Yesterday, Tom Hawking of Flavorpill condemned Lady Gaga's “Applause” video—not as “derivative,” or any of the other common complaints, but as “postmodern without purpose.” He rightly argues that its “empty self-referentialism” fails to make any statement greater than a list of all the jokes she's in on. And he's also right to point out that it's not this list that's the issue with “Applause;” it's the fact that nothing new is extracted from the listed imagery as a narrative in itself.
The problem, though, is that more often than not, any actual usage of the term “postmodern” shows just how poorly the idea is understood. It's certainly the case here. One would benefit from an understanding of where the prefix “post” comes from.
Pericles Lewis summarized the Modernism movement (no “post” here) as the “search for new gods in unorthodox places.” As many early 20th-century artists claimed to be watching the downfall of civilization, they fled from all the familiar meta-narratives — Christianity, Industrialism, etc — and sought new sanctuaries. Here we saw the proliferation of ex-pat artists most recently made famous by Woody Allen, and their experimentation with exotic forms.
Perhaps the Dadaists could see the future. Rather than seeking new meta-narratives to replace the old, the Dadaists fled from anything that promised understanding. And the postmodern era is more directly linked to this line of thought than any other Modernist idea. As Ezra Pound’s voice crackled with the glories of Fascism over thousands of European and American radios, as the Communism so many other Modernists cherished also corrupted, it became clear that the new gods were no mightier than the old.
“The very act of identifying oneself as postmodernist goes against the distinguishing element: that one must not identify with any dictating system of beliefs.”
Those, like Hawking, who seek to create a concrete understanding of what constitutes a postmodern artwork, risk corrupting it with the very idea that the movement seeks to undermine: art as freedom from ontological control. It's not enough to understand that “postmodern artists” borrow from others; this is the reason why. It is an expression of fluidity in identification, freedom from dictating and corrupting meta-narratives.
It’s a movement with no true followers. The very act of identifying oneself as postmodernist goes against the distinguishing element: that one must not identify with any dictating system of beliefs.
When William Gass, who in many ways has influenced postmodernist literature, was asked if he identified as a postmodernist, he laughed and described himself as an “old, decaying Modernist.” It's telling that Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and George Saunders have also avoided the term.
And even if one were to identify with a movement classified by its lack of identification, it would be quite silly to condemn others for failing to identify with one's own definition.
So, maybe Gaga’s “postmodern without a purpose” is all right. Maybe, in historical terms, it's even spot-on.
I mean, I would agree with Hawking that the imagery of “Applause” fails to unearth any newfound truth of the human experience, and would also agree that imagery for imagery’s sake alone is barely interesting. I’d even add that the fact that “Applause” wastes no time on any viewer who fails to grasp the myriad of references, is more Modern than post, and therefore infinitely more exasperating.
But I think that my own opinions on the matter peg me firmly next to Hawking as an outcast of the postmodernist movement. Perhaps we’d both be better off overcoming our desires for images “greater than the sum of their parts.”
After all, it’s the tendency of intellectuals to write about intellectuals that led Theodor Adorno—somewhat of a bridge between the two modern movements—to write, “In the activity most their own they have shut of the consciousness of tat twam asi (‘thou art this’).”
Or, and I think this is more likely, the wide acceptance and accompanying misuse of the term “postmodern” is a sign that we should be looking for art criticism more equipped to account for where we are now.
After all, the fact that something has become a buzzword doesn’t excuse its misuse.