Art Rosenbaum and the Birth of the Post-Post-Postmodern
Atlanta’s NPR station WABE today featured an extended report on the folk music fieldwork of the visual artist and musician Art Rosenbaum, who has been traveling far afield indeed from his home base of Athens, Georgia in quest of the last survivors of traditional folk music.
Rosenbaum has tracked down one particularly memorable 92-year-old singer and comparable octo- and nonagenarians across America who learned traditional ballads from their elders and have carried on an unbroken strand of transmission that is now at its end in the age of digitized globalization. Sexagenarians grew up with television and rock and roll, and septuagenarians remember their childhood spent listening to music on the radio.
But Rosenbaum is capturing the heritage at the last possible moment, and thus it becomes fresh data for the age of digitized globalism. His second compilation of The Art of Field Recording has just had its launch party in Athens (see http://artrosenbaum.org/).
And thus the last remnants of a vanishing past have been recaptured as we balance on the edge of a future that is more uncertain than it looked not all that long ago.
A century ago, the world was at a similar though less generally predicted tipping point, socially, economically, technologically, and artistically. The artists of Der Blaue Reiter, responding to tensions and possibilities the larger society had scarcely even begun to imagine, were on the verge of publishing a magazine that juxtaposed South German folk paintings on glass with masks and sculptures from the Netherlands East Indies. Across the Channel, artists were casting off Victorian representations to reinvent visual forms in terms borrowed from cultures across the planet, and recovering bits of histories that their elders had lost track of long before, along with ones that no one had known for millennia. (The same went for their other contemporaries on the Continent. It was an age of great archaeological discoveries; the Venus of Willendorf was uncovered in 1908, and the designs on the artifacts of Schliemann’s Troy were there to influence Gustav Klimt. But nineteenth-century Egyptomania had yet to be revived by the discovery of the tomb of Tutenkhamun, and a good thing, too; Egypt had laid a heavy hand on the fashions of post-Napoleonic Europe, but commingled more lightly with the styles of the Jazz Age.)
Hugh Kenner wrote, regarding Ezra Pound and Henri Gaudier’s reinvention of lost histories, that societies forget that for which they can find no present use; poets and artists who re-create that past are establishing a different past to fit a different present. Historians do the same, of course; historiography varies in its emphases from generation to generation, and the fictional component is perceived differently also; we are past the naïve belief that we can write it all down or even intuit it wie es eigentlich gewesen. (No "ist" after "gewesen"; there is an online discussion of Ranke's original quote that discusses the grammar of his very famous formulation.)
What does not change is the raw material. Nobody knew in 1909 that by 1919 most of the kings of Europe would be gone, the economy of the continent would be sunk in postwar debt and devastation, and large parts of the optimistic avant-garde of 1909 swept away by the intervening cataclysm. But (unlike in the greater cataclysm a quarter-century later) the cultural materials of history and of that avant-garde were still available for later re-inventions and fresh instigations.
And thus we have gone through the collapse of the modernist impulse circa 1965, the birth of postmodernism circa 1979, and the rapid collapse of postmodernism as a period style in the age of globalization, so thoroughly that by 1991 I was already writing about post-postmodernism.
Now the economic era inaugurated by Reagan and Thatcher appears to be behind us, and digital technology is advancing at a pace so accelerated that flexible screens developed for the military are there to be used when print newspapers are succeeded entirely by websites (assuming that the controlling enterprises do not go out of business in the next six months, leaving nothing for the websites compiling news reports to compile).
The arts are confronted with a challenge comparable to the one faced by modernism a century ago, and what emerges will have a different name entirely; three “post”s are three too many, and we are already talking, albeit with an ironic edge, about the “post-contemporary” in art and style.
But thanks to ol’ Art Rosenbaum, we have some raw material to sample and remix that we would never have had otherwise. Good for him.