Blog Post · Book Review

Modernism: The Lure of Heresy


Modernism: The Lure of Heresy

From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond

by Peter Gay

  1. W. Norton, 2008

Hardcover, $35.00, 610 pages


Freudianism “lies at the heart of my historian’s reading of the decades when modernism helped to define the realities of social and cultural life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” writes historian Peter Gay in his latest book. This will be no surprise to any who have read any of Gay’s other books, including histories of the Enlightenment and a biography of Freud.

This devotion to Freud, however, does not cause him to be reductive in this historical study, that is, he does not psychoanalyze the artists he portrays in these pages, but rather presents their work and sometimes deplorable political views (both on the extremes of the right and the left) without much moral evaluation, though the values of modern liberalism are strongly implied throughout his narrative, and his admiration for the work of the modernists is obvious.

He begins by defining his main term. “The one thing that all modernists had indisputably in common was the conviction that the untried is markedly superior to the familiar, the rare to the ordinary, the experimental to the routine.” Or, as Ezra Pound said, “Make it new!”

In addition, two defining characteristics or “attributes” of modernism are “first, the lure of heresy that impelled their actions as they confronted conventional sensibilities, and second, a commitment to a principled self-scrutiny.”

One principle, apparently, was defiance of authority, and the belief in an inward journey, instead of an outward one within society and nature or any tradition, for their visions and values.  Their common enemy–and Gay emphasizes they needed an enemy for they were essentially rebels–was the bourgeois.

But they needed the bourgeois to buy their paintings and books, to go to their plays and movies. Modernism, Gay reiterates throughout his book, could only flourish in a liberal society. That is, there would have been no modernism without the rise of the bourgeoisie. “If the sorry reputation that has been foisted on bourgeois culture had been all one could report about the Victorians and their heirs, there would have been no modernism.”

Capitalism helped the spread of modernism. Gay notes that Impressionist art dealer Durand-Ruel “was a consistent reactionary in matters of religion and politics, a good Catholic and loyal monarchist—yet another refutation of the legend that modernists were unswervingly on the left.” Durand-Ruel bought and sold many Impressionists painting, said they belonged “in the most beautiful collections.”

So, even though there was much snobbery and elitism in modernism, “It was their improving social status that allowed so many modernists to indulge their narcissistic disposition.” Modernists painters, Gay writes, were “specialists in self-portraits.”

A traditionalist would say the modernists turned to their selves away from God, thus the “lure of heresy,” as Gay phrases it. “If anyone fitted the description of heretic in chief in a century half ready for the revelation, it was Friedrich Nietzsche. More than anyone else he provided his world with a climate for modernism.”

Alasdair McIntyre wrote that we must choose between Aristotle or Nietzsche. Our twentieth century, and the modernists especially, chose Nietzsche over Aristotle and what did we get? Gay never connects the philosophy behind modernism with the rise of the totalitarian states, especially Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, that he rightly deplores.

This is not to say that he praises the modernists naively or does not describe their faults. As he writes, “It may be that the greatest illusion they [the modernists]  treasured was their conviction that they had overcome all illusions. But, however the future may come to judge them, at their best they left works that survived them and that will survive us.”

Baudelaire, according to Gay, is the best candidate for the begetter of modernism. “His original, immensely stimulating art criticism, his candid autobiographical ruminations, his influential translations of Edgar Allan Poe’s dark tales for a French audience, his defiance of accepted boundaries in his deeply personal poetry—above all, that poetry—bear the stamp of a founder.”

Baudelaire said the artist should portray contemporary beauty—of the city, of the street and Gay connects this to modernism being a phenomenon of the cities. He appears to see nothing askew with this, but, as Gabriel Marcel said, existentialism is the philosophy of the café, and so modernism could be said, at least in its beginnings, to be an art of the cafes.

This is to disparage neither cafes nor cities, but it should be remembered that cities are not the whole world. As Franz Werfel wrote in Between Heaven and Hell, “Cities are places of escape, full of secret corners into which one can comfortable crawl away to hide from the deeper reality of life . . . . The monastery of Athos is no place of escape from the world, but New York, Berlin, Paris and London are.”

But Baudelaire, as far as I know, never expressed an interest in Mt. Athos. How could you stand out there? Gay writes that Flaubert wrote to Baudelaire, “ ‘ You resemble no one’” and comments, “nothing could be a more heartfelt accolade for a modernist!”

Thus, modernism, Gay says repeatedly, is the expression of the individual. For instance, the impressionists—some were liberal some conservative but all believed in painting what they saw. One impressionist, Bazille, wrote from the provinces to a friend, “What I do here will at least have the merit of not resembling anybody—a declaration of independence, of artistic autonomy and uniqueness, which, we remember, Flaubert had told Baudelaire was the first of all qualities.”

Yes, but aren’t Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach, despite being classicists, just as individual in their styles as Ives, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky?  There is no necessary connection between modernism and individuality; rather art itself, any kind of art, if done well, expresses individuality. The modernists have no monopoly on individuality, but Gay never explores this point.

Not that he is unaware of the irony of Marcel Duchamp (he of the upside-down urinal entitled Fountain) having a collection in a museum. “The irony is only too obvious, part of the explanation just how enemies of museums end up in museums. Here, in Philadelphia, are all the Duchamps the Arensbergs could manage to amass. And Duchamp himself, that self-proclaimed nemesis or art, actively participated in installing his work in one of the country’s largest ‘mausoleums,’ the kind of crypt for dead artists that activists had long wanted to burn down, open for viewing by visiting art lovers as though they were conventional classics. We have noted it before: it is a mistake to underestimate the absorptive gift of the middle class, particularly when it has money to spend and taste to use it well.”

Gay emphasizes that modernism was not democratic; it was elitist. One theme that runs through the book is the idea that there are three tiers of audience for art. The first is the unwashed masses, the people who don’t care about art, the second is the philistine bourgeois who doesn’t know about art but “knows what he likes,” and the third is the elite who love art and have discriminating tastes.

Elitists are often arrogant and nothing can be more arrogant than modern thought, masquerading as freedom and liberation from tradition. Modern architects often had to educate its clients, the people who paid them for the structures, to force people to accept their work. This arrogance is shown by Mies van der Rohe who said, “I think we should treat our clients as children.”

Gay comments: “Modernists were by definition enemies of the cultural establishment; they needed an opponent and if none was available, they could invent him. In realistic retrospect, they became only too aware that their deadliest adversaries were the totalitarian regimes so triumphant in the 1920s and 1930s, not the conservative consumers of high culture.”

But surely there is something arrogant at the heart of modernism itself, at least in its philosophical roots, in its rebellion against tradition and nihilism, in its attempt, really, to play God. And perhaps here is the connection with totalitarianism. Le Corbusier, the Swiss architect who said, “A house is a machine for living in,” collaborated with Vichy which promised order, authoritarianism. He thought he would be able to implement his designs “permit the Plan to enter into life.’” (When Frank Lloyd Wright saw Le Corbusier’s Plan in the south of France he said, as Gay quotes him, “ ‘that Corbusier thing in Marseilles. Massacre on the waterfront.’”)

Gay does give some space to the fact that many people didn’t like the new office buildings. Not just conservatives but other modernists. “Other supporters of modernism became uncomfortable with the repetitive facades of mirrored skyscrapers and thought them soulless monsters, uninteresting in themselves and indifferent to their most important clients, the people who worked in them.”

And discussing how Bauhaus students would sometimes sell their designs to German industry, which the Leftist students disliked, Gay writes, “I have noted it before: counterintuitive though this conclusion may be, the modernist imagination was compatible with all political systems that would tolerate it.”

But Gay does not limit his history to the political, he also acknowledges, albeit in a limited way, the religious aspects of art. He writes that for Kandinsky, the first abstract painter, “The modern world . . . much as German Romantics had done a century before, had lost its soul and desperately needed to be re-enchanted, and art alone could do that.” Kandinsky wanted a “new romanticism.”

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

Yet, Gay, in his discussions of religion, never admits any notion of truth into his discussion. Both T. S. Eliot and Igor Stravinsky, according to him, turned to religion for emotional reasons.

For instance, Stravinsky, in exile in France, turned back to Russian Orthodoxy. “This psychological turn of a modernist toward a lost emotional home should surprise only those who equate modernism with atheism. Religious belief and unbelief among modernists ranged across the widest possible spectrum, and was independent of their distance from conventionality in the arts.” Gay says Stravinsky, who started placing icons on his piano, “found the emotional prop of his church far more satisfying than he had in the pre-Revolutionary years.”

This may be true, but that he never mentions the possibility that a person might convert to a religion for more than emotional reasons might account for his not seeing that, viewed theologically, modernism could be seen as a Manichean or Gnostic phenomenon. That is, in the words of Chesterton, the “notion that nature is evil, or that evil is at least rooted in nature.”  Kandinsky’s turning away from nature (both in art and life, for when he sat at a café he would always, Gay writes, face away from the street), the café philosophy of existentialism, Mondrian’s geometrical patterns, are all a turning way from nature. In that sense, yes, modernism is a heresy, but not in the way Gay sees it, but, literally, a heresy.

This is not to say that certain aspects of modernism were not regarded with some sympathy by Christian philosophers such as Maritain and Gilson, both of whom emphasized the Thomistic doctrine that the purpose of art is the making of beauty and that the maker must primarily be concerned with the good of the thing he is making. In that sense, they saw affinities between Thomism and modernistic art.

But what one comes back to is what Gay says at the beginning of his book, that the heretic in chief was Nietzsche, the father it may safely be said, of what Werfel calls naturalistic nihilism. This was the philosophy that provided, Gay says, the climate for modernism and this is the philosophy that Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote in his classic The Last Days of Hitler, was the essential philosophy of the Nazi party, “the expression of frustration by the existing world,” which is another way of defining Gnosticism.

This is not to say Nietzsche would have condoned the Nazis or that modernism is Nazism, but it is to say that philosophical ideas are important, in politics and in art, and that Gay, perhaps blinkered by his own Freudian philosophy, seems not to see the full implications of the climate of nihilism from which modernism sprang.




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