September 21, 2013


Why We're Still Struggling to Make Sense of Modernism : We may like to think of ourselves as postmodern, but the modernists upended conventions--in art and in life--in ways that have challenged us ever since. (MICHAEL LEVENSON, SEP 18 2013, Atlantic)

Beckett wrote "unenjoyable" books, says Martin Amis. Paulo Coelho believes Joyce's Ulysses caused "great harm," while Roddy Doyle doubts any readers are "really moved by it." "Shabby chic" is the Financial Times' verdict on modernist architecture. You hear it often these days, this grousing about difficult, pretentious modernism: Woolf, Kafka, Stein, and Picasso come in for it too. The emperor has no clothes. The flight from modernism--we know the names but skirt the works--may be a sign of the cultural times, a symptom of our special mix of fatigue, cynicism, and complacency. And then, of course, the art can indeed try your patience and stamina. Its demands are relentless; these are creations that decline to traffic in reassurance or open themselves to clicks and scans.

One hundred years ago, more or less, those rebel modernists were not aiming to make trouble for its own savage sake. Their forbidding work belonged to complicated, unforgiving times. Living without the gods of progress or reason--and without God--they tried this, tried that, reached further, failed, and then failed better (Beckett's phrase). Not all: some had no clothes. But for roughly four decades, from 1890 to 1930, many risked poverty and courted humiliation. Even the most extraordinary had no idea that their works would endure, or be read by more than a few hundred committed admirers--much less find their place on college reading lists. Now, even unread, they haunt the present, ghostly images of what visionary culture might be.

Except that it's easy to make sense of once you accept that they were just rebelling for it's own sake. And because what they were rebelling against was Western aesthetics--the obligation of art to be objectively beautiful and truthful--what they rendered was subjective, ugly, incoherent, and meaningless.  Sure, you can jerry-rig a fad out of this sort of sensationalism, and the art-buying classes will never figure out the hoax, but the anti-intellectual masses of us were never listening, looking nor reading the stuff even at its peak.

But what made it impossible for Modernism to gain a toehold in the Anglosphere, as opposed to the continent, was that we were already Post-Modern and never Cartesian.   After all, Modernism's supposedly radical assertion is that Faith cannot withstand Reason, but Post-Moderrnism's genuinely radical insight is that Reason cannot withstand Reason. This returns us to Faith alone as the basis for organizing our beliefs and the choice between what is beautiful or what is ugly. And there's a reason Kate Upton is in SI's swimsuit issue, not me in a Speedo.  

Posted by at September 21, 2013 6:58 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus