To the Editor:
I can swallow Terry Teachout’s lighthearted epitaph for so-called postmodernism (“the playful nihilism of postmodern artists inspired by the anti-art of Marcel Duchamp did prove in time to have been an aesthetic dead end”), but not his pronouncement of modernism’s demise (“modernism is no longer an ongoing movement but a long-concluded chapter in art history”) [“What Clement Greenberg Knew,” July-August].
In culture and the arts, modernism is the expression of a broad societal condition, akin in its sweep to the reach of the Renaissance, which lasted from around 1100 or so until the advent of modernism, which itself arguably took root in the years from 1700 to 1914. I suspect that we are still in the midst of the modern movement (and the Renaissance, too, in many ways), and will be until we are subject to a cataclysm much greater than 9/11, or to the long-term effect of cultural change much stronger than we have experienced in the past century.
Postmodernism, by contrast, has less to do with art than with academic theory, the commerce of art, and careerism in both. It truly is a sign of a loss of culture, but not necessarily the demise of modernism, which continues to understand itself in relation to truth and beauty.
Words like “Renaissance” and “modernism” are terms of convenience, of course, used to demarcate similar features of a period in the long, gradual continuity of human development. If we really are finished with both modernism and postmodernism, I would like to ask Mr. Teachout just what exactly is going on?
New York City
Terry Teachout writes:
One of the problems with the word “postmodernism” is that it can only be defined with reference to the word “modernism,” which is used in different ways by different people. If I read Dana Gordon correctly, he is talking about the larger historical phenomenon commonly referred to as “modernity,” whereas I had in mind the artistic movement that followed and superseded 19th-century romanticism. Needless to say, many artists continue to make art whose style can be described as modern, but I think it is safe to say that the movement from which they took their inspiration no longer exists.
After postmodernism, what? I have tried to answer this question on more than one occasion, most recently in “Across the Great Divide,” the introduction to A Terry Teachout Reader (Yale, 2004).