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Cultural revolution

In dance, music, fiction, painting, and architecture, modernists strove to 'make it new'

Email|Print| Text size + By James T. Kloppenberg
December 2, 2007

Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond
By Peter Gay
Norton, 610 pp., illustrated, $35

Modernism defies definition, yet we cannot get along without the term. By general agreement, modernism in literature and the arts began in the late 19th century and ended in the 1960s. Peter Gay is not so sure it's over. Neither am I.

If guardians of 19th-century culture earnestly sought to reestablish the order and authority challenged by earlier generations of revolutionaries and romantics, then modernists lampooned not only the ideal of transcendence through art but also the idea of ideals.

Perhaps the most-often-quoted line concerning the origins of modernism comes from a 1924 lecture given by Virginia Woolf, who proclaimed that "on or about December 1910, human character changed." Provocative in its vagueness as much as its hyperbole, Woolf's statement was pointing toward the rich potential released in modernist explorations of consciousness, explorations that continue into the 21st century.

Over the past five decades, Gay has written landmark histories of the Enlightenment, Victorian culture, and Freudianism. "Modernism" is as ambitious as any of his books, ranging across literature, painting, architecture, music, drama, dance, design, and film. After conceding the impossibility of a comprehensive history of so many different genres, Gay identifies two distinctive characteristics of modernism.

First, modernists self-consciously attempted, in the phrase of Ezra Pound, to "make it new," to reject prevailing standards of propriety and methods of expression and embrace heretical ideas and experimental techniques. Second, modernists' commitment to "self-scrutiny" led them to explore previously undiagnosed dimensions of subjectivity, including the fuzzy lines between love and hate, sex and death.

Modernism defies quick summary because it includes a vast cast of fascinating characters. Charles Baudelaire, Edouard Manet, and Oscar Wilde open Gay's account by thumbing their nose at convention. The self-conscious avant-garde he examines allied with one another only in their rebelliousness. Painters such as Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and Vasili Kandinsky modified and eventually jettisoned representation. Novelists Woolf, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Franz Kafka probed interiority to unprecedented depths. Composers Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, and John Cage dispensed with conventional scales, harmonies, and even sound.

Choreographers Mary Wigman, Doris Humphrey, and Martha Graham rejected ballet and launched a revolution in dance. Alfred Jarry inspired the antirationalist dramatic experiments of Dada and surrealism. Modernists such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Walter Gropius challenged architectural standards and dispensed with decoration on behalf of new, often machine-inspired, forms of clarity. Finally, filmmakers from D. W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein to the auteurs of Italian and French cinema harnessed technical experiments to advance unconventional ideas and toy with viewers' too-conventional expectations.

As that litany suggests, Gay's discussions range widely, and readers will not agree with all of his judgments. But the book shows the varieties of modernism, why audiences so often found it shocking, and why the work of so many of its pioneers has endured.

Discussing Proust's "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu" ("Remembrance of Things Past"), Gay highlights a theme either ignored in treatments of modernists' iconoclasm or made numbingly familiar through ritual references to Marcel's madeleine. Involuntary memories, occasioned by simple experiences such as the feel of paving stones under one's feet or starched napkins on one's lips, can deliver the tenderness of a grandmother's touch or a loved one's glance, overpowering emotions that pierce sentimentality to reveal the most compelling dimensions of life and love. Many modernists sought to shock and satirize. Yet they also employed techniques of fragmentation and disorientation for other purposes. Their ability to evoke the poignancy of beauty - think of Molly Bloom's closing soliloquy in "Ulysses," Constantin Brancusi's "Bird in Space," Graham's "Lamentation," or, most exquisitely, Proust's floods of emotion - is a dimension of modernism not to be forgotten.

Gay demonstrates modernists' noisy disagreements about everything from their own work to politics, religion, and the bourgeois patrons they claimed to loathe but often courted. If August Strindberg and T. S. Eliot were particularly notorious for their reactionary cultural proclamations, they were hardly atypical. Modernists' revulsion for the status quo propelled them in multiple directions. Gay makes clear why the movement should not be characterized as progressive or democratic. Although many modernists escaped from totalitarianism - many (like Gay himself) exiled to the cultural wasteland they expected to find in America - others remained to endure or even to celebrate Nazi, Soviet, or Fascist regimes.

All readers will learn something new from Gay's exhaustive overview, but many will also quibble with his choices (what makes George Balanchine a modernist?) and his inevitable omissions. His judgment that "Americans joined the battle" and "began to take an active part in cosmopolitan modernism" only after World War II is especially problematic. Americans played a much larger role in the earlier stages of modernism than Gay recognizes.

Consider the notorious Armory show of 1913, long considered the first major exhibition of modernist art held in the United States, which showed that modernism in America generated large audiences as well as furious denunciations. Kenyon Cox, an accomplished American artist and critic trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, expressed the genteel refinement of his generation. "Believing as I do," Cox proclaimed, "that there are still commandments in art as in morals, and still laws in art as in physics, I have no fear that this kind of art will prevail."

But Cox had not noticed that cultural foundations were already crumbling. Harvard philosopher William James, who experienced the San Francisco earthquake first-hand while teaching at Stanford, had felt bedrock shaking everywhere across modern thought: "Ethical science is just like physical science, and instead of being deducible all at once from abstract principles, must simply bide its time and be ready to revise its conclusions from day to day." In other words, the unchanging laws invoked by Cox and other cultural conservatives were a mirage. Instead American pragmatists advanced a flexible and open-ended method of inquiry, the experimental spirit that animated modernist artists and writers.

Americans played a pivotal role in early modernism. It was James who first examined the stream of consciousness in 1890. His student Gertrude Stein was among the first to experiment with interior monologues in fiction. It was also Stein who introduced her friend Picasso to James's writings on our perception of space, particularly the reversible cube, in 1905, and Picasso's cubism, among the most dramatic departures of modernism, was the direct result of that encounter.

Gay mentions the names of Americans such as the poet Wallace Stevens, the playwright Eugene O'Neill, and the novelist William Faulkner, but despite their undeniable contributions to modernism, none of them figures in his analysis. Nor does he include the painter Arthur Dove, who experimented with completely nonrepresentational art as early as 1910 - perhaps before the self-aggrandizing Kandinsky, who was later shown to have changed the dates on some of his early forays into abstraction. And where is jazz, perhaps the supreme example of unbridled creative improvisation? Picasso was right: "If Modernism was born in France," he remarked, "it was the product of Spaniards and Americans."

Only when modernism begins to decline, from Gay's perspective, does American art take center stage. Gay charges Pop Art with rejecting the "subversive and quality-minded discriminations" between high and popular art. Smirking villains such as the "authentic celebrity" Andy Warhol marked an "irredeemable retreat from the wholehearted anti-establishment convictions that had animated modernists."

Without disputing Gay's stringent judgment of the post-1960s American art world, I believe he muffles the echoes of the early modernist Duchamp in much of Pop and what has followed it. Duchamp's visual puns - his Mona Lisa with a mustache ("L.H.O.O.Q.") or his "ready-mades" such as the snow shovel he hung and dubbed "In Advance of a Broken Arm" - obliterated the line dividing ordinary objects from art. Upsetting art's privileged status has preoccupied modernists for a century.

Despite Gay's pessimism about the art of the last half-century, he admits in his conclusion that the best features of modernism persist in novels such as those of Gabriel García Márquez and in Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain. Globe readers lucky enough to witness last year, at the modernist Institute of Contemporary Art, either the opening exhibition "Ways of Seeing" or the riveting and genre-busting performance of "Landing Place" by the Bebe Miller Company will have plenty of other notable examples of artists keeping the modernist flame alive. Perhaps we cannot define modernism or mark the point at which it might shade into the even murkier atmosphere of postmodernism, but its innovative, heretical, and self-scrutinizing spirit remains a vital and vivifying feature of our contemporary cultural landscape.

James T. Kloppenberg is chairman of the history department at Harvard.

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