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 The Death of Modernism in Contemporary Music
Autonomy vs. Heteronomy
Ahistoricity vs. Historicity
High/Low: Divisionism vs. Synthesis
Conception vs. Perception
Conclusion: Postmodernity

I. Introduction

We must really accustom ourselves to the fact that there are periods of mutation in the history of music, and that these periods question the very principles that, after much discussion, have been generally accepted , and then by sheer reiteration, have gradually lost their significance.
(Pierre Boulez, L'esthétique et les fétiches, 1962.)

The position Postmodernism occupies in the late 20th century has been a source for extensive discussion and debate, and, while much has been written to address this phenomena by artists and philosophers alike, taken as a unit, most of these theses support an apparent dichotomy of possible explanations. The first hypothesis, represented by Lyotard, Morgan, and Jencks, supports the notion that Postmodernism is simply a product of evolving Modernist thought. The other, represented by Rochberg, Ferry, and Krukowski, proclaims Postmodernism's independence by establishing evidence of its distinct practices and incompatible aesthetic framework in relation to Modernist principles. As a representative of the latter position, my intent will be to distinguish Postmodernism as a separate conceptual/artistic framework with its own governing principles and ideas. As a composer, I will address this issue as it relates to concert music by tracing, in tandem, the developments and ideas in aesthetic theory and contemporaneous musical activities. Before I lay out my theory, it is first necessary to 'clear the air' by addressing the well known arguments presented in opposition by Lyotard, Morgan, and Jencks.

While Jencks contends that Postmodernism would be better categorized as Late Modernism by virtue of a shared method of self-definition (i.e. definition by negation: not this, not that..), Lyotard supports the claim that Postmodernism is merely another stage of Modernist intellectual development toward the aesthetic goal of presenting the 'unpresentable' (e.g. the infinite) through art. The difference between the two (i.e. Modern/Postmodern) approaches discussed by Lyotard lies in their tactics for reaching the same (albeit logically impossible) goal. If the Modernists are concerned with presenting the unpresentable by negation, that is, only as missing contents implied through a recognizable formal structure, the Postmodernists are concerned with putting forward the unpresentable positively, with little or no emphasis on formal structure, as it is believed that aesthetic preoccupation with form results in further distancing oneself from the unattainable. So the two seemingly independent aesthetic ideologies laid out by Lyotard are, in fact, connected by virtue of a shared telic imperative--presenting the unpresentable. In the context of Morgan's definition, however, the plurality of artistic styles, considered so characteristic of Postmodern aesthetic thought, is a product of an accelerated, even vertiginous, Modernist tendency towards the ideal of originality. This pluralistic aspect of modernist thought is a symptom of the current state of affairs within the Modern epoch--that of a system which has run its course--which he labels the 'Delta of Modernism': "a point in the history of American art where the vanguard energies of artists began to divide and subdivide, and eventually to branch off into a network of autonomous and and uniquely individualistic concerns", about which, Morgan (I believe correctly) concludes that "the journalistic term 'Pluralism', which became associated with the art of the 1970's, gave some indication that the necessity for holding an aesthetically based set of criteria was being challenged." [Morgan: 183-4].

The resulting plurality of artistic styles occurring in the 70's represents a theoretical Eden of Modernist thought characterized by a shift from the 'Revolutionary Individualism' of Modernism to the 'Narcissistic Individualism' of Ultra-Modernism. The two individualist classifications are distinguished by means of degree. While the ideological base of Revolutionary Individualism lies within a particular group or movement (e.g. Serialism, Neoclassicism, or Post-Impressionism), the aesthetic foundation of the Narcissistic Individualist lies in the each individual artist. The shift from a Modernist to an Ultra-Modernist artistic climate can be traced, on a local temporal level, to the Avant-Garde activities of the 1960's, and, on a broader temporal level, to the very beginnings of Modernist thought in the late 19th century, when Modernist imperatives were given the breath of life through artistic exemplification. As I will explain in greater detail later, this gradual shift into an Ultra-Modernist universe harked, with equal conviction, not only the dusk of Modernist thought, but also, concomitantly, the dawn of Postmodern aesthetics. With this in mind, one can easily see where the confusion arises regarding the existence of a new era, as Pluralism furnished a nearly seamless connection between the two epochs; which is perhaps better understood not as a connection but as an elegant transformation of aesthetic thought. In this respect, the 'Delta of Modernism' is the concomitant Modernist equivalent of 'Pluralism', which, for sake of clarity, I will classify as the first sign of a new Postmodern era. Returning to Morgan's prophetic observation, what set of aesthetic criteria did Pluralism challenge? It challenged the idea that any one artistic ideology was better than any other, which led to the eventual breakdown of two of Modernist paradigms: divisionism and ahistoricism. It challenged, by extension, the Modernist ideal of social autonomy and the belief in the value of creating for posterity as, in their isolation, artists found, not the promise of future success and, hence, the eventual possibility of communicating with others in society, but the very real prospect of complete and utter indifference--a total loss of individuality caused by sheer power of number. In short, this transitional period challenged everything the Modernists believed in, and it's success was as inevitable as its own timely departure.

In regard to Lyotard's assimilative characterization of Postmodernism as another Modernist tactic toward reaching the same end (presenting the unpresentable), this entire definition rests on a house of cards, since one of the defining traits of Postmodernity is its complete lack of teleology; a stand which is partly the result of a rejection of two concepts: the ideal of progress, and that of the masterpiece, both of which carry implications of exclusionism (a, perhaps the Postmodern anathema). "A period had been entered in which the rules and practices that made the masterpiece a possibility and an ideal no longer defined the making of art...a new generation of artmakers who felt themselves disenfranchised by the institutions and attitudes embodied in the masterpiece, construed as the symbol of everything elitist, exclusionary, and oppressive in the world of art." [Danto 1991: 272]. Hence, progress excludes those who do not share in a telic imperative, and the masterpiece excludes those who do not subscribe to the social/aesthetic framework in context of which the masterpiece is recognized as such. Perhaps more importantly, in a true Pluralistic society there can be no context within which to judge, no shared set of principles through which to gain recognition. As Krukowski observes, "its [i.e. Postmodernism's] central aesthetic 'virtues' do not dominate--indeed, cannot be located in its various uses...Indeed, there is no common criterion of aesthetic virtues that applies, nor, as it seems, is one wanted." [Krukowski 1992: 195]. Much of the above argument can, of course, be used to refute Jencks' 'Late Modern'/'Definition by Negation' theory, as it too depends on the inherently Modern concept of exclusionism as the primary basis for its argument; a principle which has since been replaced by its logical antithesis. I will only say, in addition, that while I believe Jencks is correct in establishing negativism as a common thread between the two modes of artistic thought, this link is far too general to serve as a sufficient connective agent, since it's commonly the case that one era succeeds another by virtue of a dialectic (e.g. Classical period challenging the ornamental/textural excesses of the Baroque). That said, to lay any possible suspicions to rest regarding the validity of my refutation I will devote the final section of my paper to a more positive definition of Postmodernism. Before I do so, I will offer a description of the conceptual foundation of contemporary aesthetics by way of contrast. That is, I will explicate the differences between the two aesthetic practices by comparing the unique perspectives of each in regard to those issues which led to their initial separation. The distinction between the two practices can be broadly characterized by a duality in perspective with regard to the following interrelated sets of issues:

  1. Autonomy vs. Heteronomy
  2. Ahistoricity vs. Historicity
  3. High / Low: Divisionism vs. Synthesis
  4. Conception vs. Perception.

The Death of Modernism in Contemporary Music
[Introduction] [Autonomy vs. Heteronomy] [Ahistoricity vs. Historicity]
[High/Low: Divisionism vs. Synthesis] [Conception vs. Perception]
[Conclusion: Postmodernity] [Bibliography]

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Copyright © 1996 William Rhoads. All rights reserved.
Last updated 26 June 1997. Contact information.