Sunday, September 30, 2012

In Defense of Modernism, Again

Dear Readers,

I have been silent for quite a while, thinking and writing about other things which (gasp!) are not enough related to Musil to discuss here; but I woke up this morning thinking rather angrily again about the accepted idea that modernism "failed," that so-called modernist artists were naive, utopian, simple, and self-centered people who did not have the benefit of a post-modernist deconstructionist education. Basically, the assumptions lead to the conclusion that to believe that art is meaningful or that personal expression is important is hopelessly solipsistic and naive. Unfortunately, when Benjamin proclaimed in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" that art would henceforth be replaced by...politics, his prophecy came true to a large extent. And while I think we can understand why Benjamin was tempted to make that devil's bargain in a moment of deep distress under Nazism, which led him to be suspicious of all sorts of  ideals and all sorts of illusions and all sorts of pedestals, we also see him struggling mightily with giving up on everything he held most dear. To give up art for justice and politics turned out to be a bad bargain all around--as I think Adorno conceded with a vengeance-- as we ended up with neither. Instead we got politics, totalitarianism, and anti-art. The human spirit has never recovered and it may very well have been this movement of anti-art and rampant skepticism that we have to blame for our current age of commodification and emptiness, more than some left-over remnants of traditional values. The theory seems to be that everything that still smacks of the old regime is at fault; perhaps it is the other way around; maybe the debunkers and cynics are at least as much responsible for our current crises as those who still cling to "outmoded" ideals and a sense of the sacred. But there are, luckily, still people who are "naive" enough to still believe in "aesthetic redemption,"  i.e., to believe that art, quite divorced from ideology or party platform or particular political message, is one of the fundamental practices that makes us human and--yes--also humane; that art, as the free exploration of ideas and forms and feelings and possibilities, is still a sacred (and, alas, increasingly threatened) thing, and, finally, that art-making is an important, meaningful existentially effective activity. What we say, make, put into the world changes it. My friend Renee asked me the other day why it upset me so much, and the answer is because it is a question of the value of art itself, it is a matter of the life and death of art, and spirit, and humanity.

I had been reminded of this pervasive anti-modernist canard by a mention of yet another book, Stephen Eric Bronner's Modernism at the Barricades, that continues to promulgate these unexamined generalization about this something people call modernism, without, or so it seems, presenting anything better as alternative. Bronner writes, with typical holier-than-thou attitude,  that:

"Modernists may have believed that they were contesting modernity, but their efforts and their hopes were shaped by it. Their activities legitimated what they intended to oppose. Their critique, in short, presupposed its object. Modernists believed that they were contesting tradition in the name of the new and the constraints of everyday life in the name of multiplied experience and individual freedom. These artists were essentially anarchists imbued with what Georg Lukács termed “romantic anti-capitalism.”
They opposed the “system” without understanding how it worked or what radical political transformation required and implied. Oddly, they never understood how deeply they were enmeshed in what they opposed. Modernists envisioned an apocalypse that had no place for institutions or agents generated within modernity. Theirs was less a concern with class consciousness than an opposition to the alienating and reifying constraints of modernity. Unfettered freedom of expression and a transformation in the experience of everyday life were the modernists’ goals. Even when seduced by totalitarian movements, whether of the left or the right, most of them despised what Czeslaw Milosz called the“captive mind.” Not all the problems that they uncovered—sexual repression and generational conflicts, among others—required utopian solutions. But their utopian inclinations were transparent from the beginning. Modernists believed that the new would not come from within modernity, but would appear as an external event or force for which, culturally, the vanguard would act as a catalyst."

Typical. The idea that, say, a modernist like Robert Musil, whose deep and thorough analyses of society, history, social structures, psychology, art, physics, mathematics, probability, sociology, was a poor deluded idealist who couldn't understand what was at stake in making art or in society; the idea that, say, someone like Stephen Eric Bronner is oh so much more aware, savvy, informed, and subtle, is rather laughable. Which is not to say that we are not all blinded to some extent by our proximity to our own times, or that Musil or others of his contemporaries could not see certain things that we might see better from afar. But these sorts of critiques  blindly and arrogantly presuppose that now, finally, today,we have the answers. That by revealing the way everything anyone ever believed in--up until now-- has been  a social construction (an idea which, by the way, long predates postmodernism), the current critics are suggesting that they are somehow exempt from such complicity in their own social construction. They propose that everything up until now that anyone thought or believed in was created by external social constructs and systems, but now, suddenly, the contemporary critics have managed to get themselves outside of Schrödinger's box and inside it at  the same time; now, suddenly, we have the vision that Kafka, and Musil, and Woolf and Sartre (those poor deluded fools!) didn't have.

And what does this vision amount to? That art should avoid at all costs any association with "romantic anti-capitalism", i.e, that it should avoid the romantic part, but keep the anti-capitalism part?! That all art should avoid any belief in its ability to move people, to change reality, to be meaningful to life?! That all art that does not explicitly engage in the class struggle is somehow absurd, utopian, bourgeois?! Are we really still trying to please a moralistic bogey like Georg Lukacs?! Seriously?!  Do we really agree that to be mature, sophisticated, and socially-responsible, we must replace art with politics? If that is what maturity is, I do not want to grow up. And I doubt, when you really consider what is at stake, most of you would want to either.

Of course the dualism set up by this debate between politics and autonomous art is itself a construction, as is the idea that one must choose between solipsistic belly-gazing and creative existential participation in world-making. Of course Musil believed that art was a matter of ethical world-making, and that this vitally important world-making could only continue if the artist was left to create outside of ideologies and instrumental goals. As he learned from Nietzsche (who is somehow considered wise enough to use as a foundation for much contemporary theory, but who is then put condescendingly back into a box because he believed in such "silly" things as art, genius, will, ideals), the destruction of social constructions, the realization that many of the foundations upon which society is built are just that--constructions-- does not mean that one should stop constructing,  but that one must continue to construct, more and more beautiful and fantastic structures, more images and forms, always with the energetic willful excitement of creation, always aware that all of the forms can and will and must be broken down and again and built up.

The idea that only the people in power are able to construct ideals and realities is a crippling and actually very elitist construct. Anyone, any artist, any person (all people are, thought Nietzsche, "creative subjects" whether they will be or no), any creative subject can, to borrow from Thoreau, "effect the quality of the day" and overturn perceptions, conceptions, and social forms.  And then some. Art remains powerful. Art still changes reality. Art is still revolutionary.  But it has to believe in itself and not capitulate to Marxist ideology and moralistic posturing or fatalistic cynical theory. Why do we care about this cynical attack on modernism? I repeat, it is a matter of the life or death of art, of a belief in the possibility of shared meaning, of the belief in the possibility of language, form, sound, space, arranged in a certain way by a particular person with a vision, an idea, a hunger, a love, a fear, a desire, to touch, change, move, revolutionize the life of another person and even a whole world. As Rilke learned from looking at the archaic torso of Apollo, You must change your life. Some will say that this is solipsistic or self-centered. But to change one life is to change the world. And art is still one of the most potent means to change lives, perspectives, worlds, realities, despite all cynical theories to the contrary.


  1. How about Hundertwasser, who made art for political posters, deliberately inspiring enough to be used over and over again for different political aims? The political uses changed, but the imagery was powerful enough to transcend the day. Of course, I think of politics as a personal, neighborhood effort. We who make music together, make change together.

  2. Dear Ginger, I didn't mean to imply that politics and art should never mix, no, not at all, but in my zeal I left that out. Of course politics can benefit from art, and of course politics is always with us, and cannot be swept under a rug, and of course the personal is political, and of course everything is political, even choosing not to include politics on one's art. It just becomes increasingly dreary to think that for many people today the measure of artistic value is strictly a matter of political affiliation and/or attention to what often amounts to a merely economic view of human happiness. The problem for me with the Marxist view as adopted and appropriated by so many is that the human element is lost in questions of economics. Capital becomes the only measure of value, when really the point was to return or retrieve what was human in life, to give people a chance to be more than machines or wage slaves, to allow for the fundamental experience of spiritual reflection, making, feeling, being, learning, loving. Somehow this aim has been lost in all the talk of work and wages. Interestingly, Thoreau began his book with a discussion of money too (Economy) to parallel Marx's Capital. For both, I will wager, though I know Marx much less than Thoreau, the aim was to see to it that economy does not get in the way of living a true human life, to see to it that we might be more than machines. This was Hundertwasser's message too, I'd say. To not become commodified, industrialized zombies; to preserve both the soul and the body. Brecht, on the more Marxist side, said "first comes the feeding, then comes the morality," thus stressing the needs of the body over the needs of the soul. Thoreau, on the other side, insisted that the soul's requirements must come first, for there are more ways to bleed than one, and without spirit, without art, without free human expression, life may well not be worth living. But perhaps that is easy for me to say because I am not starving. Still, the difference of emphasis is clear: food for the body, food for the soul. We shouldn't have to give up one for the other. Do we have to make such a bad bargain, trading art for justice? the soul for food?