Modernism and the ‘lure of heresy’

Peter Gay’s authoritative and lively history of the modernists captures their personalities and heretical approach. But it fails to place them in their profound historical context.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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Modernism, beginning at some point in the past 250 years and ending for the past 70, is usually used to refer to that cultural historical period in which artists, writers, musicians and designers experimented ruthlessly, in which tradition ceased to be a source of authority, and in which aesthetic rules were violated and radicalised. Little wonder Picasso called modern art a ‘sum of destructions’. But modernism remains a vexed term – what exactly it designates, and consequently how it is periodised, is always being contested.

Faced with a term in constant dispute, some critics, in search of the quiet life, content themselves not with a singular definition but with a set of modernisms – as myriad as the categories allow, be it geographical or disciplinary. Others prefer to abstract a principle so general – irony, say – that modernism loses any historical specificity at all. In this regard, Peter Gay’s Modernism is admirably ambitious: it attempts to preserve the particularity of the artworks themselves, be it Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse or Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, while gesturing to that general modernist sensibility they embody.

As Gay makes clear in his opening chapter, ‘the manifestation of modernism’ ought to be treated as ‘a single historical epoch’. This, he says elsewhere, ‘dates roughly from Baudelaire and Flaubert to Beckett and beyond to Pop Art and other dangerous blessings’. What the artists, writers, composers and architects share is not only a ‘climate of thought, feeling and opinions’ but two principles in particular: ‘the lure of heresy that impelled their action as they confronted conventional sensibilities’ and a commitment to ‘principled self-scrutiny’.

With these two elements marshalling his interpretation of a vast array of cultural artefacts, Gay proceeds to present a narrative of modernism, tracing its history through periods of pugnacious self-confidence and impending defeat. Each artist, each grouping – be it Picasso, the disparagingly named Fauves, or the Hitler-worshipping, Nobel prize-winning Knut Hamsum – becomes a character, better still, a hero in Gay’s epic tale of modernist derring-do.

Each of Gay’s dramatis personae exhibit his two key modernist traits – that is, the desire to challenge the cultural establishment (Ezra Pound’s ‘make it new’) and to give expression to hitherto unencountered depths of the self, be it the ‘monologue interieur’ of Joyce or the near pathological self-portraiture of Max Beckmann. It is breathless in its telling. We encounter the Impressionists, including a certain Claude Monet, scandalising audiences at a group exhibition in Paris in 1874; we’re given a snapshot of the Dadaists offending the orthodoxy at Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire in 1915; and we’re presented with a sombre portrait of the postwar years, especially in Germany. Gay quotes Thomas Mann: ‘Books that could be printed from 1933 to 1945 in Germany are less than worthless, and they are not good to handle. An odour of blood and shame sticks to them. They should all be pulped.’

And so it continues. Marcel Duchamp’s ‘fountain’, Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionism, Roy Liechtenstein’s depthless surfaces, Samuel Beckett’s post-human dramas – all of them testaments to unrelenting innovation. Hence at every stage of Gay’s modernist adventure the protagonists are shown striking out on their own, defying the conventions of the moment, and exploring formal possibilities that previous generations had been unable to imagine.

There is no doubt that Modernism is often compelling. And its central thesis – that modernists were characterised by ‘the lure of heresy’ – does capture not just the widespread interrogation of artistic convention, but also its subjective counterpart: the sovereignty of the artist. This is something that Gay rightly contextualises in terms of the burgeoning art market and levels of tolerance available under relatively liberal regimes.

But there is also something missing in Gay’s hymn to the lure of heresy. For all that artistic autonomy had been won, there was an equally powerful sense that something had been lost. In 1923, the great Viennese writer, Robert Musil, observed ‘the feelings of decline today, which are grey, ashen and passive and joyless…’ (1). Elsewhere, Marcel Proust, one of Gay’s ‘four modern masters’, while talking of the world beyond his bedroom, indeed, outside his mémoire, surveyed ‘the inhuman emptiness of this deconsecrated forest.’ (2) Franz Kafka captures well the sense of God forsakeness with characteristic chirpiness: ‘there is infinite hope but not for us.’ For Gay, however, Kafka’s ‘unflinching bleakness’ is little more than an oedipal maladjustment. And where Eliot experienced the wasteland of modern civilisation, of high culture brough low, Gay sees merely elitist disdain. He reserves his praise, ideed, his enthusiasm for the heretical posture. Depriving modernism of its lacerating melancholy, he renders it a countercultural parody of itself – which by the 1960s it was.

Modernism, for its constituents, was experienced not simply as liberation, but as crisis. It bespoke something profound: the cultural experience, indeed, the disillusionment of modernity’s promise of autonomy. The emancipation of individual subjectivity, encouraging self-scrutiny as Gay sees it, if bereft of social bonds becomes as much a prison as a promise of freedom.

This is writ large in the development of literary modernism. As Gay notes, the mimetic, realistic component typical of nineteenth-century realism was increasingly experienced as a formal inhibition. But he fails to tell us why this was the case. What had changed between the time of Balzac and that of Flaubert and Baudelaire, the two progenitors of modernism identified by Gay? As the Marxist critic Georg Lukács explained, between these two generations of French writers ‘lies the year 1848 and the bloody days of June, the first independent action of the working class, which left so indelible an impression on the ideology of the French bourgeoisie, that after it bourgeois ideology ceased to play a progressive part in France for a long time’ (3). In other words, universal aspirations were abandoned in favour of the protection of particular interests.

This is crucial. For the realist writer, the ability to narrate, to find meaning in social praxes, rests, as Lukács argues, on the artist having a ‘living relationship to the real life of the people’ (4). Be it Balzac or Walter Scott, the vital problems of the time are experienced as their problems; the life and struggles of the community as their struggles. Modernism’s emergence depends on the dissolution of just such an involvement. As Peter Nicholls notes, it is with Baudelaire, writing during the 1850s, that ‘a cleavage begins to open up between bourgeois modernity, on the one hand, and aesthetic modernity on the other’ (5).

The sovereignty of the artist, his autonomy, is set against the political sovereignty and autonomy won in 1789. Although free to experiment, to push the boundaries of their art, the artist loses those with whom he had previously found common, if problematic cause. His professionalisation becomes a burden. Bereft of something like solidarity, he is left before his fellows – the market – as before an antagonistic mass: ‘Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère!

For all its erudition, Modernism can never quite capture the profundity of the modernist moment, its intense disillusionment with the social world, and its concomitant yearning for its re-enchantment – or, paraphrasing Baudelaire, to find the ‘beauty’, ‘the eternal’ and ‘the immutable’ in ‘the transient, the fleeting, the contingent’. Reducing the modernist sensibility to something that often seems no more than a psychological impulse – the lure of heresy – Gay misses the great historical, existential crisis that modernism expresses.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Modernism, by Peter Gay is published by William Heinemann Ltd. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) ‘The German as Symptom’ included in Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses, Robert Musil (Burton Pike and David Luft eds), University of Chicago Press, 1990 p.151

(2) In Search of Lost Time – Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust, Vintage, 1996, p.513

(3) Studies in European Realism, Georg Lukács, Grosset and Dunlop, 1964, p.83

(4) ‘Realism in the Balance’ included in Aesthetics and Politics, Theodor Adorno et al, Verso, 2007, p.48

(5) Modernisms: A Literary Guide, Peter Nicolls, Macmillan, 1995, p.7

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