goodbye sister pomo
Post #594 • August 3, 2005, 3:20 PM • 176 Comments
Thanks for your indulgence while I threw a few handfuls of earth on the coffin of pomo. Wait, you say, is it dead?
About as dead as painting. These things never really go out of existence as long as people remember them. Pomo has joined every other tradition in that respect - it has become another mine in which artists may dig, or not.
Google around for people writing about identity theory, simulacra, Eurocentrism, or the usual pomo cant as it applies to art, and you're as likely as not to pull up a document written between 1991 and 1998. Hardcore deconstruction is pretty much dead as a viable activity at this point, unless you're working in academia, which essentially serves to carry on the traditions of the dead in general.
But contemporary art has moved on. The idea of Peter Halley relying on the obscuritanism of Baudrillard seems pretty quaint. (Peter Halley seems pretty quaint, period.) The radicals of pomo and decon have excellent five- and six-figure perma-jobs at the universities. Contemporary art pulls from pomo not as a philosophy, but as a style. It just looks postmodern. The danger has gone out of it. Not only that, its pomo look is an indicator of future sales at certain galleries.
As theorists became endowed chairs, department heads, series editors, and MLA presidents, as they were profiled in the New York Times Magazine and invited to lecture around the world, the institutional effects of Theory displaced its intellectual nature. ... One theorist became known for finding her "inner life," another for a skirt made of men's neckties, another for unionizing TAs. It was fun and heady, especially when conservatives struck back with profiles of Theorists in action such as Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals, sallies which enraged many academics and soundly defeated them in public settings, but pleased the more canny ones who understood that being denounced was better than not being talked about at all (especially if you had tenure).
The cumulative result was that the social scene of Theory overwhelmed the intellectual thrust. Years earlier, the social dynamic could be seen in the cult that formed around deconstruction, and a comparison of "Diffèrance" with the section in The Post Card in which Derrida ruminates over a late-night call from "Martini Heidegger" shows the toll celebrity can take on a brilliant mind. By the mid-Nineties, the social tendencies had spread all across the humanities, and its intellectual consequences surfaced in the desperation and boredom with which Theorists pondered the arrival of The Next Big Thing.
As Oldpro is fond of saying, modernism is an attitude towards making art. Pomo once aspired to radicalism, something that could cause real social correctives, something that seemed profoundly liberating from oppressive structures. Maybe for some people it was. But now, pomo is an attitude towards making art. That's too bad, because it was never equipped very well for the job. It only offered one useful strategy: don't take modernism too seriously.
But if the new stuff isn't pomo art, what is it? I think we should think of it as contemporary and not go about labeling it. It's too close to our time. Something like post-tradition wouldn't be so far off, as art is not constrained to any tradition or opposition to tradition any more. Pomo, for a while, was progressive. Not aesthetically progressive, but it had a rebellious feel to it for a time. Now that it's what all the cool kids are wearing at school, it's not even that. It's another style, or lack thereof.
The Next Big Thing may be sincerity. That's no guarantee of quality, not by a longshot, but it would be refreshing, a real surprise, to see something that despite artistic failure, at least wasn't bogus. And it may not fail. It's worth a shot.