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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

III. Ahistoricity vs. Historicity

In the new music, time as duration becomes a dimension of musical space. The new spatial image of music seeks to project the permanence of the world as cosmos, as the eternal present. It is an image of music which aspires to Being, not Becoming.
(George Rochberg, The New Image of Music, 1963)

The concept of ahistoricity in Modernist thought centers around two key issues: the emphasis on innovation or aesthetic originality as a criteria for artistic value, and a conscious resistance to historically contingent mannerisms and procedures in the creation of new works of art with a goal toward complete emancipation from the framework of tradition. With regard to the latter position, turn of the century painter, Jules Pascin complains, "To be Modern is to perceive the past as the locus of only negative messages, of things not to do, of ways not to be, or, of the paintings in museums as 'les morts'" [Danto 1992: 124]. The quintessential Modernist never looks back, and enters without regret into a monogamous relationship with the future; s/he wears her/his infatuation like a badge of honor, exhibiting a near puritanical commitment to the ideal of progress. Picasso further observes, "Painters no longer live in a tradition and so each one of us must recreate an entire language. Every painter of our times is fully authorized to recreate that language from A to Z." [Danto 1992: 128-9]. References to the past are considered signs of weakness and artistic insincerity, degrading not only to the integrity of current aesthetics but also to that of preceding artistic accomplishments. Examples of aesthetically corrupt figures are numerous, but are fortunately easily found sifting through the ruins of our dead past, among them are such composers as Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Dvorak, Tschaikovsky, to name just a few, and, of course, Rachmaninov, in whose music, "in the course of its Post-Romantic debasements... emptied it of all content, freed it of every genuine musical event and threw it on to the market as a commodity." [Adorno 1963: 39].

The importance of innovation, and emphasis on artistic originality, isn't merely a mandate for progressive artistic action, it is a necessary requirement, an aesthetic obligation. The continual evolution of artistic ideas and procedures ensures art's continued existence in the future, for, without movement there is death, and if art ceases to move, it too shall die--caught in a perpetual state of creative indolence and aesthetic entropy. Already, this danger exists, caused by the monolithic presence of popular culture, a nearly irresistible commodification machine that transforms everything in it's path into a cheap imitation of the original idea, a cultural comfort food. In this social context, the Modernist is caught in a Promethean struggle between society and solitary artist. Adorno explains, "The new music suffers from the practiced and the all-too-familiar, from which it differs so profoundly. It impotently takes up arms against the way of the world; its posture is aggressive." [Adorno 1963: 256].

By contrast, the Postmodern musical landscape--represented by such composers as Bolcom, Rochberg, Crumb, and Blackwood--is characterized not by perpetual artistic supersession, but by complete indifference with regard to the concepts of historical linearity and teleological progression. As Krukowski explains, the past loses its linear connection with the present, thus, historical style, rather than seen as an aesthetic taboo or as 'les morts', becomes a bazaar of available influences [Krukowski 1992: 200]. The Modernist fixation on the future has been replaced by a Postmodernist infatuation with the past and present. "Past art is for using, not venerating; it contains no telic imperatives of stylistic transformation or continuity, but it does provide a practical resource for present purposes... it is a history of recurring images, contrasting ideologies, and assumable technologies." [Krukowski 1992: 196]. History is seen, not as a sequence of exhausted ideas and obsolete aesthetic practices, but as an artistically rich, culturally relevant, and intellectually fascinating resource for possible aesthetic guises and compositional procedures. Contrary to popular belief, this intense interest in reconnecting with the past, doesn't forsake the cause of artistic innovation. The Postmodern aesthetic universe is limitless in the sense that it's ultra-inclusivist tendencies continue to permit the opportunity for development of new artistic ideas while it's relativist disposition grants aesthetic value to what in the immediate past may have been considered the most ephemeral artistic ideas. Since there is no teleological framework within which to judge a discovery as having successfully moved the artworld closer to some aesthetic utopia, the concept of artistic evolution has ceased to have any practical application with regard to relative artistic validity. In other words, while new artistic inventions are possible in a Postmodern tradition, these discoveries are no longer considered any more valid than their predecessors, or even their contemporaries, since there is no aesthetic framework or telic imperative within which to determine such a status. There is no artistic utopia, and if one does in fact exist we may safely assume our existence in it. For, if no sense of direction is apparent in the current activities of composers, then perhaps none is needed, and all desires to the contrary can easily be dismissed as Modernist nostalgia. Since direction implies motion toward a particular end, if this teleological tracing reveals no common activity then we can conclude one of three things: 1. we are in a temporary state of aesthetic limbo (Modernist Assimilative Theory: Lyotard, Jencks), 2. we have reached a post-historical aesthetic utopia wherein all past telic imperatives have been successfully attained (Death of Art Theory: Danto), or 3. that the need or desire to fulfill some aesthetic goal has been declared unnecessary in determining the validity of a work of art and even dangerous to the continued existence of art making in contemporary society (Postmodern Aesthetic Theory). It is this final theory which I believe most adequately describes the anti-teleological basis of contemporary artistic ideology. If the third explanation is accepted as a logical foundation for the Postmodern aversion to teleological imperatives then the Modernist concept of artistic progression is safely declared null and void in the context of contemporary aesthetic thought. It was certainly in this spirit that Rochberg announced, "I was freed of the conventional perceptions which ascribe some goal directed, teleological function to the past, insisting that each definable historical development supersedes the one that has just taken place either by incorporating or nullifying it." [Rochberg: 239], a declaration which, if anything, is clear testimony to a fundamental shift in aesthetic principles from the concept of utopian evolution to that of perpetual utopia--from a continual state of becoming to one of infinite being.

With this Postmodern position in mind I will further elaborate on two aesthetic paradoxes resulting from Modernist precepts which are often presented by contemporary artists as evidence of the era's extinction. The first is the result of what Rochberg terms the "cultural pathology" of his own time, characterized by an uncontrollable desire for aesthetic originality. Philosopher, Luc Ferry, describes the dynamics of this particular state of affairs as follows, "Solely obsessed by the quest for novelty and originality for their own sake, it slips over into its opposite, the mere empty, dreary repetition of the gesture of innovation for innovation's sake. The break with tradition itself becomes tradition--'tradition of the new'." [Ferry: 196]. Hence, the Modernist stand against history, which existed partly as a result of an aversion to aesthetic stagnance, and partly as a means to allow artists greater freedom for expression, gradually evolved into its own worst enemy. The Modernist repulsion toward inert artistic principles resulted in an uncontrollable fixation on novelty, which eventually caused the Modernist aesthetic dynamic to turn in on itself. The result was to counter the aesthetic inertia caused by historical derivation with a new aesthetic inertia caused by an obsession for innovation and novelty. A 'tradition of derivation' is replaced by a 'tradition of the new'. Also as a result of this aesthetic compulsion toward originality and revulsion to historically contingent mannerisms was the artistic obligation to avoid referential repetition or traditional gestures. Consequently, the Modernist goal toward complete artistic freedom ultimately fostered a new system of aesthetic constraints, every bit, if not more limiting to the act of artistic expression as the one preceding. Ferry summarizes, "since imitation or repetition tend to become the sin against taste par excellence, in fact, the only one that is unanimously so regarded, the artist, who believed himself finally free from rules and constraints sees himself subjected to the constraint of constraints, the one imposed by his own historical consciousness." [Ferry: 233-4]. The second aesthetic paradox stems from Modernism's self-proclaimed infatuation with the future in lieu of all things historical. This preoccupation with the future finds artistic value only in the gesture of innovation and originality and looks with disdain on referentiality to past practices. Consequently, this viewpoint undermines the value and durability of all artistic achievements, past, present, and future, so that even the Modernist hopes of posterity are shattered by their own criteria for artistic worth. In fact, all artistic innovation, although created with eye toward the future, can ultimately be considered hopeless with regard to artistic validity, for, as soon as the work is created it becomes a present achievement whose eventual fate is to become an obsolete artifact of the past. Hence, the transformation of a Modernist artwork from an object worthy of attention to one of aversion is merely a matter of time--once it is created it is past, and once it is past it is no longer an object of aesthetic concern.

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.