by Perry Meisel
The Object of Performance: The American Avant-Garde since 1970. Henry M. Sayre. Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press: 1989. 308 pp. $39.
Coming as it does at the end of two decades of fierce activity in criticism and the arts alike, Henry M. Sayre's comprehensive study of the American avant-garde since 1970 reveals both the advantages and the dangers of trying to identify a coherent postmodernism that has meaning as a stable historical achievement. Sayre's descriptive history ranges from painting, photography, and performance to poetry, dance, and earthworks. Propounding a notion of postmodernism that distinguishes it from modernism both polemically and in practice, Sayre's book also summarizes the presumable link between postmodernism and certain aspects of poststructuralist critical theory, particularly deconstruction.
Sayre puns on the word "object" in his title in order to undo Clement Greenberg's classical modernist notion of the work of art as an "immanent object" - as an autonomous, bounded whole that is "irrefutably present." For Sayre, the word "object" shifts back and forth between meaning an "object" like a canvas or a poem in the modernist sense, and an "object" that is simply the aim or direction for a performance-oriented, postmodern poetics. He argues that, since 1970, the work of art as a modernist object has given way to the work of art as postmodern performance - open, in-process, and polyvocal. Using as a symbol and proximate source Andy Warhol's calculated evacuation (and negative reconstitution) of almost every received modernist virtue, from the exaltation of authenticity to the sanctity of the frame, Sayre shows us that "by the late sixties . . . the object per se had become . . . dispensable," whether the autonomous painting or poem, and so, too, had the gallery, the studio, and even the personality of the artist or author. "By the seventies," concludes Sayre, "the site of presence in art had shifted from art's object to art's audience, from the textual or plastic to the experiential."
This is a familiar and largely durable argument; its descriptive strengths include its ability to link many kinds of art and artists through their share in the almost programmatic approach they appear to follow in common. The relation of performance to painting and photography is central to Sayre's account, which chronicles the shift over the last 20 years from the work of art regarded as finished product to the work of art regarded as "work site." In fact, the book's most impressive sequence is Sayre's reading of Site, a 1964 performance by Carolee Schneemann and Robert Morris that sharply exemplifies Sayre's view of what postmodernism is, and of how it entails a decidedly critical relation to past traditions in art. Sayre reads Site as a virtual essay on Manet's Olympia (1863), claiming that Manet's presumably "finished" painting suffers a series of transformations as Schneemann and Morris "re-present" the image of the courtesan Olympia by resituating it in a cluster of other activities. As Morris performs "work" around Schneemann's re-creation of the seemingly static Olympia, says Sayre, "painting is transformed into sculpture, sculpture into dance. And dance itself is transformed . . . into ordinary, vernacular movement." Incorporated into and mobilized by the dynamism of performance, Manet's passive portrait - a presumably autonomous image - is opened to a world beyond the frame.
Equally instructive from Sayre's point of view is the difference between the painting of Eric Fischl and David Salle. Salle's work, writes Sayre, is "assimilative" and, in the artist's own words, "'autonomous'" and "'self-sufficient'"; it functions as a "closed network of signs." Fischl's, by contrast, is "disseminative," "theatrical" and "performative," inviting the viewer to recognize the "potentialities of the work" rather than keeping the viewer enclosed within it. Whether or not this argument is convincing (and whether or not Sayre's use of poststructuralist terminology is entirely plausible), it reflects Sayre's belief in a programmatic historical movement from product to process. This change is evident in, for example, Jonathan Borofsky's work, which, according to Sayre, calls into question the integrity of the painting as an object by exceeding the modernist box of frame and gallery alike, disrupting the autonomy of the art object as well as the institution that perpetuates it and redoubles its structure of exclusion. In the author's view, the performance art of Laurie Anderson is similarly disruptive; set in an "undecidable terrain," Anderson's performances disorient her audience by the "calculated disjunction" between her "high tech trappings and her self-consciously bohemian pose." Postmodern performance, then, moves the goal or object of art from "mastery" to "process," from "transcending the temporal" to "falling into it."
A parallel transformation, according to Sayre, structures the history of dance, which moves from classical ballet, with its emphasis on symmetry, to modern dance, with its preference for asymmetry and disjunction, to postmodern dance, with its "vernacular, task-like" movements. In reflexive postmodern fashion, Sayre's narrative of dance history also intersects with the histories of other arts, each holding up a mirror to the other. Especially rich meal for Sayre's position are the collaborations of Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham in the 1950s, which make explicit a rejection, following Brecht, of the Gesamtkunstwerk or "integrated work of art." Cunningham's insistence on "the independence, not interdependence, of each part of the dance's presentation" is emblematic of "a consciously anti-Wagnerian" art, one that emphasizes the arbitrariness of the relations between mediums that are ordinarily combined in a presumably natural way in "integrated" work such as Wagner's own.
The political object of such transformative praxis, says Sayre, quoting Craig Owens, is not "'to transcend representation,'" but "'to expose that system of power that authorizes certain representations while blocking, prohibiting and invalidating others.'" Sayre also shows that "repetition" is the active principle of postmodernism. Postmodernism is thereby pedagogical, with repetition functioning as "a teaching tool," as Sayre puts it, for re-educating audiences in what to pay attention to in works of art. (Hence the logic of Trisha Brown's remark that "dance" is a "lecture form.") "Repetition and accumulation" - whether in Brown, Anderson or Schneemann - "become a way of creating suspense and drama, the knowledge in the spectator that any sense of the whole is contingent and must inevitably be submitted to revision."
Sayre's systematic approach draws on a series of notions from poststructuralism, chief among them the disappearance of the author, the polyvalence of meaning, and the fugitive presence of both the art object and the world it purportedly represents. The philosophical analogue to the disruption of painting as an autonomous object is the deconstruction of the phenomenological stability of the object as an empirical category.
Here, however, Sayre begins to get into trouble. While an adaptation of these notions is reasonable enough for the purposes of a description of the work he surveys, Sayre's use of such poststructuralist categories is exceedingly literal; it betokens an ultimate misunderstanding of poststructuralism's methods, a misunderstanding which becomes particularly evident in Sayre's overestimation of certain of the avant-garde practices he praises, and in his inability to see that what he claims to be a historically new stance in art - i.e., its performative aspect, its emphasis on process, its undecidability - is really little more than the normative epistemological condition of all art, albeit one that postmodernism makes exceptionally overt. The largely pedagogical cast of postmodern art does indeed suggest that its deconstructive dimension is in some measure quite real. Surely Site, for example, puts Manet's Olympia into an obvious relation to historical processes of labor and gender construction that are left unstated in the Manet painting itself. This does not, however, mean that such processes are not at work in Olympia, only that they are not made explicit there.
Surely, then, Sayre's argument is really about emphasis and overtness, not about an altogether historical occurrence in which a material, "postmodern" change in the status of the art object presages something entirely new. The object, as Stanley Fish remarks of texts, has never been there in the first place, no matter the historical moment or the state of critical opinion; objects of any kind are always the construction of an interpretative community. Sayre, however, seems to think that a text must be materially disrupted for this kind of observation to be true.
Sayre's unquestioning acceptance of the tacky authenticism of the Language poets is the surest evidence that neither Warhol nor Jacques Derrida has really sunk in. While it is in some sense a graphic counterpart to postmodern performance artistry that Sayre nicely details elsewhere in his book, Language poetry, from Charles Olson to Allen Ginsberg, Jerome Rothenberg, and David Antin, is by no means another example of the deconstructive epistemology shared by Warhol and Derrida, even though Sayre astonishingly mentions Derrida and Ginsberg in the same breath. No two figures could be more at odds; Ginsberg's is probably the consummate instance of works based on the precise kinds of myths about language (particularly the "presence" it can supposedly embody) that Derrida deconstructs.
Such bungling points to a larger and more perplexing problem: the curious misapprehension of "theory" that Sayre, like so many teachers and critics today, equates with postmodernism. Sayre's reading of Roland Barthes in a chapter at the books' close is so deeply misconceived as to render Barthes's work almost unrecognizable; among other things, it maintains critical categories such as "subjective" and "novelistic" that Barthes himself rendered obsolete. Sayre apparently needs the literal maneuvers of the Language poets to tell him that there is no such thing as a poem already in place, and the graphic absurdities of Rothenberg's or Antin's work to assure him that a poem is a porous and unstable semiotic field. He even needs the Language poets to show him (erroneously, by the way) how to open a poem "to the contingencies of history, time and place." Yet Paul de Man's fame rests precisely on his demonstration 20 years ago in "The Rhetoric of Temporality" that it was 19th-century Romanticism which opened an irreparable and actually constitutive gap between discourse and experience. Romantic poets bespeak this play of presence and absence perhaps even more eloquently than the photograph, whose epistemological dubieties do not, by contrast, mystify Sayre at all in his discussion of, say, Cindy Sherman or William Wegman.
What Sayre should have learned from the "theory" he endorses and claims to use is that the conditions he describes as postmodern are not historically new at all; rather, they are most rewardingly viewed as an amplification of the normative conditions that attend any cultural production once it is read and studied in the light of semiotic, deconstructive and reception-oriented approaches. Sayre overvalues the historical newness of what postmodern art does because his misreading of "theory" prevents him from seeing that what "theory" describes - the instability of texts, for example, or the lack of ontological ground in any semiotic system - are difficulties that assail culture throughout history. Postmodernism is, as Sayre himself says, really an extended pedagogical strategy that makes these difficulties literal, and that thereby transforms postmodern art into a form of criticism and teaching. Since postmodernism characteristically goes out of its way to vex its own integrity as a practice, and since it offers by definition no object about which to speak directly, it must be seen, after all, as a myth. Thus a particular irony - a distinctively postmodern one, if you wish - attends any critical attempt to address postmodernism. To devise an appropriate means of negotiating this encounter requires an irony greater than any Sayre himself has achieved.
Originally published in Art in America, December, 1990.