Moving Towards Metamodernism

Austin Eddy, Flying-Fingers, City-Face , 2016; oil stick on paper on canvas, 46 by 60 inches.
Austin Eddy, Flying-Fingers, City-Face , 2016; oil stick on paper on canvas, 46 by 60 inches.

Many years heaped upon years ago, when I first came across some of the more extreme ideas and art posited by postmodernism, my first reaction was honest bewilderment followed by unease. In my youth, I embraced art via romanticism and I idolized the modernist heroes with their fearless idealism and unfiltered passions. I also came from a music background, where expression and catharsis are not considered critical dirty words. Postmodernism’s more extreme positions essentially told me that all I believed was a lie and that I was a backwards fool to have believe any of it. But what did postmodernism offer in its place? Most often it was an untethered nothing, a deep cynicism, and a sense of emptiness. While today I recognize that there are some points in postmodernism that have merit, I still, at times, walk away with the sour taste of nihilism in my mouth. Postmodernism is essentially the aesthetics of giving up; it can be summed up in one word: doubt. It was born of the perceived failure of art and artists to change the world. After the peaceful revolutions of 1968 collapsed (and other events, such as the continued war in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Kent State shootings, and Watergate) many found their idealism shattered. The few zealots who survived, like the RAF and the Weather Underground, retreated to the shadows, their idealism turning violent.

Many years of my own life experience later, I understand the postmodern proclivity toward pessimism, skepticism, and doubt. The disappointments have piled high. Half of the time, I am a glass-half-empty kind of person. I see that it is too late for me to be able to retreat back to modernism, like so many a Remodernist or Stuckist have attempted to do, but even if we could, would we even want to? As much as I would like to devote myself full-tilt to an ideal, critical thought and a newfound deconstructionist tendency has changed that part of me, and I’ve found this critical thought to be, sometimes, a good thing.

Deconstruction can be healthy. It is good to reevaluate ourselves from time to time and take things apart, but I never cared for many of the conclusions that postmodern deconstruction offered as a result. Deconstruction allows us to acknowledge our faults and biases (and there were many in modernism, namely a lack of inclusion), and while we still have much work to do in the way of inclusion, I am optimistic that it may soon be time to think about a new direction for art. Deconstruction is a surgery performed on an anesthetized body; all motion and progress becomes impossible in this state. We have spent time taking things apart; now I think it may be time to try to start putting things back together, to start moving on. There remains an old guard of postmodernists, however, that would have us coldly dwell on our fractured state and failures, or worse, celebrate it with a calculated kind of nihilism. And this is where I break.

I am no stranger to disappointment and fits of pessimism. I’ve passed through dark existential places of the mind and I expect I will pass through them again . . . but I cannot live in postmodern darkness nor will I cover myself in a cloak of insincerity as a result. After being knocked down, I inevitably find myself getting back up, with my idealism intact. I don’t know whether it is something akin to what Schopenhauer would call “the will,” to chalk it up to blind sense of naiveté, or maybe to something else entirely. What I do know is that my life and my art lately seem to be defined by a vacillation between a number of different extremes, hope and disillusionment being a prime example. I’ve also come to recognize that this condition conforms to ideas put forth in a new cultural philosophy/phenomenon called metamodernism, and that it may be a rich possible replacement for the dying postmodern zeitgeist.

Our current understanding of the term metamodernism dates back to 1999, where the ideal and aim was, according to artist and art historian Moyo Okediji, to “transcend, fracture, subvert, circumvent, interrogate and disrupt, hijack and appropriate modernity and postmodernity.” Soon it was determined that the metamodernist’s relationship with modernism was to be more than an empty pastiche or even a homage, but rather a new critical reengagement with modernist methods. By 2010, with the publication of cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker’s Notes on Metamodernsim, metamodernism was posed as a replacement for the skepticism, doubt, and insincerity of postmodernist thought and practice. Perhaps not coincidentally, this occurred during the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency and his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Although the term metamodernism was not a word used in my circles during this time, I recall that the conversations, both public and private, took on a new and curious tone. Many people were buying into the idea that for the first time in a long time there may be hope, and that “yes, we can change.” While skepticism and doubt have returned, to a certain degree, it turns out that this oscillation between two poles is exactly what is described as the metamodernist condition in Vermeulen and van den Akker’s paper.

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