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The Cult of the Difficult

- Abstract

The history of Western art in the 20th century is a tempestuous chronicle of rebellion, transformation, re-evaluation, and renewal. For those of us who lived through its latter half, it hardly seems possible that the story is now over—that modernism, to put it another way, is a thing of the past. Though a few major protagonists remain alive and active, the mainstream of artistic endeavor has moved on, leaving to critics and historians the retrospective tasks of narrative and stock-taking.

As yet, no real attempt has been made to supply a comprehensive chronicle of modernism, one that would cut across media and genres to explain how a movement whose original hallmark was the deliberate repudiation of easy accessibility came to dominate the world of art. The reason for this is that few writers, if any, are competent to discuss with equal assurance the works of architects, choreographers, composers, filmmakers, novelists, painters, and poets. Yet how else can one produce a full-scale account of the modern movement in art? The only alternative, to focus on bits and pieces, elides the very idea of modernism, whose significance lay in the fact that it exerted its transformative power on art and artists of all kinds.

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