In ‘Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?’, Jean-François Lyotard uses the ideas of Emmanuel Kant as a framework for explaining how postmodernism evolved out of modernism as a more powerful means of challenging the conformist forces of capitalism and government. Postmodernism is paradoxically more logical and more nonsensical as it eludes the elites. The writing parallels this argument, evolving from a logical statement of events to a romantic lauding of masochism.
According to Lyotard, Modernism eluded the forces of industrialisation and consumerism by overturning the two conventions of beauty, established by Kant, which insist upon: 1) communicativeness and 2) subjective coherence. Modernism denied the consumerist need for a coherent message by making the content nonsensical to the public generally, aka ‘unpresentable’. It retained a private coherence for individuals, in other words it was still ‘conceivable’, as it relied on representation and figuration.
Postmodernism took Modernism a step further: It made no sense to the public and it made no sense to individuals subjectively. Postmodernist paintings, as both inconceivable and unpresentable, were so abstract that they made no sense, and unexpressable ideas were represented through this absence of expression.
Postmodernism thereby attains, to a higher degree, the mystical concept of the Kantian sublime: ‘The sublime is, according to Kant, a strong and equivocal emotion: it carries with it both pleasure and pain. Better still, in it pleasure derives from pain.’ Postmodern art is ‘more’ sublime’ as it deprives the viewer any pleasure or usefulness as a communicative tool. Postmodernity ‘Denies itself the solace of good forms,’ and ‘searches for new presentations not to enjoy them, but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.’
In his 1983 essay, Lyotard is simultaneously denouncing all attempts at coherency and unity, and extracting a hidden metanarrative which endured the fall of Catholicism, enlightenment, socialism and capitalism (yet remains an element of all three). It has a renaissance in punk and grunge and any number of subcultures. That metanarrative is masochism.
Self-destruction is the only human act compatible with relativism as it apparently serves no cause and follows no logic.
While masochism is absurd and inscrutable, it does describe a teleology when practiced by the human race as a whole. The teleology depicts a culture at the periphery of freedom, where increasing individualism, insularity and egotism are practiced to a degree beyond capitalism: the masochism of silencing art to the point of self-censure.
The task of postmodern art, which as Lyotard says, is to continue experimentation, meeting ‘the challenge of the mass media’ through halting of communication.
With all due respect to the achievements of Kant, the postmodernists and Lyotard, this author believes experimentation which involves self-censure, silence and pain is intrinsically limited. Creativity cannot be authentically linked with the paralysis of self-denial and destruction.
Not only that, masochism is an excessively ‘easy’ solution to relativism precisely because artists don’t have to do anything: They don’t have to think and they don’t have to create. Alternatively, proactive artists could challenge the communicative monopoly of the mass media constructively by inventing new forms of communication.