Modernism by Peter Gay

by Chadwick Jenkins

31 January 2008


The Emperor’s Old Clothes

A Sterling Professor Emeritus at Yale University, a historian trained in Freudian psychology, and the author of numerous books including an exhaustive study of Enlightenment thought (the winner of the National Book Award) as well as fascinating monographs on Freud, the Victorian bourgeois experience, and the culture of the Weimar Republic, Peter Gay has time and again proven himself to be the possessor of a keen intellect, an insatiable curiosity, and an admirable manner of expression. While the broad range of his publications eloquently speaks to his remarkable versatility, his best work focuses on the vicissitudes of the middle class and, of course, the careful explication of his intellectual mentor, Sigmund Freud.

In his latest book, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy from Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond, Gay takes on a project that he claims has never been accomplished before: a one-volume discussion of “modernism” in the arts—all of the arts (well, all of them aside from opera and, most shockingly, photography).  Gay warns his reader that although Modernism is the work of a historian, it is not a history of the modernist period; there is no attempt to make mention of all of the important modernist figures. Nor does the author limit himself to readings of central texts. Rather, Gay has selected certain painters, authors, composers, sculptors, architects, designers, playwrights, and movie directors that he believes may be treated as “exemplars of indispensable elements in the modernist period” and he has made his choices in an attempt to create a “usable definition of modernism”.

cover art


Peter Gay

The Lure of Heresy

(W. W. Norton)

That definition, announced at the beginning of the book, involves two necessary criteria: 1) the “lure of heresy”, an intriguing catchphrase that basically amounts to a desire to subvert (or at least challenge) conventional expectations with respect to art; and 2) a driving need to explore one’s deepest subjective nature, to plumb the depths of one’s inner being. Gay defines the modernist period as running from the 1840s to the 1960s, thus approximately 120 years inaugurated by the scandalous poetry of Charles Baudelaire and demolished by the treacherous (at least according to Gay) machinations of the proponents of Pop Art, who sought to dismantle the sacrosanct divide between high art and popular entertainment.

Problems with Gay’s framework emerge within the opening pages. It will immediately strike alert readers that Gay’s definition (while it may, at first, appear reasonable) does not derive from the investigation of the artworks, their creation and reception, but rather serves as the basis for judging beforehand who and what should be included in that investigation. That is to say, the “usable” definition is not the result of the study, it is an a priori yardstick that Gay wields to determine who earns the honorific “modernist” (and in Gay’s mind, there is hardly a greater honorific to be had).

More detrimental to his study is the fact that he wields that yardstick with such a loose grip that it soon reveals itself to be a wholly arbitrary criterion. Thus some artists could cannibalize past styles (such as Stravinsky’s return to tonality in his “neo-classical” period) or refuse to accept the notion that their art reveals their subjectivity (again Stravinsky provides a fine example in his insistence upon an “objective” music) without losing, in Gay’s book, their “modernist” credentials.

Indeed, Stravinsky is, for Gay, one of the two modernist titans of musical composition (the other, not surprisingly, being Schoenberg. Thus, we return to the rather tired platitude that 20th century music is a dialectic between Schoenberg and Stravinsky, but whereas Theodor Adorno (one of the greatest proponents of that platitude whose writings almost redeem it) brings out the deep divergences between their compositional and aesthetic outlooks, Gay reduces them to differing expressions of an underlying bland “modernist” desire to shock and to “live fully in one’s time”.

Of course, this last assessment reveals another difficulty with Gay’s definition: it is hardly a well-formed definition at all. The “lure of heresy” (one must at least credit Gay with a wonderful turn of phrase here) could just as easily describe the shocking images employed by Caravaggio (the brilliant Italian painter of the early 17th century who amply demonstrated his explorations of a tortured subjectivity by inserting his own visage into one of his paintings as the decapitated Goliath held by the triumphant David) or the dissonant experiments of such late-Renaissance composers as Carlo Gesualdo or Claudio Monteverdi.

Indeed, the latter even had to defend his heresies against conventional compositional practice from the attacks of a scholastic music theorist who insisted that such willful deviations required justification. Examples can easily be compounded. Who would deny the heresy of a Dante, a Shakespeare, or, for that matter, a Plato? Who would question the subjectivity evident in the work of a Giotto, a Michelangelo, or a Petrarch?

It is no coincidence that many of my examples stem from the Renaissance, a period that has increasingly come to be known as the “Early Modern Period”. As Vasari’s famous biography of Renaissance artists attests, this was a period during which the individual was deeply revered and innovation highly valued. Even Gay registers some misgivings with respect to his timeframe. His narrative constantly slips backward in time toward such luminaries as Goethe, Beethoven, Voltaire, and Kant.

All of these artists and thinkers, as well as their Renaissance forbears, ardently desired to live fully in their time.  Indeed, Guarini, a fascinating Renaissance playwright, insisted that his critics were wrong to explain his pastoral dramas through a recourse to Aristotle inasmuch they were expressions not of the people of Antiquity but rather of his contemporaries, the moderns. In attempting to determine a definition that is not limited to a timeframe, Gay has unfortunately hit upon a formula that fails to make the distinctions he requires.

This is one of the central problems that plague the notion of modernism. Just like the elusive middle class, which always seems to be rising no matter what era of European history one studies, every moment of modernism is preceded by another form of modernism. The trick is to ascertain the specific subtleties of the modernism under investigation, not to attempt to formulate an overarching definition that will always prove inadequate.

Gay compounds his difficulties further by explaining certain artists like T.S. Eliot (a radical poet with a conservative social agenda) by allowing for an “unimpeachable” modernism to coexist “peacefully . . . with a most intense anti-modernism” (400-401). This is a basic confusion of levels. Gay has permitted his evaluation of artistic modernism to become muddled with his understanding of social and political modernity. The conflation of the social and the artistic necessarily leads him to a dead end.

If Gay’s definition of “modernism”, however flawed, at least provides some food for thought, his handling of the modernists he discusses leaves much to be desired. The entire book amounts to a collection of blurbs on various artists that might easily have been gleaned from program notes, dust jackets, or the brief commentary one reads on museum walls next to paintings. Gay dutifully informs us of each modernist’s date and location of birth and a few tidbits about his or her production.

In the section on literature, Gay includes Henry James as one of only four novelists (although Kafka comes in later as a fifth) but limits the discussion to a flimsy two paragraphs in which we learn little more than that James’s last three novels are rarely read but masterpieces nonetheless. One of the text’s more bewildering moments is an examination of the self-portraits of various modernists meant to demonstrate their subjectivity—even Gay seems to register the banality of such a ploy by assuring the reader that he is aware that artists predating 1840 also painted self-portraits.

It is, of course, possible that an investigation of the self-portraiture of a given era might reveal something of value to an interpreter. But this is precisely the problem. Gay never bothers to interpret. In this section, he forestalls interpretation of a Kirchner self-portrait by insisting that it does not adequately reveal his view of the war. Fair enough but what might it reveal? As it stands, Gay’s discussion amounts to little more than a descriptive list.

Although Gay claims to offer new insights into this material, there is little within the covers of this book that is not standard fare. It is the same old story, dressed up in the same old manner. In his strenuous effort to avoid anything that smacks of what Gay surely sees as the “Emperor’s new clothes” proffered by postmodern or the post-structuralist critics, the author trots out the Emperor’s old clothes. They remain serviceable but they hardly demonstrate a fresh perspective. That is, after all, the intriguing aspect of the story of the “Emperor’s new clothes”: by wearing nothing, the Emperor unwittingly forces the crowd to review carefully the body of their leader. The old clothes, however, are easily ignored and thus become invisible.

Lyotard, in reporting on the nascent condition of postmodernism, insisted that, contrary to modernist thought, the postmoderns were suspicious of all meta-narratives. The most pervasive meta-narrative of the modernist is the teleological notion of progress. Art is healthy so long as it advances, so long as it conquers new territory, refines its technique, and breaks through barriers while never capitulating to the base tastes of the philistine masses.

Gay unapologetically adopts this meta-narrative. In his eyes, experimentation is a value in its own right; the majority of people fail to understand modernism because the majority of people have no capacity for aesthetic comprehension. Pop Art is suspect because it was so damnably popular. Art is for the few; if it is not for the few, it is not art. This is a paraphrase of a famous statement by Schoenberg. I am surprised it fails to appear in Modernism. Certainly Gay would endorse it.

Even if we grant Gay his modernist ideology, he still falls far short of providing his readers with an adequate account of the phenomenon of modernism. How did it arise and why? What were the social conditions that made it necessary or, at least, possible? What differentiates the modernism from 1840-1960 from the modernisms of the Enlightenment and the Renaissance? Certainly the “usable” definition fails to distinguish these different eras in any substantial way.

If this is not a history of modernism then why not provide deeper interpretations (really, any interpretations) of the figures that are discussed? Samuel Beckett (who appears as part of the subtitle of the book!) only seems to merit a few paragraphs and, as in the case of Henry James, the uninitiated will come away from those paragraphs with absolutely no idea why they should be the least bit interested in Beckett—certainly one of the most important and moving authors of the twentieth century. Without greater depth, this book hardly qualifies as a “who’s who” of modernism much less a serious study of it.

In the book’s “Acknowledgments”, Gay divulges the book’s origins in a manner that really ought to have exposed an abiding ambivalence to someone so steeped in Freudian thought. “This book is not my fault”, he writes, “Naturally I take full responsibility for it”. Gay goes on to reveal that the idea for the book was not his but rather came from his editor, Bob Weil, while Gay was working on another project. The notion of something not being one’s fault but nonetheless being one’s responsibility resounds with the Freudian (and Ibsenian) obsession with the burden of inheritance.

Indeed, the entire monograph is redolent of an act dutifully but half-heartedly completed. Gay organizes his material in a functional manner. He hits many, if not all, of the necessary highlights—even if he fails to make one understand why these are the highlights. The narrative is recognizable and safe. It is a book written out of obligation but seemingly without love. I only hope that next time Peter Gay—who possesses far too much talent to have wasted his time with this Modernism—manages to write the book he wishes to produce.



Topics: peter gay

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