This is what happened.
– Steven King, The Mist
I don’t much mind this idea of Progress as I did last week. Errol Morris clearly believes in it. That’s about as good of an endorsement that I can conjure up these days. Living in an age of Anti-Intellectualism, I find myself, even the staunch Anti- Anti-intellectualist, very very stringent with my own endorsements these days. Must be the times.
But oh anyway, as I flipped through my copy of The Ashtray (being colorful with my word choice here, I have the ebook), and this man, God bless him, spends an inordinate amount of time fighting with the dreary and unimaginative perspective of Kuhn himself; his chosen idea that Progress does not exist, and that there is no linear timeline of history. I don’t think this requires much debunking; there is a linearity to it all, and I think whether or not it has been a steadfast march to good is questionable, but regardless, it did happen.
Now, onto Robert Hughes, I watched The Future That Was, and I’ll admit now with considerable chagrin that I have only watched it once (compared to the several attempts I made of The Powers that Be), so my opinions may change. Nonetheless, I found it compelling.
Hughes’ approach in examining the continual, and seemingly inevitable, commodification of the art world, for one, really spoke to me. As yet one who intellectually opposes such commodification, but also has not really ever known anything but that in my waking life, it is a question that I think is both relevant to our time (I won’t spoil it, but it rhymes with “hate, rage, crapitalism”) and also to the much more precise and nuanced analysis of American Dharma. Steve Bannon obviously, grifter that he is, is a fan of this commodification. He used it many times; not only to sell his really, really sh*tty ideas, but also to sell an image of himself, maybe even to his own self. His incessant need to qualify his own life and experiences through the lens of art is quite a human one, but the way that he crafts and bases his own person through his ideas of these films, 12 o’ Clock High, the Bridge on the River Kwai, etc. etc. ad nauseum, is something I find both uniquely Bannon-eque and narcissistic (terms not mutually exclusive).
But that all being said (and my contempt notwithstanding for the “Renaissance man” who may have indeed burned down the last of the Renaissance), what I find even more interesting than all of that is Hughes’ exploration of the death of Modernism. Back when Hughes’ syndicated The Shock of the New in 1980, it was certainly a question up for debate, whether or not Modernism had at last laid in its watery Opheliac grave. I think even now, to this viewer in 2020, I am uncertain. Certainly the momentous occasion of Modern art seems to have laid itself to rest as much as the Postmodern, but their formative ideologies remain deadlocked in a battle resembling those of the primordial gods of old. I am not sure if I can clearly say, but what I can say is that Modernism, regardless of whether or not its artistic face continues to dominate artistic consciousness, I think it is clear that Modernism is heavily relevant to my focus, American Dharma.
Errol Morris himself has already laid the question of his Modernist or Postmodernist leanings to rest; he “won’t be calling up Baudrillard by the phone” anytime soon, and his constant avowal of an objective reality and therefore an objective truth is evidence enough, I think. For Bannon, the other momentous force in the American Dharma film, this fate is more uncertain.
Bannon certainly thinks himself a Postmodernist, though maybe in the same way I might think myself Michelin-starred chef and reality TV sensation Gordon Ramsey whilst I chase my younger sister down the hallway yelling “where’s the lamb sauce!!” That is to say, it seems a bit disingenuous, or as the kids may say now, he’s “cosplaying” what he thinks a Postmodernist is.
At 3:44 in American Dharma, Bannon outright says “modernity is based on emotionalism,” that is to say, he thinks Modernism is destructive (how dreadfully ironic). He believes steadfastly that people are unable to fulfill their own “destiny” (whatever that actually means) because of Modernism’s privileging of emotion. It certainly sounds to me like Bannon wants to be a Postmodernist here, and even when Morris counters that all his ideas seem to be based in unfocused destruction, Bannon persists. However, I wonder, what is it about Modernism that is so emotionally-motivated? Maybe I don’t understand this as well as I think I do, but it seems to be the flaw of Postmodern ideology that subjectivity rules it, not rationalism or objective thinking?
I’m willing to just chalk this point up to Bannon being a soulless grifter (spoiler: he is), however, I just found it incredibly interesting. Bannon certainly wants Modernism to be dead as Hughes considers, and I think that is both quite a bit disturbing but also unsurprising. Certainly it adds a layer of darkness to the investigation Errol Morris is conducting. Only time will tell if it was indeed an autopsy, and of what indeed.
Speaking of time, I quite like Hughes’ perspective. Progress is a measure of the past as much as it is a theory of the future, and whilst I do indeed believe in it, Speculation makes fools of us all. I think I disagree with him, and so I say to Robert Hughes, “call me a fool then, but at least, a self-aware one.” I’d like to think that at the very least puts me a level or two higher than Steve Bannon (the whole reason I’m doing this, really).