Duel is not a ‘gimmick’

In the late 1980s, Joost Zwagerman’s (1963) debut novel Gimmick[1] caused a sensation in press and public as a novel that defined the Zeitgeist and spoke for a generation, the postmodern generation.  Recently he wrote Duel[2]  (2010), a shorter novel published as the traditional gift of the annual week-of-books, which can be considered as a sequel to Gimmick. Both novels are set in the Amsterdam art scene and both novels are structured around a group of young artists.  The main differences, however, follow from the approaches to making and thinking art displayed by the artists in these (not-so-)fictional worlds, twenty years apart. Whereas the protagonists of Gimmick indeed represent the worldviews, attitudes and practices of the postmoderns, the characters in Duel seem to embody the metamodern generation, and tap into the metamodern sensibility.

As Vermeulen & Van den Akkers’ Notes on metamodernism argues, postmodernism is not any longer the dominant paradigm in arts. Over the past ten years or so, the emergence of a metamodern structure of feeling altered the mentality of artists (though it has been anticipated by a diverse group of artists from the mid 1990s onwards), resulting in works of art that can no longer be explained by means of a postmodern vernacular. Contemporary artists, in fact, recycle (i.e. put to new use) both modernist strategies and postmodern tactics by continuously oscillating between the modern and the postmodern, yet at the same time move beyond them.[3] The metamoderns seem to speak with the words:

I know that what I do certainly already has been done by someone else, or that it perhaps is ridiculous, but that does not mean that I may not try, and that I do not take it seriously.[4]

It could be argued therefore that metamodernism is born from two paradigms and that the metamodern generation is raised bilingually.[5] On the one hand it speaks a fanatic, activist or naive (read: modern) language, on the other hand it speaks a tongue that is moderate, pragmatic or informed (read: postmodern). The metamodern generation wants to voice its concerns truthfully and authentically and sincerely, while knowing that there is no such thing as truth, authenticity is a construction and sincerity could only be smirked at – yet it does so nonetheless.[6][7] The questions remains, however, if and to what extent the shift between (post)modernism and metamodernism  and the specific grammar of the metamodern discourse can be observed in Zwagerman’s novels Gimmick and Duel.

Gimmick’s story is situated in a multitude of places – New York, Tenerife, Candelaria and Alkmaar. However, it mainly takes place in Disco Gimmick, a club in Amsterdam where the main characters often meet. And whereas the year is 1989, the heyday of postmodernism, the story is told through a concatenation of flashbacks and flashforwards, appearing in no particular order. The time and space of Gimmick’s fictional world are, in other words, highly fragmented and eclectic and arbitrary – a postmodern “tangle”, as the artist Walter van Raamsdonk, aka ‘Raam’, described disco Gimmick.[8] The protagonist’s world is reflected in their art works. Consider, for example, the following description of Hansmaarten Stoop’s art in Gimmick:

 Stoop constructs meaning through experimenting with photo-collages and manages to accomplish that an appeal is done to a diffuse understanding of reality.[9]

Playful Eclecticism – in addition to pastiche – also seems to define the interior of Disco Gimmick, the “meeting place of a group ‘postmodernist’ artists”[10], consisting of Raam, Groen and Eckhardt amongst others: “art-deco, high-tech, minimal baroque,  […] a disco with a hodgepodge of interiors.”[11] Of course the randomness never seems to end, as Raam observes:

 Twenty canvasses with crucifixes painted on them are hanging on the wall […] Each painting shows another crucifix, each of which with another touch. A neo-expressionistic crucifix, a Mondrian crucifix, a crucifix build out of Warhol’s Campbell soup cans, a crucifix of TV-monitors – that kind of work.[12]

These paintings are obviously postmodern: pastiches of modern styles, allusions to (allusions to) consumer culture, so many breaks in the signifying chain, superficial and meaningless.[13] Yet these gestures fit the artists populating Gimmick’s world extremely well, as we learn from the following conversation between Groen and Raam:

 Do you want something with your paintings, Walter? Do you want something? I mean, do you have a message? Forget about it. There is nothing to overthrow, to provoke, to revolt against.[’][14]

And, the conversation continues:

 [‘Its] about suppressing every missionary zeal. Everything has been done, and that too is said at least twice by everybody. Everybody knows everything and those who know nothing, still know too much.[‘][15]

Eventually, he  concludes:

 [‘]In the end we pursue the same things in art, you, Groen and me [Eckhardt], we have the same… yes, we have the same, and I can’t think of any other word – we have the same idéáls.’ I can’t remember to ever have spoken with Eckhardt about ideals. Though I vaguely recall him saying in the Gimmick that ideals no longer exist. ‘That’s precisely it! shouts Eckhardt as he lifts his arms. ‘We understand that ideals are no longer possible in art!’ […] ‘We are creating a new imagery, Raam! Ideals are dead! And we […] understand that the future is a future of annexation, plagiarism, copying if necessary.[16]

These fragments give insight into how Zwagerman’s characters think about art – it’s a gimmick. Apparently they are convinced that ideals are no longer possible in the art, not under postmodernism. Hence Eckhardt’s way of pronouncing the word ideal - with an acute accent – making it clear that such a thing as an “ideal” – wink, wink – cannot be taken seriously. Of course the notion of ‘gimmick’ could not be more appropriate for the postmoderns. When works of Raam, Groen and Eckhardt are being exhibited in the The Amsterdam Dream, the president of the Stedelijk remarks:

 This new generation of artists deserves to be exhibited in the Stedelijk. The ironic title of this group exhibition shows how elusive and full of momentum this generation is profiling itself. Irony, cynicism, the curse of postmodern thinking, the scattering of achievements – The Amsterdam Dream gives insight into young visual artists and their struggle to give answers to the issues and problems of the times.[17]

This is an important observation. Artists – fictional or factual – always react to and reflect on the issues and problems of their times and, more importantly, they are always living and working within a certain structure of feeling[18] Whereas in 1989, the year Gimmick is set, the structure of feeling was postmodern, today it could be called post-postmodern or, as argued by the authors on this webzine, metamodern.[19]

Again, this is represented by Zwagerman’s work. In Duel ­– set in the post-2000s –  it becomes clear that postmodernism has been replaced by a new discourse about the arts. The director of the Hollands, a museum of modern art, gets involved in a case of a missing artwork when Mark Rothko’s Untitled no. 18 is stolen and replaced by a falsification. The perpetrator is the young artist Emma Duiker, who wants to give ‘Rothko’ back to the people by exhibiting the original Untitled no. 18. at the most common of places, for the most ordinary of people. Whereas the postmoderns would draw a moustache on Rothko’s painting, serialize it or make a pastiche out of its stylistic merits, Emma wants to be as truthful as possible to the original by painstakingly copying it, while she also seems to be convinced that art still has the potential to emancipate, educate or, simply, lift up people.

Duel opens with the preparations for an exhibition in the Hollands. During a meeting to determine which artists are potentially suitable to include in the exhibition, it becomes clear that the group of postmodern artists described in Gimmick is written off:

 Twenty young Dutch artists – one could not be older than thirty – should ‘enter dialogue’ with a modern-classical masterpiece from the collection of the Hollands. Someone from the staff made an objection against that choice. Some cracks from the generation that was about fifty were consequently put aside: Walter van Raamsdonk, Massimo Groen, Theo Eckhardt. Were those names not indissoluble connected to the Hollands, if only for the by now legendary exhibition The American Dream of the late eighties?  The plea for the midcareer artist was futile. Those artists were already too arrived, and would saying goodbye to these veterans not contribute to the reputation of the Hollands as a dynamic art laboratory?[20]

Eventually a group of young and upcoming artists, whereof Emma Duiker is of most importance, is chosen. The first time she is introduced in the story it immediately becomes clear that her art should be situated in a structure of feeling other than the postmodern one:

 She appeared to copy paintings of contemporary master painters to the smallest detail, always with agreement from the artists in question, who sometimes even helped her with information about practical matters like type of paint, impasto, pigments, sort of canvasses. Occasionally Emma Duiker used x-ray- and microscopy research used by restaurateurs. She made so called doubles of works from Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Jörg Immerdorff, Cy Twombly and others of the world’s finest artists. The artistic purpose was neither postmodernist buffoonery nor forgery, but the revealing of the history of the origin of an artwork, as Emma Duiker herself called it. In a showcase standing close to such a copied work, Duiker displayed all sorts of documents – letters, restoration reports – and even used pencils, tubes and pigments. This underlined once more that she did not copy out of sensationalism, but out of fascination for source research, crafts, the technical and prosaic aspects of contemporary masterpieces.[21]

Duiker seems not to be drawn to postmodern parody or pastiche, conceptualism or irony, but to sincere hommage, respect for traditions and craftswo/manship. If anything she seems to be fully committed to her art; there is no room for gimmicks Unsurprisingly, however, the director of the Hollands, Verhooff, seems to be at a loss as to what to make of her work:

 Verhooff did not exactly knew what to think of the copy-desire of Emma Duiker – and that immediately pleased him. That the ones that were being ‘copied’ agreed to be copied also encouraged his interest. It seemed Verhooff a great achievement for a Dutch artist to get in touch with artists of such magnitude. An unfashionable love for crafts could also be perceived if you observed her work with a benevolent eye. Sole emotion flickered in the margin of his gaze, trained by thousands of works of art. To copy, as she did, with addition of all the information about materials and techniques, indicated an unsuspected egolessness, op to the point of being sacrificial…[22]

Duiker, as so many young artists in real life, once more attempts to make a sincere statement, once more seeks for authenticity, though she is aware that these positions have been problematised, if not pronounced dead, by previous generations.[23] She is neither ruthlessly deconstructing authenticity nor simply imitating dead styles, but emphasizing their authenticity by reconstructing the process of stylization:

 [‘]Precisely the fact that Untitled is truly anonymous provides the spectator with an authentic experience […] And it shall be the last. This project is not repeatable. Then it will become a gimmick. This is the work of my life. I have been looking forward to this for years. I will change art with this one project.’[24]

Apparently Duiker has had enough of the postmodern ways of doing, making and thinking art. In some sort of a run-up to a plea about art’s possibilities, she critically observes:

 [‘]An inflatable rabbit [Jeff Koons] is art. Two starving sisters [L.A. Raeven] who exhibit their anorectic, boney bodies is: exciting art! A girl [Tinkebell] who skins a cat and makes a purse of it: art[’][25]

And it does not end here. She proceeds to explain her ideology:

 ’[I] draw the most extreme of consequences […] I take the whole of modernism and postmodernism down of its base. Why should everything begin in the studio or in education and end in our current cathedrals, the museums? Why must we as half slaves be chased into those museums to obediently observe masterpieces? Is that not unbearable authoritarian and feudal? Art has become a toy for the rich. The super-rich buy the most expensive works, which thereafter disappear in private collections […] Art is not meant for that.’[26]

Especially the outcry that modernism and postmodernism need be taken of off their bases indicates that a new attitude (read: a metamodern attitude) has taken root amongst young artist. Verhooff wonders if such an attitude could have existed in the recent history of art:

 Would Emma Duiker had the opportunity to make art fifty or sixty years ago? […] Someone wrapped monumental buildings [Jean-Claude Christo]. Someone scattered dirt, felt and feathers [Joseph Beuys]. Someone put a shark in formaldehyde [Damien Hirst]. Someone moved her unmade, contaminated bed from bedroom to museum hall [Tracey Emin]. […] And then someone made a masterpiece disappear. Emma Duiker struck gold[’].[27]

Duiker struck gold, as Verhooff concludes, and I must say that I agree with him. It testifies of a new, exciting attitude that indicates a new chapter in the history of art; a chapter in which both modern strategies and postmodern tactics are being applied, so as to make it possible to surpass them. A conclusion that – in words similar to those of Van den Akker and Vermeulen, Verhooff, too, seems to make:

 ’Lady Duiker was an utopian, Dadaist, postmodernist, anarchist, performance artist and an incurable romantic combined […] Emma Duiker had converted [Verhooff] to idealism, without shouting this off the rooftops – on the contrary’[28]

Apparently Verhooff can no longer deny the structure of feeling that is present amongst young artists and – as all characters in Duel are invented by the author – we may conclude that the same can be said for Zwagerman. Although in the end the discussed writings remain prose, his writings can be perceived as a well-informed representation – or reflection – of recent developments in aesthetics and culture. As the titles of the two novels suggest, then, art should no longer be conceived of as a ‘gimmick’ but as a ‘duel’, a war of positions, taking place between modern strategies, postmodern tactics and a metamodern generation attempting to move beyond these worn out categories. If anything, this duel is not a gimmick.


[1] Zwagerman, J. (1989) Gimmick, Amsterdam: Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers.

[2] Zwagerman, J. (2010) Duel, Amsterdam/Antwerpen, Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers.

[3] T. Vermeulen & Robin van den Akker (2010) ‘Notes on metamodernism’, Journal of Aesthetics Vol. 2.

[4] Twijfel (2011) ‘2011-1-3.pdf (application/pdf-object)’ http://www.twijfel.nu/pdfs/2011-1-3.pdf (17 november 2011).

[5] Twijfel (2011) ‘2011-1-3.pdf (application/pdf-object)’ http://www.twijfel.nu/pdfs/2011-1-3.pdf (17 november 2011).

[6] Twijfel (2011) ‘2011-1-3.pdf (application/pdf-object)’ http://www.twijfel.nu/pdfs/2011-1-3.pdf (17 november 2011).

[7] Twijfel (2011) ‘2011-1-3.pdf (application/pdf-object)’ http://www.twijfel.nu/pdfs/2011-1-3.pdf (17 november 2011).

[8] Hoorcollege “Cultuurtheorie”, Sintobin,T & Vermeulen,T (22 maart 2011), Radboud Universiteit te Nijmegen.

[9] Zwagerman, J. (1989) Gimmick, Amsterdam: Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers: 48.

[10] Zwagerman, J. (1989) Gimmick, Amsterdam: Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers: 25.

[11] Zwagerman, J. (1989) Gimmick, Amsterdam: Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers: 25.

[12] Zwagerman, J. (1989) Gimmick, Amsterdam: Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers: 40.

[13] Hoorcollege “Cultuurtheorie”, Sintobin,T & Vermeulen,T (22 maart 2011), Radboud Universiteit te Nijmegen.

[14] Zwagerman, J. (1989) Gimmick, Amsterdam: Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers: 55.

[15] Zwagerman, J. (1989) Gimmick, Amsterdam: Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers: 57.

[16] Zwagerman, J. (1989) Gimmick, Amsterdam: Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers: 154.

[17] Zwagerman, J. (1989) Gimmick, Amsterdam: Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers: 250.

[18] Hoorcollege “Cultuurtheorie”, Sintobin,T & Vermeulen,T (22 maart 2011), Radboud Universiteit te Nijmegen.

[19] Twijfel (2011) ‘2011-1-3.pdf (application/pdf-object)’ http://www.twijfel.nu/pdfs/2011-1-3.pdf (17 november 2011).

[20] Zwagerman, J. (2010) Duel, Amsterdam/Antwerpen, Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers: 14.

[21] Zwagerman, J. (2010) Duel, Amsterdam/Antwerpen, Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers: 15.

[22] Zwagerman, J. (2010) Duel, Amsterdam/Antwerpen, Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers: 16.

[23] Hoorcollege “Cultuurtheorie”, Sintobin,T & Vermeulen,T (22 maart 2011), Radboud Universiteit te Nijmegen.

[24] Zwagerman, J. (2010) Duel, Amsterdam/Antwerpen, Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers: 36.

[25] Zwagerman, J. (2010) Duel, Amsterdam/Antwerpen, Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers: 32.

[26] Zwagerman, J. (2010) Duel, Amsterdam/Antwerpen, Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers: 34.

[27] Zwagerman, J. (2010) Duel, Amsterdam/Antwerpen, Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers: 55.

[28] Zwagerman, J. (2010) Duel, Amsterdam/Antwerpen, Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers: 60-61.

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Notes on Metamodernism, 2014