The Last Ism

I’ve been taking an online class through the University of Pennsylvania under the direction of Al Filreis (the voluble, passionate, brilliant, indefatigable Al Filreis) on modern and contemporary American poetry. Something he said in one of the instructional videos (along with a couple of other sparks) has prompted me to write this off the cuff post. I’ll paraphrase his comment: he said that, unlike some of his colleagues, he sees many continuities between the post-modern and the modern sensibilities, but that one of the differences is that the post-modernists have abandoned the modernist idea of the “new”; they readily admit that they cut and paste from history.

Not only have I long thought that the post-modern sensibility has coexisted from the very beginning with modernism, but the difference Professor Filreis mentions is, to my mind, the essential difference, the actual point of demarcation that allows us to speak of the two as separate things. At least it was for me. I am not teaching a class, and don’t have to worry about an objective statement. Before going on, a clarification: yes, I have said that I do not see a clear linear progression, in time, from modernism to post-modernism. This means that, to my thinking, the term “post-modernism” is inadequate; it implies a linear, sequential condition (that which comes after modernism) that does not exist except in the sense that more and more people are working within the sensibility called “post-modernist”. It happens to be the term that has been in use for at least 40 years, and, incredibly, no one has come up with a more accurate term to replace it. Roughly: modernism includes many of the characteristics normally associated with post-modernism, to such a degree that in many (perhaps even most) respects there’s no difference between the two, but there is at least one essential difference (already mentioned) that allows us to speak of two sensibilities. Seen through the prism of this difference, artists from the past 160 years or so generally lean more toward a modernist or a ‘post-modernist’ sensibility.

This essential difference can be grasped very easily: the post-modernist has abandoned (or never subscribed to) the modernist dialectic of the new. The post-modernist does not, or never did, subscribe to the general movement—the very idea—of the avant-garde. In short, anyone in the history of modern art who wrote a manifesto was solidly modernist, while anyone who took freely from both history and the contemporary world with little or no regard for ideologies was post-modernist. The irony is that the post-modernists have generated a great deal of the forms, ideas and approaches that have fed the modernist ideologues.

A couple of examples are in order. In poetry Lautréamont, who wrote Maldoror in the late 1860’s, was primarily ‘post-modern’. Maldoror is widely considered to be one of the founding sources of the Surrealist movement, led by Andre Breton, probably the most hard-core modernist ideologue of all time. The Surrealists, with a few notable exceptions, used one facet of the extraordinarily rich and multi-faceted Maldoror, ignoring all the others. Maldoror was what we today call ‘post-modernist’ because it did all of the things post-modernist art does: it utilized cut-and-paste techniques, it merged poetry with analysis, it was self-referential, it expressed a complex view of the “I”, and it borrowed freely from both the contemporary world (high and low) and literary history. But one can also say that Lautréamont was a modernist in his desire to burn into the future with a new way of making poetry, and finding his own voice within it.

Are post-modernists not interested in finding their own voice, or making a new kind of art? Of course they are, but differences in degree become differences in kind. The self-awareness of the modern artist becomes, after a certain degree, post-modernist. The desire to make something new for its own sake—certainly the anxious drive to blur the past in favor of the privileged, historical NOW becomes, with the post-modernist, a relaxed delight in the pleasure of a kind of play that is fascinated more by similarities than differences. Most importantly, the idea of the individual undergoes a change. Whereas, for the modernist, the Individual is All, for the post-modernist more interesting is the All in every one. And this is why Walt Whitman, often called a precursor of modernism, was already post. Willem de Kooning, the great modernist painter, perfectly summed up the post-modernist attitude when he compared history to a bowl of alphabet soup: you dip your spoon in (be it pen, piano or paintbrush) and take out the letters you want. And this is why Picasso, the greatest modernist painter of all time, was already post. He “invented” (for the modern industrial world) collage, junk sculpture and Cubism. More importantly, he merged so-called primitive tribal art with western classical art. He didn’t have to worry about how to make it new, or some dialectical art movement—he held the key in his hand. And—this is very important—in creating his art, Picasso, despite his huge ego, did not set himself above the classical or African artists. On the contrary, he celebrated them.

“ta-da!”, a page from Mark Kerstetter’s Brooklyn sketchbooks

A personal story
I grew up in a small rural town and, without going into details, lived a secluded life. During my teen years I lived on a farm and didn’t get out much. For whatever reason, Nature in Her wisdom decided to put a hunger for art in my belly. There were no museums. No galleries. I didn’t know a single artist other than my father who painted scenes on black velvet and made woodcuts. But I had access to a few libraries and learned about art through books. Into my teens I had a passion for modern art and was very interested in coming up with the next thing. And several times I thought that, just maybe, I had. Hardedge organic abstraction, for example—then I discovered Ellsworth Kelly. Eventually my education, such as it was, caught up with the pace of my search, and I came to the conclusion that I was going about the whole thing the wrong way. I gave up the idea of the next thing. I renounced the avant-garde. I began to see the idea of the avant-garde itself as passé. I made a line drawing, like a mechanical drawing, with as little personal expression as possible, of a faceless man wearing a crown (and jacket and tie). Wouldn’t you know it—shortly afterwards I came across this Lichtenstein painting in a magazine.

After that I began making a new kind of art. Instead of trying to burn into the future, I looked into history, all the while keeping my eyes on the world around me, and began piecing things from here and there together. Rather than feeling a great modern artist as a weight on my back, I decided to play a game with him. What if Mondrian was stuck in an oak forest? What if he could only see what was outside a twentieth story window? What if he was in the middle of a bad car crash? What would these pictures look like? What if El Greco decided to paint a Mondrian? What would that look like? This was a lot more fun. At the same time I envisioned the possibility of an anonymous art.

When I escaped to New York in the early 80’s I put aside these explorations and started a series of sketchbooks that were composed largely of doodles and scribbles. I used my left hand, shut my eyes, held the pen a different way, drew while stoned, trying to get back to the source, the thing that made me pick up the crayon the first time. Then, based on these child-like scrawls, I began making larger pictures with child-like, cartoon-like figures.

“shoe man”, a page from Mark Kerstetter’s Brooklyn sketchbooks

New York in the mid-eighties was a rapidly changing place. It was a time when one could see the afterglow of a certain way of life: leftover punks still strode up and down St Mark’s Place, the Lower East Side was beginning to become gentrified, and it was beginning to become very difficult for an unknown artist to get by on nothing. I met a girl from Florida who wanted to travel and I took off with her. In the next few years I discovered that what I had been doing in New York was in the same spirit as a group of up and coming artists, some of whom I was aware of at the time, others not, including Borofsky, Haring and Basquiat. What they were doing—what I was doing—was the last Ism, the last Ism of modernism. For renouncing the avant-garde and bringing back primal gestures is still to play within the dialectic of modernism. It attempts to do to modernism what Dada did to the serious art of its time. It is still therefore a reaction to the long line of Isms, despite the post-modernist sensibility you see in Basquiat, for example, in his conversations with history. But they were really the last artists who worked within, or in reaction to, that long line of dialectical modernism first formulated by Charles Baudelaire.

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13 Responses to The Last Ism

  1. I enjoyed your reflections and am so glad art found you!

  2. Kathleen Kirk says:

    Good stuff. I also like how the word “prism” contains “ism.”

  3. Scott says:

    I liked following your thoughts.The personal story was most vivid, for me. From a earlier post of yours, I took “write what you know”. It hit home with me. An honest approach. Not following any method, but recounting experience. I felt maybe some creativity would follow. Is that kind of what you felt after the Lichtenstein painting? For it seemed like an awakening of sorts Like almost relaxation from getting the “weight’ off your back.. I’m glad that you took off with the girl from Florida.

    • I had made the decision before to renounce the idea of the avant-garde, and yes it was a huge relief, but I had to struggle to get there. But I won’t lie, seeing that Lichtenstein painting was kind of a slap in the face. It was like, ‘no, you can’t have this either.’ So I had to give up the “mechanical” style. But as I explained, I did catch up, in a very tiny way for a brief moment, with what other relevant artists, just a couple of years older than me, were doing at the time. But life had other plans for me. Backpacking across Europe and then across the United States with my girlfriend wasn’t such a bad thing to do.

  4. Susan Scheid says:

    I kept copying quotations from your post, only to find yet another delicious one to note. I’m going to settle on this one, though it’s hard: “Willem de Kooning, the great modernist painter, perfectly summed up the post-modernist attitude when he compared history to a bowl of alphabet soup: you dip your spoon in (be it pen, piano or paintbrush) and take out the letters you want.’ I have been reading the Baudelaire you sent today, and modernism/isms were our topic tonight in our early evening sit-out on the front porch. I wonder if it is the last “ism.” As we talked about modernism, we kept thinking of examples, over generations, of those who searched to start anew. I tend to wonder; does it never end, and after all, should it? I am inclined to think not. In the classical music domain, 21st C composers are definitely dipping their spoon in. No one knows what to call them: some say “post-minimalist,” but of course that’s wrong, because they are not all dipping from the same section of the bowl. Others say “indie-classical,” but I think that’s another strand at best, and perhaps, more likely, a marketing ploy.

    Last, not least, I definitely want to second what you’ve said about Al Filreis: “voluble, passionate, brilliant, indefatigable” Aren’t we lucky to have access to him and all he does? I can’t thank you enough for spurring me to take this course.

    • If you haven’t listened to it yet check out his 6 minute talk on Williams’ ‘The Rose is Obsolete’ from ‘Spring and All’ – it’s amazing. So amazing I think it will be the subject of my next post.

      What I meant by the last Ism was the end of a certain way of discoursing about art, the way that modernism moves in a linear fashion into the future, not the end of coming up with new things. Just to be clear: the de Kooning attitude (he said a lot of other great things) is indicative, I think, of what we call ‘post-modernism’, it is that dipping in of the spoon at one’s leisure and with joy, in contrast to the anxious urge to do the next new thing.

      • Susan Scheid says:

        Thanks for the tip on The Rose is Obsolete. I’ve marked it for a listen tomorrow, and looking forward to it. Filreis is a dynamo, no question about it. Get now what you’re saying about “isms.” The “post” nomenclature still gives me trouble, but I certainly get (and endorse) dipping the spoon at one’s leisure and with joy vs. the anxious urge (perfect phrase).

  5. hedgewitch says:

    I like the way art finds its feet in us, and has its own way. And your post is a striking example of how really, it sort has to be about the whole ‘which me is me’ floating in the alphabet soup conundrum/resolution you’ve brought up before.

  6. angela says:

    Brilliant post, Mark, you’ve got me reeling since it is after the witching hour and I’ve been online too long. You’ve a wonderful grasp of the modern/post-modern. Do you have a favourite theory book that you would recommend?

    Filreis is fabulous. When I saw him tweet that he was teaching this course I was beside myself. I knew what he’d done with PennSound and PoemTalks…it is the only reason I’ve read Tender Buttons!

    I’ll not lie, my knowledge is a hodgepodge. Labels have never been my thing and this course is reinforcing my issue with them. Why must we pigeonhole a work of art? I’m not asking because I know the answer, I ask because I want to understand.

    Sorry, I fear that I’ve become frustrated, esp. with my own writing as we delve deeper. It makes me feel deeply inadequate as a ‘writer of poetry… or anything else’ even if I do it mainly on WP, off the cuff, and for no one else but me. If I cannot define what I write, is there even a point?

    (btw, I saw your comment to Susan. I tried to listen tonight, but was doing 3 other things. I shall give it another go.)

    • If you hadn’t reminded me of the course the second time I probably would not have signed up, so thank you, I’m glad I did.

      I haven’t read a lot of books on theory, but I’ve been dipping in to Baudrillard lately – what a trip! My reading is very diverse and scattershot.

      Labels. What good are they? Ultimately it doesn’t matter if Williams wrote stuff that could be said to be “imagistic” or dada influenced or if you call him a modernist or a post-modernist. Many artists reject the labels that are pasted on them by critics and academics. The “minimalists” – every one of them – rejected the term. They don’t pigeonhole anyone, they can’t. Let me repeat that: Labels Cannot Pigeonhole Artists. What artists do is too protean, too slippery, too hybrid. Ashbery said the purpose of poetry is to write something the critic cannot write about. But it’s the most “difficult” artists that the critics love the most! So, what good are labels? They facilitate discussion and conversation. That is all. They allow shorthand – with certain margins of error, of course, but if most folks can agree on a certain arena of thought that the label stands for, then using it makes conversation much less laborious. If I say “the Dadaists” you know I’m talking about a group of artists who worked in the second decade of the twentieth century in Zurich, Berlin, Paris and New York who were very rebellious and who expressed a certain scorn for established art, who championed sound poetry and performance art and – I could go on, but the point is I don’t have to if I simply replace all this with the term “the Dadaists”. That is all labels do, facilitate the conversation.

      The frustration you’ve expressed has me concerned, because I think you’re a great poet and I’d hate to see you get stymied. For me analysis does not get in the way of making poetry (I have other issues with visual art). But if it does for you then there’s nothing wrong with proceeding with caution. Do what works for you. I read that David Lynch once considered getting psycho-therapy. He asked the therapist if the process might affect his artwork. The therapist said it could and he decided not to go through with it. Do what’s right for you. The main thing is that you write what you want to and it feels right to you.

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