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  • Mapping the Dematerialized: Writing Postmodern Performance Theory
  • Matthew Causey
Kaye, Nick. Postmodernism and Performance. London: Macmillan, 1994.

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.


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.

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 Jenc ks, 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 t o 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 cu ltural 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-suff icient 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 Nola nd, 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 Painting,”

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)

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 maintai ning 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...

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