Thursday, December 06, 2007

A crucial moment in the history of art

Adam Kirsch redeems himself from scorning book blogs by noting the utter wrongheadedness of Peter Gay's new book Modernism: the lure of heresy. Along the way, Gay writes "the modernist novel is an exercise in subjectivity" and "for Mondrian subjectivity was all". This "subjectivity", Kirsch writes
... is precisely what is missing from the most genuinely modern artwork. Where is the self in "The Waste Land," a poem that notoriously has no "I," and whose speakers seem to follow one another like voices overheard in a crowd? What could be more "objective" than the geometric grids of a Mondrian painting, which could almost be generated by an algorithm?
Gay's gross misunderstanding suggests that this grand overview of Modernism is worse than unreliable. Yet many other reviews have been respectful if not also full of praise. Rupert Christiansen notes only two "significant" errors, not one being Kirsch's, and says "one could recommend the book wholeheartedly to a bright A-level student or undergraduate in search of a broader picture", Sophie Ratcliffe hails it as "an enormous achievement" and Terry Teachout calls it a success and Modernism "a thing of the past".

What stands out in the reviews is the coverage given to the artists' extra-artistic opinions and behaviour. As Tim Rutten explains, Gay spends time assessing "T.S. Eliot's anti-Semitism and Charles Ives' homophobia" and Knut Hamsun's "chilling idolatry of Hitler". While this is certainly relevant to Modernism, it isn't unique to it, as we know from Peter Ackroyd's biography of Dickens, so why the fuss? In this light it's significant for this history that Gay is, as Rutten also explains, "unsympathetic - even slightly uncomprehending - in his treatment of Samuel Beckett". Perhaps this is because Beckett doesn't offer such easy assimilation with biographical nuggets. He was above all an artist.

I've now got a copy of Gabriel Josipovici's review of the book hidden behind the Irish Times' pay wall. He calls the book "appallingly bad" and offers far more errors:
The Rite of Spring dates from 1913, not 1911; The Waste Land is not ‘five poems assembled under one title’, and to believe it is surely disqualifies one from speaking at all on the subject of Modernism; the figure with the enormous penis in Baselitz’s early painting, Great Night Down the Drain is not female (Baselitz tells us he was thinking of an image of Brendan Behan); L’Année dernière à Marienbad is not taken from a novel by Robbe-Grillet. And so on and on.
But his critique differs from all the others by arguing that Gay's discussion of Modernism as "a single historical epoch" is inadequate to the subject:
The book is a wonderful example of Walter Benjamin’s theses on history and his argument that because positivist history does not question it cannot get a handle on the multiform events that form the past. To compare Gay’s plodding 500 pages with five pages of Barthes or Blanchot or Erich Heller is illuminating: for them Modernism is not a period, like Mannerism, but a crucial moment in the history of art, when art arrives at an understanding of itself, a degré zéro beyond which there is only silence. Grasping this they can see what it is Modernist artists were really up to, from Mallarmé to Beckett, and they can see the relations of Modernism to Romanticism and beyond, to that first modern European intellectual and spiritual crisis, the Reformation. In so doing they are at one with the authors they are looking at. Compare Gay’s bland, ‘No doubt Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the choral last movement had much to answer for,’ with Wendell Kretschmar’s impassioned lectures in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus on why Beethoven never composed a third movement to the piano sonata opus 111 and on Beethoven and the fugue. In a few pages Mann succeeds in conveying the issues that faced Beethoven and have faced composers ever since, while Gay cops out comprehensively with his ‘much to answer for’. The best that can be said for this sorry production is that it provides us with a lesson on the poverty of a certain kind of history, but, at 500 pages, that is a lesson that most students will be happy to dispense with.

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