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

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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.

By making this confession, Levenson spares the reviewer the trouble of pointing out that his book lacks an encompassing framework. To my jaundiced eye, the key word in the above passage is should—as in “this is not to say that we should aim toward a new coherence.” For all his fine erudition and sensibility, Levenson is also a professor of critical theory, which suggests that he is loath to embark upon that most dreaded of academic undertakings, the intellectually confident, epoch-spanning “meta-narrative.” (The last white male literary scholar to try that was boiled alive some years ago.)

Levenson’s refusal to pull his material together is frustrating, because this book contains many valuable insights. And yes, they are valuable in part because they reveal some striking connections with our own “postmodernist” era. (One of the topics Levenson should have addressed is the difference between modernism and postmodernism. Indeed, the definitive book about modernism, when it appears, will take this comparison as its starting point.)

But let us consider some of those insights, even if to do so we must pluck parts of them from different sections of the book and reassemble them here. The first such insight has to do with the modernist treatment of the industrial city. Writing about Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, Levenson describes a deeply subjective, phantasmagorical vision of Paris “as rife with plots and plans, the streets as scenes of chaos, looming faces, and receding backs, but also rife with malevolent intention.” Later on, he contrasts this vision with that of Apollinaire, Baudelaire’s presumed heir (I’m working on the limerick). The difference, Levenson argues, is between Baudelaire’s “vertical” search for meaning in the lower depths of the psyche, liberated but also lost in the faceless crowd; and Apollinaire’s “horizontal” sprint across the surface of the urban landscape, with the self reduced to a “shallow eye” that rejects “persistence, duration, continuity .  .  . in favor of half-detached perceptions that move without punctuation and at great speed.”

In a later discussion of cinema, Levenson distinguishes between “deep Modernism” and “montage Modernism.” Predictably, he follows the film theorist André Bazin in giving full credit for montage to the great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein as opposed to the Hollywood pioneer, D. W. Griffith, who had developed “cross-cutting” editing 10 years earlier. Again, it may be too much to ask Levenson to connect montage modernism, which exploits “the resources of speed, discontinuity, and juxtaposition,” with contemporary Hollywood movies. But I can’t resist thinking how much Apollinaire would appreciate the way 21st-century films hurtle through the heights and depths of 21st-century cities from Toronto to Tokyo, Mogadishu to Mumbai.

Equally striking is Levenson’s distinction between “textual” and “gestural” modernism. The former he defines as the making of “a resonant and memorable artifact”—in the language of art history, the production of objets. The latter, gestural modernism, he defines as “includ[ing] all those events that live beyond the artifacts,” ranging from the “personal style” of the artists to “ephemeral happenings” such as “the spectacles engineered by Marinetti and the futurists and the riotous evenings at the Cabaret Voltaire among the Dadaists.” The contemporary significance of gestural modernism should be obvious, as we live in an era where publicity is the medium of choice for many of our most popular artists. Where would Lady Gaga be if all she did was sing?

In an earlier chapter, Levenson links the “theatricality” of modernism with the spectacle of public protest in the era of mass media. For example, he observes, “When [British] suffragettes chained themselves to the railings around government buildings, set mailboxes aflame, or paraded through the streets, they were making resourceful use of the power of spectacle.” With full appreciation for the irony involved, Levenson then relates the suffragettes’ tactics to those of their exact contemporary, the futurist artist Filippo Marinetti, whose manifesto, published on the front page of Le Figaro in 1909, urged not only the demolition of museums and the glorification of war but also “contempt for woman” and fierce hostility to “feminism.”

It is, of course, impossible to write about modernism and politics without delving into the vexed topic of modernist enthusiasm for Italian fascism and Soviet communism. This Levenson does in the penultimate chapter, which compares modernism before and after World War I, and the conclusion, which examines “the ends of modernism” as found in the right-wing affinities of Ezra Pound and the left-wing activism of Bertolt Brecht.

In the chapter on the war, Levenson resorts to the clichéd view he rejected earlier, writing that “the prewar experiments of Picasso and Matisse, Stein and Joyce, and others were often directed at a stagnant and complacent society that felt, in Wyndham Lewis’s phrase, ‘as safe as houses.’ ” But let us forgive him, because his emphasis here is on the traumatic collapse of the safe bourgeois house. As he writes, “the broken field and unsheltered sweep” of trench warfare scarred the artistic imagination with “indelible memories of the open, exposed horizon, .  .  . pictures of traumatically broken space,” and images of “the outspread, uncontrolled, and perilous terrain: the waste​-​land.” Levenson regards these images as “a return of the Real,” and by extension, the cause of a shift of artistic attention away from horror and meaninglessness and toward the project of remaking a broken world.

Writing about Dada, the gleefully nihilistic art movement that arose in Zurich at the height of the war, he describes it as a “reaction to a violence that overwhelmed the illusion of safety.” In its original form, Dada had no political program. How could it, when its guiding spirit was, in the immortal words of Tristan Tzara, Ideal, ideal, ideal, / Knowledge, knowledge, knowledge, / Boomboom, boomboom, boomboom? But during the tumultuous interwar years, many modernists concluded that “boomboom” was not an adequate response to what was happening in Europe.

At this point, Levenson could have joined the current debate about whether modernism was complicit in the creation of totalitarian culture. This past year saw the publication of two remarkable books, Igor Golomstock’s lengthy Totalitarian Art and Tzvetan Todorov’s succinct The Limits of Art, which joined the debate with a focus on the visual arts. The visual arts are, of course, where the similarities between the official art of fascist Italy, the Soviet Union, and Nazi Germany are most uncannily vivid. Both Golomstock and Todorov enter the debate instigated by Boris Groys, whose The Total Art of Stalinism (1992) traced a direct link between the vaulting ambitions of the Russian modernists and those of their Soviet masters. Both dreamed of creating a new humanity purged of selfishness and stupidity, and both woke to a nightmare of terror.

What Levenson could have added was the perspective of literature. His pages are replete with quotations from authors—Nietzsche, Mallarmé, Jarry, Strindberg—who boasted of using their creative power to fashion a New Man. In the same vein, Levenson’s conclusion focuses on Pound, who joined forces with the fascists, and Brecht, who cast his lot with the Communists. Prudently, Levenson refrains from putting a black hat on the former and a white hat on the latter, writing instead that “Pound the Fascist and Brecht the Communist were cousins” both “in their technical ambitions” and in their “belief that art could be of great social consequence.”

Yet here, too, Levenson backs away from coherence. In one breath he pays mild tribute to “the power that Modernism claimed for itself, the power to lead history.” In the next he expresses mild regret that neither Pound nor Brecht chose to affirm the independence of art from “those forces that live beyond the aesthetic and that determine its goals and hopes.” Such bland equivocation does a disservice to the many modernists who did affirm their independence, sometimes at the price of silence or death. And it marks a retreat, all too typical of contemporary academia, from the challenge of grappling with modernism’s most troubling legacy.

Martha Bayles, who teaches in the honors program at Boston College, is the author of Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music.