'Make it new.' Ezra Pound commanded Modernist artists. They did so, and critics have been trying to explain their work ever since. Traditionally, art was supposed to either portray the world or else inspire its audience with ideas of beauty, truth and goodness. Modernist art appeared to do neither. Paintings seemed to be a mixture of strange abstractions and savage distortions; novels appeared to have abandoned grammar and syntax as well as story and plot, while poetry had collapsed into a heap of broken images. It no longer even rhymed, for goodness' sake.
Was this the end of civilisation? Well, yes, it was actually. the First World War destroyed the belief that history was progress and that human behaviour improved with each passing age. There was nothing beautiful or good about the dead at Verdun. How did one speak about such horrors? ...
One of the main characteristics of Modernist art was its passion for experiment. The world had changed and so must art. However tempted we may be to think of the notorious complexity of Modernism as a form of intellectual indulgence, it was, in fact, a genuine attempt to find adequate forms of representation for discoveries such as those by Sigmund Freud in psychoanalysis and Albert Einstein in physics.
But there are those scholars, most notably John Carey, who see Modernism as no more than an exercise in snobbery. Modernist art, he claims in 'The Intellectuals and the Masses' (1992), was designed to exclude hoi polloi, which was the next best thing to exterminating them. James Joyce's remark about 'Ulysses', that he'd "put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant" may seem to lend some support to Carey's claim, until we remember that Joyce's characters are as flawed and fleshy as those who outraged artistic sensibilities by having fun in Blackpool. Nevertheless, there is a case for seeing the development of Modernism as a reaction to the rise of popular culture. ...
Enter Laura Frost, pooh-poohing such nonsense. The idea that there is a fundamental opposition between Modernism and mass culture is a myth, albeit a stubborn one. This is not a particularly original idea: there are versions of it in Andreas Huyssen's 1986 work 'After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism' and, more recently, John Xiros Cooper in 'Modernism and the Culture of Market Society' (2004). In fact the argument was in danger of dwindling into a cliche. But not any longer: Frost has reanimated the whole debate. (Day, 2013, pp.46-47).
RESEARCH SCRAPBOOK - new book on Modernism reviewed ('The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and its Discontents' by Laura Frost, Columbia University Press)
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