A&L links to a review of Umberto Eco’s latest book. Underneath some modernism is a fear of the life force as much as a fear of death; that what we consider beautiful is also what is healthy and what is procreative is a long standing assumption – one that modern evolutionary theoreticians repeatedly prove. So, what are the implications of what Ezra Pound hailed as
a “cult of ugliness” . . . . This echoed the Italian and Russian Futurist manifesto, entitled “Let Us Be Courageously Ugly,” which stated that “our aim is to underline the great importance for art of harshness, dissonance, and pure primordial coarseness.” The gay sensibility of camp is related to other forms of ironic (kitsch) or militant (punk) ugliness, and Eco at least acknowledges them, even if he isn’t able to effectively separate them.
A&L also links to another review, this time of Peter Gay’s Modernism: The Lure of Heresy. His examples are seldom of Americans, though we hear echoes of Rothko in William Morris, who “raged that he and his compatriots had set out to change the world and ended up making precious objects ‘for the swinish rich.'” Indeed, he observes:
Today, a cynic might find high modernism’s real legacy on the pages of a glossy decorating magazine — a single austerely curved Barcelona chair before a color field painting in a hospital-white box of a downtown loft. That cynic might go on to observe that a certain kind of Freudian might argue that modernism’s great ally was the masochism of the middle classes, an indefatigable willingness to be abused and affronted over their own petty bourgeois appetite for comfort and serenity.
These two reviews, looking back as we seem to be crossing between the railroad cars (always a perilous move) as modernism is, in our time, followed by what? Surely post-modernism is too weak a word.
But these positions are not unrelated to the last few posts on this blog. In both art and scholarship, the biological as well as the beautiful have come to be seen as conventional. The beautiful – that is, transcendent, selfless, good – act is viewed as inauthentic.
The romantic artist and the romantic scholar (two intertwined groups historically) see themselves as rebels, pushing boundaries. Irony and cynicism, the belief that beauty and good acts are but covers, is central to the tone of much modernism. In a relatively open society, modernists turn their eye on the boundaries of nature itself. They find beauty a matter of cliches & boredom.
Unconsciously, though, they suspect that nature is likely to win. For one thing, they rebel against our natural desire to reproduce ourselves, to act as a bridge between earlier and future generations. They prefer theories that make man’s very existence an act against nature rather than thinking, as most of us would, that nature courses through us and we, too, are a part of it. Their work is not true to nature (to reality). Perhaps unaware, they find themselves alienated, unhappy. Their fear may be unconscious, but, finding themselves harshly at odds with nature, they intensely echo the slogans of the environmentalist groups. These marches, this expiation is prompted by an unease – perhaps a buried understanding that they are betraying nature in their art. And perhaps from a fear – they may feel – if not realize – nature is not likely to accept their contemptuous dismissal of her for long.