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Postmodernism Can Be Both Bewildering and Inspiring

David Bowie: Postmodern Musician - Elmar J Lardemann
Is postmodernism a handy catch-all phrase for eclectism, or an end-of-history movement? Either way, every art form seems to be irredeemably affected by it.

Some postmodernism began in the 1960s, entering academic study in the 1980s. Perceptions of modern scientific viewpoints, identity, unity and authority was modernism. Postmodernism is distinctly a rejection of previously accepted objective truth, stressing language, redefining absolute definitions and boundaries. It merges black/ white, present/past, gay/heterosexual, and almost any opposites/differences. It absorbs diverse times and cultures in a cross-genre world, mixing and sampling everything.

It is evident in music and drama, painting, media, linguistics, architecture and cultural identity. It uses contextuality and sometimes scepticism to underline unwritten theories. One exponent, Fredric Jameson, claims it as the ‘dominant cultural logic of late (post-second world war) capitalism’.

The Fingerprints of the Genre

The unpredictability of postmodernism is one of the first things to strike audiences. Different performance elements are juxtaposed to heighten contrasts, and the increasing accessibility of technology means artists experiment widely. Narrative and linear structures are often fragmented.

English choreographer Lea Anderson produced Flesh and Blood (1989), from her visual arts background, basing it on the film The Passion of Joan of Arc with religious icons, gender issues and daily life. Although set in a cathedral, the music includes an Australian didgeridoo, and the piece reflects a contrast of dance styles and high and low art with, at times, zany humour.

Equally, her Car (1995/6) has many postmodern hallmarks: site specific and mixed images. It explores car images and sex used to sell them, evolution via Ninja warriors, a robotic future and Kennedy’s 1963 assassination with his wife Jackie beside him in the open-top car.

Events, people and fictional characters from the re-contextualised past are imagined alongside the living, rendering history itself meaningless. Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (1982), set in Thatcher’s Britain brings together 9th century Pope Joan; Lady Nijo a thirteenth century Japanese emperor’s courtesan; Patient Griselda, the obedient wife from Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale; Isabella Bird, a nineteenth century traveller and Dull Gret, direct from a Breughel painting. She frequently collaborates: another postmodern feature. Her work with Joint Stock Theatre has been mutually productive.

Two postmodern composers are Glass and Reich. Philip Glass, with his degree in mathematics and philosophy, believes music doesn’t have to go anywhere, but is a repeated moment in time. He harnesses eclectic styles from western and eastern cultures, each on different beats. Strung Out (1967) exploits additive rhythm, repeating and elongating phrases in the minimalist style. American Steve Reich, also from the minimalist school of music-making, uses world music and constant repetition of sounds and caught voice fragments. He initially used tape loops, but now has digital technology to hand. Different Trains (1988) and It’s Gonna Rain (1965) incorporate recorded spoken phrases. Piano Phase (1967) repeats with instruments, in what is called phase-shifting, using past music materials in a new way.

Many Practitioners Are Devoted to the Genre

Intertextuality is merging different genres/texts to create an often ironic comment on society. Leonardo Da Vinci’s iconic 1498 painting The Last Supper, was reinterpreted with English footballers replacing Jesus and the disciples, as a publicity stunt to launch 2006 World Cup TV coverage. Taking advantage of the internet, users have created trailer mash-ups, where footage from one film is cut with sound/footage from another. In 2003, NY University students cut Kill Bill with The Passion of the Christ, creating a spoof trailer, Kill Christ.

Akram Khan choreographed Rush in 2000, an abstract piece inspired by free-falling paragliders, using Indian cycle of nine and a half beats base for dance, music and space. Samuel Beckett’s very short play Come and Go (1965) is written with exquisitely choreographed movement/stage directions. David Bowie’s career of reinvention and killing off invented personas forms the backdrop to his borrowing from the past: Diamond Dogs (1974) from Orwell’s 1984 (1948).

Cirque du Soleil has created in the Mirage, Las Vegas, Love: a poetical evocation of 27 Beatles’ songs. But the band did it themselves in 1967. All You Need Is Love closes with bars from their earlier hit, ‘she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah’. Nothing is sacrosanct; it can be re-imagined. Spanish artist Picasso’s name is used on Citroen people carriers, an artist reduced (or elevated) to merchandise.

Steve Berkoff, writer, actor and director creates theatre in a world of contradictions, borrowing from the past (Kafka stories) and pushing his mixtures into the face of a sometimes uncomfortable public. He is far from alone as a moderniser, updating the past.

The politically correct movement has also reinvented some past. Thomas the Tank Engine with female engines; Winnie the Pooh with a female Christopher Robin; slimmed Friar Tuck beating obesity; Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster eating healthy food and Noddy reborn anti-sexist, anti-elitist and anti-racist.

Postmodernism is anything people want it to be. Another fingerprint is incomprehension. Critics and some audiences claim such work cannot be understood. For some practitioners, that’s success.

First published on Suite 101, 12 May 2010.

Photo: David Bowie: Postmodern Musician – Elmar J Lardemann

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