The breach that opened between the serious and popular arts during the early years of this century has widened over subsequent decades so that the current "postmodern" era is characterized by a kind of cultural schizophrenia. While visual images bombard us through the media, the graphic arts have increasingly evaporated in performance and conceptual art. While recordings go platinum and rock and rap concerts draw huge audiences throughout the world, serious music haunts university music departments like a guilty specter. While popular novels sell by the millions and poetry is read on campuses and in coffee shops from Maine to California, serious literature is increasingly slighted by popular journals and ignored by the public. Published in limited editions and rarely reviewed, poetry is all but dead as a cultural force.
Not coincidentally, it was during this period that the term "serious" art became synonymous with "avant-garde"; that T. S. Eliot's dictum that modern art should be difficult came to imply that art should be impenetrable to ordinary readers. Even serious, ambitious works of art that lack a certain requisite level of difficulty are accorded an ambiguous status in our culture, so that, for instance, novels by distinguished writers such as Alison Lurie and John Updike elicit guilt and embarrassment in sophisticated readers similar to that produced by movies and popular songs. However much we enjoy them, we feel ashamed for submitting to the seductive pleasures of well-constructed plots and for being drawn into the lives of well-drawn, middle class characters. Serious literature, we've been taught, is supposed to advance the technical experiments begun by Eliot, Woolf, Joyce, and Stein in the heyday of Modernism. It's supposed to be hard and somewhat painful, like a visit to the dentist.
This mixture of guilt and embarrassment is one of the hallmarks of the postmodern era. Narrative, poetic meter, tonality, visual representation--because they remind us of the crude symetries of our vulgar mammalian bodies--appear in postmodern art, if at all, as parody or pastiche.
At the same time, the historical relation between art and criticism has been altered. Criticism--or critical theory, as we've learned to call it--is no longer ancillary to the arts, but a vast, sophisticated mechanism of equal or greater prestige. Critical theory has even spawned a new species of writing as abstract and antiseptic as its own jargon--"language writing," or "language poetry," as it's called--writing so sterile and empty of human content that it can be said not to have readers, only writers and critics.
One such critic, Marjorie Perloff, in her book Radical Artifice has championed avant-garde "language writing" precisely because it refuses any concessions to the vulgar reader, setting itself up in opposition to the the language of popular media. Perloff argues that in an age of ubiquitous electronic babble, language writing replaces naive imitations of a debased natural speech with its own "radical artifice"; and that while such writing might initially repel the reader, its very difficulty and unpopularity are proof of its authenticity.
For readers unfamiliar with it, here's what one version of language writing looks like. I've chosen the lines at random from a poem entitled "PCOET" by David Melnick, from George Hartley's Textual Politics and the Language Poets:
its spear heieo
as Rea, cinct pp
pools we sly drosp
(o sordea, oweedsea!)
Poetry this disembodied could embarrass no one. Written not so much to please a reader as to provide an academic critic with an occasion for an essay, the poem might be said not fully to exist until joined symbiotically to a critical text. Yet even a poem as aseptic as "PCOET" bears some relation to the poetry of the past: with some effort, you can read it or say it aloud. Its origin in the human body has not been fully eradicated. Consequently, the avant-garde has already moved on to bolder, more radical experiments. For, as George Hartley points out, poetry no longer has to limit itself to sounds produced by human vocal cords: the tape recorder has "provided a way out of this limitation of the human body" (Hartley 69). Hartley cites a passage by another language poet, Steve McCaffery, who celebrates a new tool, electronic tape, because, he argues, it "liberates composition from the athletic sequentiality of the human body, pieces may be edited, cutting, in effect, becomes the potential compositional basis in which segments can be arranged and rearranged outside of real time performance" (Hartley 69).
Having fractured the literary atom--the word--the literary avant-garde is now engaged in smashing its subatomic particles in order to manufacture a poetry of pure sound bites, mixing human vocalizations with electronic feedback whistles and shrieks. Similar developments have taken place within the other arts. But this progressive smashing of traditional artistic forms and genres--along with the routine introduction of randomness and chaos into artistic compositions of all sorts--has left us at the end of the twentieth century with a number of vexing questions: Where does art go from here? How far can the arts advance before they're completely estranged from any but a professional audience? Why must "serious" art be so cold and inhuman--or, conversely, so arch and frivolous, so free of deep human concern? Why must we sneak off guiltily to the movies to enjoy a good story, turn on our stereo to hear lyrics with meter and rhyme, tune in country and pop radio stations to hear singable melodies?
Some answers to these questions have recently begun to emerge, and from a surprising source: modern science. Frederick Turner, a poet and thinker of remarkable intelligence and originality, has used much of this newly emerging scientific information to fashion a powerful critique of the postmodern aesthetic. Tracing modern art's destructive tendencies to a number of historical developments and widely-held myths, Turner suggests a way out of our cultural impasse and charts a new path for the arts.
In an essay entitled "Beyond Destructive Art" (from Rebirth of Value), Turner argues that for the past two centuries developments in science have resulted in new ideas concerning human freedom and creativity. In science's early stages, Turner writes, freedom appeared to be problematic because physics and mathematics "were capable at that time of observing and recording only one kind of process--that is the deterministic and predictable kind." Since the universe appeared to be largely deterministic, art took on the task of asserting human freedom by seizing onto the "alternative to determinism that science so unwisely offered--disorder, destruction, unrule" (RV 20-21). Consequently, the forms and traditions of the arts--which had their being in time and space and appeared to constitute yet another set of determinative principles--were systematically dismantled and destroyed.
Later, in this century, when quantum theory was developed, artists and theorists seized onto its discoveries, too. The apparent randomness that appeared in the behavior of subatomic particles, the loss of certainty that accompanied the development of quantum mechanics, seemed to offer an alternative to determinism. Chance and disorder were therefore introduced into modern artistic compositions. The late John Cage, for instance--who might be considered the archetypal postmodern artist--used the I Ching and computers to generate the chance elements he routinely (and predictably) introduced into his musical compositions, poems, and lectures.
A second force that contributed to the destruction of the arts was the economic revolution that occurred when the world changed from an economy based on husbandry and the use of renewable resources to one in which, Turner writes, "we essentially mined and burned our raw materials to produce goods." Combustion became the model of artistic creation, and when it did, Turner suggests, our artistic traditions were considered "as a fuel to be strip-mined and destroyed to release [their] stored energy" (RV 23). The fracturing of traditional artistic forms and genres paralleled what physicists were doing to the atom and its constituent particles during the same period. Significantly, in the arts, the words "experimental" and "avant-garde" have become virtually synonymous--as if one could conduct experiments with traditional forms only by dismantling them.
Turner identifies a third, less frequently noticed influence on modern art: the radical demographic change that occurred as populations exploded with the rise of industrialization. He writes:
One consequence of this huge increase in world population . . . has been the creation of huge ungovernable populations of adolescent youths at the most volatile and unstable stages of national economic development in most societies. These populations . . . wrought irreversible changes on the societies upon which they were visited. One of them was to fix the oedipal stage of rebellion against parental authority as the governing and archetypal posture of liberation and creativity. . . .
Artistic creativity is therefore associated with the adolescent style of conformist rebellion . . . .
"The result for art," Turner concludes, "was what Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One's Own, sadly describes as a sterile masculinization of modernist art" (RV 27). Ezra Pound's bohemianism, Beat rebellion of the fifties, and Punk Rock nihilism of the seventies might be regarded as successive versions of this juvenile masculine aesthetic. Turner's analysis might also suggest why rock music, the very embodiment of adolescent male rebellion, has for several decades now been the most popular art form throughout the world.
Turner points out that many of the forces that brought about our current crisis have already begun to dissipate. The populations of most of the industrialized countries have leveled out and aged. Feminism has initiated a critique of masculine culture that has already begun to refeminize the arts. The science of ecology has shown the dangers of fossil-burning and nuclear fission. Combustion as a model for artistic creation is already discredited.
What continues to propel art down the path of destruction (and deconstruction) is an outmoded view of science maintained by postmodern theorists and avant-garde artists to justify their own practices. The whole endeavor of Derridean deconstruction, for instance, is to reduce works of literature to a soup of "traces" and "differances" similar to the primal chaos that immediately succeeded the Big Bang.
But the old positivistic model of the universe, for which notions about chaos and indeterminacy seemed to provide some relief, has now been superseded by a new model shaped by the sciences of chaos theory, evolution, sociobiology, neurobiology, and the study of feedback systems. Turner proposes a new world-view which recognizes the fact that higher-level, more complex forms of order emerge naturally from lower-level, simpler ones--a process which has been accelerating from the instant of the Big Bang to the present at an ever-increasing rate. In this view, the arts represent the highest, most complex and reflexive level of a continually evolving hierarchy. Evolution thus becomes, for Turner, "the central paradigm of all knowledge," one which, because of its ability to create unpredictable novelty, "radically and totally refutes determinism" (RV xi). Evolution--not combustion; not deterministic Newtonian physics; not quantum mechanics--provides the truest and most efficacious model of human freedom and creativity.
In "Kalogenetics" and "The Neural Lyre," two essays in Natural Classicism, and in the more recent Beauty, Turner has presented a compelling case for the notion that beauty--that outcast of postmodern aesthetics--is in fact the goal toward which even the most apparently chaotic systems are drawn. Scientists who study nature's mysteries, Turner points out, use the term elegance as a key criterion in determining the value of a scientific theory.
Turner's arguments are too complex to do them complete justice in such a short essay, but his speculations concerning beauty, the structure and reward system of the human brain, the nature of artistic forms and genres, and the way all three interact in the creation and reception of works of art are so fascinating that they must be briefly described. Though Turner applies his insights to a wide range of human experience, I will limit my discussion to literature.
To begin, Turner defines beauty as "the highest integrative level of understanding . . . ." The experience of beauty, Turner suggests, is the reward for, among other things, "the exercise of the peculiar spiritual skills demanded by the human ritual"; "the encounter with, acceptance, and passing-through of the shame of mortal self-awareness"; "a sensitivity to the general tendency or theme of the universe"; and "the exercise of the human capacity to continue and deepen that process into new realms of being" (Beauty 59). "Beauty," Turner declares, "is always paradoxical. It is not mere chaos and nonlinearity but the paradoxical coexistence of chaos and order, non-linear discontinuity with linear flow and predictable repetition" (Beauty 4). Turner cites as examples of this definition of beauty such diverse phenomena as the Mandelbrot set, " . . . Jacquard paisleys, the feathers of peacocks, the body-paint of tattoo designs of Maoris or Melanesians, the complexity of a great wine, the curlicues of Hiroshige seafoam or Haida ornamentation or seahorses or Mozart melodies" (RV 17). Echoing Keats's famous formulation, Turner states, "If truth is conformity to fact, and fact is the product of a feedback process that we intuitively perceive as beauty, then beauty is the way we perceive and intuit truth" (Beauty 128-9).
Truth and beauty: formidable, unfashionable words. To ground these abstractions, let's turn for a moment to what is perhaps the oldest human art form--story telling--and its most ancient literary embodiment, epic poetry, a form Turner lists among what he calls the natural classical genres. Grounded in oral traditions and appearing in a variety of human cultures, epic is a grand narrative, peopled by gods and heroes, which fixes in memorable form the stories and myths a people tell themselves to explain the world. In the branchings of its plot, the epic maps out time; in the relationship of its subplots and details to its larger narrative movements, it allows that mixture of linear and nonlinear, orderly and chaotic, elements necessary for the creation and perception of beauty. In addition, epic poems are recited aloud, not read in solitude, and are therefore performative acts. Epic poetry is generally composed in some type of meter, in part to make it more memorable. Turner cites studies of Homeric and Yugoslavian epic that demonstrate that "the formulaic structure of oral epic poetry is precisely designed to fit the limitations and capacities of human memory storage" (Natural Classicism 254).
As in Homer, an epic often includes primitive forms of theology, history, and philosophy, but all are subordinated to story; to plot. Modern theories of fiction tend to denigrate plot, but recent studies in psychology suggest that narrative is more than simply a pleasant way to pass the time, an entertainment in the most superficial sense: it is a universal human phenomenon essential to the creation of human identity, as important to an individual as to a culture. Story telling is an essential element of our training in ethics, psychology, and interpersonal relations. That is why the epic poetry of Homer, for instance, was considered the foundation of Greek society, the cornerstone of every citizen's moral and intellectual training, and why epic poetry is nearly universal throughout the world. If we don't exercise this inbuilt narrative capacity, we can't act as moral agents; but like the pierrots and clowns of absurdist literature, we are condemned to live in a world without order, coherence, or meaning. Postmodern art, by abandoning narrative, has left it to the popular arts to give us pictures of ourselves and our world. One might even go farther and regard the modernist attempt to abandon narrative as an assault on our ability to form a coherent self; and in fact much poststructuralist theory deconstructs humanistic conceptions of personal identity. The chief result of the abandonment of narrative--as with the systematic destruction of all of the natural classical genres--has been to leave us in doubt as to who and what we are; to make us doubt the existence of human nature, morality, or objective truth.
Of course, one possibility is that such theorists are right and there is no such thing as human nature, morality, or objective truth--though the way most of us conduct our lives would seem evidence to the contrary. Indeed, part of our cultural schizophrenia is manifested in the way we separate art from the practical conduct of our lives. Modern social sciences have also unwittingly contributed to our era's moral and social relativism. Turner points out that one unfortunate result of the study of other cultures has been to foster the notion that all values are relative; that all definitions of truth, art, and beauty are relative and culture-bound.
And here is precisely where Turner's thought becomes most daring. After surveying an impressive range of scientific disciplines, Turner proposes the idea that there really is such a thing as human nature, and he identifies a number of human activities which appear in cultures throughout the world. In Chapter Four of Beauty, he lists seventeen "neurocharms"--a word identifying these panhuman capabilities--and shows how obsolescent scientific ideas have impeded our recognition of their universal nature and resulted in much confused thinking. In Chapter Five, he states:
Modernist theoreticians attempted to separate language and its attendant classification systems from its shameful neurobiological basis, so that the moral and aesthetic judgmental categories they contained would be culturally relative and so defused of normative force. They thus seized on what came to be known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which was an interesting theory, of limited validity, to the effect that differences between languages reflected fundamental variations in cultural worldview. Further anthropological-linguistic research (for instance, by the anthropologist Donald Brown), has shown that anything that can be said or thought in one language can be said or thought in another, though some paraphrase may be necessary. We all basically have the same worldview, as far as linguistic differences are concerned.
But the news of this correction has not yet seeped through to most contemporary pundits of aesthetic theory, and the old cliches of the thirty-four Eskimo words for snow [there are no such thing] and the lack of a past and future tense in some Plains Indians languages are still trotted out as evidence of the incommensurability of different cultural "worlds" (and thus of the arbitrariness of value judgments). We can forgive someone like Wittgenstein for the idea of different language games, given the state of anthropological and neuropsychological research in his times; it is harder, however, to forgive contemporary cultural relativists who should know better by now. (Beauty 74)
To demonstrate the fallacy of these relativistic views, Turner cites a number of new studies which reveal, for instance, the fact that words for the same primary colors exist in languages throughout the world and that people in all the world's cultures draw metaphors from one sense to describe another in a uni-directional way (Beauty 72).
Another cultural universal, cited by Turner in an essay entitled "The Neural Lyre," is poetic meter. A poet of considerable skill, Turner brings to his study of meter (conducted with psychophysicist Ernst Poppel) both practical and theoretical knowledge. Analyzing poetry from a number of languages--ranging from the more familiar English and Greek to Ndembu, Eipo and Finnish--Turner describes the way the brain understands time, how meter is tied to the brain's own neurochemical reward system, how poetic line length is determined by the brain's method of information-processing, and how meter engages and integrates many different functions of the brain. He also demonstrates meter's cultural universality.
Briefly, Turner argues in the "Neural Lyre" that the human brain has a number of built-in tendencies: an incomplete list includes the facts that it is hierarchical, reflexive, synthetic, active, rhythmic, hemispherically specialized, and self-rewarding. Turner cites Jerre Levy's research showing that "the left brain maps spatial information onto a temporal order, while the right brain maps temporal information onto a spatial order" (NC 70) to suggest how metrical poetry unites the linguistic capabilities of the left brain with the spacio-temporal abilities of the right and joins them both with other processes in the forebrain and limbic system to create the overall body-brain response we experience when reading or hearing poetry: the chill up the spine, the quickened breath, the heightened state of awareness, the rising of hair on the back of the neck.
In one of his most daring attempts at synthesis, Turner ties the "self-rewarding" capacities of the brain to another of its tendencies, for which he has coined the term "kalogenetic," a word combining the Greek words for "beauty" and "genesis" and describing, in Turner's words, the brain's "strong drive to construct affirmative, plausible, coherent, consistent, parsimonious, and predictively powerful models of the world" (NC 71). Citing studies of brain chemistry, Turner argues that the brain rewards itself for the experience of beauty by feeling a drug-like "high" produced by endorphins and other opiate-like substances and suggests that metrical poetry triggers this experience by allying itself with various information-processing capacities of the human brain.
Another tendency of the human brain, Turner argues, is that it is determinative. "That is," Turner writes, "it insists on certainty and unambiguity, and so is at war with the probabilistic and indeterminate nature of the most primitive and archaic components of the universe" (NC 63). The brain also finds itself at war with poststructuralist theories that regard literary texts as vague and misty seas of quantum-like "traces" and "differances." In his discussion of trope in Beauty, Turner counters such postmodern theories by reminding us that critical theory is largely a left-brain phenomenon which can't deal effectively with metaphor, poetic meter, and other "neurocharms" that engage the whole brain. In "Performed Being," he suggests a way around postmodern difficulties with linguistic reference and literary interpretation by reminding us that literature is rooted in oral traditions. Drama, for instance-- as the histories of both English and Greek drama show--originated in religious ritual performance. He suggests that a performative method of literary interpretaion might be analogous to the act of measurement in quantum physics, where measurement forces an electron to declare a specific velocity or location. In dramatic performance, Turner argues, a text must similarly "choose an objective and must sacrifice the divine indeterminacy and infinitude of possibility for the tragic and concrete finitude of actuality." The goal of an ideal critic, he suggests, might be "to give so lucid, so definite a reading that the work is actualized and made concrete before us, and reincarnated into the deepest idiom and costume and dialect of our own time" (NC 34). Plot, since it's the driving force of both epic and tragedy, is therefore central to any performative approach to literature. Readers need it in order to play out a literary work's actions and ideas on their own passions and sympathies.
Of course many people are put off by such scientific forays into the arts--particularly when they challenge long-held or politically self-serving beliefs. To test the validity of Turner's analysis, consider so-called performance art of recent decades, a distinctively modern form which eschews traditional artistic disciplines and generally replaces plot with some type of improvisation. At its center, there is usually a solitary performer engaged in some form of exhibitionistic, dangerous, or self-destructive activity. We have all seen or read about performances in which artists have deliberately abased or mutilated their own bodies. Such acts that might be read as attempts to reclaim the human body and restore some of the public and ritualistic functions to art. In the absence of art's natural classical forms, such performances might appear inevitable and necessary--perhaps even heroic.
Yet the narcissism and destructive violence of many of these pieces show the limits of the modern aesthetic. Like poetry reduced to inarticulate sound bites, performance art of this sort is subject to a law of diminishing returns. That artists feel it necessary to slash or shoot themselves in order to assert the body's presence testifies to their imaginative failure. The logical end of such performances, if pursued with the usual spirit of avant-garde one-upmanship, is personal and cultural suicide.
At present, the arts seem poised either to dissolve in the reductio ad
absurdum of avant-garde experiment or to reincarnate themselves in their
natural classical forms. To cede plot, tonality, poetic meter, and
artistic representation to the entertainment industrie, or to reinvest
those ancient neurocharms with the magic to enchant future generations.
There are promising signs that it will pursue the latter course, in which
case the next decades could be a period of great artistic achievement,
rivaling the great artistic flowerings of the past, including our own High
Modernist renaissance. We can either reinvent the ancient forms of myth
and epic, verse drama and poetic narrative, or continue to dissipate their
energies in the entropic spiral of avant-garde experiment.
Religion, and Education (Albany: State University of New York
Frederick Turner, Beauty: The Value of Values (Charlottesville:
University Press of Virginia, 1991).