Commentary Magazine


The Cult of the Difficult

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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For this reason, Peter Gay, the author of Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, deserves much credit for having taken on the daunting task of making sense out of the whole phenomenon and for doing so with some success.1 This success arises in part from the fact that Gay, who is a historian rather than a critic, has chosen to emphasize description over evaluation, mostly accepting the common estimates of the relative importance of key figures. In addition, he has been extremely selective in his choice of these figures, thus making it possible to compress and simplify the story in the interest of greater intelligibility. As he explains in the book’s preface, his aim was

not to compile an expansive catalog of all the strands and leading figures in modernism, but to examine their presence in culture and to discover, if possible, whether they coalesce to define a single cultural entity.

The problem with this approach, however, is that it runs the risk of becoming over-obvious and even tautological. “To the best of my knowledge, no scholar has ever tried to map all the manifestations of modernism as making up a single historical epoch,” Gay claims. This may be literally true, but, from the privileged vantage point of late 2007, the fact that modernism constitutes a “single historical epoch” is surely all but self-evident. Moreover, Gay’s account of its rise and fall, though it has the great virtue of conceptual clarity, is far less successful at telling us which of modernism’s best-known practitioners are most deserving of our attention today, or why some of them now seem so much more compelling than others.

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The most impressive thing about Modernism is the apparent ease with which Gay discusses so wide a range of artistic activity. “To appreciate two of the arts in a discerning manner is not unusual,” the novelist Anthony Powell once remarked. “Where three are claimed, more often than not, grasp of the third shows signs of strain.” The author of Modernism would seem to be an exception to this rule. Not only is Gay absolutely secure when talking about literature and the visual arts, but he writes almost as fluently about music and dance (which he treats, not altogether convincingly, as a single topic).

Similarly admirable is the frequent good sense that Gay brings to his description of the modernist project. He is quick, for instance, to note that the “bourgeoisophobia” (as Gustave Flaubert called it) that was so prominent a part of the modern artist’s self-image was inconsistent both with the complex reality of middle-class life and with the receptivity to modern art shown by the hated bourgeoisie itself:

The infuriated balletgoers who in 1911 noisily disrupted the premiere of Nijinsky and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring were followed by audiences that found this potent amalgam of radical score and radical choreography far from indigestible and really quite enjoyable. It is an apparent self-contradiction but a historical fact that modernist works, produced to provide an aura of heresy, should end up being called classics.

Conversely, as Gay also points out, modern artists were themselves quick to embrace the middle- and upper-middle-class style of life made possible by the bourgeoisie’s lucrative embrace of their art. In similar fashion, their pose of radical individualism was contradicted by the “desire for companionship and reassurance” that led them to form schools and factions and to hammer out new aesthetic orthodoxies that were in many cases at least as rigid as the old-fashioned ones they had previously sought to overthrow.

In describing the emergence of these orthodoxies, Gay proves willing to describe modernism as it really was instead of taking the claims of its proponents at face value. But when it comes to judging the modernists, he is far less fresh in his thinking. Thus, Arnold Schoenberg is for him “the undisputed leader of the 20th-century upheaval in music”; Virginia Woolf is the peer of Henry James, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust; and D.W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, Charlie Chaplin, and Orson Welles stand at “the summit of modernist moviemaking.” Each of these individual claims is defensible—but taken together, they suggest a straight-faced artistic equivalent of Flaubert’s satirical “dictionary of received ideas.”

Nor does Gay have anything especially original to say about the actual output of the artists he discusses in Modernism, though the urbane patina of his prose helps to mask the commonplace quality of his observations. (“Debussy’s work,” he writes in one example that can stand for many, “was a delicate search, perfectly fitting into the world that modernist painters and poets were pursuing in their own way—the inner life and its felicitous portrayal.”) Even when he moves beyond the realm of the certified masters to the contemporary scene, his assessments prove equally predictable: we are invited to accept Frank Gehry and Gabriel García Márquez as direct successors to the giants of modernism past.

To repeat, Modernism is a work of history, not criticism. But because art is his subject matter, Gay cannot shirk the making of critical judgments; they are implicit on every page. And it is difficult not to question the taste of an art historian who can, among other things, call the second-rate English choreographer John Cranko an “interesting competitor” to George Balanchine, declare with a straight face that Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum is “a historic masterpiece” and marked “the most sensational debut of a novelist since Flaubert’s Madame Bovary,” or put forward Casablanca, Citizen Kane, His Girl Friday, La Femme du Boulanger, and The Third Man as his personal list of the great films of the 20th century.

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No less questionable—especially when viewed from the perspective of 2007—is the omnipresence of Sigmund Freud in Gay’s narrative.

That Freud should figure prominently in a study of the idea of modernism is, of course, entirely appropriate, since his ideas were powerfully influential on many modern artists—though by no means all. Vladimir Nabokov, the quintessential modern novelist (and one who, perhaps not coincidentally, goes unmentioned in Modernism), curtly dismissed Freud as a “Viennese witch-doctor” who reduced the fruits of the human imagination to a set of “standardized symbols,” of interest only to “the credulous and the vulgar.” But the thinking of numerous other modernists was strongly shaped by Freud’s theories of the unconscious mind and its effects on human behavior. Thomas Mann went so far as to call psychoanalysis “the greatest contribution to the art of the novel” to be made in modern times.

It stands to reason that Peter Gay, Freud’s biographer and the author of many other books about the man and his times, should have chosen to emphasize the role of psychoanalysis in the development of modernism. What is more revealing is the near-obsessiveness with which he does so. Time and again, Freud is gratuitously dragged in, usually in order to bolster a cliché:

All in all, Cézanne’s artistic reactions to his inner turmoil shore up Freud’s assertion that try as they will, humans cannot keep their secrets. . . . Freud seems not to have commented on the Expressionist dramatists of his time, but if he had, he could have used their work as persuasive evidence for the existence, indeed the virulence, of the Oedipus complex.

It is as if Gay thought that the imprimatur of the master were needed to legitimize even the most banal of his own opinions.

One would never suspect from reading Modernism that Freud’s theories are now regarded as obsolete by the vast majority of medical practitioners and scientists, or that their erstwhile popularity is widely thought to have slowed the emergence of what the psychiatrist Paul McHugh has termed “evidence-based psychiatry,” a discipline rooted not in theoretical speculation but in empirical research. In a telling metaphor, McHugh argues that modern-day psychiatry “can no more return to the old [Freudian] orthodoxy than Russia can revive the Soviet Union.2

Yet Gay stubbornly persists in presenting Freud not as a figure of historical significance but as a thinker of continuing contemporary relevance, in much the same way that aging Marxist historians like Eric Hobsbawm write about the 20th century as though the events they describe had not themselves demonstrated beyond the possibility of contradiction the nonsensicality of the Marxian theories they use to explain them. The gentlest thing to be said about Gay’s passionate belief in Freud’s relevance is that it lends to Modernism an air of quaintness—one that sits oddly alongside its author’s equally passionate belief in the permanent immediacy of modern art.

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What of the “big picture” of modernism painted by Gay? It is, at best, a partial portrait. For him, modernism consists of radical technical innovation placed in the service of “insubordination against ruling authority.” This is a standard to which he hews so rigidly that even Anton Chekhov, an unambiguously modern writer, is said to have “worked at the margins of modernism” because he “did not modify the traditional theater” (a claim that will come as a surprise to anyone who has sat through one of the “well-made,” plot-driven 19th-century plays that Chekhov helped to render as obsolete as Freud’s theories).

Nor is Gay comfortable with those tradition-conscious modernists, like T.S. Eliot and Igor Stravinsky, who used the sharp-angled language of modern art to express their deep and paradoxical longing for a supra-rational authority with which to oppose the chaos of modern life. “It does not follow,” Gay writes strenuously but unbelievably, “that Stravinsky abandoned originality while he searched, as he put it, for order. . . .[T]he religious meanings of [his] Symphony of Psalms, if any, must remain indeterminate.” No less strikingly, Gay devotes just one paragraph to Eliot’s Four Quartets, the religious-themed masterpiece of his middle age, while spending two pages on After Strange Gods, the 1933 lectures in which Eliot allowed free rein to his anti-Semitic views.

Just as Gay ignores or misinterprets the quest for order, so does he appear willfully to overlook the possibility that some branches of modernism were more successful than others. Why did the art-loving public embrace Stravinsky’s neoclassicism but not Schoenberg’s serialism? Why did experimental novels like James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake fail to exert the same enduring appeal as the paintings of the abstract expressionists—or, for that matter, the distinctively modern jazz and popular music about which Gay has nothing at all to say in Modernism? Could it be that, as I have previously argued, there were “in fact two modernisms, one deeply conservative and tradition-based, the other profoundly radical and antinomian,” and that the first of these modernisms, not the second, is the one that has prevailed? 3

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Such a possibility seems not to have occurred to Gay. Though he acknowledges the attraction exercised by modernism on the middle class, he persists in dividing the art-consuming public into three distinct groups:

The cultured elite that alone nourishes modernism, the philistine bourgeoisie that professes not to understand the movement, the benighted masses that have no use for it, still exist. But their boundaries have been scrambled. With steady advances in the modern technology of leisure and its apparatuses, the artistic choices of the masses reaching deep into the middle classes have become more pronounced as they are increasingly subjected to advance testing and manipulation.

It is, in short, the old, old story: difficulty per se is a meaningful index of the validity of modern art, while those modernists who opted instead for what Aaron Copland called an “imposed simplicity” are by definition unserious panderers to the philistines. Having made the fatal mistake of supposing that art need not be rebarbatively complex in order to be truly modern, such benighted figures are accordingly excluded from Gay’s pantheon. Small wonder, then, that the word “postmodern” is nowhere to be found in Modernism. Instead, the book ends with a modest hope: even though we now live in a recessive “age of musical comedies,” it could yet be that “a revival of massive modernism” will someday bring about the welcome return of “concerts of difficult composers, exhibitions of difficult painters, printing of difficult poets and novelists, clients for difficult architects, even consumers for difficult movies.”

To be sure, the author of Modernism is pessimistic about the prospects for such a renaissance of difficulty married to the spirit of “insubordination against ruling authority.” Yet no other kind of art, it seems, would be sufficiently demanding for him or satisfy his taste for the arcane delights of “heresy.” In the end, this says more about Peter Gay than it does about modernism.


Footnotes

1 Norton, 640 pp., $35.00.

2 McHugh’s journalistic writings on the subject of Freud and his influence have been collected in The Mind Has Mountains: Reflections on Society and Psychiatry (2006).

3 “Jazz as Modern Art” (Commentary, January 2003).

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