The Book Club

What Is Modernism, Exactly? And Is It Still alive?

Dear Peter,

Ever since I first picked up your classic study Weimar Culture (1968) in college, I’ve been a big admirer of your work. From the first, bracingly concise sentence of that book— “The Weimar Republic was an idea seeking to become a reality”—I was hooked. So hooked, in fact, that a few years later I ended up writing a doctoral dissertation on photography during the Weimar period—a topic that’s puzzlingly absent from your prodigious writing on modern culture. But we can get into that a little later.

Like your study of Weimar, your latest book, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond, is a masterful work of cultural history intended—and correct me if I’m wrong—for a general, educated readership. And it’s truly a pleasure to read. Your writing is at once authoritative and personable, and you vividly convey the heady atmosphere of transgression and inspired risk-taking that shaped the culture of the early 20th century. As you point out in your introduction, “no scholar has ever tried to map all the manifestations of modernism as making up a single historical epoch.” This is the task you set for yourself, and the end result is impressively wide-ranging, with separate chapters devoted to painting and sculpture, prose and poetry, music and dance, architecture and design, and drama and movies, as well as a couple of detours into the fate of Modernism under fascism and the curious contradictions of “anti-modern modernists” like Knut Hamsun, T. S. Eliot, and Charles Ives.

Your aim, as you explain at the outset, was not to write a comprehensive history, which would be nearly impossible to do in a single volume, but to forge a “usable definition” of Modernism—to find some meaningful way of tying together what may appear to be a disparate scattering of avant-garde rebellions. What you come up with are two defining attributes, which you believe all Modernists share: first, the impulse to break rules and flaunt conventional sensibilities (which you call the “lure of heresy”), and second, “the commitment to a principled self-scrutiny, which entails an exploration of the self.” As you take us through the lives and work of many of Modernism’s most influential figures, it’s easy to see how some—like Baudelaire, Picasso, Le Corbusier, or John Cage—manifested both of these attributes. In other cases, the fit seems a bit off. For example, I’m not convinced that D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), which you discuss at length, qualifies as a Modernist work of art, much less one that entails a principled exploration of the self. Griffith was certainly a great formal innovator, but he wasn’t a Modernist heretic bent on confronting conventional bourgeois sensibilities. Or am I missing something?

Speaking of the movies, you provide your section on film with the header, “The Only All-Modern Art.” Yet you mention photography, the other “all-modern art,” only in passing. Now, obviously, you can’t touch on every manifestation of Modernism in a single volume, but photography was so central to 20th-century visual culture and to the movements you discuss—particularly Surrealism and the Bauhaus—that it seems an odd choice to neglect it entirely. Machine-born, eminently suited to mass reproduction, and capable of framing fragments of the world in utterly unconventional ways, photography was, in many ways, the Modernist medium par excellence. The fact that Man Ray’s 1932 photograph Glass Tears—a Modernist icon if there ever was one—is prominently featured on the cover of your book yet discussed nowhere in its pages only highlights this curious absence. I realize the design and marketing of the book were probably out of your hands, but the designer’s error is a good indication of the kinds of images that come to mind when we think about Modernism. In any case, I wonder if you could shed some light on your decision to exclude photographic art from your fine study.

Is Modernism over? It’s a question you leave tantalizingly open. In your final chapter, however, you do suggest that Pop Art sounded the death knell of the Modernist era in the 1960s by forcing what you call “a shotgun marriage between high and low.” Pointing to canonical works such as Warhol’s Brillo boxes, Roy Lichtenstein’s comic strip paintings, and Claes Oldenberg’s soft sculptures of ordinary objects like hamburgers and phone booths, you argue that Pop Art “subvert[ed] the modernist ideal” by “assimilating two essentially distinct areas of art, high and low, which modernists had thought it crucial to keep apart.”

This argument strikes me as unconvincing. Modernism was never about upholding a categorical separation between high and low culture. Au contraire! Georges Seurat borrowed much of the imagery in his paintings from contemporary theatrical posters. Picasso and Braque incorporated newspaper clippings and advertisements into their Cubist collages. Francis Picabia copied line drawings from mail-order catalogues. Stuart Davis painted homages to cigarette packages. James Joyce quoted from racing forms, newspapers, and folk ballads. e.e. cummings parroted advertising slogans. Salvador Dali designed department store windows. I could go on, but I think you see what I’m getting at. From the beginning, Modernists emphatically embraced the forms and language of popular culture as vital aspects of the experience of modern life. How do you account for Modernists’ persistent desire to break down the barriers between high and low cultural forms? Does this suggest that early Modernism contained the seeds of its own demise?

The idea that Pop Art’s conflation of high and low somehow betrayed the Modernist ideal is contradicted even within the terms of your own study. How did Charlie Chaplin or Orson Welles, both of whom you discuss in your chapter on film, uphold what you call Modernism’s “quality-minded discriminations” between high and low? Yes, their films were brilliantly artful and innovative. But they were also popular entertainers who effectively erased the distinction between high and low culture—a characteristic that marked them as eminently modern, if not Modernist. How do you reconcile the low-brow ambitions of these celebrity filmmakers with their proposed status as Modernists?

Looking forward to your response.