Art in Postmodern Condition
Yelena Celma and Ilze Fedosejeva discuss the question
* * *
Yelena Celma: – How would you describe the situation of art, its condition of existence today?
Ilze Fedosejeva: – In order to answer your question, I would like to emphasize the topic of our conversation as we formulated it earlier, namely, “Art in Postmodern Condition”. And I suggest we define more precisely in what sense we are going to use this notion of postmodern condition. I think the topic allows for two interpretations. We can talk about art in postmodern society or postmodernism as a situation in art itself. As far as I can see, the question of whether our society can be characterized as postmodern is still very controversial.
Y. C.: – I agree.
I. F.: – There are several thinkers, for example, Anthony Giddens, who view our society as carrying out and developing the principles established by former society. Well, for example, according to them, the tendancies of rationalization that began with industrialization have reached their peak in contemporary society.
By contrast, the issue of postmodern art can be solved much easier and more definitely. In fact, the contemporary condition of art indeed can be characterized as postmodern. And it is not a coincidence that social philosophy turned to the concept of postmodernism when it analyzed the experience of art and developments of culture, not social developments. Only after that, the question of the link or correlation between the processes in art and society was raised. Maybe one can say art outstrips society in this case.
So, what is it that makes contemporary art postmodern? First, I think it is the situation when you can explain contemporary art neither as continuation of the art of previous periods, nor the rejection of this tradition. Nowadays, art has acknowledged the dual attitude towards the past.
Y. C.: – What exactly do you mean when you say it is dual?
I. F.: – I think the attitude is dual, because it is impossible to continue the tradition of the past, but it is also impossible to escape from it.
Y. C.: – Is it not better to use the concept of deconstruction here?
I. F.: – Yes, and that is why the only attitude contemporary art has towards this tradition is deconstruction. And I feel comfortable in this situation. For couple of reasons. First of all, it seems to me the level of creativity contemporary art offers is very high. It is creative. It contains unlimited, enormous creative potential, because it perceives itself as free of any tradition. Secondly, as a person who has spent a large part of my life in a society that was highly ideological, I have instinctive fear of any kind of one-dimensional meanings. The principles of play and incompleteness that characterize contemporary art exclude the possibility of fixed meanings and strict ideological rules.
Y. C.: – Maybe I do not have as positive attitude towards postmodern art as you do. I cannot claim I feel just as comfortable in this situation. There are things I cannot accept or that seem to me just plain absurd. Sometimes deconstruction is applied to something very important and essential. For example, Riga Russian Drama Theatre had a new version of “The Seagull” by Chekhov. As far as I know, the production was not too successful, and the reason was the director’s overindulgence in postmodern approach with its emphasis on visualization, sound, scenography. As the result, actors and Chekhov’s text are left in the background, and it is a rather common practice nowadays. In that way the artwork loses much of what is in it. I understand why you want the aspect of play to be very prominent and that there is creativity in the artwork, and I understand why you are afraid of simplistic ideological content. But often the play we are talking about becomes an end in itself. Maybe the artists do this intentionally. They do not want to be educators of society, or propagator of ideas any more.
I. F.: – Well, yes, that is exactly what I mean, I perceive postmodernism…
Y. C.: – As an end in itself, to certain extent?
I. F.: – No, as the form of art which aims to avoid involvement. Lyotard, for example, says that if an artist or writer does not want to organize a group in support of the existing order, he or she has to give up any therapeutic goals.
Y. C.: – If that is so, why do you think art exists. Just to entertain? What do you think? Maybe one can really claim that art perceives itself as a sphere of entertainment and intellectual play?
I. F.: – I agree that intellectual play is very prominent in postmodern art. But… I hesitate to call a disclosure and identification of polysemy an end in itself. At least, I am ready to accept such an end.
Y. C.: – I am ready to accept it as well, but I cannot say I have the same experience I could have if there were also the richness of inner content present in this art. Because for me, it is interesting and nothing beyond this.
I. F.: – Yes, of course. Nevertheless, I think we should bear in mind that every artistic style or method has its limits.
Y. C.: – Right now, possibilities of art are unlimited.
I. F.: – Possibilities are not unlimited. Contemporary postmodernism rules out the possibility of such thing as pathos in art, for example.
Y. C.: – Ironic pathos is not ruled out, is it?
I. F.: – Any pathos, including the ironic one, is subjected to deconstruction. A good example is single actor play by Grishkovec, it was called “How I ate a dog”, and I think it was dominated by intense longing for the meaning and, at the same time, impossibility to accept the idea of rigid meaning.
Y. C.: – Accept or reject?
I. F.: – No, fear of the possibility that the meaning can become totalitarian. And that explains the never-ending flight from the sense that briefly seems to emerge.
I would like to ask you a question. You are a person who belongs to two cultures at the same time, namely, Russian and Latvian culture. How do you think, to what extant postmodern art fosters national tradition and national art? Does postmodernism destroy, undo and dissolve national tradition? Is national culture in danger?
Y. C.: – First of all, I don’t think I belong to two cultures. Russian culture is native for me, and Latvian culture is rather acquired.
I. F.: – Still, you know Latvian culture very well.
Y. C.: – Not quite, I am more familiar with Latvian theatre and cinema, I know less about Latvian literature and poetry where influences of postmodernism are very strong. In Russia, postmodern tendencies can be observed in literature, drama, painting. It seems to me the manifestations of postmodernism there are very Russian in character – extremely sharp, extremely rude, the level of permissiveness is very high. One can see this also in Grishkovec’s plays, but Sorokin and Pelevin are even more radical. It is Russian maximalism again. In Russia, the attitude towards postmodernism is very hostile, especially in wider audience. Basically, postmodernism develops in a rather narrow circle. You probable have heard of public burning of some books. Traditionally, Russian culture has always been a moralizing culture, especially literature that relentlessly tries to reeducate people and strive for the absolute. The situation in Latvian is more complex. I don’t think there are very strong tendencies of postmodernism in Latvia. Just think about it, the only theatre constantly associated with postmodernism is the New Riga Theatre. There are other theatres as well, but they reproduce the traditional approach, although maybe there are some exceptions.
I. F.: – A provocative comment – the New Riga Theatre is maybe the only one with notable commercial success?
Y. C.: – Yes, it is a characteristic feature of this theatre. It has a very specific audience – young people who place the highest value on experimenting. I have been to its productions many times, and many have been failures. Nevertheless, the audience still cheers and is disposed to accept everything. It is a bit discomforting, this is not a critical audience. It is not an audience of intellectuals, and there is such an audience in Russia. Let’s take for example “Revizor” by Gogol. Everybody just loved it. I think the production was very superficial, a typical postmodern interpretation with irony, laughs, but no tragedy one can find in Gogol. It is a deconstruction that leads to the simplification of the content. I’m not saying one has to avoid all this. It is unfortunate the audience thinks the staging is perfect, although they don’t know Gogol’s text, and a large part of the audience certainly doesn’t know it… That’s why I think writers like Bodrillard and Houllebecq are right when they claim there is simplification of culture going on. Do you think there are different kinds of postmodernism?
I. F.: – Of course, I can agree that postmodernism is often associated with simplification and simplified outlook on the world.
Y. C.: – Seemingly complex.
I. F.: – Yes, maybe superficial, but entangled. Nevertheless, if we have agreed that postmodern art is characterized by the principle of play, we must also admit that there is a play with different levels of culture in many works of art. These levels are incorporated in the artwork, and it seems to me, postmodern artworks become related to cultural tradition and other contexts in this way. Therefore, I don’t think postmodern art has to be superficial. Rather, the question is how deeply the contexts that postmodern art uses for its play are rooted in culture.
Y. C.: – One more thing – to what extent is audience or viewers capable to understand them? If a person doesn’t know what “Revizor” is, or, as in the case of Sorokin’s play “Dostoyevsky Trip”, if this performance is the first time he or she encounters Dostoyevsky’s work, then…
I. F.: – Yes, then the resulting process is somewhat puzzling. My example would be a motion picture “Walking Down The Road” by Kairišs. Probably, it is very difficult to watch it if you don’t understand references to “Crazy Dauka”, the history of Latvian cinema and tradition. There are a huge number of quotations in this film, and all of these quotations influence perception of and participate in the film. Sometimes it seems to me this is one of the ways Latvian art could preserve its cultural heritage. There are not too many options, for example, either we leave “Verdant Land” or “Spartacus” by Andrejs Upītis as a historic legacy of our art or we try to highlight it in some other way…
Y. C.: – “Other way” – that is a completely different question, a question of deconstruction. Other readings have existed at all times…
I. F.: – Well, of course I agree…
Y. C.: – But look what is happening with Dostoyevsky, it is a complete deconstruction, ironic deconstruction. And since I know the text, it gives me enormous pleasure. I watched “Dostoyevsky trip”, I laughed, I almost cried, but I didn’t know what this play meant for the audience that had not read “The Idiot”. I just recently had to tell the content of “The Idiot” and to explain each of the seven characters of the play. The names of Rogozin and Nastasia Filipovna don’t mean anything to them, but they clap and they claim they like the play… Maybe you are right and maybe they will recognize some indicators.
I. F.: – To what extent can we hope to return to the authentic artwork?…
Y. C.: – No, not authentic, I don’t use this term…
I. F.: – I think it’s an illusion. We will never be able to answer the question that some seven years ago still could be found in textbooks: what did the author mean by it?
Y. C.: – No, we cannot answer such questions, but I think there is some minimum of cultural knowledge that is necessary in order to understand this kind of works of art.
I. F.: – I would like to discuss one more tendency in contemporary art, namely, about those artworks that exploit such strong emotions as fear, intimacy. For example, we can remember “Dancer in the Dark” by Lars von Trier. There, compassion and emotionality become obtrusive. Would you relate this kind of phenomena to postmodernism?
Y. C.: – I certainly would, because in classical art, there has always been a demand for certain distance in the process of perception. Writing in “Psychology of Art” on the difference between artistic emotions and everyday emotions, Lev Vygotsky claimed that distance and not just empathy or compassion helps to activate the intellect, memory etc. He called this kind of emotions “wise emotions”. In contemporary art, emotions are so obtrusive that the distance is impossible. It reminds of what we see in reality shows. Why do people watch them? Almost every TV channel has some reality show on it. I tried to watch them, but could not. Nevertheless, many are watching. And this phenomenon also can be called postmodern. Either it is related to urban culture or entire society, but for many people, life is either too even or too stressful and they lack means to release their emotions. People need this kind of art.
I. F.: – Probably I can agree with you here, although I am thinking now about what Joseph Beuys once said: “We need art not so much to understand things, as to activate human sensory organs – eyesight, hearing, and vestibular sense.”
Y. C.: – Well, but he was postmodernist.
I. F.: – Yes, he also was postmodernist. And it seems to me the object of sensations quite often disappears in contemporary art. There is just fear that lacks reason and cannot be explained, there is pleasure, corporality in itself. It’s an art where the body is not the bearer of meaning. There is just corporality as sensation.
Y. C.: – Maybe that’s a reaction on didacticism and eidos that dominated European art since long ago.
I. F.: – Of course, and to some extant, that was the starting point of our conversation, namely, that postmodernism is an attempt to escape the total meaning.
Y. C.: – The emphasis on didacticism and eidos didn’t begin with soviet period. For both Plato and Aristotle the importance of the artwork laid in its idea. Maybe today we have a reaction that aims to restore explicit sensuality that we tend to lose. The perception of reality is mediated to such extent that one can claim there is no reality anymore.
I. F.: – Besides, Umberto Eco has suggested that we can look for universal moral principles in our bodies, because we all feel pain in the same way. Until we have these common bodily experiences, we can establish common moral principles. So, body can be important as the foundation for morality as well.
Y. C.: – There is something very important in this. To certain extent, one can look here for the explanation of why we both feel rather comfortable in postmodern situation. Because we try to understand it. Surprisingly, not just elderly people, but also students tend to be very hostile towards postmodernism.
I. F.: – Maybe one should rather emphasize readiness for dialogue, and the lack of this readiness can be found in many age groups.
Y. C.: – That is exactly what Houllebecq and Bodrillard are saying – postmodern culture is incapable of engaging people into dialogue. It is self-indulgent and closed. It is your private problem whether you are able to understand or not. Nothing is forced, nobody will tell you which way to go
I. F.: – I just want to add that an aggressive demonstration of sensuality makes the dialogue as we traditionally understand it impossible. Sensual gesture can take a form of a grimace, or turning away.
Y. C.: – I had this impression during the performance of “Revizor”. The play is very profound, but the staging was such that I had to laugh constantly – straightforward reaction and that is all, no subtext. Maybe for some time this approach is necessary in order to become capable to create something new.
I. F.: – Maybe deconstruction is a way to clear space for creation of something new.
Y. C.: – I am sure that if this indeed is crises, it is a creative one because postmodern art offers unlimited prospects. Well, I think we can finish with what we started. Does art have some function in society, or it is autonomous and produces nothing but itself without worrying how people perceive it?
I. F.: – I would say art has completely abandoned any intentions to change reality. “In postmodernism, the world that needs to be renovated is replaced by the world that lies beyond renovation.” Any attempts to influence and change society is unacceptable for postmodern art. At the same time, it is does not try to become a closed enclave that has nothing to do with the rest of society, and it does not perceive involvement with social issues as something sinful. Contemporary art is not socially active, but it is resonating with society. It uses the social processes as a context without trying to set a diagnosis. For example, look at Poškuss’ documentary about two Christian missionaries. They are serious about what they are doing, but the audience of the movie laughs about them. They preach about Jesus, but simultaneously are trading cheap goods and in order to earn some money are ready to cheat. Nevertheless, Poškuss does not try to unmask the heroes of his film, just as he does not try to analyze the society that is ready to accept these preachers. Still, the film is socially resonating.
Y. C.: – You know despite what we have said today, I think there are really brilliant things that postmodern culture can produce. For example, Pedro Almodevar does not evaluate and is ironic about everything, and he turns to the subject of sensuality in his films. Nevertheless, through all this postmodern plays and techniques, one can see a true compassion and that fascinates me!