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WHEN MODERN WAS NEW

By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 21 MAY 2008 — Just over two years ago, I stood in the spiral of the Guggenheim Museum in New York between a friendly college professor who breathed Jack Daniels on me every time she spoke and a rather smug art dealer who called himself a gallerist. Along with scores of others, we were watching as the performance artist Marina Abramovic lay on a metal grill for seven hours, just above fifteen lighted candles, cooking like a goose. Occasionally, Abramovic would slowly rise, replace dying candles with fresh ones, and then lie back down, giving the appearance, to my unaccustomed eye, of a goose that had learned to baste itself.

The performance work in question was not original to the artist: it was first executed, in 1973, by the perfectly named Gina Pane; Abramovic was spending the week as artist-in-residence at the museum, recreating the great performances of herself and other artists by cutting her flesh, masturbating, and going crotchless in the company of a machine gun. (As a copyright lawyer, I note with interest that Ms. Abramovic not only felt the need to obtain the permission from the originating artists or their estates but was ceding any book and film proceeds to them.)

Marcel Duchamp shocked viewers in 1917, when he took an ordinary urinal and called it art.

That particularly outré incident out of my own apparently thin cultural education returned to memory during my reading of the final chapter of Peter Gay's new book, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy from Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond (W.W. Norton, 610 pages). As he recounts the excesses of a movement gone simultaneously popular, archival and odd, Gay recalls how, at the Whitney in the year before the Guggenheim's Abramovic week, the performance artist Ana Mendieta had cut the head off a chicken, allowing its blood to spurt over her naked body. Worse examples are given, and even worse are hinted at, but Gay, who has long shown good economy in prose, encapsulates their effect in one sentence: "This is modernist freedom reduced to absurdity."

Gay, who is eighty-four years old, has written so many good books, much of the argument about him is over which ones have been most influential. It is easy to understand how the masterful Weimar Culture might have been a natural for him, since Gay was born in Weimar Germany, but his interests and credits range from works on Enlightenment philosophy (The Enlightenment: An Interpretation) to Freudian psychology and psychohistory (Freud, Jews and Other Germans). Gay is simply one of those rare free-ranging intellects, a member of that fraternity of literate humanists who help keep Western civilization going while the rest of us live in it.

In his latest book, Gay has created a formidable task for himself: to summarize, synthesize and explain in one volume the artistic movement that, although meaning "of the moment," has endured in one form or another since the century before last. Because it is a movement that has ranged across all the arts, in separate chapters, Gay tackles nearly all of them. In his preface, however, Gay states that, because he is not writing a history, he has excluded opera and photography - both of which he finds surplus to his inquiry into the common elements of modernism in the arts and the social conditions that spawned it. (As a copyright lawyer who is also a modernist photographer, I'm fairly inured to traveling second class artistically and don't hold it against the author.)

One of the biggest problems with modernism, before you even join the debate of whether it is still modern or has been superseded by postmodernism or something more modern than that, is exactly what is it? Gay states that all the modernists share "two defining attributes," which are "first, the lure of heresy that impelled their actions as they confronted conventional sensibilities; and, second, a commitment to a principled self-scrutiny." Another largely shared characteristic is the "sheer hatred of the commonplace bourgeoisie." As examples from the various arts are laid out across the book's pages, the elements of Gay's layered definition don't entirely work in combination, and Gay finds himself turned around on occasion in trying to defend it, but his definition succeeds a good deal better than most - which highlights one of the problems in examining modernism: like jazz, a musical form it embraces, if you have to ask what it's about, you probably won't get it.


Tatra T-87 saloon car
Hans Ledwinka (1878-1967)
Manufactured by Tatra Werke, Koprivnica
Czechoslovakia, 1937

Lacquered metal
474 x 167 x 150 cm
© Die Neue Sammlung - State Museum of Applied Arts and Design, Munich/Rainer Viertlboeck
Photo courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum

Gay also wrestles with an issue that doesn't often come to the fore in discussing modernism, probably because even raising it can offend sensibilities, but when you are eighty-four, you worry less about those things, so Gay addresses whether modernism has been heavily influenced by Jews:

... there really is no such thing as Jewish modernist taste. Jews bought Salon pictures as well as Picassos, resisted compositions by Schoenberg more often than relishing them, commissioned tradition-minded architects in strong preference to hiring a loyal pupil of the Bauhaus.

Indeed, Gay notes that, when the Nazis put on their infamous 1937 traveling exhibition of what they called "degenerate art" (that is, Modern Art), they could only find six by Jews among the 112 whose works were displayed as a warning against cultural deviation.

The other point disputed by Gay is that modernism is inherently left wing:

I cannot emphasize enough that the sources of the modernist rebellion in the arts arose from all quarters of the political, intellectual, and emotional world. What they did show was a powerful sense of opposition to the world as it was, and the hunger for spirituality.

Gay details how what he correctly categorizes as the twin twentieth-century barbarisms of Soviet communism and German Nazism were equally oppressive of the modernist artist and equally at war with the modernist sensibility. For proof, one need only look at the career of Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian credited with painting the first modernist abstracts: fifteen years after the Soviets banned abstract painting, he found three of his canvases impressed into the Nazi exhibition of degenerate art and then destroyed. Gay correctly observes, however, that modernists have come to us from both the political left and righ t- further confounding our ability to understand the movement and his ability to categorize its participants.


Wassily Kandinsky: Composition VII, 1913

What you get from reading Gay's appreciation of the problem is that the only system that works for modernism is democracy. A democracy is, of course, generally run by the very bourgeoisie that the modernists detest, and so the relatively agreeable circle continues: the free and democratic society nurtures the artist and gives him the time, freedom and money to say how frightful that society and its inhabitants have become. Democracy is no more in the business of breeding internal discontent than any other system; it is just the one system in which discontent can be made into image and sound by its artists without fear of arrest or deportation .

There has arguably been greater freedom in the Western world since the end of the Second World War than before it, but the pace of the modernist contribution to Western civilization has slowed. As Gay summarizes the postwar period:

True, that while a handful of promising dramatists - Ionesco, Beckett, Pinter - who hinted that their theatre might produce a long-lived modernist repertory, but their enterprise was a striking exception rather than a life raft for modernism. There was much talent and little genius.

Gay traces that decline of modernism to the public acceptance of Pop Art in the 1960s. Warhol, in particular, made both objects of consumerism (the Brillo boxes, the Campbell's soup cans) and icons of pop culture (Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor) into art. Since everyone can understand Marilyn and canned tomato soup, Modern Art became not merely comprehensible to all, but rather fun. At least it was a break from the "shock and mock" school of anti-bourgeois art making, that self-referential and self-reverential esthetic that has so muddled too many Whitney Biennials to count, and many other exhibitions worldwide.

Up until Pop Art, a key point about modernism was that it is essentially —  and here I'll use the e-word — an elitist sensibility. The fact is that, to see the art in an abstract by Kandinsky or a Calder mobile and to feel emotional resonance upon viewing either piece takes quite a bit more sensitivity, perception and education than it does to well with appreciation for an academic painting of a Victorian maiden who has shed her clothes on slight pretext. On the other hand, we have to remember that Impressionism was the first recognizably modernist movement in painting, and it is probably the most popular school of painting currently known - to the point that, it is an easy cheat for someone with only the thinnest art education to slide by with a declared love for Impressionism.

Which brings us back to that night at the Guggenheim with the performance artist who was grilling herself on a bed of fifteen candles. Marcel Duchamp shocked viewers in 1917, when he took an ordinary urinal and called it art . That works now and then, but an elitist art that aims only to shock or mock ends up looking ridiculous, cruel and, ultimately, trivial. The cognoscenti will continue, however, to congregate around that special something that they understand and others do not. We can only hope that the future will provide them with art both more Modern and more worthy than what we have seen in the last couple of decades. Says Gay:

From this wary perspective, I venture to suggest that for all the modernists' original verve, all their energetic recklessness expended to combat the conservative establishments in the arts - all of those tiresome works whether written, painted, designed, or composed - a full-fledged revival of their crusades is not very likely. Instead, we may expect a full recognition that modernism has become a secure part of our historical past, as interesting as any other cultural period that we have put behind us.

As with any book that takes on so much, it is possible to criticize the author for sins of factual commission and omission (we poor, misunderstood photographers), imprecise reflections, and fragile opinions, but only an author with the proven gift for masterpiece could hope to pull off a book like Modernism . Which is to say that Peter Gay is just about the only author living who is able to write a necessary book whose absence from our shelves these past decades is all the more apparent now that we have it.

Modernism: The Lure of Heresy
From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond
By Peter Gay
Hardcover: 640 pages
Norton, W. W. & Company (November 2007)
ISBN-13: 9780393052053
$35.00

Alan Behr practices intellectual property law at the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP. He contributes regularly to Culturekiosque and last wrote on Copyright Law vs. Art and the Papal Censor of the Kissing Nun.

Travel Calendar Tip: Barcelona, Spain

Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia
26 June - 21 September 2008
Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya
Palau Nacional
Parc de Montjuïc
08038 Barcelona
Tel: (34) 93 622 03 60

Travel Calendar Tip: Fort Worth, Texas

Marsden Hartley and the West: The Search for an American Modernism
14 June - 24 August 2008
Amon Carter Museum
3501 Camp Bowie Blvd
Fort Worth, TX 76107
Tel: (1) 817 738 19 33

Travel Calendar Tip: Basel, Switzerland

Soutine and Modernism
Until 6 July 2008
Kunstmuseum Basel
St. Alban-Graben 16
Basel, Switzerland
Tel: (41) 61 206 62 62

Travel Calendar Tip: Moscow

20th Century Art: Russia
The State Tretyakov Gallery
10 Krymsky Val
Moscow
Tel: (7) 495 238 13 78

CD TIP

All titles are chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers.

ART TATUM
Piano Starts Here: Live at the Shrine / Zenph Re-Performance
Audio CD
Sony BMG and Zenph Studios
Release Date: June 3, 2008
Format: Hybrid SACD, Live
Catalog No.: 722218
$18.99

Review Title Photo above: Man Ray: Noire and Blanche , 1926
Courtesy The Sir Elton John Photography Collection
© Man Ray Trust / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London
Photo courtesy of
Tate Modern

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