The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature

By Richard Kostelanetz | Go to book overview

Modernism and Postmodernism: Approaching
the Present in American Poetry

David Antin

A few years ago Roy Lichtenstein completed a group of works called the "Modern Art" series. The paintings — there were sculptures too, aptly labeled "Modern Sculpture" — were mainly representations of Art Deco settings, groups of recognizable abstract forms derived primarily from circles and triangles, situated in a shallow virtual space, derived from a late and academic Cubism, and treated to Lichtenstein's typical, simulated Ben-Day dot manner in uninflected shades of blue, red, yellow, black and white, and sometimes green. The paintings were amusing. It was absurd to see the high art styles of the early twenties and the "advanced" decorative and architectural styles of the later twenties and early thirties through the screen of a comic strip. It was also appropriate, since these design elements found their way into the backgrounds of Buck Rogers and the lobby of the Radio City Music Hall.At the same time there was something pathetic and slightly unnerving in this treatment of the style features that had long appeared as the claims to "modernism" of Futurism, Purism, Constructivism, and the Bauhaus. What is particularly unnerving about the series is what is most relevant to the subject of modernism versus postmodernism.

Clearly the sense that such a thing as a "postmodern" sensibility exists and should be defined is wrapped up with the conviction that what we have called "modern" for so long is thoroughly over. If we are capable of imagining the "modern" as a closed set of stylistic features, "modern" can no longer mean present. For it is precisely the distinctive feature of the present that, in spite of any strong sense of its coherence, it is always open on its forward side. Once

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Reprinted from Boundary 2 ( 1972) by permission of the author.

-216-

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