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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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.