A week ago my friend, Brendan, (the same friend who introduced me to Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin) invited me to see a production of Gertrude Stein’s short play, White Wines, produced by Drew Pisarra at UNDER St. Mark’s. They performed this short, 10-15 minute nonsensical play five times, serving a glass of white wine to match each performance, and by the end of show I felt like—possibly—there was a chance I might’ve actually understood what was going on. But this was tentative. To give you an example of just how difficult Gertrude Stein’s writing is to decipher, here’s the first few lines of the play:
Cunning very cunning and cheap, at that rate a sale is a place to use type writing. Shall we go home.
Cunning, cunning, quite cunning, a block a strange block is filled with choking.
Not too cunning, not cunning enough for wit and a stroke and careless laughter, not cunning enough.
After the play, Brendan pointed out to me how incredible it is that the post-modern world makes such a performance possible. That we could sit for an hour, be presented with a Gertrude Stein play that defies all Victorian convention, and have it be considered a perfectly normal experience, exploring a canonical writer. He sent me an excerpt from the first chapter of Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, explaining how modern art that was once considered “variously ugly, dissonant, obscure, scandalous, immoral, subversive, and generally ‘antisocial'” has now been institutionalized and accepted into Western society:
Consider, for example, the powerful alternative position that postmodernism is itself little more than one more stage of modernism proper (if not, indeed, of the even older romanticism); it may indeed be conceded that all the features of postmodernism I am about to enumerate can be detected, full-blown, in this or that preceding modernism (including such astonishing genealogical precursors as Gertrude Stein, Raymond Roussel, or Marcel Duchamp, who may be considered outright postmodernists, avant la lettre). What has not been taken into account by this view, however, is the social position of the older modernism, or better still, its passionate repudiation by an older Victorian and post-Victorian bourgeoisie for whom its forms and ethos are received as being variously ugly, dissonant, obscure, scandalous, immoral, subversive, and generally “antisocial.” It will be argued here, however, that a mutation in the sphere of culture has rendered such attitudes archaic. Not only are Picasso and Joyce no longer ugly, they now strike us, on the whole, as rather “realistic,” and this is the result of a canonisation and academic institutionalisation of the modern movement generally that can be to the late 1950s. This is surely one of the most plausible explanations for the emergence of postmodernism itself, since the younger generation of the 1960s will now confront the formerly oppositional modern movement as a set of dead classics, which “weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” as Marx once said in a different context…. As for the postmodern revolt against all that, however, it must equally be stressed that its own offensive features—from obscurity and sexually explicit material to psychological squalor and overt expressions of social and political defiance, which transcend anything that might have been imagined at the most extreme moments of high modernism—no longer scandalise anyone and are not only received with the greatest complacency but have themselves become institutionalised and are at one with the official or public culture of Western society.
There’s an awesome story about John Cage and Gertrude Stein in Cage’s forward to Silence. When assigned to write an essay about the Lake poets at Pomona College, John Cage wrote in the manner of Gertrude Stein, “irrelevantly and repetitiously,” and got an A. The second time he did it he was failed. I guess the same could be said for John Cage. Because we live in a post-modern world where modernism has become canonized and revered, it is possible to see a performance of 4’33 and have it be a socially acceptable event.
But, as Jameson goes on to say, when the modern becomes canonized, and revolutionary art becomes acceptable, does our new lack of a dominant cultural logic means that “genuine difference [cannot] be measured or assessed?” I’m unsure how this line of theory, which is mostly literary, translates into music, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.