Awe and Novelty

Postlude to the Postmodern

by George Lee Moore

To reveal the “new” requires one to risk originality. We may try to replace our origins by a reaction to the history of art or contemporary art criticism, but nothing is novel if not in relation to the origins of one’s being. We can invest in critical reactions or rearrangement of items, or “looks,” which age and evaporate, or worse, retrieve from pop-historic dustbins retrospective kitsch, but nothing replaces our origins. Awe is our word for the non-affective apperception of the origins of being, understood here as the becoming of our noticing of the world as we intentionally perceive it in time. Since I am assuming the origin of our consciousness so focused rises from nothing—without a first cause or pre-given essence—we need not grasp at any historical or temporal straws for the new. We are already new at every moment, until we translate or betray “it” into that which seems “new” when alienated from our origins, from a fundamental gratitude that we can perceive, or awe. When we lock into a reified grid of opinions, we screen experience and replicate the obvious, or negate it for shock appeal. This arch-novelty often infiltrates the trade in commodified art-objects and careers, through which artists and critics respond to each other as an art-world. Through time, this constitutes popular history with its names for movements, retrospectively associating divers artists, often against their will, so that history books and critics can discuss them and be misled as to what is original and what is art.

Historic periodicisms are useful as long as they produce a new feature from a temporal metaphor linked to an art concept. When, after a constellation of scholars and artists have exhausted the metaphor, that is, the detailed insights and facts, or feature amplified by our descriptive modes (or our arts and sciences), the noticing inspired by any metaphor passes into cliché. Then, another metaphor, movement or concept must rise—to soon become history as well. But there is a difference between, say, Dadaism or Fauvism or Neo-Expressionism as thematic movements—and temporal assignations, such as modernism and postmodernism. The latter will always be subject to and attenuated by time. To prefer novelty to trendy art theories or kitsch, to choose what is truly new, to experience and create originally, is to return to our beginning, to the origin of perception and time (for consciousness is the origin of time-perception), to awe. Any literal application of historic or temporal signature of the modern should mean recent, and postmodern ought to remain contemporary but cannot. Since we are in time, so is the concept. The beginning of this very sentence is already in the past.

Yet the new becomes old instantly only in the “specious present” of reified time. Art perceived through this reified temporal filter recalls what Sartre referred to as the practico-inert, a field of activity no longer responsive to a group’s needs (like bureaucracy), or petrification—in both Sartre and R.D. Laing—of a self in time (in this case, many selves, “the art-world”). This reveals the whole problem of clinging to postmodernism. The representation of any medium to itself is problematic enough, but postmodernism destroys, supposedly, representation itself by exceeding it, and since all representation is superseded by experience—so is postmodernism.

The terms “modern” and “postmodern” turn time into a thing to be frozen, then presented (again the latter presents the unpresentable), as if either were not subject to sliding through time nor as ephemeral or mortal as we are. As the modern slid backwards past one to several (how many?) centuries, critics constructed another superlative, hyperbolic term as an arch-novelty, but its shock and conceptual value had to fade. The old “new” becomes a nostalgia but also a screen or gauze befogging our perception of art in the present. As understood by Jean-François Lyotard, the postmodern provokes and exceeds the limits of representation and so points to an experience beyond any representation, inspired by Kant’s concept of the sublime. As the postmodern recedes, need we rush out a new “ism”? Perhaps the postmodern should be superseded by postfuturism—as a joke—to deflate the vanity-balloon of frozen time implicit in post-modernism’s temporal “hegemony.” There is at least a grim humor in the paradox of an aging postmodern. We can respect Leotard’s apt application of Kant’s concept of the sublime to non-representational “conceptual” art, which eschews beauty as its goal—without still reincarnating this temporal albatross. For the truly new need neither to deny nor affirm representation. If we freely choose vis-à-vis the origins of our being, we can create what we please. Many of us already do.

As the postmodern self-attenuates, just as we are still making history after Fukyama’s (via Hegel’s) “end of history,” our challenge is to both survive and dismantle ideas, which make our understanding obsolete. Will we speak of the 1950s or 1960s when we are struggling to understand the 2060s? How can arbitrary pop decade-groupings last? Why should they? Why should this journalistic shorthand replace real historical consciousness or sully our aesthetic vision? Representation has been challenged for two centuries, diffused, fragmented, distorted, ignored—but is this new? Is it contemporary? These temporal references override real art movements and confuse critical reaction and individual creation. As the world walks past our memory, future artists and critics too will feel seduced by temporal paraphrase. Perhaps this is due in part to what may be called the arrogance of the present: a near physiologic pride in breathing and consuming, but also in perceiving—in being alive over and thus superior to the dead. Critics and artists in the future will naturally ignore our efforts to fix time as modern, or hubristically determine the “post” future, for their lives.

The need to demarcate aesthetic movements in time for critical understanding should be respected. Time-designation can help us communicate within what Wittgenstein (by extension) called a language-game, here a community of art devotees recalling Kant’s sensus communis (an invisible community of those who have taste). When a term becomes vague enough to obscure why or how different artists respond to their times as archetypes of symbolic understanding, it needs to be retired. Everyone, if not sealed off as Mallarmé wished to be, mirrors as they invent “what’s going on.” Time resists being frozen and always moves on, even when the clock stops on our lives. The modern and especially the postmodern were, or are, terms which drew new metaphors and critical insights when first invented, but they will not in the future, and arguably do not now.

Since the theory of the postmodern represents what cannot be represented, it is either a paradox or a self-contradiction, or both, as it disavows itself while it enjoys the fruits of both. This mystification may be its allure from the outset and may explain its attraction beyond its phantom afterlife. This returns us to the relation between noticing and awe—specifically, an alienation from awe, from an original gratitude for being able to perceive, and perhaps by a “leased” noticing as we rent our minds, if we have the mixed privilege of applying full attention to our jobs to earn a living. Alienation from awe means losing the elemental wonder at what we perceive, as it denotes an alienation from the origins of consciousness itself, from our creativity, what Greeks called our poeisis, our making, in art as in life. Fatigued from intense mental labor, we often flee noticing carefully the full resplendence of the feature of what we perceive. When we do not immediately experience the fundamental gratitude of awe and truly look (for visual art), we could very well replace our direct perception of art with a term—replace, for instance, what is being created now with the postmodern.

Art is the offspring of our first perception as it reflects back to reveal the origins of our perception. If we practice the courage to dilate our souls toward creation, we directly experience what may be called the incept flame of novelty. Our brief lives were not meant to be “post” or “pre” anything, but unique and sentient. Would those who lived, wandered, indeed wondered under the sun in the fourteenth century believe for a moment they were part of the “middle ages”? They lived as we do, with everything happening at once, and in the present.

So what might we say to contemporary artists? Perhaps what we should say to each other: that creativity as conceived by the Greeks, poeisis, making, is ever new, that at this incept flame of novelty we create time, that temporal movement-titles constrict our understanding, and that without elemental gratitude, or awe, we paraphrase originality. We may consider the “roll” novelists experience when their stories seem to write themselves, when a painter’s canvas seems to grow independently as the artist loses arbitrarily segmented seconds, hours, months, immersed in the time of creation, when the dancer’s tempo renews time for creation in space, when the poet invents new metaphors evoking a mortal eternity beyond publication or career, when the critic ceases to be an abstract surveyor or arbiter of taste and discovers art in the nativity of its genius. When we exceed the self-conscious paraphrase of reified time, we enjoy the origin of art. Now a critic echoes the origin of criticism in aesthetics, in philosophy, and recalls why and how she or he first loved art. When a novelist, painter, dancer or critic loses the dualistic once (at least) removed, the gratuitous intervention of self-consciousness, a veil drops to receive, in radiance, a new insight into what makes history, art and time.

If awe is not confused with sentiment, nor noticing with instrumental fact in conformity to use (career, prestige), noticing and awe reveal active consciousness—radiance. Rather than a bundle of impulses, we are seamlessly integrated into our actions when not distracted by self-consciousness. Awe-as-sentiment may mask our original perception. We may fool ourselves into believing we hover in periphrastic transcendence, and noticing may be commodified, but precise noticing suffused with awe reveals our native power of perception wherein perceiving full detail—feature—opens us, as we open, to ideational creativity.

Receptive, we allow the suchness of perception to unfold without self-conscious intervention, so that noticing feeds back uncannily to the origins of our perception, unfolding into awe, as both allow this suchness to be. The suchness of our noticing then offers an immediate, non-self-conscious meaning, not a script or formula for behavior but pure world-discovery. Further, if noticing is not cleverness, nor awe cupidity, nor the study of descriptive modes a classicist empire of (or a burial in) discrete facts, scholarly expertise or degrees (the industry of tuition) and, equally, if radiance is not cosmetic appearance, nor awe naïve nor dumb joy (masking ignorance by disarming it), then awe before existence creates immediate meaning. The energy of our active, dilated perception provokes novel experience, exposing the root, or origin, from which we reveal meaning.

Novelty, fresh feature, rises as perception, is made new by anyone who notices with awe. Our noticing can never be static, a state fixed in time, but rather is an engaging with what and whom we notice in the process of uncovering, wondering, comparing, pondering, a reaching-for the feature which connects new feature, and especially our lives, mining while discovering new insight, which will set up a whole new row of features, to enable yet another, ad infinitum.

There are those who believe that Plato, Kant or Hegel finalized truth. Each system requires closure, but even if none of these systems could be logically refuted, none could ever finalize truth. Truth cannot be finalized. There is always a next truth. We will not immediately value truth without experiencing awe. The briefest episode of noticing combined with awe reveals a truth dilating the full spectrum of experience. We echo the origin of consciousness, opening ourselves to notice a universe in awe. To sharpen noticing, to incarnate in language new truth, to be able to be understood and understand, to rise from the thickets of specialized terminology, equations, special interests, trite conceptual coinages, and never lose the accuracy of our original noticing, amplified, if we wish, by the arts and sciences, we desire the performance of logos, we desire active radiance as we desire new truth. And this may be the key to novelty.


American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2011, Volume 28, Number 2