The Magazine

Modern as Yesterday

How the culture evolved from Old to New.

Feb 6, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 20 • By MARTHA BAYLES
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What was modernism? Many well-educated people would be hard pressed to answer, even (especially?) if they were exposed to it in college. Of all the topics in the humanities, modernism may be the most ill taught, because it is both too close (having flourished between the 1880s and World War I) and too distant (having been eclipsed by postmodernism, whatever that means). At the same time, modernism has in recent years been extensively researched, and as noted by Michael Levenson, professor of literature at the University of Virginia, “we have reached a moment when many self-contained and specialized studies can be brought together.”

Photo of a woman fighting with a clock

Scene from ‘Metropolis’ (1926) directed by Fritz Lang


As for who will bring these studies together, the promotional materials accompanying this book say that Levenson is our man. A scholar who has written extensively about literary modernism, he is also conversant with the visual and performing arts, and recently edited the Cambridge Companion to Modernism. It’s a daunting task to weave together the wildly varied strands of modernism, an international phenomenon affecting all the arts over a half-century of world war and revolution; but Levenson seems well positioned to try.

What’s needed, of course, is an overarching idea, or set of ideas, to serve as a framework for the countless “provoking artifacts” and “succession of individual careers” that comprise modernism. The obvious framework, of course, is the clichéd view of modernism as “revolutionary art” that pops up out of nowhere and flings itself against “static bourgeois resistance.” To his credit, Levenson rejects this view in favor of a broader conception, namely that the multiple innovations of early modernism were part of an “oppositional culture” that, rather than pose an external challenge to late 19th-century bourgeois society, were an organic part of it. Modernism, he says, was an expression, albeit indirect, of the “thrusting and ambitious” dynamism of that same society.

This is what the Marxists argue, I know. But as it happens, they are right. Objectively speaking, the changes wrought by industrialization, urbanization, railroads, telegraph and telephone, newspapers, and post-Darwinian positivism were far more disruptive to traditional beliefs and customs than anything occurring on the canvas, page, or stage. Indeed, so disruptive were these changes, the wealthy bourgeoisie created an idealized domestic sphere—tranquil, comfortable, refined, and virtuous—to serve as a bulwark against them. The trouble was, that domestic sphere proved stifling to many of its occupants, especially the women who were expected to preside over it, and thus the bourgeoisie became a ready market for the shocks and thrills imagined by artists.

From the perspective of pedagogy, the best method for conveying this idea to students would be to draw a parallel with horror films, violent video games, kinky sex comedies, and all the other shocks and thrills routinely served up by our commercial media. When Levenson describes how “[s]nugness and shock became intimates within a tight circle of exchange,” and “the inwardness of home life was interrupted by startling accounts of novelty,” he could be describing the entertainment choices of today’s suburban families. To draw this parallel is not to violate historical accuracy: There are many lines of descent between artistic modernism and American popular culture, some dating as far back as the 1930s, when Coleman Hawkins incorporated the dissonance of European art music into jazz, and Walt Disney urged his animators to sober up and study modern painting. Some of this inheritance has been enriching, some impoverishing. It all depends on which aspect of modernism we are talking about.

Possibly Levenson draws such parallels in the classroom, but he does not do so here. Of course, given the vast territory he covers, it is probably unfair to expect him to include references to how modernism has affected contemporary culture. But Modernism comes packaged as a “wide-ranging and original account of Modernism” offering “not only an excellent survey but also a significant reassessment.” So at a minimum, the reader expects a full articulation of the pattern by which modernist “artists depended upon a civil society they often despised” and bourgeois “audiences were drawn to the art that frightened them.”

But the reader will be disappointed. After highlighting this pattern, Levenson more or less abandons it. 

My hope is to stimulate more synthetic thinking. But this is not to say that we should aim toward a new coherence for Modernism. .  .  . Rather than presenting an argument for an encompassing framework or a set of governing techniques, the book has an emphasis on intersections and transitions, moments and phases, continuities and interruptions.