There’s an exhibit opening next month at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London entitled “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990.” You’re puzzled, I’m sure, by how a subject as confusing as Postmodernism could relate to a health tip, but it actually does, in a big picture sort of way.
The very idea that when expanding our staff at WholeHealth Chicago I can interview an energy healer or a homeopath without repercussions from colleagues or state licensing agencies is all connected to Postmodernism. You may have read somewhere that Postmodernism was an art movement that no one could quite define, likely because it was more of a cultural shift that affected all of us.
Cultural shifts are best discussed years after they occur. That the upcoming exhibit dates a winding down of Postmodernism at 1990 indicates it pretty much refers back to its explosive years, the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Since postmodern performance artist Lady Gaga was four years old in 1990, this means we’re now enjoying the fruits of a yet-to-be-dubbed era of “Post-Postmodernism.”
But let me explain.
What cultural historians call the Modern Era began approximately in the last decade of the 19th century, mainly in Europe and initially in the arts. These include such familiar names as the French Impressionists, German Expressionists, Futurists, Cubists, Surrealists, and Abstract Expressionists. Novels and poetry shifted from essentially what-happens-next storytelling to interior monologue, time shifts, and even new words/sentence structure, like those in the works of Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Faulkner, Pound, and T.S. Eliot. Architecture, music, ballet all underwent major changes during the Modern Era.
This was also an era of new inventions: the automobile and airplane, radio and television, kitchen appliances and bombs. For medicine, the last third of the Modern Era was like nothing else in history. Physicians developed x rays, surgical techniques, psychoanalysis, antibiotics, and other wonder drugs. Like art, these medical advances came mainly from Europe.
The real problem with the entire Modern Era was a pervasive sense of “I am right, you are wrong–my avant-garde art (music, buildings, literature, medical discoveries) is the only right one.” There was an arrogance, an intolerance for others. Art groups wrote manifestoes, created groups of like-minded thinkers, and excluded outsiders. Of course, governments wrote manifestoes too, as did political parties and professional associations.
Not everything that emerged from all this posturing was good. Somehow the two world wars were distinctly modern, as were a variety of unpleasant “isms” including Nazism, Communism, Fascism, McCarthyism.
Medicine and the Modern Era
The medical profession, flush with the successes of wonder drugs, “brilliant” surgery, and now completely modern, could simply not tolerate dissent. The American Medical Association, working hand-in-glove with state licensing boards, had, by the end of the Modern Era (1950 or thereabouts), virtually wiped out of existence anything we know today as alternative medicine.
In fact the AMA pretty much closed all schools of naturopathic medicine (also called eclectic medicine) and converted the last remaining schools of osteopathy and homeopathy to conventional medical schools. Chiropractic remained the ultimate thorn in their side. As late as the 1950s, a conventional doctor could lose his or her medical license for referring a patient to a chiropractor, and the AMA petitioned mightily to block chiropractor access to Medicare.
The monopoly of conventional medicine ended only after a disaffected AMA employee revealed a plot hatched by the association to destroy chiropractic as a profession. It took a Supreme Court ruling on anti-trust violations to finally get the AMA to ease off chiropractors. However, even into the early 1990s, acupuncturists in many states (including Illinois) could be arrested and jailed as felons for practicing medicine without a license.
Modernism loses its grip
By the 1960s, however, there were too many other voices vying for the world’s attention to allow the self-appointed cultural monoliths of modernism to maintain control of all that sameness. Every new canvas seemed a variation of a Jackson Pollock drip painting, every high-rise office building yet another faceless concrete slab. It was time for a change.
Then, in one cultural bang, the center of art shifted from Europe to the US and within a few years all the disparate voices of art, music, literature, architecture, dance, and yes, even alternative medicine, were allowed cultural legitimacy. The title of a book published last year says it all: Andy Warhol and the Can That Sold the World. If great art could be a series of paintings of identical cans of Campbell’s soup, then anything was allowable. The new buzzword was “eclectic,” a collage of found objects was “in.” Hodgepodge was just fine. The only consistency in what would later be called Postmodernism was inconsistency.
Looking back on that era, my personal favorite Postmodern aha! moment is the album cover of the Beatles’ 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a massive collage containing images of Modernists ranging from Freud, Jung, and Poe plus Postmodernists like Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, William Burroughs, and (appropriately) collage artist Wallace Berman.
To get a good idea of a postmodern artist at work, think of Madonna and her clone Lady Gaga. Although neither is particularly brilliant in any single performance style–certainly Madonna is no great actress, singer, or dancer–she can endlessly change herself, in Madonna’s case from virgin to Marilyn Monroe to Marlene Dietrich, a Nazi, and a material girl. The ultimate shape-shifter.
During the Modern Era, organized religion had become as staid and featureless as any Mies van der Rohe office building from the 1950s. Now organized religion, too, fell victim to Postmodernism, shaken (if temporarily) by a New Age smorgasbord of belief systems that started in the ‘60s with the Beatles and their guru and pretty much fizzled out by ‘90s. Chicago’s famous New Age bookstore, Transitions, closed its doors a few years ago, victim less of internet bookselling than the winding down of Postmodernism.
Alternative practitioners emerge
Then, right in the middle of the New Age movement, alternative medicine practitioners began vying for their turn at legitimacy.
Always dragging its heels, adept at postponing the inevitable, and as hard to change as mainstream religion, conventional medicine waited until the ‘90s to open the door just a crack to allow some “safe” and, to their mind, controllable forms of what they’d dubbed “alternative” medicine.
During these years, I was hired by the AMA to edit an encyclopedia of alternative medicine (a Postmodern act in itself). Starting with Acupuncture and ending with Yoga, well over 100 entries had been developed before the project was canned. Simultaneously, conventional doctors were guardedly recommending such daring alternative therapies as massage, though I clearly recall my suggestion at a hospital staff meeting for bringing infant massage therapy into the hospital nursery being thunderously voted down.
When, in the early ‘90s, I assembled the very first group of more than 30 alternative practitioners in what would eventually become WholeHealth Chicago, I didn’t actually appreciate the similarity of the Beatles’ album to this roomful of homeopaths, herbalists, energy therapists, and acupuncturists. If a cultural critic had said to me, “Wow! How Postmodern,” I would have thought that person nuts.
Andrew Weil, MD, a real alternative medicine pioneer, engineered a substantial truce in this “them-or-us” conflict by encouraging a change in terminology, from “alternative medicine” to “integrative medicine.” With the name change, once-hostile conventional physicians began to seriously investigate the healing potential of homeopathy, Chinese medicine, and energy medicine.
And now, in the 21st century, members of this Postmodern collage of new age religions and alternative therapies no longer need to wave their hands for attention. Most medical schools offer courses in alternative/integrative medicine, most hospitals have integrative medicine divisions, and even if there’s no chiropractor on your doctor’s staff, at least the acupuncturist brought in to help with your post-operative pain won’t be arrested as a felon.
Most physicians themselves have by now sampled chiropractic, acupuncture, and massage. If you want your chiropractor or your acupuncturist to act as your primary care doctor, that’s fine.
You can choose whatever works.
And be well,
David Edelberg, MD