Tuesday, March 4, 2008
Modernism And Its Discontents
This appeared in the January-February 2007 issue of Biblio.
MODERNISM: THE LURE OF HERESY Peter Gay
Finding myself with a little time to spare during a recent visit to London, I embarked upon a quick stroll around Bloomsbury Square hoping to come across the former residence of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, as well as those of her contemporaries, Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington. Of course, I didn’t bump into even one: what I realised later was that their houses are, instead, located in Gordon Square, a few minutes’ walk away.
Those hunting for the presence of Modernism nowadays seem fated to meet with similar frustration. That age of avant-garde experimentation, the desire to “make it new” and the obsessive urge to break with traditional forms has been replaced by a time when art is an investment opportunity, literary magazines and independent bookstores are dwindling and serious composers and conductors cater to a meagre few. These are the fragments we shore among our ruin.
To look back on the Modernists, then, may seem an exercise in fruitless nostalgia. But, as cultural theorist Peter Gay’s sweeping new book reminds us, their accomplishments can be counted as among the foremost aesthetic achievements in art, music, architecture and writing, with an influence that ripples out till today. Rather than an exhaustive study, he says, “I have looked for what Modernists had in common, and the social conditions that would foster or dishearten them”, with selective choices to exemplify his arguments, based on the fact that “the one thing that all modernists had indisputably in common was the conviction that the untried is markedly superior to the familiar, the rare to the ordinary, the experimental to the routine”.
For Gay, Modernism starts with Baudelaire in the mid-1800s and terminates around the time that Andy Warhol displayed his infamous Brillo Box in New York in 1964. This latter event, he says, brought about “the death of art” by forcing people to confront uncomfortable questions: “What is a work of art? How do you distinguish between one of them and the rest of creation?”
For the bulk of the book, Gay focuses on the disciplines of painting, sculpture, fiction, poetry, music, architecture, design and film, discussing the life and work of those such as Joyce, Woolf, Proust, Munch, Cezanne, Picasso, Stravinsky, Griffith, Eisenstein, Welles, Chaplin, Le Corbusier and Van der Rohe – to name only a few. To go through the roster of such names – and muse on their determination to flaunt convention allied with principled self-scrutiny -- is to realise once again that nowadays, there may be many good works of art, but there are no great ones.
The virtue of Gay’s book lies not in provocative theses or bold new assessments, but in being a study of the movement across disciplines, shedding light on commonalities and unifying themes. (Notably, the art of photography is excluded; but, as Gay has pointed out elsewhere, one of the reasons for this is that he was unable to provide adequate linkages from this form to the others.)
Gay is, of course, an arch, unabashed Freudian, as he reminds us again in his preface. His desired perspective, then, is to look at the causal forces operating on the Modernists’ minds, the activity of the unconscious and the interplay between libido and aggression. Which is a vaulting ambition he sometimes loses sight of in attempting to capture Modernism and its discontents, with all its nuances and vagaries.
One of the criticisms the work of the avant-garde has always had to face is that its techniques and modes are alienating for the man on the street and, as such, such artists were nothing more than a bunch of effete snobs. As a comment, this is singularly ill-judged: today’s baffling modern mode is often tomorrow’s commonplace. Stockhausen may have had limited appeal to the general public but his compositions inspired the Beatles and Pink Floyd; not many outside the classroom read Joyce’s Ulysses nowadays, but the stream-of-consciousness technique that he streamlined finds echoes in the pulpiest airport thriller; the first reaction to Picasso’s affair with cubes was one of dismayed incomprehension, but drawing rooms of today’s nouveau riche are filled with pallid imitations. This is even more apt when it comes to the art of cinema: to take just one example, techniques such as depth-of-field and extreme close-up are visible on the screens of every multiplex today, yet, when Orson Welles pioneered them in Citizen Kane, they were seen as radical departures from convention.
This argument, of course, is linked to the receptivity of audiences over time, and Gay refers more than once to what he calls the “three publics”: the “barbarian” masses; those superior to the multitudes but reluctant to spend time and effort to understand the avant-garde; and finally, a small group that’s open to innovation. In this context, it’s illuminating to read Gay’s account of the commerce between art dealers, critics, museum administrators and the champions of art for art’s sake: “Businessmen of culture offered and sold artistic products, whether dramas, drawings or volumes of poetry, and with the same gesture advanced the aesthetic cultivation of the buying public”.
The Modernists’ battle with the smugness of the bourgeoisie is almost the stuff of legend now – but Gay also vividly brings out how the social and economic conditions of the time favoured the rise of the experimental. It was, after all, a time of unprecedented prosperity, increasing urbanisation, growing literacy and the questioning of hitherto unchallenged percepts of Christianity.
Gay’s admiration for the Modernists isn’t unblinking; he does devote space to those he terms the “anti-modern modernists”, by which he means those who were drawn to anti-Semitism (Eliot), Italian fascism (Pound), anti-feminism (Strindberg) and Hitler’s Nazis (Hamsun), among others. But, instead of speculating on whether Modernism, in its resolute hunt for new styles, could be psychologically allied to forms of political absolutism, he concludes: “The question of why so many modernists were drawn to regimes that were sick parodies of the modernist quest for transcendence and absolutes is unanswerable”.
My ill-mapped jaunt around Bloomsbury was unsuccessful in discovering some of Modernism’s landmarks; Gay’s visit to Bilbao, Spain, in the autumn of 2000, however, provided him with a pointer to Modernism’s continuing influence. “In a word, I was overwhelmed,” he writes, talking of his visit to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum. “I was not awed into silence but took pleasure from the first from the wealth and elegance of the forms that rose up around me” Gehry apart, Gay also holds up Marquez as an exemplar of late-stage Modernism, with particular reference to his use of magical realism and ambiguity in One Hundred Years of Solitude. This, however, comes across as a trifle disingenuous. No-one is decrying the merits of Marquez, but there are many others who have been as significantly iconoclastic. Take Cortazar. Take Borges. Take Saramago.
Be that as it may, many feel that Modernism’s achievements seem at present too close to us to form any reasonable, objective judgment about their aims and continuing influence. A pointer to this is the response to the exhibition titled ‘Designing a New World 1914 - 1939’ at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in early 2006. This brought forth strong reactions for and against the movement -- as well as record crowds in attendance. “They were the neo-cons of 20th century art,” fumed Simon Jenkins at the time, while Terence Conran was more complimentary: “Modernism is the most exciting exhibition I have ever seen in London. It means a huge amount to me personally”.
As for the future, it could well be that the rising ride of nationalism – often couched in religious terms – and the shifting of the world’s axis towards Asian nations will give rise to a new form of Romanticism in the arts, conceivably an exalted version of medievalism. It’s only from the ashes of this second Romantic Movement that a subsequent Modernism will be permitted to arise.
Then again, perhaps we’re all mistaken in looking for Modernist attitudes nowadays in books, on canvases, in marble and in metal. In this age of information, the heirs to that fin de siecle artistic revolution could well be among those writing software codes, directing music videos, devising computer games and – heaven help us – composing mobile phone novels.