1 – Modern, postmodern, altermodern, the imaginary in the contemporary era

Photo: Emiliano Russo


We have entered the altermodern era, which succeeded postmodernism and in turn succeeded modernism, what suggested it was the retrospective held in 2011 at the Victoria and Albert Museum entitled Postmodern – Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990, curated by Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt, declaring the conclusion of postmodernism itself according to the French critic Nicolas Bourriaud (1965).

Now two questions must certainly be asked: the first concerns the date of this conclusion, i.e. the opening date of the above mentioned exhibition must be considered valid, i.e. 2011, as the end of the postmodern period or 1990, suggested by the title of the exhibition itself, should be considered as the logical conclusion; the second question concerns the identity of the three successive historical-cultural epochs, the lack of understanding of which would invalidate the assertion itself and the question connected to it.

It all began with the birth of the contemporary age, which coincided with 1789, the date of the French Revolution, which, moving from the scientific-positivist Enlightenment positions, brought about profound changes in the socio-cultural and socio-economic structure of the time, determining the beginning of the bourgeois era essentially through two ways: on the one hand, cultural expansion in the democratic sense, no longer the prerogative of the nobles alone, through literacy, the birth of information, museums, encyclopaedia, gender literature and the birth of new disciplines, such as archaeology and ethnography, will delineate the physiognomy of the cultural imaginary as we know it today; the other way, which moves its first steps in England with the first industrial revolution, determines the birth of capitalism and economic and political power by the middle class, still taken away from the noble class, which through industrial production allows a lowering of the costs of products and widespread consumption, and consequently, a growing material wealth. It is in this same period that the land register and the concept of private property were born, with an increasingly stringent confinement of geographical areas. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, modernism became part of this process, which, while maintaining its characteristics of evolutionary emancipation, following the horrors and devastation of the First World War, also began to feel its first cracks..

With an extreme simplification one could say that modernism was the era of the dream of emancipation, social and democratic, through scientific and cultural evolution, a dream that postmodernism considers instead shattered by the advent of totalitarianism, the two world wars and atomic bombs. Socialism and communism, which were born under the banner of the liberation of peoples, turned out to be their oppressors on the contrary, that science that was to free man from slavery and the labors of work, turned into its opposite, conceiving weapons of annihilation of entire populations and industrial technologies that annihilated man and his skills, practices and intellectuals. Man had not lived up to his dream and the postmodernists, feeling deceived, make those principles deflagrate with a devastating assault, to which survived only “the here and now”, the only response to the continuity “past present future” of the optimistic-positivist evolution of man, founding principle of the Enlightenment and later of modernism. The postmodernists, not wanting to hear what it was right to do, and having nothing more reasonable and concrete to do, take refuge in a nihilism flattened on the single instant, without previous or future consecutiveness, being able to contain everything and its opposite, revealing themselves in a new architectural eclecticism with paradoxical effects of toy and in an uninterrupted quotationism, albeit purely formal, in painting. The preservation of the spurious form from the contents that generated it is one of the peculiar aspects of postmodern expression. Aspects that on several occasions have been reported as pathological, similar to some forms of schizophrenia, in which the patient loses the ability of temporal continuity.

The altermodern comes after the decline of dreams and utopian ideologies, replaced by a non-programmatic momentariness, without hereditary legacies. This absence is the problem inherent in altermodernity, not having inherited values and myths, is abandoned to itself, being able to assign the only task of being other than postmodern attitudes and not being able to regain possession of the values of modernism glissando on historical truths.

It is no coincidence that since the nineties of the last century many essayistic efforts have been made in an attempt to reconnect the threads of that interrupted history, some of which, to the amazement of many, by Jean François Lyotard himself (1924-1998), who was also the founder of postmodern philosophy. This is certainly not because the French philosopher did not have clear ideas, but on the contrary, seeing clearly the cultural impasse inherent in postmodernism, he assigns to science and new technologies the task of generating a future that, according to Lyotard, can only be posthuman (Riccardo Campa, Dal postmoderno al postumano: il caso Lyotard, in Letteratura-Tradizione, volume 42, 2008, https://ruj.).uj.edu.pl/xmlui/handle/item/58854), that science that postmodernism itself had so earnestly undertaken to discredit, as the positivist root of Enlightenment evolutionary thought.

In the considerations just made there is a first element of answer to the other question concerning the dating of the altermodern. It has been said that the efforts of reconstituting historical continuity have been underway since the ‘nineties of the twentieth century, coinciding with that 1990 that would like the conclusion of postmodernism and that they are linked with other elements that have been underway since the mid ‘nineties of that century: On the one hand, there is the emergence of a different pictorial feeling, which in the course of the 20th century had become underground and sporadic and which in the 21st century exploded in all its evidence; on the other hand, this new feeling, in the same period, marked a turning point in the musical field, marked by the generic label of postrock, also deflagrated in all its evidence at the threshold of the new millennium. After all, the literary scene has also undergone considerable transformations, at the end of the last decade of the twentieth century appear the works of what is the new generation of writers, in Italy, to take only the national example, begin their literary activity, the collective Wu Ming, Giuseppe Genna, Niccolò Ammaniti, Aldo Nove, Tiziano Scarpa and with them others.

These aspects, just mentioned, are the extension of that different “feeling” of which we have said. But before I can deal in more detail with this different “feeling”, which I will deal with mainly from the point of view of art and in a subsequent intervention, I am forced to take a step back, to deepen some postmodern peculiarities in response to modernity. The questions that I am going to examine are certainly complex and wide, impossible to summarize in a single intervention, it is therefore essential to separate them so that they can be read more easily by users of the blog.

Those of my generation, who grew up in the full development of postmodernism, will certainly have come across Salvatore Guglielmino’s Guide to the Twentieth Century, from which I think it is interesting to start, precisely because it was a school textbook on the history of 20th century literature, but also because in it Guglielmino had already lucidly grasped some of the characteristics, and perplexities, inherent in postmodernism. In the chapter on neo-avant-gardes (a current that developed in the 1960s as opposed to the previous neo-realism and that fundamentally coincides with the ’63 Group, whose members are: Alberto Arbasino, Luciano Anceschi, Nanni Balestrini, Renato Barilli, Achille Bonito Oliva, Giorgio Celli, Furio Colombo, Corrado Costa, Fausto Curi, Oreste Del Buono, Roberto Di Marco, Umberto Eco, Enrico Filippini, Alfredo Giuliani, Alberto Gozzi, Angelo Guglielmi, Patrizia Vicinelli, Germano Lombardi, Giorgio Manganelli, Giulia Niccolai, Elio Pagliarani, Michele Perriera, Lamberto Pignotti, Antonio Porta, Edoardo Sanguineti, Giuliano Scabia, Adriano Spatola, Aldo Tagliaferri, Giancarlo Marmori, Gian Pio Torricelli and Sebastiano Vassalli), the author takes up the theme of the relationship between literature and the publishing industry – an aspect that animated the debate in the 1960s – listing its critical points:

«[…] the reification of the cultural product and its reduction to ‘merchandise’; the consequent conditioning of the artist forced to respond to the needs of consumers who – more numerous but for this reason less qualified – ask for entertainment products, easily usable; the Kitsch production that perfectly responds to this need; the viscous series of links between publishers and large media, between authors and critics, between publishing houses and judges of literary awards, between artists and art dealers». (Salvatore Guglielmino, Guida al Novecento, [1971], Milan, G. Principato Publishing House, 1982, p.381).

Even though the ’63 Group apparently condemns cultural commodification, its members, with their literary and intellectual attitudes, will be the ones who have impressed the definitive turning point of culture in a purely commodity sense, making a fundamental contribution to the development of postmodern thought and practices.

«[…] – say the theorists of the avant-garde – interpreting reality, representing it by moving from ideological premises that place facts in a certain perspective and hierarchy is no longer possible: it means giving false images of the real, as such real is thus forced into Procuste’s bed of ideology. Today, however, no ideology is able to offer an exhaustive interpretation of the world, and when we try to use them in this way, they can only produce false meanings, says A. Guglielmini. And he adds: the visceral line of contemporary culture in which the only vanguard possible today must be recognized is a-ideological, disengaged, anti-historical, in a word atemporal; it does not contain messages, nor does it produce meanings of a general nature. It knows no rules (or laws) either as a starting condition or as a result of arrival. Its aim is to recover the real in its intactness: something it can only do by subtracting it from history, discovering it in its most neutral sense, in its most impartial version, placing it at degree zero.

These positions, which as Calvino objected in a famous essay, theorize the shipwreck in the sea of objectivity, the renunciation of reason, the unconditional surrender to the labyrinth of a reality whose dimension of chaos is given to us as admitted and irreversible. From this position of ideological neutrality derives a consequence: in the previous production ideology was assumed as the privileged element, now instead language is assumed.» (Salvatore Guglielmino, Guida al Novecento, [1971], Milan, G. Principato Publishing House, 1982, p.385).

For the latter reason, the positions of Umberto Eco and the Semiology will become more and more important and powerful; in fact, it will be Umberto Eco who will write the most important novel of Italian postmodernism, Il nome della Rosa (1980). In the observations quoted by Guglielmino are listed one by one, through the words of Guglielmini, the typical characteristics of postmodernity: anti-historical, atemporal, disengaged, anti-ideological, devoid of meaning and messages, and all this, paradoxically, to pursue a pure realism, as if there could be a realism outside of time and history, as if it were actually possible to reach the degree zero. But even more paradoxical is that these positions moved precisely from a premise of opposition to commercial literature, defining Cassola, Bassani and Pratolini – as a lightened neo-realistic offshoot – the “Liale del ’63”, when it will be precisely those characteristics they assumed and supported to feed and push literature, and culture more generally, in the direction of the market, to the point of making the two things inseparable. Eliminating the meaning, all forms of taking a stand in favour of disengagement, of the absence of confrontation with history and time, flattening out on the sole formal and linguistic problems, is what allows the market to have an ideal product, fast and easy to consume, which, like the market, knows no rules, except that of having to burn and consume this product quickly and with maximum profit, replacing it immediately with the next. Everything is reduced to the here and now postmodern, which allows you to have your hands free from tasks and responsibilities and to mix everything and its opposite, provided that everything is devoid of content and meaning.everything and its opposite, provided that everything is devoid of content and meaning.

«Attention to the fragmentation of language and the instability of language leads directly, for example, to a specific concept of personality. In summary, this concept focuses on schizophrenia. Jameson [1984b] explores this theme very effectively. He uses Lacan’s description that schizophrenia is a linguistic disorder, an interruption in the signifying chain that creates a simple sentence. When the signifying chain breaks, ‘we have schizophrenia in the form of a pile of distinct and unrelated signifiers’. If personal identity is formed through ‘a certain temporal unification of past and future with the present before me’ and if the sentences move along the same path, then the inability to unify past, present and future in the sentence denotes a similar inability to ‘unify the past, present and future of our biographical experience or psychic life’. All this is, of course, in line with the attention that postmodernism pays to the signifier rather than to meaning, participation, performance and happening rather than to the authoritative and finished art object, to superficial appearances rather than to the roots. The effect of such a break in the chain of the signifier is such as to reduce the experience to ‘a series of pure and unrelated present times’.

[…] The reduction of the experience to ‘a series of pure and unconnected present times’ still implies that ‘the experience of the present becomes vivid and ‘material’ in a powerful, overwhelming way: the world presents itself to the schizophrenic with greater intensity, bringing a mysterious and oppressive charge of affection, shining with hallucinatory energy’. The image, the appearance, the show can be felt with an intensity (joy or terror) made possible only by the fact that they are seen as present pure and not connected. What does it matter, then, ‘if the world momentarily loses its depth and threatens to become a shiny skin, a stereoscopic illusion, a rapid succession of filmic images without density?

Such a collapse of the temporal order also leads to a peculiar way of dealing with the past. Refusing from the idea of progress, postmodernism abandons every sense of continuity and every historical memory, while at the same time developing an incredible capacity to plunder history and to absorb, as an aspect of the present, whatever is in it.» (David Harvey, La crisi della modernità, [1990], Milan, Il Saggiatore, 1997, pp.73-76).


«Language, therefore, must aim at nothing more than the communication of the negation of existing communication (A. Guglielmini); and therefore at the unhinging of every syntactic form and every semantic dimension: this is the case, already mentioned, of Sanguineti’s Laborintus, or that of Pagliarani who combines advertising language, manual typing indications, fragments of speech as elements, voices of different realities and worlds, thus relying on the impact that derives from it. This is because language alone is able to give a chaotic vision of a chaotic reality, beyond any reading and interpretation of this reality on the basis of ideological assumptions; with a similar language one arrives (always in the opinion of the aforementioned Gugliemini) at a poetry of alienation, a sort of sketchy vision of reality» (Salvatore Guglielmino, Guida al Novecento, [1971], Milan, Casa Editrice G. Principato, 1982, p.386).

In essence, the ’63 Group, with its unrealistic attitudes, has placed culture in the hands of the market and the economy, taking away from it the historical task of critical analysis of reality, reflection on history and planning of civil, social and cultural evolution. The ’63 Group and postmodernity have betrayed the mission assigned to them, adopting an adolescent attitude of removing themselves from their intellectual responsibilities. It could be objected that intellectuals do not necessarily have to fulfil this task, but this would be tantamount to their total absence of task and social purpose, figures detached from the context of real and civil life, of which society itself could easily do without. It is good to be clear and firm on this point, if we want to have a very small chance to escape from the fetters and compromises that postmodernism has generated, determining the cultural and social debacle that lies ahead today. That nonthought, that unconditional and uncritical crowding of materials, has led to a debasement, an impoverishment and a total emptying of the widespread imagination, making us, in turn, uncritical consumers, to the point of becoming a product of the new economic-digital practices typical of today’s social media (an aspect already stressed in the introduction to this blog). It is an unavoidable comparison with our recent history, without which any future planning is impossible. A project that postmodernism has tried to undermine in every way, but of which Lyotard himself, as has been said, felt the need.

The transition from modernism to postmodernism is marked by a precedent in art. Following the Second World War, with the destruction it caused in Europe and the persecution of intellectuals by the Nazis, many of them took refuge in the United States, resulting in a shift of the cultural center from Paris to the new world. After a first moment of ferrying and settling this situation, America became the promoter of the new avant-gardes, the first of which was abstract expressionism that already had new characteristics compared to the historical avant-gardes of European origin, which were engaged ideologically and politically. «The problem was [Harvey tells us again] that international modernism had shown strong socialist or even propagandist tendencies in the 1930s (with surrealism, constructivism and socialist realism). The depoliticisation of modernism that occurred with the birth of abstract expressionism ironically foreshadowed its adoption by the political and cultural establishment as an ideological weapon in the Cold War. Art was quite full of alienation and anxiety, and sufficiently expressed violent fragmentation and creative destruction (all this was certainly appropriate for the nuclear era) to be used as a wonderful example of American commitment to defending freedom of expression, individualism and creative freedom» (Salvatore Guglielmino, Guida al Novecento, [1971], Milan, G. Principato Publishing House, 1982, p. 54).

From this first depoliticisation of art, we will immediately move on to New Dada, which, while preserving some of the material and gestural presences typical of abstract expressionism, combines them with mass-mediological symbols, thus initiating the first practices of mixing that will then be typical of postmodern language, as well as the founding element of the subsequent Pop Art, which will make the symbols of media and consumption the expressive element par excellence, decreing the definitive leveling of art and culture to the principles of the market. The United States perfectly understood that the real weapon of conquest was this, much more effective than conventional military weapons, the colonization of the imaginary through the models of infinite media reproducibility, continuously proposed by cinema, television, advertising and art that took on the language and symbols. From then on, the roles within the art world will be more and more fragmented and separated and artists will lose, little by little, their task as intellectuals, leaving only the art critics to pronounce and contenting themselves with the role of mere executors of what will become artistic operations created theoretically and aimed at the fascination of the art market, real and proper market operations that will later become more and more aggressive and audacious, of which Pop Art is the conscious progenitor and the unconscious abstract expressionism. It is no coincidence that a critic such as Achille Bonito Oliva (1939), previously a member of the Group ’63, devised the Transavantgarde – whose name already bears on itself the characteristic signs of the chaotic formal crowding aimed at forgetting history and content – whose protagonists are distracted and uncritical tourists, mere executors of appearances of the past dispossessed of their historical reasons and meaning. The signs of this drift are evident in the great galleries and museums of contemporary art that host countless testimonies, forms of temporary entertainment without any form of analysis and criticism or social reflection. But even more serious is how these forms have now spread, through installation and street art, to the public territory, making the spectacular bombardment of the ubiquitous entertainment, in real life and in the virtual social media where they are constantly proposed, and depriving the public territory itself of its former meaning, because these forms of expression, in almost all cases, do not lead to any reflection of a public and social nature.

As already stated in the introduction, this blog aims to be a moment of analytical reflection on these issues and, as far as possible, to detect possibilities of solution and exit.

In the second part we will deal more closely with the changes that have taken place in the artistic scenario and their progressive abstraction from reality.




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Siti web

APOSTOLOU Apostolos, Addio postmoderno, benvenuti nell’età dell’altermoderno, in Cultura Oltre, 2018, https://culturaoltre14.wordpress.com/2018/04/21/addio-postmoderno-benvenuti-nelleta-dellaltermoderno-di-apostolos-apostolou/

CAMPA Riccardo, Dal postmoderno al postumano: il caso Lyotard, in Letteratura-Tradizione, volume 42, 2008, https://ruj.uj.edu.pl/xmlui/handle/item/58854



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