface of countercultural lifestyle and apocalyptic rhetoric, was even then hoary and stereotyped in its intellectual and spiritual provenance. There was little in its armory that did not derive ultimately from Romantic egoism, 19th-century political radicalism, and early-20th-century modernist movements such as Dada. Such indebtedness to the past would be harmless, indeed laudable, in an artistic movement whose theory and dynamic was one of the incorporation of the past into the present; but it was inconsistent in one that claimed the cachet of innovation, courageous nonconformity, and revolution.
In poetry, what we inherited was confessional free verse; in visual art, abstract expressionism and pop art; in music, 12tone composition; in drama, the theater of the absurd, the theater of cruelty, and happenings. Avant-garde novels and films were plotless and autobiographical. The arts showed all the signs of decadence and exhaustion: the abandonment of technical discipline, the harking after unrealistic and potentially bloody schemes of social revolution, the extreme subjectivism, the studied ignorance of and hostility to scientific fact, the moral cynicism.
It seemed for a brief time that the emergence of postmodernism meant an end to the long, deadening twilight in the avantgarde arts. But in many ways it was a further descent. "Language poetry," visual and musical deconstructivism, political theater, and minimalist fiction seemed to have added little except a further element of self-congratulatory self-regard, while losing the late modernist emotionality that gave the avant-garde a semblance of life.
Instead of political utopianism, we got political correctness; instead of radical subjectivism, the deconstruction of the self. Instead of the subjective construction of reality, we ended up with the social construction of reality. Instead of scientific ignorance, we were given a wholesale attack on the possibility of any kind of knowledge at all. The cynicism remained.
The artistic origin of social construction can be found in modernism, in what at first was a glorious and defiant assertion of artistic freedom. The artist is free only if he (and "he" it usually was, for this was an intensely young male view of the world) can make up his own world and kick himself loose from nature. Painters broke the shackles of representation, fiction writers broke the shackles of naturalistic narrative, composers broke the shackles of melody and harmony, poets broke the shackles of meter. By fiat, they made up their own worlds. Artists were supported in this view by the philosopher J. L. Austin's theory of speech acts and "performatives," whereby the very statement of something, such as a promise or the stipulation of a rule in an agreed context, could create a new reality without need for empirical verification. This, of course, meant that a world was something that could be made up, a point not lost on political interpreters, who, constitutionally suspicious, immediately began to ask: who gets to make up the world? …