Since the 1990s, or the 1980s, or the 1940s, depending on your sources and scholarly opinion, critical theorists, cultural observers, and observant critics have been eulogizing Modernism, alongside its Forms, standards and Canons. A variety of academics, some anthropologists, some economists, some psychoanalysts, some architects, some professors and literary types, as well as a whole bunch of self appointed experts loudly shout that all ties to a past, any past, are illusory, self-selected, and inherently meaningless. The idea is that, as each ‘new’ work is based directly or indirectly on other prior works (the term would be “allusion” or “reference”), there is no ‘original’ work, ever. It’s kind of a Big Bang Theory of culture, without the initial Bang. Modernists enjoy pointing out how, for example, Ulysses retells The Odyssey, or doesn’t, and how this reworking of old clay improves the new work. Post-modernists like to argue that this very reworking doesn’t make something great, in fact, it just bastardizes other peoples’ ideas and demonstrates how unimaginative we all are.
Personally, I think we have a fundamental disagreement about the meaning of meaning and what makes someThing or someOne meaningful, but I seem to be a dying breed. As a Modernist, I like knowing that I have company in my understandings, that I am not alone in an insignificant universe, even that I am not the Best at what I do. If I embraced Postmodernism, I think I would be very lonely, probably hopeless, and certainly without a standard of ethics or values against which I must be measured.
In the last half of the twentieth century, we culturally embraced abusing or straying from form as an expression of democratic freedom and individualism. This was expressed in beat poetry, fusion jazz, and advertising. Fashion became pornography and porn became portraiture and High Art. Educationally, we abandoned The Canon, saying that it is oppressive and Empiricist. We decided that we didn’t like the idea of standards or classics because their existence illustrates the differences in class and education between people. Rather than working to expand access to Great Works and History via cool tools like the Web, we went for the easier, less demanding, impersonal path of devaluing knowledge so that no one is left behind.
Now, we are all left behind, living through the very media which could have evolved us rather than with the media, interacting with 140 character tweets and facebook friends rather than with physical touch and eye contact, medicating all symptoms of loneliness and discontent and reveling in the meaningless rootless, de-Canonized existence. We don’t know what we’re missing or why things happen because we don’t know who or what came before us. We are, to quote Roger Waters, amusing ourselves to death. (Aside: I believe Waters himself was alluding to a written work by Neil…… in his album of that name… Just saying.)
We return, culturally, to the space when Rome began to burn and Nero picked up his fiddle, when the masses starved and Marie Antoinette ordered cake. In a world of Honey Boo Boo and babies named “Hashtag,” is it too late to learn, or are we destined to burn?