Commentary Magazine


Postmodernist Blues

At 3:32 P.M. on July 15, 1972, several tons of TNT were detonated in the city of St. Louis, and the Pruitt-Igoe building complex, a public-housing disaster of fairly ordinary “modernist” angles and bare walls, came crashing to the ground. A photograph preserves the moment, and as the hulking giants wobble at absurd angles, skirted by a cloud of dust rising from the earth, they look utterly ridiculous. As it happens, many people were laughing then, and even more are laughing now. For, in the opinion of certain critics and cultural historians, that was the day, the hour, the very second, when modernism died and the “postmodern” movement was born.

Several years later, on a June day in 1980, a squad of about a hundred artist-types raided an abandoned office tenement in Times Square, and remained there for the space of one month, filling the decaying pile with all the painted and sculpted extrusions that suggested themselves to their fevered imaginations. This also was a milestone of sorts, as public and critical attention turned for the first time to consider a newly impassioned, energized, and politically motivated art that was to influence American cultural activity for the rest of the decade.

How did it happen, just when the success of modernism seemed most assured and its masterpieces were universally cherished, that it should become an object of such derision and loathing, not just to the public, or to the consumers of art, but to the artistic avant-garde itself? Now that we are some years into the postmodern condition, and the shock of it has been sufficiently internalized, we may be in a better position to answer that question. Two recent books, Post-Modernism by Charles Jencks1 and New, Used & Improved by Peter Frank and Michael McKenzie.2 try to find order in these recent upheavals. Although the authors are partisans of the movements they describe, their beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated books help us to arrive at an informed judgment about postmodernism in all, or almost all, of its varieties.

Before considering what these books have to say, however, it might be helpful to define our terms. What most critics mean when they speak of modernism is that complex of radical and bohemian attitudes, and that body of artistic practices, which first arose around 1860 in opposition to the bourgeois-dominated art of the Academies on the one hand, and to merely popular art on the other hand. Thereafter the movement evolved through many phases, but common to all of them, in music and literature as well as in the visual arts, was both a striving for purity and seriousness and an unshakable obedience to the dictates and traditions of high culture.

Here, indeed, is where the point of rupture with postmodernism can be located. For since the early 60’s, with the emergence of Pop figures like Andy Warhol, a significant number of artists and critics alike have come to view this rich heritage as a menacing monolith against which they are intellectually obliged to rebel. It is precisely the sober, almost parental authority of the modernists that in the eyes of the newest generation constitutes its greatest sin, marking a fatal complacency that robs art of its creativity and its power to comment effectively on the world around it.

In place of the values of modernism, postmodern artists and thinkers profess an assortment of aesthetic attitudes whose principal point in common is opposition to the older order. That is why, among postmodernists, one group of artists is inspired by, for example, Michelangelo and Caravaggio, and another by street signs and Saturday morning cartoons, why one group of architects looks to the Pantheon, another to Caesar’s Palace. Where the modernists hated ornament and vernacular styles, the postmodernists have made a point of bringing back all the luxuriant classicism of the Paris Opera. Where modernism demanded the strictest fidelity to the traditions of high art, the new generation seeks far and wide for every noisy, brash bit of popular culture it can lay its hands on. As the authors of New, Used & Improved put it, “The values that were traditionally used to distinguish fine art from graphic art, commercial art, or even advertising—values such as originality, scarcity, timelessness—can seem negligible, inappropriate, even obsolete when applied to the artwork now dominating” the scene.

This is hardly to say, however, that postmodernism is without intellectual prepossessions of its own, some of them at least as sweeping as those of modernism itself, and much more grandiose and militant. Jean-François Lyotard, one of the leading ideologues of the movement, concludes his book The Post-Modern Condition with the anthem, “Let us wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name.” Rosalind Krauss, another leading spokesman, defines the new avant-garde as “a complex of cultural practices, among them a demythologizing criticism and a truly postmodern art, both of them acting now to void the basic propositions of modernism, to liquidate them by exposing their fictitious condition.”

Then there are the more overtly political proponents of postmodernism, to whom the triumph of modernism in art was symptom of and handmaiden to the global conquests of bourgeois capitalism and the American military-industrial complex. As two Canadians, Arthur Kroker and David Cook, write hopefully (if cryptically) in The Post-modern Scene, “The obliteration of the mythology of time in North American culture is a sign of the liquidation of the American Empire, and its warrior values. . . . Opening up the spatial dimensions of existence blows the concentration of power out into the small towns and cities, as centers of micropower replicating the cosmology of postmodernity.”

Ideology aside, the actual art produced by the postmodernist movement must, of course, be judged by the usual aesthetic criteria. That art can be usefully divided into a number of categories. In painting, the movement comprises two strains, which might be termed populism and classicism. The first is New York-based, and derives from lowbrow art, cartoons, B-films, advertising, and propaganda; it is covered most thoroughly by Frank and McKenzie in New, Used & Improved. The second, to which Jencks devotes extensive attention in Post-Modernism, is ostentatiously “cultured,” imitating the Old Masters and filling canvases with all manner of Greek and Roman deities and ruins. In architecture, which only Jencks covers, the tendency is generally of a classicizing nature, although there also exists a kind of populist architecture that one can find discussed, for example, in the architect Robert Venturi’s suggestively titled book, Learning from Las Vegas.

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Because architecture (and urban planning in general) has been the medium in which the postmodernists have most aggressively and successfully opposed their predecessors, it is here that we should begin our assessment. The postmodern critique of modernist architecture (which is not without some merit) begins with the fact of the latter’s sheer bigness: when modernist buildings do not dwarf all the premodern structures around them, blocking out the sunlight for a large part of the day, they seem to stretch on and on in unrelieved tedium. Then there is the form of the architecture itself, often a mirthless congeries of hard edges alien to the soft curvature of human and natural forms, wherein single modules of design, capable of infinite replication, expand on all sides without relief or differentiation. Furthermore, these structures are subject to a decay that is already visible—but in contrast to earlier buildings, no work of modernist architecture will ever look better for growing old.

The postmodernists, for their part, look back to a time when a city comprised many small communities, each with its own identity and autonomy. In retrospect, these natural and organic outgrowths of human association seem to have had everything that modernist architecture bulldozed out of existence. Here were pleasant and varied intervals of greenery and masonry, natural centers of community. Postmodernists aim to revive this natural diversity, even if they must do so through artificial means, almost as one might force a flower to bloom.

Now, whether variety is more “human” than sameness is a highly debatable point—think of London’s seemingly endless avenues of Georgian houses, all of them connected and curving around a crescent, each obviously appealing to the eye of the passerby and to the inhabitants alike. But for the sake of argument one may grant that postmodernist spaces are, as a rule, sunnier and more conducive to the happiness of their inhabitants than are many of those projects created in accordance with the dictates of modernism. Nor should it be forgotten that in buildings, as opposed to paintings, there is almost always a utilitarian element at work: they are meant to be lived in. Unless a building is actually dangerous to inhabit, unless it is so lacking in air and light as to constitute a menace, it cannot be considered an outright failure.

But although architecture should not be treated as so much huge public sculpture, neither can we overlook the question of artistic merit altogether. If the postmodernists were prepared to rest their aesthetic case on the bright, varied colors of their buildings and town squares, the cascading waterfalls, the granite and reflecting glass, the fluted Corinthian columns and the waving palms, then one could concede them their modest achievement and let it go at that. But they go further: they either insist that their architecture is every bit as good as the triumphs of modernism, or that aesthetic criteria are relative and finally irrelevant.

To his credit, Jencks is always willing to call into question the most respected names in the postmodern movement. As I have mentioned, he sees postmodern architecture essentially as a kind of classicism, within which he discerns three main species, fundamentalist, revivalist, and eclectic. To understand what Jencks means by fundamentalism, one must know that a typical modernist structure was designed as though it were the first of its kind—created, theoretically, through the conjunction of engineering with certain formal principles. By contrast, for fundamentalist architects, among them Aldo Rossi, Leon Krier, and O.M. Ungers, buildings are, or ought to be, born of other buildings, with each offspring having a plurality of parents. Thus, in the Floating Theater (Venice), and again in the House of the Dead Ossuary (Modena), Aldo Rossi invokes a basic barn and a basic warehouse, stripped of all adornments and left unfinished so as to expose the base wood, concrete, and steel.

In pursuit of their fundamentalist ideal, postmodernists famously admire Disney World, and some have even done work there. The reason for this is simply that their own architecture, like that of Disney World, is meant to be apprehended according to the species to which any given example belongs, and we are not really supposed to ask more from it than that in the way of art. It is like listening to a skilled mimic doing his version of the President; we do not judge the performance on the internal coherence of what he says, but rather on the degree to which he reminds us of the President in the process of saying such things.

In this light we should consider, for example, Cesar Pelli’s World Financial Center in Manhattan. This may be, literally, the biggest joke in the history of art. The complex contains three massive 1930’s-style skyscrapers that look exactly the way three massive 1930’s skyscrapers would be expected to look. The perversity becomes clearer as one gets closer, for the architect has gone back in time only in order to create a futuristic impression—futuristic, that is, in a 30’s sense: these buildings have all the hulking macho fustian of the Daily Planet building from which Clark Kent emerged as the Man of Steel. In other words, the buildings are aesthetically a colossal put-on, as laughable as steel and glass can ever get.

As for the architectural style that Jencks calls revivalist, it is founded upon a closer obedience to the classical canon. Typical of this more studied and “archeological” approach is Norman Neuerburg’s Getty Museum in Malibu, California, which is not really a work of art so much as a scientific reconstruction of an ancient Roman villa—one which happens to hold within its expansive, gleaming white walls a beautiful French garden with sparkling fountains. The many different colors challenge the viewer to brand what he sees as vulgar and ostentatious, although these too probably have their sanction in the writings of the Roman master Vitruvius, as does almost everything else in the building. But this sort of thing can go only so far. The Getty, like even the best archeological reconstructions, resembles its original the way a stuffed animal resembles the real thing; it is identical in everything except that elusive vitality for which the thousands of fastidiously executed details are but the pretext.

In the case of Robert A.M. Stern’s Observatory Hill Dining Hall at the University of Virginia, there is rather more the matter. This imitation of a Georgian house rivals the Getty in its classicizing ambitions, but it does not reproduce a préexistent structure so much as erect an entirely new one according to a devoted reading of the classics. Here we can identify one of the problems plaguing postmodern architecture, namely, that its much-touted use of the classical vocabulary is inept. This point is worth stressing, because much of the debate between modernism and postmodernism seems to be arrested at the question of whether reviving an older language is valid or invalid. The real question should be whether the language is being used well or badly.

Now the virtues of classicism are regularity and dignity, and its corresponding vices are pallor and monotony. Look at the University of Virginia’s Observatory Hill Dining Hall and you will find only the latter qualities in evidence. The building consists of four bays, each of which is painted a bright white and flanked by two columns over a squat brick base, and topped by a tiled mansard roof culminating in a lantern. The task for the architect is to bring together four identical components without making the whole thing boring; at this task Robert A.M. Stern has failed completely. Any competent classical architect—Thomas Jefferson, for instance, whose designs for the University of Virginia should have shamed Stern into inactivity—could have helped him out by making the cornices less wide and less aggressively horizontal, or by making the Tuscan columns in each of the bays more assertively vertical. But Stern is like a child learning Latin, who is so happy that his sentences are not ungrammatical that he has neglected to endow them with any sense, let alone any real style.

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Most postmodern architecture does not even aspire to this degree of classicism. Indeed, what most people mean by postmodernism is what Jencks calls eclectic. This is the sort of goofy architecture in which you can expect to find metallic palms, fake and stagey ruins, isolated columns, and a thousand other campy attention-getters. Typical is Charles Moore’s Piazza d’ltalia center in New Orleans. Moore has spared no expense to make this look as cheap as possible. The walls, draped in a garish orange, seem to have all the insubstantiality of a Macy’s mock-up; exuberant Corinthian columns are laced with neon striations above plinths chopped purposelessly in half, and crowned with a shock of acanthus leaves fashioned from what looks like chrome-colored plastic. These clash with the yellows, pinks, and blues of the rest of the composition, the shallow, disengaged arches, and the now-notorious waterworks, representing the Mediterranean Sea, in the center of which a slab of colored concrete simulates the boot of Italy. The pediment, predictably, is graven with a weighty utterance in Latin.

The Piazza d’ltalia does, ultimately, achieve a kind of beauty, but it is the beauty of ambience, rather than of architecture. Michael Graves, by contrast, in his Public Services Building in Portland, Oregon, achieves something far rarer in architecture: ugliness, pure if inadvertent. This building, decked out in a garish clashing of mud colors and flesh tones, features an unadorned, Albert Speer-like colonnade, with a gaudy art-deco statue at the entrance and massive ribbonlike excrescences gracing the center of the façade. One doubts that much light can get through what appear to be very tiny windows; perhaps the employees are gratified enough to know that they are inhabiting a work of art.

Not all of postmodern architecture is bad art—but whatever true beauty is found in these structures is always the beauty of modernism. Philip Johnson, for example, though now despised by modernists as an apostate from their cause, is still capable of making fine buildings. In the AT&T building in Manhattan he has grafted onto the top of an ordinary skyscraper an enormous Chippendale pediment and filled the lobby with unlovely gold paint and ill-used white marble. The executive lobby, Jencks aptly points out, exhibits no understanding of the deployment of spaces. But the detailing of the granite colonnade and the rhythms of the windows have much of the subtlety and refinement of the International Style, of which Johnson was such an eminent proponent. Similarly, Chicago’s Hild Library, by Thomas Beeby and Hammond, Beeby & Babka, is a stately structure, with resonant intervals of columniation, good arches, and an impressive use of brick. There are also various excellent things in the Proctor & Gamble headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, and in Mario Botta’s office building in Lugano, Switzerland, with its brilliant use of Roman brickwork and its innovative massing.

Postmodern architecture often permits this kind of picking and choosing, impossible in the purer forms of modernism; but again, the artistic accomplishments are almost always those of modernism itself.

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In the field of paintings and sculpture, the issues are somewhat different from those in architecture. As Jencks’s discussion shows, the revolt against modernism has drawn painters away from abstraction back to the figure, narrative, and mythology, in ways that would have shocked most critics two decades ago. A great many newer artists have gone the way of “culture,” trying to impress us with learned allusions to Piero della Francesca, A.R. Mengs, or Géricault. There is undoubtedly something appealing about these campy renderings of older models, with their ideally proportioned figures and ruined classical temples beneath a blue Aegean sky. Thus, Milet Andrejevic and Lennart Anderson set contemporary figures—joggers, skate-boarders, and the like—in Central Park on a perfect spring day, and give their works titles like “Idyll” or “Diana and Actaeon.” In “Woman in a Greek Chair,” David Ligare places a beautiful girl, dressed all’antica and painstakingly delineated, against the thrilling expanse of the deep blue Mediterranean as it evaporates into the paler blue air. Not all goes well in Arcady, however. Another strain of classicism, represented by Philip Pearlstein and Martha Mayer Erlebacher, though rendering the human figure in the most academically punctilious style, de-idealizes it until it becomes wiry, unlovely, and cold.

Jencks also attends to three current luminaries of the New York art scene: Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Eric Fischl. All three combine a complete devotion to figuration and narrative with a variety of techniques purloined from the Abstract Expressionists. Each projects his own personal version of chaos. The images of Schnabel, mingling abstraction with primitivism and blotched representation, suggest a world with no center, a mess of pluralism run rampant. Salle’s works are more alertly figurative. Though they show no skill in the art of painting, they do at least have a spiritual center, consisting of a kind of modish neurosis whereby the artist struggles to adjust himself to a world which, we may safely imagine, has gone quite mad. Fischl is better trained than the other two and his canvases achieve a kind of fluent painterliness that is not all bad; here the chaos is a nice kind of chaos, the sort you can live with (and prosper in) as long as you take nothing too seriously.

Other painters whom Jencks includes do not really fit the postmodernist bill. Balthus, De Chirico, and Kitaj, for example, have simply too much of the moral intensity of modernism, too much native understanding of how to paint and compose a picture without resorting to hype. The postmodernists are after something other than these things, and perhaps the Italian painter Carlo Maria Mariani can serve to illustrate what that is.

Mariani’s massive painting, “The School of Rome,” has become one of the icons of the postmodern movement. In a composition which, like the title itself, recalls Raphael, he has depicted a dozen figures in clear, almost photographic, detail, and has surrounded them with classical ruins, river gods, a Ganymede being spirited up to heaven on the back of an eagle, and a hermaphrodite in the center foreground. What is more interesting is Mariani’s filling of the composition with his art-world friends: Cy Twombly on horseback, Mario Merz as Hercules, himself as Apollo, and a well-known German art dealer as Goethe in Italy.

In other words, the painter has erected a dream world in which everyone gets to be whoever he wishes to be. Of course, there is a dolorous undertone in all of this, a kind of tacit recognition that one is never going to be as great as those forebears whom one invokes. Yet once an artist concedes that such excellence—the excellence of Raphael, or of the Greeks—is categorically beyond his reach, suddenly the options become almost unlimited. He can pretend to be Caravaggio, as Jack Beal does; or Poussin, in the case of Andrejevic; or, in the case of Paul Resika, Cézanne. In their hearts, these painters must know that future generations will have no use for their art; but now, while they move among the living, how splendid it is to dream these fantastic, superlunary dreams.

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Leaving them thus aloft, we may turn with relief to the “populist” brand of postmodernism that serves as the subject of New, Used & Improved. And here there is hardly a shtick, gimmick, or attitude on the New York art scene that Peter Frank and Michael McKenzie do not duly cover. In general, their analysis is neither deep nor persuasive, consisting for the most part of the usual stew of Marx, Freud, and Roland Barthes. But the style of the writing is lively and appropriate, the coverage fairly complete, and the discussions of individual artists, often based upon interviews with the subjects, are informative and revealing.

Unlike the classicizing strains assessed by Jencks, the populists’ dislike of modernism bears all the traces of generational strife. For these young people, modernism means sobriety, purposefulness, transatlantic good manners. By contrast, the populist postmoderns are brashly and thoroughly American. Such a description might well discomfit them, since one of their favorite activities is, precisely, attacking America from an assortment of vanguardist positions. But even their attempts to turn American mass culture against itself rest on an unspoken appreciation, exemplified in their unshakable determination to have “fun.” The word “fun” is repeated so often among them as to become a kind of shibboleth, which is why one of the first places to sell this sort of art called itself the Fun Gallery.

The formal vocabulary these painters employ often derives directly from their childhoods. Modernism, too, made much of childhood, as in the works of artists like Klee, Balthus, and Chagall, and writers like Proust and Andrei Bely. But this is different. The sweetness and dreamy introspection of childhood have been quite purged from these newer works, leaving us with the blare of the TV set showing a rerun of Lost in Space, while the stereo goes full blast to the redolence of bubblegum, nail polish, and the moral crisis of acne. One recognizes everywhere in this art the doodles and graffiti entered in notebooks or sprayed across toilets and lockers or carved into wooden desks during a boring class in Art Appreciation. Kenny Scharf affixes day-glo colors, decals, and pasties onto a “ghetto blaster,” and Rodney Alan Greenblatt paints wooden chairs and tables with the bright colors and decorative devices of a third-grade homeroom. Rhonda Zwillinger “customizes” pianos, desks, shoes—everything she can get her hands on—with plastic and rhinestone beads, while Ronnie Cutrone has based an entire career on placing cartoon characters, drawn with what looks like complete accuracy, in compromising situations: Foghorn the Rooster with his head lopped off, Woody Woodpecker transformed into a seedy gigolo.

Most of this art is essentially apolitical—though the artists themselves obviously consider it a radical critique of their culture. But other populists exhibit a political identity so strong as to dominate their artistic activity. Barbara Kruger, for example, who is a little older than the others, is an expert at anti-advertising. With an excellent sense of graphics obtained from her years on Madison Avenue, she turns the ways of the advertising industry upon their inventors’ heads. Her black, white, and sometimes red images are often intentionally reminiscent of the early Soviet avant-garde. One work of presumably feminist overtones depicts a woman tied with pins, with the words, “We have received orders not to move.” Another, which has for its target the male-dominated world of business and government, shows a big, macho shoe coming down on the legend, “Don’t buy us with apologies.”

More of the same is implicit in the works of David Wojnarowicz, who has made quite original use of inflated plastic dummies covered with maps of the world and fretted with flames that are surely premonitory of global conflagration. Elsewhere, a globe held within the massive jaws of a dragon, covered with dollar bills in various denominations, represents the omnivorous destruction wrought by capitalism upon an innocent world. The “conceptualism” implicit in these works is even more evident in Mark Bidlo and Sherrie Levine, who have produced some of the greatest art works of the 20th century—by making flawless reproductions of Matisse, Picasso, and Léger. Why are they not subject to criminal prosecution? Because, we are to understand, they are questioning the very concepts of authorship and originality so dear to modernism.

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There are a number of reasons why recent artistic practice has taken, as we have seen, a turn decidedly for the worse.

The first is the most obvious: in art, as in life, everything changes and nothing stays as it is. Whether modernists like the fact or not, it is in the nature of culture that what was done thirty years ago will necessarily look thirty years old. Even the hard-edged abstractions of Mies and Mondrian, obedient as they are to the undying verities of Euclid, have become fragrant with memories of the times and the circumstances that brought them forth. The truths expressed by these artists are eternal, but not the specific forms in which those truths were conveyed. To apply the principles of the International Style in architecture today would probably represent as historicist an act as building a Pompeiian villa in Malibu.

It is also true that the built-in program of modernism, at least in painting and sculpture, was the ever-greater ascendancy of form over content, leading from Realism to Impressionism and from Impressionism to Abstraction, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and finally Concept Art. The momentum of modernism required it to go still further, but there was no place further to go. This dilemma was enhanced by the fact that the art world still had to be fed, and one of the requirements of its diet was that only the newest and the freshest be served. Thus it was that, having reached the terminal point of Concept Art, modernism could only turn back upon itself, which is what it did.

If there is one thing that modernists and postmodernists agree on, it is that they are radically different from each other. And yet, this difference needs some looking into. Modernism came into being on the heels of the Industrial Revolution, the revolution which in the space of about a generation changed everything in European life so drastically that the sort of art and literature which had dominated for centuries became impossible. This was no mere shift in fashion: it was a massive, categorical severance of two worlds. And in the newer world that the bourgeoisie created for itself, a new art was called for, though at first no one knew what it would look like. The Academies still survived, trying to preserve the dead styles by avowing that they had never really died. But anyone with eyes to see knew that the Academy’s stale pastiches of Titian and Rembrandt had nothing to do with the real thing, that everything great in Old Master painting had passed out of the competence of European artists—and, mutatis mutandis, of architects as well.

Yet in fact those qualities had not really passed away, they only awaited translation into a form and language consonant with the newer order. This was where modernism came in. In retrospect, it was the mission (or at least the result) of modernism to reclaim for architecture and the fine arts the formal validity of the Old Masters, not by mimicking them to the letter, as the Academy tried to do, but by abstracting the principles of the older art and adapting them to the terms of the new technology then coming into being. This is why a painter like Mondrian is really much closer to Poussin than was Poussin’s imitator Puvis de Chavannes; why Picasso comes closer to Michelangelo than does the pasticheur Edward Burne-Jones; why Mies is closer to Phidias, the architect of the Parthenon, than either of them is to Klenze or Gilly, for all the latters’ obsessively accurate recreations of the Parthenon in Berlin and Regensburg in the early 19th century.

Seen in this light, art since the French and Industrial Revolutions can be divided into two categories. The first embodies and expresses the same principles which, in however varied forms, inspired the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Normans, and artists of the Renaissance and Baroque. Of the other category, which we can call, following Clement Greenberg, kitsch or academic art, all we need to say is that it has neither sought nor found those universal principles. It has looked for something else—atmosphere, ambience, chic, grandeur—things eternally and non-negotiably different from the aspirations of the first kind of art.

Today the conflict between the two categories is as strong as ever, even if it is usually not fought along these lines. Modernism sought and found the universals; postmodernism, however different from kitsch and academic art, shares with them an interest in something other than the pure forms.

The upshot is that it is possible to like postmodernism for many reasons, but not for anything like “aesthetic validity.” When Charles Jencks, in the last chapter of his book, entitled “The Emergent Rules,” sums up and enumerates the principles of postmodernism, and claims that the architecture he endorses is closer to pre-industrial architecture than modern architecture is, he is guilty of a singular lapse of intelligence. The only continuity, or “continuum,” to use Jencks’s word, is that both the pre- and postmoderns use Corinthian columns and arches. But one must be blind not to appreciate that the postmodern use of the classical orders is illiterate and incompetent; that postmodernist classicism has nothing to do with the classics themselves, and everything to do with the 19th century’s view of gaudy grandiosity.

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But if postmodernism really has nothing to do with the classical past on the one hand, and if it loudly dissociates itself from modernism on the other hand, what then is it? Perhaps we should not take that loud dissociation, in which both sides seem to have a great stake, altogether at face value. If we consider both movements from the outside, they begin, indeed, to seem suspiciously alike, each more akin to the other than either is to anything else.

Modernism has always been a wildly diversified movement, comprising a great number of filiations, not all of them answering to the noblest aims of high culture. Any honest assessment of modernism must acknowledge that one of its greatest ornaments, the prodigious Mondrian, evolved insensibly out of the dreamy vulgarities of Art Nouveau and symbolism, to such an extent that even his latest works still contain a genetic bond to those earlier attitudes, which are themselves very much a part of modernism. In the same way, the International Style of Mies and Gropius, as well as the Prairie Style of Frank Lloyd Wright, emerged out of the 19th-century middlebrow vernacular, just as in poetry T.S. Eliot owed so much to Swinburne, and in music Schoenberg so much to the smarmier elements of Mahler. Moreover, one of the main forces in the development of modernism was an antinomianism very much in the spirit of our latest generation of artists, an antinomianism manifest in such impulses as Dada and early Surrealism.

Just as modernism contains elements of rebellion and worse, so postmodernism, a rebellious movement par excellence, nevertheless contains elements of modernist probity and seriousness. In architecture it uses all the technological principles invented by modernism, and indeed often improves upon them, while in painterly technique and narrative methods it recalls earlier moments in the modern movement. This is hardly to deny the triumphs of modernism, or the mediocrity, at best, of what is being done now, only to see them both as interlocking parts of the modern age. In fact, the chaotic diversity of postmodernism is usually little more than a cashing-in, often enough artistically unprincipled, on the liberties implicit in modernism. The notion that it constitutes a new and radically different epoch in culture is nothing more than a miracle of marketing.

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Footnotes

1 Rizzoli, 360 pp., $60.00.

2 Abbeville Press, 159 pp., $35.00.

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