Hijack Nation: America’s Past-Postmodernism

“America ducks the question of origins; it cultivates no origin or mythical authenticity; it has no past and no founding truth. Having known no primitive accumulation of time, it lives in a perpetual present. Having seen no slow, centuries-long accumulation of a principle of truth, it lives in perpetual simulation, in a perpetual present of signs.” -Jean Baudrillard, “Utopia Achieved,” America (Verso, 1988).

Kunath, Lonely Are The Free (Pasadena dreamer), 2011

Modernism has origins in the Old World, but postmodenism is the American way, letting go of structure, giving in to abundance, and sampling all of it. The superficial mixing of genuine meaning has been a prevailing style. Some speculate we have reached post-postmodenism, but perhaps we have a past-postmodernism, in which we treat postmodernism as America’s authentic past, continually reflecting on previous reflections. Nowhere is past-postmodernism more evident than the last stop on the American dream, Los Angeles. This month, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, hosts an exhibition of German appropriation artist Friedrich Kunath. Kunath’s talent with form and color is supplemented by a playful though broken sampling of American culture. His works are typically built with masterful illustrations, topped with nostalgic cartoons, pop culture images, and phrases of misheard song lyrics. Kunath’s work reveals the confused beauty of American culture, and suggests that truth breaks through misunderstanding.

Kunath’s mystification of America is a much more widespread condition.  While the Smithsonian and Met give linear histories of Americana, our country has actually developed as a hijack nation, founded by runaways who seized this territory and have not stopped haphazardly amassing confiscated identities. While there were unique moral values of the founding fathers, the ensuing culture was made from many sources. “Hijack” is the exact sense, to take over something and change its direction, what we have done with countless signs by re-routing their context and meaning. While some dismiss American culture as nonsense, Baudrillard suggested it is inaccessible to outsiders, much more complex and absolutely compelling: “It is this culture which, the world over, fascinates those very people who suffer most at its hands, and it does so through the deep, insane conviction that it has made all their dreams come true.” (77) Los Angeles and Disney are the dream makers. To foreigners like Kunath, their appeal is not only in the iconic movies and colorful cartoons, but in American naïveté. America is a young nation that has distributed its synthetic culture in a childlike, virtually unedited way. Other nations, built on centuries of grave, hierarchical selection, are amused by our instant Americana, in part because it includes the rest of the world. But it also imposes on the rest of the world with cultural imperialism. The comparison to the Romans is often made, that America hijacks what it wants from everyone, perhaps validated through immigration, claiming that everything can be American and that the American way is for everyone. The crux of Kunath’s art is hijacking the hijackers, and perhaps unintentionally exposing American vulnerability.

Kunath, Misadventures (A Pirate Looks at Forty), 2012

Political and religious takeovers are different than cultural methods. But hijacking culture is hardly innocent, even if it is simply seizing Jiminy Cricket. Americans seize the world and present it back in a brighter, more friendly, commercialized way. Kunath appropriates Americana and presents it back in a dystopian way that implies a dark side of postmodernism, even using American vibrancy against itself. Kunath’s work reveals the reality of postmodernism: everything is out of context though instantly familiar, and nothing is fixed. Unfortunately it means that everything is up for grabs and meaningful, because nothing means anything anyway. This makes it difficult to decipher what has lasting value. In prior centuries, the meta-narratives of the Church and State gave a sense of lasting significance. Now in the impetuous free for all, we are left to our own devices to hunt for the truth or make a semblance out of a song.

Baby It’s Cold Inside (Summer Version), 2012

And what of the original and masterful American creators? The songwriters, the illustrators, the filmmakers, the authors and artists who refuse to sample? These unique voices compete with a media machine that unfortunately privileges creative samplers with a past-postmodern style that mirrors back to media what it has already put out there. In Kunath, we can observe original truth however in the misheard lyrics such as above, “Baby It’s Cold Inside.” In theology, it is understood that truth comes through God’s word. Scripture always communicates truth, meaning that any error is not in the text but in our misunderstanding.  By contrast, in Kunath’s broken song lyrics, the error is in the text, and the truth is gleaned in the misunderstanding, a moment of original beauty generated by not sampling the original.

Kunath, Famous Last Words, 2012

There is with art always a question of iconoclasm. Scripture commands we make no images of any of God’s creation on heaven or earth. In a way, samplers are not making images of God’s creations as much as man made creations that often refer back to nothing seen on earth (yet idols of ancient times were similarly made). For Baudrillard, who called himself an iconoclast, the potential of art was to ultimately show us nothing. In the final work of his exhibition, Kunath presents Famous Last Words (2012), depicting a curtain and ”nothing.” To escape postmodernism, we could return to modernism and Le Courbusier’s command to always “start again from zero.” The early modernists were exhausted by the repetitive mix of classicism, baroque, rococo, surrounding them, that they had seen too many times. Perhaps this is the needed desperation for change we feel when we see more of Jiminy Cricket. Entangled in the icons of Americana, Kunath now lives in Los Angeles. His exhibition continues until October 27, 2012. More information here.

Rachel K. Ward is author of All for Nothing (Atropos, 2010). Visit her daily blog here and follow at Twitter here.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/benjamin.lee.182940 Benjamin Lee

    In many ways this description of Kunath’s mystification of America could also be directed at the American Church, particularly among many free-church evangelicals. And the liturgical renewal among these congregations (as well as the appeal of the emergent movement) is due in part because of “needed desperation for change” from the culture of a “hijack nation, founded by runaways who seized this territory and have not stopped haphazardly amassing confiscated identities.”

    However, if we are not careful we might be doing the very activity we are trying to get away from – sampling histories, cultures, practices not originally our own. Even worse we could be operating in a hijacked church, “founded by runaways who seized this territory and have not stopped haphazardly amassing confiscated identities.”

    Even those who leave the “free” church in order to be confirmed in the Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican church in order to be more grounded in tradition are still fated to be free because they chose to go there, and at any moment they could choose to go somewhere else and still call themselves Christian.

    I particularly like how this article places the emphasis on the individual or community’s control over other cultures, which is demonstrated by the reworking and recycling of cultural artifacts. Perhaps the church’s response to this past-postmodern condition is to become the image of iconoclasm. That is to say, the image that is being broken is our own past-postmodern image of control and manipulation. We allow ourselves and our congregations to be the artwork
    that is molded, reworked, and recycled.

    The article ends by noting how Baudrillard believes the potential of art was to ultimately show us nothing. Aristotle has argued that art is an imitation of life. With regards to current context, both seem to be correct.

  • Rachel

    Benjamin, thank you for your comments. I appreciate the direction you are taking these ideas. Many young non-denominational churches display past-postmodern tendencies, rehashing secular communication strategies for example. Iconoclasm, which is tied to legalism, takes a stance of refusal. Living without images would be almost impossible for anyone today though there are those who chose to do it. But the essence of idolatry is not only the form of secular images, but the priority they are given over creation. Many young churches attempt to appear more marketable and friendly by putting image over message unfortunately.