Thursday, April 8, 2021

last gasp modernism / last Gass(p) modernism (or, the opposite of recreativity)

 "Modernists all rode the recycling bike. The modernist tradition certainly rejects certain parts of the past, but only certain parts. Even when you have someone like Ezra Pound saying “make it new,” he’s going back to Provençal troubadours, to the Greeks. At the same time he’s saying this, he’s off stealing something from Confucius. So you can call, let’s say, Picasso modern, but he’s borrowing from Japanese, African, or other sources. This always takes place. What is important is not whether you are looking back (you had better), but how and for what reason. When you go back as a modernist in architecture, you’re going back to see, for instance, in Palladio, what you can discover about the very foundation of architecture. You can find in an earlier writer like Sterne, the very foundations of fiction—its possibilities. You don’t reach back to imitate them, to use Sterne like little signatures later on so people will say “Sterne!” When an architect suddenly starts using columns or round windows or friezes to remind us of the past, he’s probably only employing pastiche. But to go back to somebody with the idea of discovering what the art is all about, not by copying their style or mode, but by discovering the fundamental principles which they may help you to wield, that is what modernists tried to do at their best. Corbusier goes back to earlier principles to find out what architecture is all about, not to dance the Palladian polka...

"So when one returns to an earlier model, it’s not to copy something, it’s to refine the essence of the whole task...

William H. Gass, 1995 interview with BOMB magazine (via Version at Dissensus)

in between the ellipses is this bit 

"I find Postmodernists rarely interested in fundamental things, but only interested in finding qualities of the past which they can decorate a modernist shed with. Most Postmodern buildings are merely modernist buildings wearing a different skirt, to switch the image...." 

That whole section of the interview is him being asked if he's a postmodernist writer and Gass rejecting the label, and saying instead: "My work is probably best characterized as late or decayed Modern end of the road sort of thing, last gasp"

Sounds like where I'm situated!

Version at Dissensus opposes the Life's A Gass viewpoint ("why go back to the past? to go boldly forward, reoriented and renewed") with the counter-view as expressed by Tom McCarthy in the Remix / Transmission monograph, which I took to task in my original Recreativity critique


I had my first shot a few weeks ago - making me an aging Moderna-ist. 


  1. The focus on individuals kind of misses the point, though. Spengler explained how Western art was fundamentally incrementalist, that the depth effect of Western painting was dependent on iterative discoveries, not just of perspective, but also of different subtle colour tones to enhance the sense of space. It was the same with orchestral music, with new instruments being invented and/or added and the acoustics of concert halls being refined to once again accentuate the sense of space.

    These both reached an inherent apex, and from that point on Western art had essentially realised itself and could go no further. And so the spectre of patternwork produced the crisis to which Modernism was an intended response. Picasso and his ilk turned to African art not out of some quest for "inspiration" as the art critics would have it, but because his own Western tradition was exhausted.

    Modernism wasn't really about fear of the past, but rather fear of patternwork, to which almost anything was preferable - abstraction, nihilism, primitivism etc. But modernism couldn't really be anything but a dead end, because all it ultimately consisted of was intellectuals trying to deny a harsh reality.

    Hence the weird quality of the 20th Century, which was a period of extreme anomaly, and not the "rush to the future" that we all thought it was at the time. The reason the 21st Century is so painful for modernists, and will increasingly be so, is that it will be the era in which patternwork will inevitably have its way.

    Anyway, back to Teletubbies.

  2. I am fully aware that I'm like a guitar with one string on this subject, btw.

    1. haha

      well, me too. one and a half strings maybe.

      there are lots of theories of modernism. i do like the Jameson one where the precursor to modernism is realism - i.e. trying to take clear, unprettified picture of the world, which then meant an industrializing world - and then the next stage is modernism, where the pressures of modernity are making artists want to reflect in form as much in content the emerging reality that will be the 20th Century. so giving up the idea that art can be transparent reflection of external reality, moving beyond that to more angular, disruptive, abstract work that pulses with the inner turbulent forces driving the modernizing world.

      how all that applies to rock music is a very moot point. there is a replay of modernism within rock to some extent, but a whole bunch of competing impulses and competing borrowings / replays of earlier modes and eras of art. traditional folk musics, 19th Century (or earlier) classical borrowings, exotica things from far flung cultures completely outside the Western narrative, harkings back or reactivations of Romanticism, things from jazz or musique concrete or conversely from Tin Pan Alley or older showbiz forms (cabaret, musical theater) . It's a messy field of second-hand or reenacted stuff but it's occurring in a popular art form that it is also driven by own technical narrative of progress (multi-track recording, amplification, guitar effects, synthesis), a kind of vulgar modernism or mercenary modernism even (except not just that because producers are excited by the new things machines can do). so attempting to construct a consistent narrative through ALL OF THAT is a fool's game.

  3. I'm planning to do a post or two on the occult theories of modernism in the near future, which are, um, most intriguing.