Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Mapping the Dematerialized: Writing Postmodern Performance Theory, Matthew Causey

Department of Literature, Communication and Culture
Georgia Institute of Technology

Postmodern Culture v.5 n.2 (January, 1995)

Copyright (c) 1995 by Matthew Causey, all rights reserved.
This text may be used and shared in accordance with the
fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be
archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided
that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for
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text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of
the author and the notification of the publisher, Oxford
University Press.

[1] In _Postmodernism and Performance_, a title in the _New
Directions in Theatre_ series from Macmillan, author Nick
Kaye questions the possibility of attaining an adequate
definition of the postmodern performance.
If the 'postmodern event' occurs as a breaking
away, a disruption of what is 'given,' then
'its' forms cannot usefully be pinned down in
any final or categorical way . . . definitions
cannot arrive at the postmodern, but can only
set out a ground which might be challenged. (145)
Echoing Paul Mann's position in _The Theory-Death of the
Avant-Garde_ that theory facilitates the undoing of the
avant-garde, that cultural criticism enacts a theory-death
on the object of its discourse, Kaye notes criticism's
collusion in the construction of postmodern performance.
He asserts that the organizing compulsion of criticism is
antithetical to the strategies of postmodern aesthetic
practices, which are designed to frustrate foundationalist
thinking. Kaye's refusal to reproduce the normal
organizational categories leads him to draw together a wide
range of contemporary American cultural
events--performances of Kaprow, Brecht, and Finley; dance
works of Cunningham and the Judson Dance Theater; music by
Cage; theatre work by Foreman, Kirby, Wilson, and the
Wooster Group--treating them all as more or less exemplary
postmodern confrontations with, and disruptions of, the
Modernist cultural project.

[2] It seems that every book entitled _Postmodernism and
BLANK_ is required to begin with a rehearsal of the story
of architectural postmodernism, and Kaye obligingly does
so. Focusing on the architectural practices of Portoghesi,
Klotz, and Jencks, he locates the key feature of
postmodernism in a "falling away of the idea of a
fundamental core or legitimating essence which might
privilege one vocabulary over another" (9). He then offers
a brief account of philosophical postmodernism, which is to
say of poststructuralist interrogations of history and
meaning--interrogations which Kaye rightly claims are
reproduced almost wholesale in much postmodern performance.
Having thus sketched the rough contours of postmodernism as
he understands it, Kaye proceeds to construct his more
detailed argument about the relation between postmodernist
and modernist art. He starts by glossing the modernist art
theory of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. Greenberg's
article "After Abstract Expressionism" (1962) and Fried's
"Art and Objecthood" (1967) are, according to Kaye, the
signal texts of modernism's institutionalization, the texts
that provided a systematic theoretical basis for the
various assumptions and attitudes that had long informed
the American cultural scene. Greenberg argues in a
para-Hegelian manner that the history and progress of
modernist art is a march toward purification, a divesting
of art of all extraneous material, culminating in the work
of art realized as a wholly manifest, self-sufficient
object. Kaye quotes Greenberg's theory that the modernist
project in art is to demonstrate that many of the
"conventions of the art of painting" are "dispensable,
unessential" (25). Greenberg's model of art historicity
champions the works of Noland, Morris, and Olitksi as
representing the modernist ideal of a totally autonomous
art: their color fields seeped into the fabric of a
dematerialized canvas achieve a coalescence of literalism
and illusionism. As Greenberg wrote in "Modernist
The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it,
in the use of the characteristic methods of
a discipline to criticize the discipline
itself--not in order to subvert it, but to
entrench it more firmly in its area of
competence. (qtd by Kaye, 101)

[3] The transitional stage between Greenberg's defense of
Field Painting and Fried's attack on Minimalism is only
briefly mentioned by Kaye but constitutes a critical moment
in the history he narrates. In answer to the call for an
autonomous art and maintaining that the canvas was
inherently representational, artists such as Donald Judd
and Robert Morris furthered the quest for an essential art
form through minimalist sculpture. The artists created,
through the absence of connecting parts, artificial color,
or representation, Minimalist sculptures that were realized
as pure objects of indivisible wholeness. The
"literalness" of Minimalist sculpture was meant to supplant
the illusionism of the canvas. The objecthood of the
object (the thingness of the thing in Heideggerian terms)
became the object of art. However, Michael Fried spotted a
problem in the work of the Minimalists. He argued that the
Minimalist objects surrendered their objecthood by
foregrounding the space that they occupied and the duration
of the spectator's experience of observation. Fried
asserted that the Minimalist object was time-dependent and
hence spectator-dependent, and that it was therefore
theatrical and therefore not art.

[4] In Fried's view, "art degenerates as it approaches the
condition of theatre" (141). For Fried, the theatrical is
severed from the modernist ideal of a wholly manifest
thing-in-itself by virtue of its contingent unfolding in
real time, its moment-by-moment dynamic with a receiving
audience, its adherence to the paradigm of subjectivity.
The experience of witnessing the modernist paintings of
Olitski or Noland or the sculpture of Anthony Caro has,
according to Fried, literally no duration, "because at
every moment the work itself is wholly manifest" (145).
The properly Modernist goal is an instantaneousness and
presentness characterized by the collapse of the
subjectivity of the spectator into the objectivity of the
work. Theater and performance, which work toward presence
but not toward modernist presentness, are on this account
effectively voided as non-art.

[5] Having restaged the modernist arguments of Greenberg and
Fried, Kaye proceeds to demonstrate the postmodernist--or
more accurately anti-modernist--counter projects that have
sought to disrupt any foundationalism or essentialism and
have thrown into question the concepts of authenticity,
wholeness, meaning, and originality. If one accepts
Greenberg and Fried's model of modernism, then
performance's inherent disruption of the autonomous art
work, its spatial and temporal specificity, its very
"messiness," or what Kaye calls its "evasion of stable
parameters, meanings and identities" (35), make performance
the perfect field on which to stage postmodernist
rejections of modernist imperatives.

[6] Certainly Kaye is not the first to make this claim for
performance's special stature in postmodernity. In _The
Object of Performance_ (a book to which Kaye is indebted),
Henry M. Sayre quotes from a catalogue for an exhibition of
contemporary sculpture at the Hirshhorn Museum (1982)
written by Howard Fox, which states that
Theatricality may be considered that propensity
in the visual arts for a work to reveal itself
within the mind of the beholder as something
other than what it is known empirically to be.
This is precisely antithetical to the Modern
ideal of the wholly manifest, self-sufficient
object; and theatricality may be the single
most pervasive property of post-Modernism. (9)
Quite apart from the modernist desire to create the
thing-in-itself, the desire for the de-materialization of
the art object has run concurrently and in some cases has
prefigured the modernist projects, reflecting Lyotard's
suggestion that the postmodern is, in fact, premodern. It
is no mere anomaly that the history of the Euro-American
Avant-Garde carries with it a series of performative
experiments: Symbolist and Expressionists theatre, the
Futurist %serate% and Dadaist %soiree%, Surrealist drama,
Happenings and Performance Art. My point is that
performance's qualifications as postmodern or anti-modern
have been well established. Greenberg and Fried's
derriere-garde notions of authenticity, purity, essence,
reside in a historical, foundationalist, and essentialist
discourse that has been thoroughly discounted from a
postmodern position, voided of relevance in a contemporary
model of art. I would question the validity of a continued
rehearsing of their arguments to sustain performance's
value. Fried's "Art and Objecthood," not unlike Benjamin's
"The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"
(whose assertion that an original is degraded through its
mechanical repetition is problematized, not to say
invalidated, in a digital age) is by now a tediously
familiar argument with far too little contemporary
resonance to function as the point of emergence for a "new
vision" of postmodern art.

[7] Aside from this over-reliance on polemic against already
discredited theoretical positions, there is a problem, too,
in Kaye's reliance on theoretical discourse as such. Kaye
is keenly aware of theory's collusion in manufacturing,
narrativizing, and concretizing abstract "trends" in art.
Yet his own procedure reproduces, perhaps inevitably, that
very tendency. By positioning postmodern performance as
essentially a philosophico-aesthetic response to Modernist
art, Kaye simply disregards the concrete history--the
cultural, political, and technological realities--of
postmodern society, and the significance of this social
field for the emergence of postmodern artistic practices.
The point here is rudimentary: what engenders an art work
is not only the theory and practice of previous schools,
but a complex set of relations among contemporary social
and cultural phenomena. The seductive labyrinth of "pure"
art theory is finally of little use unless the theorist
attempts, as Edward Said has suggested, to address its
"worldliness." This is a move that Kaye never makes, and
as a result his theoretical discussion seems to take place
in too isolated an arena of philosophical conceits.
However, he astutely challenges some traditional theories,
in particular, Sally Banes's positioning of postmodern
dance as modernist in the Greenbergian sense.

[8] A large portion of the book deals with the theories and
practices of modern and postmodern dance and this section
is greatly indebted to the writings of Sally Banes for both
its historical perspective and its theoretical model.
Countering Banes, Kaye challenges "the very possibility of
a properly 'modernist' performance and in turn . . . the
move from a modern . . . to a postmodern dance" (71). Like
Banes, Kaye traces American modern dance through the work
of Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, among others, and
their rejection of conventional languages of classical
dance and the formlessness of Isodora Duncan's "free
dance." Modern dance relied instead on a formalistic
expressionism aimed at representing the "inner life." The
Judson Dance Theatre (1962-64), which included the
choreographer/dancers Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, Yvonne
Rainer, Trisha Brown and David Gordon, defined itself as
postmodern, on the grounds that their work abandoned modern
dance's representational strategy of expression. Sally
Banes has disputed this claim, defining their work as more
correctly modernist, in the Greenbergian sense, in that
their minimalist strategies sought to reduce dance to pure
movement, severing its connection to expression and
representation. Kaye counters Banes's view by arguing that,
far from rehearsing Greenberg's program through
dance, the historical postmodern dance's
reduction of dance to simply 'movement', or
even the presence of the dancer alone, attacks
the very notion of the autonomous work of art,
revealing a contingency, and so an instability,
in place of the center the modernist project
would seek to realize. (89)
Kaye is here maintaining Fried's argument that a
modernist project in performance is impossible. Banes
might counter with her position that each art form has its
own distinct positioning of the postmodern, or in other
words, rather than constructing a metanarrative of
Modernism perhaps a local narrative of particular works
would uncover more useful critiques.

[9] The value of _Postmodernism and Performance_ lies not in
Kaye's attempt to theorize postmodern performance as the
perfect counter-project to high Modernism, but in his
discussion of individual performance and dance works.
Aside from offering stimulating analyses of well-known
works, he brings to light some more obscure but important
pieces, such as "First Signs of Decadence" from Michael
Kirby's Structuralist Workshop.

[10] Kaye isolates three unifying elements in many of the
postmodern works he approaches (an unavoidable but
decidedly non-postmodernist tactic). The first is the
*deflation or dematerialization of the art object* as an
autonomous whole, in favor of an emphasis on the
spectator's construction of that object as an image in the
mind. George Brecht in speaking of his Fluxus inspired
"event-scores," such as _Water Yam_ (1962), said that "for
me, an object does not exist outside people's contact with
it" (43). Brecht may very well be the most radical artist
in Kaye's collection, insofar as his performance works were
"less concerned with the disruption or breaking down of a
'work' than with a catching of attention at a point at
which the promise of a work, and the move toward closure,
is first encountered" (40). Brecht's *Water Yam* is
presented as a boxed collection of white cards with black
text that states various instructions or actions. One card
reads, "THREE AQUEOUS EVENTS." Under the "title" are
placed the words "ice, water, steam." As Kaye notes, the
"event scores" of Brecht can be read as a poem or
procedural notation.
Considered as a score, the card seems to be
even more open and unclear, as it becomes
an ambiguous stimulus to something or other
that is yet to be made or occur. In doing
so, it places its own self-sufficiency into
question and explicitly looks towards a
decision yet to be made. (40)

[11] From Kaye's standpoint, one of the foremost postmodern
theater companies is Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric
Theatre, which carries out the shift from art as object to
art as receptive event and also fulfills Kaye's second
criterion of postmodern performance in its *disruption of
the meaningful*. The Ontological-Hysteric Theatre has
developed a performance-wrighting that stages the
production of image, its immediate demise through
discourse, and the persistence of a (re)appearing ideology.
Kaye quotes Foreman who wrote,
as Stella, Judd, %et al.% realized several
years ago . . . one must reject composition
in favor of shape (or something else).
. . . Why? Because the resonance must be
between the head and the object. The
resonance between the elements of the
object is now a DEAD THING. (49)
Foreman's performance works generally use a deceptively
traditional style with a strict proscenium configuration
and the trappings of the conventional stage. What Foreman
does with that tradition is to turn the image-manufacturing
into a "reverberation machine" constantly undoing the
image, colliding it against expectation, asking the
spectator to think, to put the pieces back together in a
new manner.

[12] Kaye writes clearly about Michael Kirby's Structuralist
Workshop, an important but often overlooked moment in
American avant-garde theatre. The Workshop, a loosely
aligned group of NYC theatre artists, whose most productive
work was done in the mid to late seventies, is likewise
concerned with the structuring of performance in the mind
of the spectator, "a recognition of relation and
contingency" (48). In an interview with Kaye, Kirby said
'structure' is being used to refer to the
way the parts of a work relate to each
other, how they 'fit together' in the
mind to form a particular configuration.
This fitting together does not happen
'out there' in the objective work; it
happens in the mind of the spectator. (48)
Not unlike Foreman, Kirby employs the effects of the
realistic stage only to complicate the reception of that
aesthetic gesture through antithetical staging structures.
In _First Signs of Decadence_, a work analyzed by Kaye,
Kirby structures the staging through a "complex array of
rules to which the interaction of characters as well as
entrances, exits, lighting, music, and even patterns of
emotional response, are subject" (57). Kirby is
attempting, in his words, to set up a "tension between the
representational and non-representational aspects through
which the performance is always being torn apart" (57);
torn apart to disrupt meaning, content and closure and to
open contingencies that in turn activate the spectator's

[13] The third feature or tactic of postmodern performance,
according to Kaye, is its "*upsetting [of] the hierarchies
and assumptions that would define and stabilize the formal
and thematic parameters of [the performance] work*" (142).
The performance work of the Wooster Group, in existence for
nearly twenty years and a spin-off company from Richard
Schechner's Performance Group, ideally fits Kaye's
depiction of the anti-modernist move in postmodern
performance. The Wooster Group, under the direction of
Elizabeth LeCompte, has created a radical form of
performance-wrighting that includes a collision of
appropriated texts from such diverse categories as
traditional modern drama (_Our Town_, _The Crucible_),
popular culture (cable-TV, Japanese sci-fi films), personal
narratives (family suicide), and the taboo texts of
pornography and blackface caricature. The fragmented texts
are cut-up, reworked and edited into a larger mediatized
performance work that consistently undoes its own
authority. Both Philip Auslander and David Savran have
written about the Wooster Group's political postmodernism,
which effects a disempowering of the performance's status
as a "charismatic other." An image played out in a Wooster
Group performance is allowed to present itself without a
moralistic posturing from the performer. When the company
used black-face on white actors they made no effort to let
the audience off the hook by pointing to the gesture and
condemning it. Instead, the spectator was forced to
articulate a response, to take responsibility for how he or
she would respond. The effect is powerful and has led to
acrimonious debates and funding rejections for the company.

[14] One difficulty in theorizing postmodern performance is the
sheer size of the territory that the term "performance"
maps out. It extends far beyond the theatre and galleries
to include the total flow of the televisual, the indigenous
performance, the intertextuality of the postmodern
cityscape within which we perform daily, the postorganic
domain of virtual environments and cyberspace. A drawback
of _Postmodernism and Performance_ is that Kaye's
examination focuses on too narrow a series of performances
from downtown NYC, and neglects this larger field. Though
Kaye notes that postmodern performance has forgone the
genres and the spatiality of modernism, he doesn't seem to
recognize that our performance theory needs to follow that
lead. Nonetheless, Kaye's analyses of the specific
performances are insightful and provocative. Whatever my
specific reservations, _Postmodernism and Performance_ is
an important and thought-provoking addition to a troubled


Fried, Michael. "Art and Objecthood." _Minimal Art: A
Critical Anthology_. Gregory Battcock, ed. New York:
E.P. Dutton & Co., 1968.

Sayre, Henry M. _The Object of Performance: The American
Avant-Garde Since 1970_. Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 1989.

Above copied from: http://www.iath.virginia.edu/pmc/

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